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The Selfishness of Guilt

This article features an excerpt from a book I'm writing entitled "It's All Dating". In this chapter below I attempt to delve into an unexplored truth about guilt and confessions.

When it comes to issues of infidelity, some men seldom reveal or apologize for those things they’re embarrassed about, but they do confess to those things they’re ashamed about - and even then, selective truths are shared. It’s why you’ll find elements of deception in many confessions.



It's also why some women will never hear about all the embarrassing faux pas in the form of rebuffed passes, all the unsolicited advances, and unwelcome or unprovoked actions that their significant other deploys upon another person or people. Revealing that detail would be embarrassing to them, and they won’t mention it.


Nobody says, “Honey, I made a pass at Cathy, and she punched me in the balls,” or “I came on to Linda, and she flat out told me "no".” To not only engage in making a pass but striking out on it? Well, that can be a bit much for some to admit because it’s also a blow to the ego. It’s a triple-embarrassment, and the consequences wouldn’t be worth it.

However if things were welcomed or received in some way by the other person - they wouldn't even have to physically/sexually do something - but if they felt something in that moment - that’s where the shame comes in. That’s where the blame comes in, and that’s where the guilt comes in. It seems there is more shame in what is thought or felt in the moment and less for what is done. And when I talk about feeling something, I’m not just talking about our emotions - because our erogenous zones have feelings too. And even those feelings under the right religious and social conditioning can be misinterpreted as something deeply emotional, instead of just a natural response to visual stimuli.


So what classifies as cheating?

  • A pass made at a co-worker or friend?

  • An advance that's received by an acquaintance?

  • Maybe even an emotionally intimate conversation with another?

  • A spiritually intimate conversation with someone else?

  • Experiencing anything of great pleasure that does not include your partner?

  • How about completely indulging in a well-digested thought of someone else?

  • Does a virtual exchange (including pornography) count?

What does it really take to classify an act as cheating?


I make the distinction between embarrassment and shame for the same reasons that I distinguish between remorse and self-pity.


Some people believe in full disclosure of wrongdoings as a way to rid themselves of guilt, to move forward, to do the "honorable" thing, to hold themselves accountable, and at times to even enlist the help of their significant other to keep them accountable, or even to feel more committed by outing themselves.


But what happened to that honor, nobility, or the honesty, prior to any incident? Thoughts always precede actions, even if the thought is a fraction of a second. Should we therefore confess or disclose our thoughts?


Some believe the level of shame and guilt they’ve been conditioned to feel is a way to measure the superiority or authenticity of their moral high-ground.

I had a boyfriend in college that would cheat on me every year lol (yes, I can laugh at it now). And each time that he did so, he would confess and cry his heart out to me. He wept so profusely that I was envious at his ability to cry - I almost felt like I had done something wrong. I also often wondered what was really behind the weeping. Then came in all the grand sweeping gestures, gifts, proclamations of enduring love, more gestures, you name it - the new honeymoon period was in full effect. The tears and performative change was so much, that I became mesmerized by it all, and I couldn't even tap into what I was really thinking or feeling. I realized that tears don’t mean a change in behavior, and acts don't mean love.


While disclosure may appear to be a noble gesture, take note that often enough the forgivable truth doesn't always match up to the real truth. The real truth contains all the salacious details that one cannot bring themselves to admit, or may find extremely difficult to articulate. It also sometimes carries questions that are not asked because one party doesn’t want to know, and the betrayer would rather not offer, which is another reason why intended full disclosures often bear many hidden truths.


But who takes the time to explore The Selfishness of Guilt?

The guilt that wears one down so much that they are compelled to confess what was done or what was felt? At least partially. This is where the cognitive dissonance thrives, in spaces where actions, thoughts, or words clash with strongly held belief systems, values, and expectations that some have of themselves and thus they experience a visceral disappointment in a decision they've made. Cognitive dissonance can many times masquerade itself as guilt.


The desire for punishment

Unfortunately in many religious cultures, the threat and experience of punishment is used as a tool of purification to pay for or purge oneself of their actions. So they engage in the flagellation of their emotions, whatever demand that is requested of them by their significant other, and resign themselves to a life of secret misery, without ever fully exploring, experiencing, or accepting their own humanity.



Remorse vs Self Pity

There is no absolution in disclosure, though many expect it or silently hope for it.

And while there may be some relief in confession for the offender, it’s important to understand the distinction between remorse and self-pity.


Remorse expresses not only a critical analysis of ones actions but also a full understanding of what led up to those actions, and it’s usually backed with a strategy never to do whatever was done ever again. This requires change, and not the performative type either.


Self-pity on the other hand, just wants to stop feeling bad without understanding the full gravity of the actions on all parties, focusing almost entirely on the end goals of alleviation of shame and the restoration of pride and reputation. To some, redemption equals reinstatement of the relationship, it's the foundation of the redemption story you so often see played out in romantic scenes and films - the performance.


But feeling guilty focuses only on how you feel, it consumes you for a host of reasons, and then you get stuck. It certainly does not take into full consideration the burden of what anyone else has to process or visualize, or even future triggers one has to deal with as a result of one's “confession”.


Unloading

Just try and imagine how difficult it must be, living on the receiving end of the disclosure. It's a high expectation for the strayer to expect the betrayed to understand the betrayers position beyond their pain. To expect them to forgive you when you don't even understand what led you to this place.


Why does it appear to be so much easier to address the symptom and not the cure?


People would rather confess to an indiscretion, instead of confessing to the originating issue(s) in the relationship or themselves.


And here begins the perpetual cycle of launching all or any redeeming actions believed to be the moral equivalent for the burden of guilt you carry, and the relationship that you betrayed becomes your idealized or literal salvation.


Some even extend a marriage proposal after infidelity, expecting the commitment to cure themselves of the disease of cheating. They do this not realizing that it may simply be a timing issue, lack of maturity, the desire for a nontraditional type of relationship (which is completely okay), or just plain ole incompatibility.


Typically, this is where many exclusive relationships or marriages get stuck, frozen in amber on the salvific road to redemption.



Choices vs Mistakes

This also brings to light the difference between choices and mistakes.

Choices often get written off as mistakes - it lessens the weight of accountability, and inadvertently places the cause or grievance on the shoulders of someone else. The efficacy of your redemptive efforts relies solely on your ability (or your advocators) to convince the offended party that you want them, and that your actions were indeed a "mistake" and not a choice. And then enters the well placed introduction of the classic phrase "it didn't mean anything", which begs the question... Why would someone place an entire relationship in jeopardy over something that didn't mean anything?


On some level, we all understand that people want to be told the truth and make their own decisions based upon the information provided to them. But they are also expecting the whole truth - and that should also be included in the intent of “coming clean”. What's the use of confessing if you're not going to tell the complete truth?


Total accountability means revealing the whole truth.

Sharing indiscretions with the offended partner becomes more about being forgiven to cleanse oneself of guilt, rather than “righting” a wrong. When in reality some wrongs are extremely difficult or impossible to right.


Fear, shame, and guilt often work against us all so much, especially when it carries the judgement, scrutiny, harsh condemnation, and shunning that so often comes from our closest familial, social, and religious circles.



Understand why you truly feel guilty, whatever you were doing you loved it, or you wanted it more than anything in that moment. You wanted to do whatever you did. It’s about taking ownership of your choices. What you may not have expected was how you may feel about yourself (which is often shaped by other peoples opinion of you), yet you still chose to engage, even with the full knowledge of how deeply it may hurt someone else. But even that was overridden by what you chose to do.


If "coming clean" is supposed to hold such nobility and honesty, or if it makes you the "good guy", why wasn't anything disclosed prior to or in the midst of the act? And this doesn't always have to be sexual, it's really any type of act that overrides an established promise or understanding.


Transform

Know your true motive or motivations for your desire to disclose. Applying critical thinking to your thoughts, behavioral patterns, and choices is essential for growth and development and can help you to better understand your decisions.


But don't let your selfish desires to feel better - to feel guilt-free or burden-free, to feel morally clean, override the pain this disclosure will bring - because then it's all about you. I write all of this not to encourage someone to stay silent, it's more about taking full ownership of your choices, and beyond that, understanding your true objectives when confessing.


True understanding of oneself shifts from performance-based actions stemming from guilt and helps to put us on a path towards healing. This level of self-awareness contributes to the reduction or elimination of bad or uninformed choices, giving us the freedom, peace, and joy that comes from true love and acceptance of ourselves.

On the road to healing, redemption, and change, it's the full acceptance of self, that is the best transformation of all.


Coming clean

Maybe what we all should confess to or give full disclosure about, is who we really are flaws and all. To come clean with ourselves first. Then, to tell truth about ourselves. Not just the parts of what we’ve done, but also the ugly parts of what’s been done to us.