How to release the Shame of having an Affair.
As I hit “submit” on my last painfully vulnerable article for Elephant Journal, I instantly regretted putting it out there.
Fear blanketed my body as I prepared myself to be publicly shamed for the messy past I had been trying to outrun for years.
And then it went live. My darkest secrets—and one of the most painful times in my life—were fair game for anyone to read and judge. I was exposed in every sense of the word. Feeling vulnerable, I held my breath as the comments and private messages flooded in.
To my surprise, complete strangers expressed their gratitude, healing, self-refection, and newly found slivers of peace. People I knew and loved gave me grace. And in this process, shame was lifted from my story.
Even as a wordsmith, I cannot articulate exactly how it feels to help others heal. Turning pain into purpose is the muse behind my words. Yes, I do it for me—but I also do it for us.
My story isn’t special, uncommon, or different from anyone else’s. I felt, and still do at times, like an unhealed, hot mess stumbling my way toward redemption.
Many readers were left asking how I managed to get to a place of deep self-refection and painfully honest admissions, and how I began healing one of the most painful experiences we can put someone else through: infidelity.
Considering I was the cheater and the one who inflicted pain, the task of examining every bit of myself was excruciating at best. There were days when I prayed to not wake up, when I ate cold pizza for breakfast, and when every second of my discomfort hushed my desire to do anything.
But I stuck with it, sat with it, and leaned into it—even when, and especially when, it hurt like bloody hell.
I’m not a therapist, or life coach, or anyone with the professional authority to give advice. I am, however, someone who lived it, who continues to work toward seeing my blind spots, and who will tug at each loose thread until it unravels, revealing another layer.
What I have come to understand is that the balm is in the wound. We all have scars, but unlike visible skin lacerations, the key is to touch them, pick at them, and let them bleed. Band-Aids do nothing for trauma.
We have to become fed up with our own bullsh*t.
I know this sounds cliché, but the truth is: we can partake in every healing modality known to man and read every self-help book possible, but if we don’t genuinely want to change and get to know the not-so-pretty parts of ourselves, we won’t. In fact, we’ll find excuses not to.
I was at a point where I was so uncomfortable in my own skin, I knew I had to let go or be dragged. Yes, it was two steps forward and one step back at times, but being committed to the path was essential. Fall down eight times, get up nine.
It doesn’t matter if we consider ourselves writers or not. Even a timeline of events can be helpful here. When I began to write my story, painful memories I had forgotten about surfaced. As we do this, and pay attention to our body’s sensations, we can become aware of what events are stuck in our cells.
Is our heart racing?
Is our jaw clenched?
Did our breath become shallow?
Where does it hurt within our physical body?
We store trauma in our cells and by paying attention to where we’re feeling things in our bodies as we write, we can begin to move the painful energy through us. When we write or tell our story, it has less power over us. It becomes something that we experienced, not something that defines us. Keeping our shame, secrets, and unhealed trauma settled beneath our skin, with no way to move, we are more likely to live in our shadow side, remain the victim, and lack the courage and motivation to move forward in our lives.
This is a powerful practice that is easily overlooked in today’s Western culture. Mediation gave me the ability to see my experience through a third-person lens. It took away the fear and hushed the shame. I was able to see my trauma as something that happened for me, not to me.
We are all healers. We’re here to feel our way through pain and then transform it into something that can be of benefit to the world. This small shift in perception was the difference between seeking every healing modality on the planet (been there, done that) and realizing that just like Dorthy from “The Wizard of Oz,” we had the power all along, my dears.
While there are several apps like Insight Timer available, the most powerful meditation technique was taught to me by Linda Lewis during an Elephant Academy webinar.
She encouraged us to keep our eyes open during meditation while sitting up straight and having our feet firmly planted on the ground. This allows us to take in our surroundings in a completely different way, become engaged with all of our senses, and invite the outside world to become part of our experience. Even one minute can prove powerful, thus allowing us to reclaim our childlike attention to the vividness and beauty of our immediate environment.
I found this form of mediation impactful because I noticed I was more engaged in the world afterward. I had a stronger, more grounded connection to my surroundings, and had a deeper sense of compassion and awareness for myself and others.
Linda’s presence, grace, and credibility resonated deeply with me. I wish she could adopt me. Or maybe be my sister in my next life.
Paying attention to our triggers.
In my last relationship, I was easily triggered. His actions mirrored many of my experiences with my father, and brought to the surface the pain I had been suppressing for years. I had never been a jealous person until my childhood wounds showed up in the form of a lover.
I grew up with a father who objectified women. I had normalized this and didn’t realize how deeply it affected me. Masochistic comments, drinking too much, lies, beautiful women—anything that posed a potential threat turned me into a judgmental, borderline psychotic pile of tears. I would revert to being my unhealed 10-year-old self, doing everything she could to avoid abandonment.
There’s a saying that every time we judge someone, we reveal another unhealed layer in ourselves. Paying attention to the things in others that trigger us is a powerful way to discover what we’ve been pushing down and resisting healing in ourselves.
When we’re aware of these regressions, we can begin to the heal them. We can recognize them as teachers, not triggers. When I began to tailspin into old patterns, imagining a simple stop sign in my mind brought me back to the present moment.
Grieve and sit with discomfort instead of numbing it.
This is one of the most difficult things we are asked to do as humans. Our body’s natural response to stress is to avoid it, run from it, or fight it. I was skilled at all three. For me, this looked like drinking on nights I didn’t have my kids, avoiding uncomfortable conversations, and putting my time and energy into people, places, and things that didn’t benefit my growth. These types of numbing mechanisms mask our thinly-veiled pain and distract us from doing our personal healing work.
We have to sit alone, sad, lonely, and heartbroken. When we use substances, busyness, or another person as our scratching post, our healing process is put on hold. What we resist persists, and the only way through it, is through it.
If shame arises, we should use it as a compass, pointing us toward our goal of peace and healing for all involved.
We have to grieve the loss of something we caused. Whether we stay in our marriage or not, we must grieve. I had to grieve the loss of the family unit, the fact that I miss out on precious holidays with my children, and the cold, hard truth that I inflicted pain upon someone who was only trying to love me the best way he knew how.
This is the bravest and most loving thing we can do for ourselves and the person we hurt. I spent years saying, “I’m sorry but” to excuse my own reckless behavior. We can blame our childhoods, our partner, or our nature, but the truth is, we chose to do these things.
The first year after my affair, I walked around comfortably numb. I didn’t want to look at any of it. It had happened in the past, and I didn’t understand why we all couldn’t just move the f*ck forward. Geez. Get over it, already. I said I’m sorry. Let’s move on. This mentality got me nowhere—it was just my way of avoiding the most excruciating work on the planet: looking at ourselves with a microscope and acknowledging how our actions have hurt people.
While having a difficult conversation isn’t easy, it’s worth it. Once we do this, a weight lifts from our chest. Sitting in vulnerability with the person we hurt is a vital part of rising from the ashes. In fact, it may be one of the most important parts of this process.
I have a lot of respect for my ex-husband. We’ve had many difficult conversations, and he weathers them better than I do. Still, I admire his ability to see my soul and not my actions. We have two daughters and own a business together, so what went unhealed in our marriage showed up in other areas. Thankfully, we have made it our mission to be proactive co-parents instead of ex-husband and wife. Is it perfect? No. But we’re always going to be two people who will do the hard things in order to heal and provide for our children.
The power of the written word for healing is probably my favorite thing on the planet. While there are several books that gave me aha moments, these are four of my favorites:
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
This Buddhist approach to sitting in discomfort was exactly what I needed most days. Pema makes the potent argument that instead of running from our pain and our past, we must lean into it, become intimate with it, and see it as a compass to uncover the indestructible parts of ourselves.
It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are And How To End The Cycle by Mark Wolynn
The roots of our experiences run deeper than just from our current situations or perceived chemical imbalances. This book shines a light on ancestral trauma and how generational pain can be passed down and also healed.
Things I Would Like to Do with You by Waylon Lewis
This book opened my eyes to what true love might look and feel like, and it helped me understand that real love starts with me. It’s a poetic, insightful, and powerful manifesto that I hope to one day be living out loud.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
This book challenges everything we think we know about vulnerability. It gave me the strength to walk through the pain with openness, knowing that courage lies in being seen, not in hiding from what is.
Guidance from a third party.
I’ve spent the last four years in therapy getting honest with myself and working to understand the deeper issues behind why I was unfaithful. When I wrote my last article, it was because I finally understood. The shame had begun to lift, and I knew it would lift even more if I could take my experience and use it to help others.
We need to release the idea that asking for help is weak. It’s often critical, and statistics prove that resilient people don’t just step into redemption without extra help and guidance. There is no shame in seeking outside help.
Because we may have been skilled at lying, hiding, and avoiding our issues in the past, it’s also important to find a healer or therapist who will lovingly call us out when we aren’t showing up fully.
As humans, we like to know exactly how to do things and how it’ll all turn out in the end. Spoiler alert: that’s not possible.
I didn’t know what would happen when I set out to truly heal, but I trusted that I would be guided and given the exact people and circumstances I needed to do it. And, serendipitously, I was.
I had no idea I would write that last article and share it with the world. I have no idea if being single for the rest of my life is my karma for hurting so many people. What I do know is that if I keep doing this honest work, I will heal generations before and after me, too. And I’ve learned that it’s okay to tip-toe our way there. We will have setbacks, moments of despair, and times where we question if transcendence is possible. They’re all fleeting and part of the process. When we have a toolbox, we can turn to it, always. We don’t have to have it all figured out to keep moving forward.
When we trust the healing process, we begin to trust ourselves again. And maybe, those we hurt can trust again, too.
Author: Rachel Dehler
Image: Harlow Heslop/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Nicole Cameron
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