guilt and shame

cw: sexual assault, nothing graphic

“What is your number one dealbreaker?”

About a year ago, I was with two of my closest friends Lola* and Camille* and we were talking about past partnerships.

“Cheating,” answered Lola.

“Oh yes, definitely cheating,” agreed Camille.

Reasonable answer right? If someone cheats on you, then you leave them. End of story, right? I was intrigued by how quickly they answered and that that was their number one dealbreaker, so I decided to press them a little further.

“Really?” I asked. They both nodded. “So if someone cheats once them they are damned for the rest of their life? There is no reason you could ever think of as to why there may be something deeper going on? They aren’t a ‘redeemable’ person after that?”

“There would have to be a pretty good reason,” Camille joked.

“Okay, I think I have a story that can change both your minds,” I smiled, knowing that they were both more on the traditional side and that it would actually take a pretty powerful story to even budge them a little bit.

“I’m really interested, I don’t think you can but let’s hear it,” said Lola.

“I know a girl who had been dating her boyfriend for about a year. She was at school and he was abroad for his junior year. They had never been apart before and this was her first serious relationship. About a year and a half prior, the same girl was sexually assaulted by one of her friends. She pretended it didn’t happen for about a year, so by the time she was dating her boyfriend she hadn’t made any steps to confronting the trauma yet. She was scared that if she did it would mean that her entire life had to change and she would have to finally admit to other people and more importantly, herself that she was different. She was doing anything and everything she could to prove that it didn’t matter to her and that it was such an insignificant experience that it didn’t make a difference in her life.

One day, her boyfriend called her from abroad to tell her he may have feelings for another girl in the program. The girl was stunned to hear this from her boyfriend because they talked every day and this came out of the blue. She said she would call him back and that they would talk another time. Soon after, she was hanging out someone who had been flirting with her since her boyfriend had been away and she ended up cheating on her boyfriend. She didn’t know it at the time, she found she subconsciously thought that she could prove to herself that if she could sleep with another man and it ended up meaning nothing, that her assault was also meaningless and so were her boyfriend’s feeling for another girl. At the time she was more confused and upset than anything else and couldn’t figure out why she would ever hurt someone she loved so much. She wondered that for a year because that seemed so out of character. She had always valued honesty above anything else and would never be the kind of person to cheat on someone. She held that guilt and shame for a long time out of confusion and embarrassment because she couldn’t explain it.

After some therapy and challenging introspection she realized that it was indeed very out of character and because she never took the time to acknowledge her difficult experience for about a year, she never shed light on the fact that she was a completely different person. Not that she was now the kind of person to cheat on someone now and that that was ‘okay’ but since she never gave herself the space to be someone different it was coming out in all of the ways that she never intended to express. She was right, cheating wasn’t “her”, but neither was the perfect picture she had of her old-self in her head, anymore. Her trauma did provide a window for her to rediscover herself, but instead she took that opportunity and tried to convince herself that she was the same and the experience was meaningless, thus still revealing that she was a different person. After integrating the trauma and giving it the space and love that she needed to, she discovered that it was okay to admit that sex was something meaningful to her, so it was okay that the assault wounded her deeply, it was not only okay but wonderful to be someone totally different, and that she didn’t have to hold the shame of the trauma and everything that followed anymore.”

As I finished the story, I paused to look at Lola and Camille. They were both stunned to say the least.

“That’s a pretty good reason,” said Camille.

“That is absolutely an exception, I would never blame her for that,” said Lola.

“Well it’s true because that’s my story,” I said.

I am not saying that every cheating story is like that. I really hope not because that would truly be something…. We all hold guilt and shame over things that we think are the end of the world. Cheating may mean nothing to someone else who does it all of the time (no judgement, I promise) but to me it was a big deal because it was something that up until that point I thought I would never do. I thought I knew myself better than that which was what was so confusing at the time. It was highlighting that I didn’t know myself anymore and that was scary. I can’t even explain to this day where the idea came from, but it happened. It was even more confusing at the time because I was wondering if I was the victim because I was ignoring the blatant trauma in my life or was I the “bad guy” because I knowingly ignored it and I cheated on my boyfriend? I had no idea. I really needed a reason/explanation for my behavior and it reflected my deep need to know why this was all happening, starting with the original trauma. At the time it didn’t occur to me that none of that really mattered, because it already all happened. There was no taking it back now. It took me this earth shaking experience, doing something I didn’t think I was capable of, something I couldn’t ignore to wake myself up and realize that I was turning into a different person and I could try to suppress it but it would just keep coming out. I knew later that I could either let it be my downfall or embrace it and see where it lead me. Now I can’t even imagine who I would be without it.

Guilt and shame divides us. There are several layers of shame here including being assaulted in the first place, not getting help, taking it out on someone else, not being myself anymore etc. and because I didn’t feel comfortable sharing it kept me divided from all of the people who I knew deep down would have loved me anyway. In the moment it took me over and I thought that no one could ever love me again because of that laundry list of “shame” items. It felt really “real”, but it wasn’t necessarily “true” because never asked anyone! Vulnerability allows for connection and when I was in that space I connected to so many unexpected people on a deeper level than I thought possible.

I was inspired to tell this story today because this morning my incredible friend May* told her story about her borderline eating disorder for our university paper. I realized that I had never written about this and it is so important. As I said before, we all have things that we think are so deeply shameful that other people have no judgement about. I told the cheating story because that is pretty heavily judged, especially when it is by a woman in our society. I have no problems now because I know it doesn’t define me, though it wasn’t easy. Being vulnerable isn’t always easy especially when you have so much judgement around it, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does. If you have no judgement surrounding your “shame” and you can love it/hold space for it, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks, does it? Again, this doesn’t make cheating “okay” for me, personally, because I don’t want to hurt anyone. However, I have been there and I can’t imagine it judging it in someone else or making assumptions about their situation. As for May, we have all of these crazy body standards out there that say people should look one way and then shame us for wanting to look that way. It is more crazy when you think about it but that doesn’t make it any less real for May and everyone else out there. It may not be true because body standards are a societal construct, but it is so very real and deserves to be honored and acknowledged. The “truth” doesn’t take away from the reality we all experience every day. This is an invitation to step out of your head/reality, take an objective/neutral perspective and realize that you don’t have to judge whatever you feel guilty or shameful about.

Lola said that my story was an “exception” to her dealbreaker and I didn’t tell them right away who the story was about because I didn’t want them to judge it in my favor based on knowing me. I was more curious to see what they really thought. This post is about guilt and shame, but it is also about making assumptions. If I told someone on a first date that I cheated on a previous person, they may assume I was a “bad” person. Do you think so? Maybe you do. Nothing is what it ever seems at the surface. I don’t tell this story to everyone, unless they ask for it, partly because I don’t feel the need to explain myself to everyone and quite frankly it seems like it would take too long to give them the full picture :). There is always a story behind everything because we all experience this same cycle of violence, it just manifests in different ways. I was abused, but I didn’t go abuse someone else in the same way. That is why this cycle can be hard to recognize sometimes, but we all experience it at some point in some way. There are no “exceptions”. The world would be much easier if we assumed that all cheaters are bad and if someone hurts you then you “should” dump their a*s. I’m not suggesting that you stay in unhealthy relationships. Boundaries are so important. You can absolutely take the time to acknowledge and see the deeper layers to someone’s Being and set those boundaries from a place of love. They may not have a place in your life but they deserve love just like anyone else. Both of my assaulters and I are a part of the same cycle of violence. As you can probably tell, I didn’t arrive there right out of the gate and you don’t need to either. Practice patience with yourself and others (not to your or their own detriment, boundaries!) and you may be surprised where it takes you.

One level deeper for anyone who believes in Spirit/God/Source: this all clicked together for me when I realized that I was experiencing my mind/ego instead of identifying with it. When you put all of the pieces of the puzzle (every being on the planet and this third dimensional reality) we, as Spirit, are experiencing the entire human/third dimensional reality spectrum. That includes all of the murderers, cheaters, rapists, body-shaming, body-shamed, and everything you could ever feel shamed about/experience as a third dimensional being. You aren’t these elements of the spectrum you are experiencing them. Whatever shame and guilt you “have”, you are experiencing. You always have the power to view it as an experience versus an identification. Aligning/identifying with the Universe is one way for you to connect with everything that you can and cannot see because you are experiencing all of it simultaneously.

Either way, I am sure I will experience more guilt and shame in the lifetime. I’m not exempt from it, but I won’t identify with it.

with unconditional love and space, katie

*name has been changed

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