Guilt, shame, and triggers

We just think it is a good idea to clarify how we use terms here, since so many people use similar words to mean such different things. When we refer to a “trigger” here at Reconcile4Life, we mean one of two things:

  1. In the betrayed spouse, it is an event that evokes a strong emotional and/or physical reaction, sending the BS into an unhealthy tailspin.
  2. In the unfaithful spouse, it is an event that evokes a desire to escape and/or avoid life in its reality, increasing the desire to turn to unhealthy choices.

We understand that unfaithful spouses will have reminders that elicit guilt, sadness, and remorse. At Reconcile4Life, we do NOT refer to these events as “triggers” because we feel these are simply a healthy response to understanding the consequences of one’s actions. Now, if these feelings are so focused upon by the unfaithful as to send them into a tailspin, then we are discussing something else entirely, being entrapped in one’s own shame. And, so we have yet another difference, the difference between healthy guilt that instigates change and unhealthy shame that leads to further destruction. Rick Reynolds, from Affair Recovery, has a nice piece describing the difference between guilt and shame.

 What Is Shame?

It’s easy to confuse guilt with shame. Guilt is that rock in your stomach when you know you’ve done something wrong. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; typically guilt means we are aware of our responsibility for an action we regret.  Hopefully when we feel guilty, we  take responsibility for our actions and then work to make amends (when possible) with the offended party. Shame, however, is a far more entrenched mindset about ourselves. Shame says “I am bad” rather than “I’ve done something bad”; it changes your identity instead of simply accepting responsibility. We feel guilt for what we have done, but when we’ve done something we feel is shameful we take that on as our identity. Shame continues to instill the idea within which says, “I am not worthy.” Shame loves to instill feelings of inadequacy, self-contempt and a deep sense of inferiority.

The problem with shame is that it is completely self-centered. Shame continues to make everything about me and prevents recovery. When I’m dealing with shame and playing the “I’m such a horrible person” card, I can’t focus on the damage I’ve done to others and experience empathy for them because my focus remains on me. It selfishly puts my betrayed spouse in the position of trying to build me back up and give me a new identity, or at the very least to curb some of their recovery to acquiesce to my needs. As long as the unfaithful spouse continues to remain paralyzed by his or her own self-absorption, their mate can’t truly heal. Shame doesn’t accept responsibility for the choices made, it is just another form of justification: “I can’t help my bad choices if I’m a bad person.”


Reynolds, R. (n.d.), Understanding the paralysis of shame. Affair Recovery Healing Library. Retrieved from:


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