One of the biggest and most potent feelings betrayed partners struggle with is shame. Shame comes packaged in many different forms, but it always leads to the same basic feeling: that of being worthless, defective, and unlovable.
Sometimes our shame leaves us feeling like a fool for not knowing what was happening. Other times our shame manifests as a profound feeling of rejection. Or maybe it comes cloaked in insecurity about our body and desirability. However it shows up, shame lowers our self-esteem, robbing us of our connection to our true self and creating deep questions about whether we are worthy.
Shame is one of the most intolerable emotions to feel. We hate to feel shame, and we will do almost anything to get away from it. One of the quickest ways out of shame is to shame someone else. We move out of feeling “one-down” by assuming a “one-up” position over others. (This is similar to what we see with schoolyard bullies, where all they really want is for others to feel as badly as they do, or preferably worse, about themselves and their lives.)
One of my clients and I were having a conversation about this type of offending from the victim position. She had been engaging in a lot of yelling, one-upping, and attacking behaviors with her spouse. I asked her what she thought she was getting from this.
She said, “You know what it is? I don’t just feel justified in yelling at him, I feel obligated. If I don’t go after him, that means I am weak and I am letting him walk all over me. I have to pay him back or I’m just letting him hurt me.”
I looked at my client with respect and said, “That was incredibly honest.” We sat together for a moment and thought about her response. Then we began the work of unpacking and working through the shame that was driving her behavior. For this woman, offending from the victim position was an elegant solution to the shame she felt about being taken advantage of, lied to, and cheated on.
Once she was able to peel back the layers and see what was going on underneath, a lot of power was taken away from her shame, reducing her desire to go one-up on her spouse. She realized that her aggressive behavior wasn’t helping her resolve her shame, or fix her relationship, or heal her hurts. It was just giving her a moment of relief before she sank back into shame again. She also saw that her behavior was actually deepening her shame because she still felt stuck with the shame of the betrayal, and now she also felt shame about how she was treating her spouse.
Shame is such a sneaky emotion. Because we do not want to feel it, it frequently goes unnoticed and remains out of our conscious awareness. Often, the way that we avoid shame and keep it in our unconscious is by engaging behaviors that elevate us to a one-up position. For betrayed partners, offending from the victim position does this very effectively. For a few moments it moves us into the position of the shamer rather than the shamed, providing quick, albeit short-term and quite costly, relief.
Next week we will continue our conversation about offending from the victim position, but we are going to look at it from the perspective of health. What might we, as betrayed partners, be trying to bring about when we are offending from the victim position that is healthy and important?