Some might think that shame is an important emotion to have to prevent an addict from acting out sexually. Nothing could be further from the truth. While both shame and guilt are considered self-conscious emotions (de Hooge, Zeelenberg, & Breugelmans, 2011) and require self-recognition and self-evaluation (Tangney, Wagner, & Gramzow, 1992), shame can be destructive and painful. But before talking more about shame, it’s important to define guilt.
The word “guilt” is used quite frequently in our society. The best way to understand guilt is to think about it being a negative evaluation of behavior (Lewis, 1971). Guilt is an emotion people feel when they violate their sense of what is right or good. For example, the feeling you get after forgetting a wife or husbands birthday should not be guilt. It was an oversight, not intentional. Making mistakes is human. Another example of a guilt-inducing incident could be backing into a post while driving someone else’s car. This doesn’t define someone’s whole identity. Guilt is an emotion about an event, a behavior. It is not about being a bad person.
Shame, on the other hand, is more global, referring to a negative evaluation of the self (Lewis, 1971). People who feel shame describe themselves as defective, worthless, flawed. So in the same examples listed above, forgetting a friend’s birthday or denting someone else’s car, leaves a shame-filled person believing even more that they are bad. Further, shame increases hopelessness as people perceive they cannot change (Reid, Harper, & Anderson, 2009). Shame is a clear barrier to recovery from sex addiction.
Shame often sends people into searching for a way to escape the painful feelings. This emotional escape is often one of the reasons for sexually addictive behavior—an avoidance of the painful feeling of shame. This creates a dysfunctional loop, of course, as the sex addict then feels more shame for acting out, sparking the cycle all over again. When sex addicts feel shame, it is disempowering—a barrier to change.
Instead of shame, consider how guilt is a more appropriate feeling to experience after violating relationship boundaries through sexual acting out. With guilt, it’s the behavior that is bad and a problem, not the person. Yes, the person is in charge of their behavior, so has the power to make changes and to devote their future conduct toward recovery. Guilt is considered to be much more empowering in sex addiction recovery.