147: You Can’t Shame Yourself into Changing

Jun 27, 2023

There is an idea floating around in the cultural fog that if you tell yourself you're doing something wrong or that doing a particular thing makes you a bad person, you'll be able to change. The reasoning goes that it's bad to be bad, and therefore shaming yourself in this way should be adequate motivation to change.

However, in practice, the simple truth is that you can't shame yourself into making sustainable positive changes. If you're applying this kind of logic to yourself in your infidelity situation with the hopes that it will help you make a decision or change your behavior, this episode is for you.

Tune in this week to discover why you can't shame yourself into changing. Dr. Marie Murphy is showing you how to get clear on the thoughts that have shaped your moral view of your infidelity, why your thoughts about you being a bad person because of your infidelity aren't objective truths, and how to start viewing your infidelity in a more helpful light instead.

If you’re ready to take this topic deeper in a confidential and compassionate environment, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with Dr. Marie Murphy by clicking here!

Dr. Marie Murphy is planning a Q&A episode to address your specific infidelity-related questions. You can send your questions to her and, if they’re appropriate, she will answer them on the podcast while keeping you anonymous. Submit your questions by clicking “contact” at the top of this page!

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why you’re allowed to not like your behavior, but shaming yourself won’t help you change.

  • The thoughts that may be leading you to believe you’re a bad person for engaging in infidelity.

  • Why your thoughts about your infidelity are not objective truths.

  • How to get clear on how exactly you’re thinking about your participating in infidelity.

  • The impact of trying to use your negative thoughts about your infidelity against yourself.

  • How to make changes in your life that you truly feel good about. 

Listen to the Full Episode:


Featured on the Show:

Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy, and I’m a relationship coach.  I help people who are engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity to deal with their feelings, clarify what they want, and make decisions about what they’re going to do.  No shame, no blame, no judgments.  Something that I don’t emphasize enough on this podcast is that I work with people in many different types of infidelity situations, and in many different phases of their infidelity situations.  I also work with people who have very different goals in relation to their infidelity situations.  Moreover, I also work with people who don’t yet know what their goals are in relation to their infidelity situation.  If you are ready to learn how to relate to your infidelity situation in a different way, I can help you do it.  When you’re ready for change, whether it’s a change in your perspective or change in how you’re feeling or a change in the actual circumstances of your situation, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  I offer confidential, compassionate coaching via Zoom, which means we can work together no matter where you’re located.  I can’t wait to meet you.

Today we’re going to talk about why you can’t shame yourself into making sustainable, positive changes. 

There’s an idea out there that’s very prevalent in some circles that if we tell ourselves we’re doing something really bad, or that if we tell ourselves that WE are really bad for doing a particular thing, we’ll change.  Because – the reasoning goes - it’s bad to be bad, and so therefore, we shouldn’t be bad, and so therefore, we should stop doing what we’re doing so that we can stop being bad and start being good.

I’m sure you’ve encountered some version of this logic before.  And you may well have encountered this logic in relation to your infidelity situation.  You may even be applying this logic to yourself, in one form or another, in relation to your infidelity situation.

If you’re engaging in anything you think counts as infidelity, you may not like what you’re doing, or you may not like certain aspects of what you’re doing.  

Now of course, you might NOT feel bad about engaging in infidelity, and that is totally fine.  If you want to hear more of what I have to say about that, have a listen to episode 137, which is called “If You Don’t Feel Guilty about Cheating.”  But even if you’re pretty sure that you don’t think what you’re doing is bad, or you don’t think of yourself as bad for doing whatever you’re doing infidelity wise, even if you’re pretty sure you don’t feel guilty, I suggest you listen to this episode anyway.  Because what I’m going to talk about today has broad implications, beyond simply feeling bad, or not, about cheating.

For today’s purposes, it’s important to acknowledge that some people do not feel good at all about the fact that infidelity happens, and do not feel good about participating in any kind of infidelity.  And on the one hand, this is totally fair.  You’re allowed to think whatever you want to about infidelity as a set of human occurrences.  You’re certainly allowed to not like it that infidelity happens in any ways, shapes, and forms, and you’re allowed to not like however you are engaging in infidelity.  In a sense, this is totally fair.

But what I want to encourage you to do today is get clear on how exactly you are thinking about not liking infidelity, or not liking the fact that you are participating in some kind of infidelity, if you are indeed doing that.  Or, put differently, what are the exact thoughts that go through your mind if you think that infidelity is bad, and you think that you’re bad for engaging in it?  What are the specific words you say to yourself?

In addition to getting clear on what words you’re using when you talk to yourself about infidelity, I want to encourage you to get really curious about what happens when you use those words with yourself.  What I want to suggest is that what you say to yourself about infidelity and about yourself and your behavior matters a LOT.  So let’s talk about how this works in practice.  

If you don’t think infidelity is all that great, and if you don’t feel all that great about engaging in infidelity, you may notice yourself saying things to yourself like, ‘I really shouldn’t be doing this.”  Or, “I’ve really got to stop doing this.”  Or, “If the people in my life found out about this, they would all be really mad at me.”  Or maybe, “I’m such a bad person.”  Or maybe, “I’m a terrible human being.”  Or maybe, “I’m a worthless piece of shit.”  Some of the things people tell themselves when they’re engaging in infidelity are pretty darn awful.  And when I point this out to people, they sometimes say in response, “Well, what I’m doing is awful, so how can I not think of myself as an awful human being?”

And you too may think that whatever harsh things you are saying to yourself are simply the truth.  You may think it is completely self-evident that infidelity is bad, so therefore you are bad if you are participating in any kind of infidelity, and by telling yourself this, you’re just reporting the facts of life to yourself, and that might seem like a pretty reasonable thing to do.

In addition to that, we sometimes think that if we’re doing something we think we shouldn’t be doing, telling ourselves that we shouldn’t be doing it, or telling ourselves that we’re bad for doing it will help us STOP doing it.  Whatever the “it” is.  We tend to think there is VALUE in scolding ourselves for what we’re doing, or shaming ourselves for what we’re doing, or telling ourselves that we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.  

And there are three things I want to say about this, about telling ourselves that we’re awful, or telling ourselves that we’re doing something bad and therefore we need to stop.

The first is that when we tell ourselves that we’re doing something bad, we usually think that this is a neutral observation of the objective, universal truth of the matter.  For a lot of people, the idea that cheating is bad seems like an absolute truth.  But I want to suggest is that that is NOT an absolute truth.  It’s an opinion that you have every right to hold.  It’s an opinion that a lot of people do hold.  But that doesn’t mean it’s a FACT.  And that’s important because it means you can change the way you think about yourself and your behavior, if you want to – and you may want to, because the way you think about yourself matters, as I’ll say more about in a moment.  

The second thing I want to say is that we can dislike something without getting super fixated on the idea that whatever that something is is BAD.  We can dislike engaging in infidelity without telling ourselves that we are TERRIBLE fucking people for engaging in it.  Shifting our thinking from believing that infidelity is TERRIBLE and anyone who engages in it is EVIL doesn’t mean that we have to start believing that infidelity is awesome and everyone should go out there and start engaging in some form of it immediately.

My third point is that what you tell yourself about yourself matters.  What you say to yourself about your behavior matters.  And, more specifically, telling yourself that you are bad or what you are doing is bad is not going to help you make changes that you feel good about.

As I said earlier, we often think that scolding ourselves or shaming ourselves or “should-ing” ourselves will help us make positive changes.  But I challenge you to find a time in your life when treating yourself this way helped you make sustainable, positive changes.  And by “positive changes” I don’t mean the kinds of changes that other people think you should make, or the changes that other people might consider positive.  I mean changes that you truly feel good about.  I bet you cannot find an example of this approach working, and here’s why.

When we tell ourselves we’re doing something really bad, we may feel ashamed, or guilty.  We may feel embarrassed.  We may feel judgmental of ourselves, or towards ourselves.  We may feel inferior, or lacking, or flawed, or hopeless.  And that’s just the shortlist.  We might feel any number of other intensely uncomfortable feelings, too. 

Similarly, when we tell ourselves that WE are bad, we might feel all of those kinds of feelings that I just mentioned, and we might feel afraid.  We might feel alienated.  We might feel self-loathing.  When we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be doing something, the same kinds of feelings might come up… but, if we’re telling ourselves that we shouldn’t be doing something that we at least in part truly ENJOY doing, we may feel conflicted.  We may feel frustrated.  We may feel resentful.  We may feel angry.  We may feel trapped, or constrained.  We may feel resistant, or rebellious.

And for one thing, most of us don’t find it very pleasant to feel these kinds of emotions.  But not only that, feeling these kinds of emotions has an impact on what kind of actions we are able to take, and not able to take, in relation to our situation – or in relation to changing whatever behavior of ours it is that we think we shouldn’t be engaging in.  

What I’m talking about here is known as the think-feel-act cycle, or sometimes the think-feel-do cycle.  Whatever we think about our situation creates certain feelings that we experience.  And the feelings we’re experiencing enhance our capacity to take particular actions, or restrict our capacity to take particular actions.  And then whatever actions we take or do not take have a real impact on our lives.  Our actions and inactions have consequences, so to speak.

So for instance, if we’re thinking we are really bad for cheating on our partner, and we feel shame and self-loathing, we may hide, in various ways.  We may withdraw, in various ways.  We may attempt to hide from ourselves: we may not give ourselves the opportunity to be honest about what we want and don’t want.  We may withdraw from others.  We may stay in relationships, but we may disengage from them.  We might stay in the relationship with the person we’re cheating on, because we feel bad about what we’re doing, but we may not actively connect with that person.  And we may not assume the task of making clear decisions about our infidelity situation, because we feel so bad about ourselves or what we’re doing that we don’t want to take a close look at what’s going on.

And so shame ends up being a driver of inaction, and indecision, and kicking the can down the road.  And the result of that inaction and indecision is that we stay stuck, or stay in limbo – AND that we continue engaging in the behaviors that we don’t feel good about engaging in.  If you take one point away from today’s episode, let it be this: beating ourselves up for doing something often leads to us continuing to do the very thing that we don’t think we should be doing.

Similarly, let’s say we’re married, and we’re involved with someone else, and we feel frustrated because we really want to pursue our relationship with our other person, but we believe that we “can’t” do that, because we think it’s bad to be cheating, and it’s even worse to end a committed relationship because you’re cheating.  Thinking that we can’t do something, especially if it’s something that we want to do, usually produces some pretty strong emotions.  And if we’re feeling those strong emotions, if we’re feeling frustrated or trapped, we may effectively keep ourselves frustrated or trapped through our very own actions.  For instance, if you believe you cannot leave your marriage, and you feel trapped, you are unlikely to take any steps towards leaving your marriage.  And then you may end up proving yourself right by not leaving your marriage.  You effectively make it true that you can’t leave your marriage.  And meanwhile, you keep yourself in the same relationship quandary.  You keep your infidelity situation going.

In general, when we beat ourselves up for whatever it is that we’re doing that we think we shouldn’t be doing, we spend our energy on self-reproach, rather than problem-solving.  And quite simply, self-reproach tends to keep us stuck where we are.  Problem-solving helps us move forward.

In addition to that, when we beat ourselves up for doing whatever it is that we think we shouldn’t be doing, we often feel TERRIBLE.  When we tell ourselves that we are bad, or tell ourselves that what we are doing is bad, we usually feel pretty bad.  And sometimes, when we feel pretty bad, we don’t know how to deal with that.  We don’t want to feel bad, we just want to feel better, and so we may do some things to help ourselves feel better that may provide some temporary relief, but don’t actually help us deal with the situation at hand.  More specifically, if we’re cheating on someone we committed to being monogamous with and we feel terrible about that, we may try to soothe our discomfort by spending more time with our affair partner.  Or doing more of whatever our infidelity behaviors are.  And that isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself – although it could be – but just like the point I made a moment ago, seeking out ways to soothe or avoid our discomfort doesn’t equate with problem-solving.

This is why you can’t shame yourself or scold yourself or should yourself into making sustainable, positive changes.  This is why self-acceptance is a far better motivator of lasting change than self-reproach.

When I say self-acceptance, I don’t mean that you brainwash yourself and tell yourself that behaviors you’re engaging in that you just don’t like are actually just fine.  What I do mean is that you accept that what is happening is happening, and you allow yourself to consider that there may be some very human reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing.  

The point of accepting yourself where you are, and accepting what you’re doing is not convince yourself that it’s okay to keep doing things you don’t want to keep doing.  It’s to get yourself out of the version of the think-feel-act cycle in which your shame keeps you stuck.  Here’s a great quote that speaks to these points very nicely:

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”  That’s from Carl R. Rodgers, who was a psychologist and psychotherapist with an interesting history.  I’ll say it again: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

Now, some people are like, “Well, I get that, but I cannot apply that to my infidelity situation.  There’s no way I can think of what I’m doing infidelity-wise as anything other than something I shouldn’t be doing.”

And on the one hand, I think this is fair enough.  If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you’ve no doubt heard me say that the behaviors we think count as infidelity are neutral until we give them meaning.  The idea that infidelity is “bad” is an optional belief.  You don’t have to opt into thinking that you are bad or what you are doing is bad if you’re engaging in anything you think counts as infidelity.

But as I’ve been emphazing today, a lot of folks don’t WANT to opt out of believing that infidelity, generally speaking, is kinda bad.  A lot of people don’t WANT to think of their behavior as acceptable.  And that is totally fair.

If you are committed to this kind of thinking, the question becomes, how can you think about what you’re doing in a way that doesn’t doom you to creating results that you don’t like?  On the one hand, it’s fair enough to not think that infidelity is a great thing.  But on the other hand, if you keep thinking about what you’re doing as something that’s bad, or something you shouldn’t be doing, you are probably going to continue to create a feeling state from which it is very hard for you to take actions in relation to your situation that you feel good about.

In order for you to deal with your situation in a way that you feel good about, you need to be able to feel something other than bad about yourself, or bad about what you’re doing.  

You may not like what’s happening, you may not like what you’re doing – but if it’s happening, it’s happening.  If you’re doing it, you’re doing it.  And you could always Just Stop doing whatever you’re doing if you want to, but if you haven’t stopped yet, it may be because you DON’T want to.

And as uncomfortable as it may be to recognize this, I encourage you to consider that accepting this, accepting that you are doing something that you don’t feel great about for reasons that are important to you or legitimate to you, is an essential step in enabling yourself to actually deal with your infidelity situation in a different way, i.e., a way that you can ultimately feel good about.

In the service of that, it’s important to recognize that more than one thing can be true at once.  It can be true that in some respects, you don’t like what you’re doing.  And it can be true that you’re doing it anyway, because in other respects, you really like doing it.  Recognizing this tension may be uncomfortable.  But I want to suggest that there’s a lot more possibility for change when we tell ourselves that we may have come to a point in our lives when we don’t like something that we’re doing, but we have very human reasons for doing it, than when we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.  Telling ourselves that we’ve come to a point in our lives in which our values and desires and priorities are in conflict opens up a lot more room for change than telling ourselves that we are a bad person.  

There’s a big difference between telling ourselves that we’re doing something really bad and we need to stop, and telling ourselves that we want to make changes in our behavior so that we can live in a way that is more aligned with our values and priorities.  We can dislike infidelity, or dislike engaging in infidelity without demonizing ourselves for engaging in it.

Sometimes people are terrified to let go of the idea that infidelity is BAD and that by engaging in it, they are BAD, because it seems like if they adjust their beliefs even slightly in this department, they will be entirely abandoning their moral code and then their world will implode.  And I understand that changing our thinking in this way can be really scary.  If we’ve been adhering to firm beliefs about the way things are, or the way things are supposed to be, it can be terrifying to consider adjusting those beliefs.  Humans tend to like to have a coherent moral universe.  And in a sense, there’s nothing wrong with liking that, but sometimes the beliefs that we cling to don’t help us as much as we think they do.  And often, believing that infidelity is really bad or believing that we are really bad for engaging in it keeps us in our infidelity situations longer.  The great irony is that when we try to scold ourselves or shame ourselves or should ourselves into changing, we often keep on doing the thing we think we shouldn’t be doing for even longer.

So the point of being willing to consider adjusting our thinking a little bit is to help ourselves live in ways that we feel good about.  Adjusting the belief that infidelity is really bad and we shouldn’t be engaging in it isn’t about letting ourselves off the hook.  It’s about letting ourselves out of the prison we create for ourselves when we stay stuck in shame or fear or self-loathing or resentment or frustration.  It’s pretty hard to making lasting, positive changes from those emotional states.  The think-feel-act cycle just doesn’t work that way.  Feeling terrible about ourselves does not help us to take actions that we feel good about.  Feeling terrible about ourselves is usually a great recipe for avoiding dealing with situations we consider difficult, and for seeking out ways to avoid or distract ourselves from our discomfort – and some of our pain-avoiding practices may have some consequences that we really don’t like.

If you’re listening to this episode and thinking, okay, I’m with you, I really want to stop beating myself up for the things I’m doing infidelity-wise, but I just don’t know how to do it, let’s work together.  There is a certain amount of general guidance I can provide on the podcast, and beyond that, it’s all about applying the tools and concepts I teach to the specifics of your unique situation.  So if you’re ready to begin doing that, and you’d like my help, the first step is to schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  

In terms of a little more general guidance, though, let me point out that although we tend to think of cheating as an individual problem or an individual failing, we as a society create the conditions in which people cheat.  It may be fair to say that we as a society set up the conditions in which cheating becomes all but inevitable.  And if you want to hear more about what I have to say on that topic, check out Episode 108 which is called, “Why do people cheat?”

All right everyone, that is almost it for today.  The last thing I want to tell you is that you are invited to send me a question which I will try to answer on a future “ask me anything” podcast episode.  If you send me a question and I answer it on the show, your name will not be associated with your question.  All of the question-askers will remain totally anonymous.  If you would like to send me a question, you can do that through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  Go to the top right corner of the home page and you’ll see a tab that say “contact.”  Click where it says contact, and you’ll be taken to a form you can use to submit your question.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you all so much for listening!  Have a great week.  Bye for now.


Enjoy the Show?


Ready to talk?

Schedule your introductory coaching session with Marie.

Schedule Your Introductory Session

Want the answers to your questions?

Sign up to get the free guide to the podcast, which shares the exact episodes you need to tune into to get started answering the questions you have about your infidelity situation.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.