Shame is our worst editor.
Young boys who haven’t (yet) experienced shame show a wealth of emotions. There’s nothing stopping them from crying, laughing uncontrollably, and showing how scared they are.
Unfortunately, this unabashed self-expression stops once these boys are introduced to shame.
The Seeds of Shame
Sometimes men will be able to point to the moment they think it began. They’ll remember a time that they were in the midst of doing something, feeling free spirited, and then suddenly someone called them “gay” or girly—something of the “real men don’t cry” nature.
If they’re honest and up for self-reflection they’ll tell you about this moment and how it was the turning point for taking all of their exuberance and putting it away. Squelching it somewhere.
But it wasn’t that moment that did it. It didn’t start there. One comment does not a life change make. The pot needed to have been brewing.
And the sad truth is, we are the pilot light. We start it when we refer to our infant sons as “studs” who are so “strong” while referring to our daughters as “precious.” Nope, I’m not saying that your five-week-old hears you and then they feel shame—I’m talking about us. Kyle Pruett in his book, Fatherneed, talks about a study where two groups of adults are given a baby. One group is told the baby is a girl and the other is told the baby is a boy. Both groups treat the same child in different ways with remarkably different language.
These aren’t all misogynistic, sexist people—these are people doing what they were taught.. We genderize our kids into a norm and we start in infancy. And we don’t even realize it.
There’s a lot to be said about what we call strength, but here’s another thing about it: sometimes we don’t feel strong. As an adult, we sometimes want to “lose it”, we want to be held, we want to curl up in a fetal position and watch Law & Order for five hours (the world can just seem better when a case is solved and all questions are answered, in 45-minutes.)
Sometimes young boys are being told how strong they are or should be, but they don’t feel strong. They just know that all the important adults in their life are telling them that strong is how they’re supposed to be.
So, they fake it. Or they deal with the consequences. It’s a horrible choice to make.
And it hurts us all.
We All Lose
Let’s get selfish for a moment. Stifling a young man’s creativity by keeping him stuck inside a box of made up masculine rules is horrible for him, but what about us?
What amazing works of art, of literature, of poetry, of film have not been made because of the limitations of shame. As a therapist who’s worked with several men who are artists of some kind, the pressure to move beyond those boundaries toward an artistic truth is enormously high. And the arts are just one example. Shame limits how we can be fathers, brothers, uncles, and so much more.
Anything that limits a person from fully expressing themself means that we all lose out. When I think about what hasn’t been written, performed, or created because of shame fills me with sadness and wonder. Because when someone overcomes this and says, “I’m going to expose this part of me fully” it’s powerful, it’s potent.
The result can be uncomfortable, it can be excruciating, but it will open us up further. It will connect us deeper.
Shame limits who men can be, and we need to be aware of how we are complicit in setting those limitations.