The toughest challenge I have faced is ridding myself of the pervasive shame I have experienced from my childhood. Although my father was viewed as a saint by many because of his passion for creating world peace, he did not demonstrate his benevolence on the home front. He frequently criticized my mother for all her perceived faults and sometimes yelled at her for hours without pause.
I was deeply ashamed of my father’s behavior and grew up terrified I would turn out like him. Despite my fears, I developed a bad temper and would inevitably experience a “shame attack” whenever I lost my cool.
Causes of Male Shame
I also see the toxic and insidious impact of male shame in many of my clients and friends.
It usually stems from childhood trauma such as physical or sexual abuse, the psychic cost of the mistakes they have made and/or their failure to live up to the “man code.”
If you are not familiar with this concept, the “man code” is the expectation that men display a sufficient level of manliness by not showing too much vulnerability, acting “tough,” etc. When men fail to live up to the “man code” they often experience shame or are shamed by others.
Men are also trapped in a box they can’t escape due to the conflicting expectations placed on them by significant others in their lives. They are criticized for not letting down their guards and expressing their feelings and vulnerabilities.
However, when they do so, they are often shamed for not being “manly” and called a variety of words that are too ugly to write. Their response to this quagmire is often to shut down, lash out at others or drown their frustrations in alcohol or other addictions.
Working With Men who Are Drowning in Shame
I can spot male shame a mile away although it is usually evident in the way men slump down in the big green chair in my office and look at me with the quiet desperation which Thoreau so aptly described. They are caught off guard when I inquire about their level of shame (often within the first 15 minutes of our session) since they have worked so hard to hide it: “real men” are not supposed to feel shame.
Given this opening, stories tumble out about abusive fathers, childhood bullying, cut off relationships with children, the impact of their bad tempers, work failures, medical problems and the inability to perform in the bedroom (the ultimate violation of the “man code”).
Highly relieved that another human being (and a fellow man to boot) has heard their story and treated them with compassion rather than judgment, men are almost always eager to learn strategies they can use to overcome their shame.
How Men Can Overcome Shame
1) We can know that we do not have to bear the “sins” bested upon us by our fathers. Regardless of the mistakes our fathers have made, we are free to choose our own paths in life. Indeed, we can honor our fathers even as we strive to become better fathers than they were, thereby helping to create a better world.
Fortunately, I have learned to curb my temper and remain calm (at least most of the time). I am joyful that I am not destined to repeat my father’s mistakes and able to face my future with resilience and optimism rather than shame.
2) We can recognize that our shame does not erase the mistakes we have made or compel us to become better people. We do not need shame to make amends for our past failings. In fact, when we are filled with shame, we are highly self-absorbed and therefore less able to be sensitive to the needs of those we have hurt.
My work with Joe (not his real name) illustrates this point. He had made some poor decisions which were hurtful to his wife and left him drowning in shame. Whenever his wife brought up what he had done, his shame led him to protect himself by either withdrawing from her or lashing out at her in anger.
I pointed out to him how his shame was destructive to him and his marriage and encouraged him to make amends to his wife by letting it go, listening attentively to her feelings and focusing on meeting her needs rather than his.
His ability to achieve these goals enabled him and his wife to regain their mutual trust and emotional connection.
3) We can stop trying to live up to the “man code” which has led too many of us to feel inadequate and suffer in shame. Instead, we can live with integrity and use our power as “fierce gentlemen” to effectively serve rather than dominate others, fight for causes we believe in and therefore help make this a better world for all of us.
When we escape from the shackles of the “man code,” we are also free to grow into our best selves and express our humanity rather than just our toughness.
4) We can treat ourselves with self-compassion which eliminates our shame and fills us with happiness and inner peace.
Rather than beating up on ourselves for our inadequacies or mistakes, we can talk to ourselves in a caring manner, just like we are our own best friend. We can also rid ourselves of self-judgments and know that we are inherently worthy. Finally, we can choose to avoid unhealthy behaviors and take excellent care of ourselves.
For most of my life, I believed it was selfish to be self-compassionate and that the main purpose of life was to take care of others. However, upon the wise advice of my teenage son, I began to treat myself with greater self-compassion a few years ago. I was happy to discover that my efforts filled me with an abundance of positive energy, goodwill and serenity that I could pass onto others.
Indeed, the inner light my self-compassion has given me has eliminated the darkness of my shame and changed my life profoundly.
If you have a father, partner, son, husband or friend who you suspect suffers from male shame, I encourage you to ask him about it. The discussion that ensues might help you understand him on a whole new level.
If you suffer from male shame (I am now speaking to most of the men on this planet), I am behind you all the way in your efforts to eliminate this emotional toxin and enjoy a shame-free life. It will be your gift to yourself, those that love you and the world at large!
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