Over the past several months (there have been long periods of time that I’ve set it down and not read anything in it) I have been reading I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) by Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW. It deals primarily with dealing with shame through a concept called shame resilience. The whole book lays out different techniques about dealing with shame resilience, but the basis for the vast majority of the book is a series of interviews with an extremely diverse group of women. I’ve read the book and found some gems in it, but in the back of my mind I kept asking myself “what about shame resilience in men?”
Over the last couple of days’ worth of reading, she’s gotten around to her work with men. It’s nowhere near as diverse or extensive as her work with women, but her findings are very interesting.
Early in the research for this book, around about the time that she had identified twelve shame categories for women, she began interviewing older teenagers to get a feel for this particular age group. Her intention was to interview solely girls, but the clinicians that ran the groups had scheduled both girls and boys.
When it came time for her to interview the boys, she did so in a group setting, with the shame categories on a whiteboard behind her. She referred to the first one, appearance, and asked if there were any expectations for them to meet in this category. One teenager replied “Yeah, miss. I gotta look like I can kick your ass.” Laughter and agreement from the other boys. She moved on to health. More laughter and “You can’t be too sick to kick someone’s ass.” Since many of these boys were fathers already she asked about fatherhood. A little less laughter this time. “You talk about my baby or my baby’s mother, I’m gonna kick your ass.” Dr. Brown saw the theme clearly. Once the interviews were over, she filed away her notes until she began interviewing older men later in the process of writing the book, and this is what she discovered.
Early on in the book Dr. Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” (I wrote about this back in June, for those interested in my words and opinions of the book early on.) She goes on to say that men experience this just as women do, that the “how we experience shame” is the same, but the “why we experience shame” is very different. As Dr. Brown says so eloquently in the book:
The expectation, clear and simple: Do not let people see anything that can be perceived as weakness.
She goes on to share some of the definitions of shame that she heard from some of the fifty-one men that she interviewed for her research.
“Shame is failure. At work. On the football field. In your marriage. In bed. With money. With your children. It doesn’t matter – shame is failure.”
“Shame is being wrong. Not doing it wrong, but being wrong.”
“Shame is a sense of being defective.”
“Shame happens when people think you’re soft. It’s degrading and shaming to be seen as anything but tough.”
“Revealing any weakness is shaming. Basically, shame is weakness.”
“Showing fear is shameful. You can’t show fear. You can’t be afraid. No matter what.”
“Shame is being seen as ‘the guy you can shove up against the lockers.'”
“Our worst fear is being criticized or ridiculed – either one of these is extremely shaming.”
Seems like the teenage boys were dead on with their “kick your ass” mentality, although that is a significant oversimplification of the issue.
So at this point I want to stop and explain how I relate to these statements.
I perceive my life as currently being a failure. My inability to live what many would call a “normal” life – get up, go to work, come home, be with my family, go to bed, repeat ad nauseum – weighs heavily on me for several reasons. I sometimes – not always – feel like I’m being judged for being on disability, although I’ve never once heard anyone express that sentiment to me. I so very desperately want to be able to work, to hold down a job, to be a success in the workplace – something that I’ve rarely, if ever, been able to say I’ve done. I feel like I’m failing my mother for not being able to be more involved in her life – she’s in skilled nursing in North Carolina while I’m in Texas with precious little money to be able to travel to visit her with, let alone the spare money to relocate her here and cover some of her expenses. I feel like I’m failing my daughter because I’m likewise distant and not in touch more often. I feel like I’m failing my wife for not being able to contribute more financially to our household, putting intense amounts of pressure and strain on her to have to succeed no matter what (remember, she also suffers from mental illness, but doesn’t really have the luxury of letting her guard down because of me.) There are some things I’m successful at, but I don’t feel that I’m living a complete life right now, and that, in my eyes, is a failing to the people that mean the most to me.
When I’m at my most irrational, I’m told that I will argue that the sky is purple until the other person – almost always my wife, who has to also deal with the stress of these moments, few and far between though they are – concedes. I HAVE to be right. It’s just impossible for me to concede that I could be wrong about anything. I’m desperate to be right about something, anything, that I’ll tenaciously defend a position even though it has absolutely no basis in fact.
I acknowledge that I’m defective; however, this isn’t anything that can be blamed on anyone or is anyone’s fault, it’s just how I was built, for lack of a better term. I don’t feel much shame about this because this is something that’s out of my realm of control, and I’m perceptive enough to realize that being ashamed of my faults doesn’t allow me to help others that may be experiencing the same thing that I am.
I’m not really tough. Full stop. I don’t engage in conflict unless it’s unavoidable, I’m not physically imposing in any way, I can’t grit my teeth and drive through a lot of situations that other men would have no trouble doing. Am I ashamed for this? Yes and no. I wish I were able to deal with conflict better than I’m capable of doing, but it’s not that big of an issue to me that I be physically tough. Physical toughness comes from physical health, and I have very little of that these days, between my illnesses and my weight.
I don’t feel the next one applies to me. I reveal my weaknesses all the time; I’m doing so right now. I feel no shame in this, I think that it’s important for others to know they aren’t alone with their struggles.
Likewise, I don’t feel shame in my fears. My fears are a large part of why I’m on disability, and while there is shame that I’m unable to provide for my family better while I’m on disability, I don’t feel ashamed that I fear things. It’s part of who I am, and as I said before, I don’t perceived my fear as a weakness. It’s just me being honest with myself about my strengths and limitations.
The next one, about being the guy that gets pushed up against the lockers, doesn’t really concern me. Since I avoid conflict like the plague, the chances of me getting into a physical altercation are slim to none, although there was one verbal altercation that I got into a few years ago that threatened to get physical, simply because someone misunderstood something that was said to them in a lighthearted manner. I kept my cool and managed to talk the guy down from getting violent, but my insides were watery. This was a hypermasculine guy who I feel honestly personifies the concept of “any weakness whatsoever is a bad thing.” So in light of that situation, I’m somewhat confident in my ability to talk myself out of situations like that, plus that’s the only time in my life that such a situation has ever occurred to me.
I have to admit, I have some trouble with the last one. I don’t like being ridiculed or made fun of, and I am downright terrorized by criticism these days – this is the main thing that I’m working on in therapy in order to return to work. Many guys have several friendships that they feel that they can trash talk one another freely because they know it’s just talk. I have exactly one friendship like that and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but anyone else trash talking me would be a very awkward thing for me to go through. I wish I knew why, and I wish I understood why this one friendship is different, but I’m thankful for it, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
So the question remains – do I feel shame? Depends on the situation. I’m not like some guys who are hypersensitive to these things, but then again I don’t know of many of my male friends that are stereotypically this way. I think that shame affects each of us differently, and something that would shame me may not shame someone else, and vice versa. Shame is an individual experience and something we all deal with in our own unique way. Dr. Brown has written that she intends to do more research into shame resilience and men, and I’m eager to read her results on that. In the meantime, however, a lot of what I’ve read about women and shame resilience I can use as-is or alter to where it’s appropriate for my own situation.