“Act like a man.” Man up.” Stop acting like a girl.” “Suck it up, crying’s for girls.” Society has a very narrow expectation of what it is to be a man. It often starts with our little boys- they hear messages like this and very quickly understand that any traits or behaviours that are outside of traditional masculinity are something to be deeply ashamed of. This can be not just limited to behaviours and traits- as boys grow older, they receive other messages linked to what it is to be a ‘successful’ man. Things like their ability to provide for a family, their sexual prowess within their peer group, their physical strength, intellectual ability, etc are all seen as vital to being a ‘real man’. Of course, these are just some examples and there are many more that differ across cultures, socio-economic groups etc.
Boys are shamed into oppressing or hiding any natural tendencies they may have that lie outside of this narrow interpretation of what it is to be a man. As a result, they live with an incessant fear of being further shamed, of not living up to this idealized version of what it is to be a man. They become watchful and vigilant; they keep their distance and often wear a mask of false confidence in an effort to avoid being further shamed. It’s not fear AND shame that men live with- it’s fear OF shame.
This fear of shame drives how they operate in life. Many men navigate their day-to-day lives as though they’re on patrol in a war zone, anticipating an ambush that could come at any time and from any direction. They’re constantly on high alert, worried about the ridicule, mocking and bullying that is routinely thrown at them as a test of their masculinity. They see the world as a deeply unsafe place. Brene Brown, a famous social researcher, makes the point that when men are repeatedly shamed they either get pissed off or they shut down. Sooner or later, somehow, some way or sometime, many men explode. Many men also act out by using bullying, abuse and violence as a way to avoid the feelings of shame.
How does shame function? It’s a message about our self-esteem, one that hits us right in the pit of the stomach. Helplessness, humiliation and feeling dehumanized are all emotions that are associated with shame. Its all-encompassing message is, “You are bad. You’re so bad that no one will want anything to do with you. You are alone in your badness and you will always be alone.” Some men have learned to react to this emotional state by becoming enraged. Rage takes you out of the feeling of being a victim and gives a semblance of control, if not over the situation, at least over your own emotional state.
Rage is a much stronger emotion than anger. When you rage, you heat up and go from zero to one hundred twenty miles an hour and now you’re in a run-away giant semi. And you are not in control of the wheel. Someone very nasty has the pedal to the metal and some very ugly behaviour occurs as a result that you may feel very badly about later. You’ve been hijacked and lost yourself because rage has taken over when you felt a threat to your self-esteem.
There are five core messages that you get from shame which send you into self-loathing and feeling worthless:
These are all lies that you started to believe about yourself when those childhood messages about what it is to be a man started and then continued throughout your life. Challenging these ideas and the shame that accompanies any straying outside of them is the first step to releasing the shame.
Disrupting the feelings of shame by turning them into rage keeps the shame/rage cycle in place. If you can bring the feelings out into the light and work through them, they will gradually disappear. Brene Brown says that shame cannot survive being spoken- telling your story to someone who cares will release the shame. It cannot survive empathy.
Shame on its own is harmful to your self-esteem. Shame that turns into rage is harmful to you and those around you, potentially putting your loved ones at risk. It may feel as though it’s something that can never be resolved- this is another lie that shame tells you. With the right support and in the right environment, this is an issue that can be worked through and a new way of being can come to light.
If this is an area of your life you would like to work on, please contact us today.