When Men Experience Shame That Kills Relationships
All genders experience the effects of shame, however how shame affects men and women are quite different. Shame is an internal emotion or feeling of being inadequate, unworthy or bad. Situations or people can trigger shame, or failure to meet your own standards (which most often can be perfectionist). According to professor and TED speaker Brene Brown, in men shame is mostly experienced as I am weak.
What are the origins of shame?
Shaming has been a popular parenting method to punish bad behavior. This could severe, in the form of spanking a child, which produces embarrassment which leads to shame. Quite often though its in a more subtle form. When a child exhibits bad behavior, rather than explaining why the behavior should not be repeated and finding out why the child did it, the parent may shout things like 'what is wrong with you?' and 'how could you?'. Children do not have the mental capacity to work out on their own what lead to that behavior and will internalise everything that happens to them. Now rather than understanding that their behavior is bad, they will start thinking that I am bad. It creates a fear of showing who they really are, as who they are, they believe is bad.
Another theory discussed in an article by Steven Stosny called The fear-shame dynamic on Psychology Today blog, is that shame is triggered by others anxiety which causes a fear-shame dynamic. He discusses how the belief that a man needs to be strong or the protector is actually due to primal interactive dynamic present in all social animals. That a woman feeling anxious for what ever reason, will make the man feel deep down like a failure. We can still consider this with the understanding that how much of a failure the particular man may feel and how unbearable those feelings are, could relate to how he internalised shame as a child.
Effects on men
Mark Greene writes about shame in The Culture of Shame: Men, Love and Emotional Self-Amputation on The Good Men project blog. He talks about how shame effects American men, however many of the issues he raises are cross-cultural:
"We seek out a romantic partner, form a relationship and then immediately start tracking our partners responses to what they are learning about us. We take even the slightest indications of confusion or uncertainty in our partner as adequate cause to suppress those parts of ourselves which might not be a good fit for them."
This also helps to explain how men are now often finding more satisfaction in their male friendships than romantic relationships. This study Privileging the Bromance on Men & Masculinities, found that many men are now forming deeper male friendships than they are relationships. The men spoke of experiencing emotional freedom to be their true selves around male friends, without feeling the judgement that they experience with women. This means romantic relationships are often surface level or ended before having the chance to explore deeper connection that comes from being able to be who you truly are around a partner.
In addition, men are often battling against the need to have freedom, and restriction to their freedom, which is seen as commitment. Therefore if they are used to hiding key elements or sides of themselves in a romantic relationship, they are more likely to have a fear of commitment, as this narrowly defined relationship version of them is not who they truly are. Rather than explore these sides of their nature in the relationship they would rather escape and try to get their needs met in another relationship. But this will become a repeating circle if the shame is not addressed.
How to overcome shame
Open discussion of shame will overcome it. Both partners in a relationship need to be willing to show and discuss every part of themselves. Start small, recount everything that happened in your day, rather than edit out the details to highlight only the good points. If you made a mistake at work and felt inadequate because of it, share this. If you got angry because your friend did something to piss you off, share this. Partners receiving this information should make the time and space to allow this expression of feelings without jumping in and offering solutions or judgement. This will create an open culture of sharing so that when bigger issues and feelings arise they can be discussed freely. Another useful article on the subject Shame: the silent killer of relationships by Jed Diamond on GoodTherapy.org writes:
"The more we’re able to say, “Yes, I messed up,” or, “Yes, I made a mistake,” or, “Yes, I’m sorry for what I said,” the better we feel about ourselves.
We all know the good feeling we get when we can own our mistakes and be forgiven. But that takes empathy on the part of our partner. Our partner has to be able to feel with us, not blame us or put us down. For men, it often means admitting our weakness. And for women, it means accepting that we can still be strong, adequate men, even when we are weak."
Steven Stosny, The fear-shame dynamic, Psychology Today - https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/200811/the-fear-shame-dynamic
Mark Greene, The Culture of Shame: Men, Love, and Emotional Self-Amputation, The Good Men Project - https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/megasahd-culture-of-shame-men-love-and-emotional-self-amputation/
Stefan Robinson, Adam White, Eric Anderson, Privileging the Bromance: A Critical Appraisal of Romantic and Bromantic Relationships, Men & Masculinities -http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1097184X17730386
Jed Diamond, Shame: the silent killer of relationships, GoodTherapy.org - https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/shame-relationships-men-women-1121127