When a fellow recovering-computer-engineer friend of mine SMS'd me saying: “I've worked out what the problem is... it's shame.”, I knew immediately what he referring to. The perpetual self-consciousness and lack of confidence that kept plaguing me, the low self-esteem, the anxiety and awkwardness around other people, the fear of embarrassment, the worry about what other people thought when I asserted myself, the vague feeling of inadequacy and the sense that I somehow wasn't good enough all came down to one underlying emotion: Shame.
I knew instantly that my friend was right, yet it took me over a year to get around to John Bradshaw's best-selling book on the topic. That's the insidious thing about shame: we avoid it like the plague, even though it's at the root of many of our emotional, psychological and behavioural problems. We hear an increasing amount these days about stress and depression, but very few people are talking directly about the underlying problem of shame that man men face in their. As Bradshaw points out in his book, we're even ashamed of our shame.
Shame is a sense that we are bad or wrong; that we are defective in some way. It causes us to live in constant fear of being exposed; of being revealed to other people, who might just happen to see through the façade we present to the world and discover what we're really like. This fear causes us to self-censor our words and actions, to shrink to a lowest-common-denominator and to take on a persona that isn't really us. We do it because we're afraid of rejection, and so we live a lie that's painful, distracting and exhausting to maintain.
It's one thing to know what the problem is, and another to know where it came from. I've had enough therapy and read enough self-help books to see the source pretty clearly for me: As a sensitive person I inherited my shame from a family where expressing any emotion directly was taboo. It was imperative to be smart and right all the time, and emotions are not rational so my family just pretended not to have them. I would be ridiculed for being “too sensitive”, and there was an unspoken rule that feelings weren't to be seen or heard and any unconstrained behaviour was considered ridiculous.
This denial of feelings by both my parents led to many unresolved arguments where they would dance around how they were really feeling, rather than expressing it directly. Too ashamed of her anger to actually say “I'm really angry with you”, my mother would taunt and berate my father instead calling him a “stupid creature”. He, in turn, would bottle up his shameful anger and frustration until he'd explode violently, confirming my mother's taunts that he was “crazy”. Ironically, their denial of their anger just generated more anger between them; I've even heard my mother shout “I'm not angry!!!” in the heat of an argument. Then we'd all be shipped off to church to learn about how we would never be good enough to meet the standards of a perfect God. Were we ever lucky he'd sent Jesus to save us, or we'd have been completely screwed.
These patterns dictated in childhood have lasted long into adulthood for me, and just knowing the childhood roots of my adult shame didn't made it magically go away. No amount of knowledge and rational thinking can solve an emotional problem. The cure for an emotional problem is to identify and express the real emotion involved; and when you've been shamed for having emotions in the first place, that makes resolving the problem doubly difficult. People who are ashamed of their own emotions aren't in a good place to offer emotional support, so seeking help on shame from family members didn't work for me... Enacting the cure I needed triggered their shame, and another barrage of criticism and shame from them instead.
I'm something of an expert on shame because I've lived it myself. When I first visited a psychologist to start dealing with my emotional baggage, I felt deeply ashamed. I would drive to the counselling centre in a remote suburb under cover of darkness hoping nobody there would recognise me or my car, where I would wait nervously in until my appointment time to avoid seeing anyone else in the waiting room. Little wonder really: I'd heard my mother denigrate my father for his psychological problems by telling him “You're crazy. You should see a psychiatrist!” as a form of insult, rather than a genuine encouragement to seek help. Ashamed of her own psychological baggage, she dumped it freely on whoever was around her when she was angry. Much of that baggage involved shame, and I picked up a truckload of it along the way.
So what's the solution? Well, what has worked for me is doing the sort of things that John Bradshaw recommends in his book. It is a simple as it is difficult: expose the very things we're ashamed of, in an environment where we get love and acceptance in return, instead of rejection and criticism. To do so goes against our defensiveness and such environments aren't necessarily easy to find. Some places that might appear to qualify, like families and religious institutions which preach or teach about love, often shame about normal human drives and behaviour deeply enshrined in their belief systems. I've found it pays to be careful and develop my intuition as to whether someone is likely to turn from friendly to shaming before I start revealing parts of myself that push their buttons.
People who are actively interested in developing a broader consciousness seem more able to accept the discomfort they feel when my revelations push their buttons, than people who are still stuck in self-protection. Nowadays I hang out with a lot of creative types who are more interested in being real than they are in being perfect, and boy is it a refreshing change. My acting class is full of self-conscious, flawed perfectionists; but they're there because they know it holds them back, and they want to be more emotionally open. They're willing to look foolish in order to get the key reward that comes from being vulnerable: a much deeper connection with other people.
John recommends 12-Step groups as a supportive forum for the kind of self-revelations that can heal shame, and talks about his personal experience of how helpful they have been to him. I've never actually been to a 12-Step group, but I have a few friends who have found them invaluable. But I have some reservations: I don't like the once-a-holic, always-a-holic mindset. I think once the underlying anxious emotional charge that causes an addiction has been dissipated, there's good reason to accept the healing and move on.
The sense of community fostered by a group is invaluable, but I'm not sure it's a great idea for everyone in the group to share the same dysfunction. The acceptance that we are all flawed makes it easier to accept other people; we don't need to have the same symptoms in order to do so. Shame is even used to control the destructive behaviour of members, with concepts like “falling off the wagon” and counting the number of days alcoholics and addicts have been clean, as though any regression is a sign of failure and weakness. What we so often call “failure” is actually a normal part of any process that leads to success, so I don't like the focus on when things go wrong and the start-from-scratch attitude. This use of shame may lead to less destructive behaviour, but I'd rather it not be part of the solution at all.
That said, a group that is more supportive and accepting than what we've encountered in the past is certainly going to have a healing effect. 12-Step or not, it's pretty clear that groups have a more powerful healing effect than individual therapy or one-on-one relationships. There's a place for both, and my experience of dealing with shame has been that a supportive deshaming one-on-one encounter is a great prelude for a really powerful group deshaming. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I can see now that all the really powerful personal development groups and courses I've been involved with like Path Of Love, The Human Awareness Institute, my men's group and The Landmark Forum, have included deshaming and explicit validation of what it is to be human as a key part of their process.
Clearly the emotion we call shame has a purpose, or the capacity to feel it would never have evolved. Most likely its purpose was to prevent our ancestors from violating social rules which kept their tribe functioning. Violating these rules meant the destruction of the tribe, so those that broke them got thrown out, leading to certain death once the tribe stopped feeding and taking care of you. So this fear of embarrassment is tied to death in our psyche.
Bradshaw picks up on the positive aspects of shame by dividing it into two types: healthy, and toxic. Healthy shame encourages us to get along with other people, while toxic shame distances us from others by degrading our humanity. But where to draw the line? The insidious nature of shame causes us to hide the truth even from ourselves, and I believe his own latent shame causes him to draw it too far down the toxic end of the spectrum: Some of what he classifies as “healthy shame” is actually toxic shame from his Christian beliefs.
This isn't particularly overt in the book; it's not filled with trite bible quotes or anything, but the obvious give-away is when he shames atheism as a form of spiritual bankruptcy. Accepting the world the way it is, rather than relying on an invented deity to avoid our uncomfortable feelings of powerlessness, opens the possibility for a more genuine spirituality than is possible with the confines of religious fantasy. But it's impossible to see this when you're still caught up in the fantasy. Living the truth, and dealing with the shame that can come your way when you do, is harder. I don't always succeed in dropping my façade and allowing myself to feel vulnerable and powerless; but ultimately it leads to so much more real and rewarding connections with other people than trying to live a falsehood.
In hindsight, I can see that sometimes shame is trying to teach me something valuable. If I had my time over again, I would pay more attention to the shame I felt about being a Christian in a secular school: it wasn't just the ridicule of others that I feared, but that fact that much of what I was taught at church wouldn't stand up to scrutiny. It took me a long, long time to accept this lesson, and when I did so the emotional baggage associated with it didn't just vaporise overnight. False religious beliefs taught in childhood continue to be a major source of shame, perfectionism, lack of confidence and suffering in the lives of many men I know.
I have often felt shameful about my family, my religion, my sexuality, asserting myself and claiming my masculine power. Sometimes I still do, but it's fading more and more as I expose what's really going on for me with genuinely loving people who accept rather than reject what they get.
Shame is the number one emotion that undermines our confidence. If you want to be a confident man, you need to deal with your latent shame. If you're still not convinced, you will be by the time you've finished this book. And if you are, it gives some valuable pointers on how to deal with shame and the many problems it causes in our lives, which is why I highly recommend it.