How Men Can Feel Shame in Relationship
Sexual and gender narratives are complex and fluid because human beings are complex and fluid, my personal philosophy tells me that every person has a mixture of masculine and feminine traits in their nature. The names are helpful sometimes, other times they perpetuate a sense of otherness and estrange people from the ‘opposite’ gender, I can observe that the LGBTQIA+ community actively question these narratives in some ways, and embrace them in other ways; I feel like we all need to do that.
Awareness and acceptance of different sexuality has progressed a lot in some communities, but in others, not so much. I’m fortunate that I don’t spend much time with men who shame each other anymore however that’s largely due to my own decision to not allow that in my life. No matter how many times we say this is wrong, it continues. Why does it continue? Because there’s an accepted model of masculinity that celebrates shaming other men, and women, into silence for the sake of dominance. The underlying system that keeps these narratives in place, and the ways that they are perpetuated, is explored in Mark Greene’s book The Little #metoo Book For Men. This was born from men’s inability to accept and embrace the #metoo movement.
Greene took his inspiration from an experiment in the early 1980’s called the Oakland Men’s Project in which they developed a theory called: “The Act Like A Man Box”. They worked with adolescents in public schools in the San Francisco bay area. Kivel documented their workshop process in his 1992 book: Men’s Work: How to Stop Violence That Tears Our Lives Apart.
We invited boys and men to explore the cultural rules by which they had been socialized to conform to narrow definitions of masculinity, police each others’ manhood and use their power and privileges to enforce gender-based exploitation, violence, and abuse against women, LGBTQ[I] people, and other marginalized groups.
This work was expanded by Tony Porter, founder of A CALL TO MEN, who’s work includes work in penitentiaries. The Compassion Prison Project are an amazing organization working in this area.
The theory has been termed ‘The Man Box Theory’ and it insists that men grow up in an environment that discourages feelings, and actively suppresses love, relationship, flexibility, and recognizing woman as equal. As boys we are taught that:
“Real men” don’t show our emotions.
“Real men” are heterosexual, hyper-masculine, and sexually dominant.
“Real men” never ask for help.
“Real men” always have the last word.
“Real men” are providers, never caregivers.
“Real men” are economically secure.
“Real men” are physically and emotionally tough.
“Real men” are sports focused.
Boys are also taught that:
Their desire for close relationship is “girly”.
Being “girly” is less.
As a society, we tell boys to “Man Up.” We tell boys that “Boys don’t cry.” We tell boys “Don’t be a sissy.” Then we are exacerbated and punitive with men who are violent. Greene says that what we are really communicating to boys is :
“Don’t be female, because female is less.”
Wrongly gendering the universal capacity for human connection as feminine then coaching boys to see feminine as less is how we block our sons from the trial and error process of growing their powerful relational capacities, leading to a lifetime of isolation.
At a time when boys should be expressing and constructing their identities in more diverse, grounded, and authentic ways, they are brutally conditioned to suppress authentic expression and instead cleave closely to the expression of male privelege as identity. And so, men brag about hook-up sex and ghosting women, seeking to bond via the uniformly degrading and contemptuous narratives of locker-room talk.
So what does this look like in real life?
Personally, I’ve always found the narrative around male sexuality extremely daunting and uncomfortable. It comes with a huge pressure to perform, and an insistence on power plays, I’ve suffered my fair share of performance anxiety on dance floors. Pretty much every single time I looked over at a woman that I found enticing and beautiful, I would try to seem cool; aloof, uninterested but also interested — how is that even possible?! I would try to dance in the rhythm of the music so that she would make an approach to me, although I was so shy that I often couldn’t make eye contact with her, and I couldn’t dance in the rhythm of the music because I was awkward with my own body, so she’d assume that I wasn’t that interested after all.
I also experienced developmental trauma as a child, a trauma that happened and was kept silent because of these structures of the masculine. The trauma kept me from having the self-esteem to make eye contact and be confident; the trauma kept me from questioning the narrative. I couldn’t play the aggressive man’s role in that environment, so I lost out. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have waited and waited for signs of consent from a woman, waited until I was alone at the end of the night. I was unable to see the subtlety of most of the consenting glances or affirmations of feeling. I simply didn’t know what I was looking for, and I was unable to recognize the reflection of that in myself. I remember one time that I was in a European city for a weekend break and I met a woman hiking on the slopes of a nearby mountain, we chatted and laughed, I asked her if she wanted to go for some drinks and so we went out drinking and dancing. We left the dance floor, it was early in the morning and we were on the street and I still wouldn’t make the advance. I remember her grabbing my shirt, dragging me over to her and saying in her foreign accent: “Jesus! Come here.”
If i’m honest, I’ve been frozen by the fear around consent.
I have always been a sensitive man and i’m willing to bet that there are many of you out there too, I am largely introverted. In a strange way I resonate a lot more often with the narratives that women speak of, because of my history of trauma but also because I feel very deeply. I’m intentionally focusing on men’s work now to build the observance of that narrative within me in the positive masculine, there are some wonderful initiatives out there: ManKind Project, and some amazing facebook forums like the ManTalks Community. The more I engage in this work, the more I realize men feel as deeply as women do, of course we do, it’s just that the shame exists specifically around feeling weak, and the narratives tell us that all emotions that aren’t anger are weak. A lot of my friends talk of having depression because they’re not recognized for their gentleness, their kindness, and their sensitivity.
I remember a conversation with a really close friend recently about the comparison to who I was eight years ago when we first met; the words he was using were: “quiet, gentle, kind.” It’s always been in my nature to be contemplative, gentle, and kind, I can thank my parents and grandparents for that. However, the quiet part was not so much me, it came from confusion of how I felt and the inability to recognize how I could express that alongside a burning fear of what others would think of me.
Men have to play the man dance between friends. Who’s the alpha, who gets to be dominant. The issue is that dominance is reached through ridicule and shame, and weakness is considered through not being strong enough, being vulnerable, or failing at certain things. Manly things.
There were elements of conquest that were sewn through the narrative of dating as a young man. I’m 32 now so I’d say I’m still young however when I was an adolescent the language was: “Let’s pull a bird.” Like it was our decision, taking a woman home was like a prize, she was seen as an object of that conquest, like a trophy, one that I couldn’t wait to brag about. Being turned away by a woman was shameful. Men dismissed women as “girls” or wrote of their refusal as some personal deficiency on their part: “uptight”, “Frigid”, “That time of the month”, “Lesbian”. All aggressions. That drove some pretty disgusting and disgraceful behavior for me. It always made me wince slightly to say those things, though I said them because I wanted to fit in. Whenever I didn’t say it I was isolated, I felt alone, and I was ignored as the quiet one. Some women celebrated this behavior, others found it disgusting, some saw through the face I had on to my sensitive side, I feel like the latter was the most dangerous scenario because they didn’t hold me accountable for the actions that I took. They saw the good in me and ignored the bad. Having said that, I wasn’t very good at dating because I just couldn’t be aggressive enough in that environment, I could only get so far before my gut and my heart took over and I’d end up wandering off or listening to them talk about their life in the friend zone, don’t get me wrong, i’ve shared some wonderful moments being the a trusted friend to actual friends, but these cases I was looking for more and I left feeling frustrated and confused. Now I see dating very differently and I’d never consider dating someone that I haven’t found a deep and loving connection with first, that’s where trust blossoms from.
The phrases of my youth seem so degrading now and I understand a lot more from the literature that I’ve read that calling women animal names is pervasive as a way of disempowering them. I suppose this is where the narrative of men in charge was played out, in these scenarios; ready to ride in on our horses and snatch someone from the dance floor to take them home. A narrative that has almost seeped into our modern language unnoticed because of it’s continuous existence throughout history. Looking at these narratives, writing these narratives down feels obvious, uncomfortable, wrong. I don’t wish to perpetuate them, I wish to bring light to them so we can all understand the nuance, where it is we need to change, and to challenge our own and other people’s behavior. I’m not suggesting you go and put yourself in danger with an aggressive man, but if one of my trusted friends acts in these ways — albeit subtly, I do feel like it’s our own responsibility to say: ‘hey, can we talk about how you acted back there? I find that uncomfortable.’ That’s where change builds from.
Women have been in on this narrative for a long time, it’s time for men to wake up to it. I would never suppose what women have felt about this, just from the feminist literature that I have read I know that the issue of safety in public, and in social situations has been a huge issue for women, amongst many other things like finding identity amongst a system that deems them second-class. From the things that I’ve observed in my life: women sticking together in groups, and having to rebut the advances of some cocky guy who is being inappropriate in a way that doesn’t put them in physical danger. That’s a fine line. Why should they have to live their lives with that danger to perpetuate this culture of manhood?
Being the friend of a woman in that position, I always felt the need to meet the cocky guy’s aggression, I’d always wait to see if my friend could handle the situation and what she wanted from it, but if she was uncomfortable I did feel the social need to step in and scare him away so to speak. That got me into a few tense situations. Luckily because of my height, the anger that I had from the trauma, and my sharp intellect, I’ve always been good at the man box game so i’ve never had to fight anyone. It wasn’t so lucky for me in the long term.
I lived in terror of advancing towards a female in a social situation, I always sat and stared at them hoping that they wouldn’t be put off, and that they would come over — no it didn’t work, and yes it was creepy. I remember feeling isolated, ashamed, alone, sometimes desperate for a companion. I directed that violently inward, in self-loathing. Some men direct it violently outward, in domestic abuse and violence. This is one of the biggest issues of our age. This doesn’t just show up in dating by the way, it can show up in our careers.
I ended up getting a job in a bar just to be legitimately in that environment, to give a natural conversation starter.
I’m fortunate in being a sensitive guy because I’ve always been surrounded by other sensitive guys, and initially i’d have that implicit sense of knowing with them; our sensitivity was unexpressed, it went without being said because of the shame around being emotional, not wanting to feel vulnerable, or being embarrassed by having tender feelings. The more I resolve my trauma in therapy and the more I work around expressing emotions and the shame of weakness, the more I have wonderful conversations with men. Men who feel deeply, men who express that feeling with confidence and safety. I know environments where I can share in safety now, I hope that they’ll expand into wider society. I love the hashtag #strongmenfeel because it takes courage to combat this shame and speak and I think it’s very necessary for us to build a new cultural narrative in which men own their feelings and in doing so become able to respond to life’s emotional challenges; responsibility. The leaders of our time are all so quick to blame others because our culture doesn’t allow people to fail. That’s dangerous. We learn through failing, and we learn through expression, and relation to others who might not have the same view. Once these things start to change, I think we’ll see a vastly different cultural and societal situation.
I’ve also started bringing that respect for my own feelings and expressions to conversations with women, and although I’m not dating right now, I’ve had the most satisfying conversations with female friends recently around emotions. These can only happen in trusted and safe environments, and I’ve learned that aggression, even in micro form, in relationship leads to the breakdown of trust.
We have to make the link between what men are taught is socially acceptable in our friendship groups, the roles that it is acceptable for us to play in society as a whole, and the problems we’re seeing in society in relationships. These are the selves that we will show up as in relationship to our partners, wives, mothers, sisters as well.
I remember playing the man dance in my friendship groups so often and feeling squashed and resentful, then angry. I’d cut my friends down viciously. It always received a laugh. I’ll always remember a time that I was so cutting with my insults that one of my friends left our friendship hangout early and went home. I was celebrated in that moment as clever, funny, aggressive, punitive, angry. He was written off as not strong enough to survive. I didn’t recognize or realize, but I believe he was struggling through the grief of losing his father at the time. That’s heavy. It felt good to be acknowledged, it felt wrong to inflict pain. I did later apologize. Perhaps I’m being harsh on myself, perhaps I need to forgive myself for those times, but who knows how many times it went unspoken. Now I think about it I can remember giving and receiving this state of affairs frequently; hourly, daily.
The fact is that these things are encouraged. Men stand around and rip each other apart because it’s a laugh. Because it’s expected. Men are shamed into the perpetuation of these narratives by men; our biggest shame point is weakness. We’ll shame our own sons in front of our friends just to avoid being vulnerable and express feelings, to seem strong. When really we are only serving to isolate ourselves. Feelings are considered weak unless their anger. If someone challenges that they’re dismissed, and isolated from the friendship. All the while, we repress our feelings.
Now, I celebrate a constructive challenge, in love, to something that is holding me back from loving myself, from loving other people. I can see the value in discomfort sometimes or self-evaluation.
The antidote to shame is expression and empathy. Let’s be encouraging, let’s hold space for each other to talk, let’s be active listeners and celebrate hard feelings without the need to fix them. Sometimes in life, there isn’t a fix, and trust me I know how hard it can be for a man to not ‘fix’ a problem. Some things in life are just hard, sometimes we all need someone to just listen and allow us to feel without guilt, embarrassment, or shame.
At school, we were called ‘sissy’, ‘little b@*ch’, ‘pussy’, ‘gay’ if we expressed vulnerability around emotion. That does three main things:
- Represses emotions in men.
- Tells men that women are somehow wrong and inferior.
- Tells men that homosexuality is somehow wrong and inferior.
That’s negative association. There are many other things that these rhetorics do.
Repressing emotions is a terrible thing because it leads to the depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies that we are struggling within western societies today. It also leads to violent outbursts of aggression coming from the emotion, like a volcano bursting open from the pressure build-up. I’m not sure how other societies are fairing with this, but I’d love to know. I know through my trauma journey that once you get to the point where you feel your emotions are futile then it’s a slippery slope towards anxiety, depression, and if you don’t have anyone to talk to who celebrates your emotional expressions in a safe space it can lead to suicidal tendencies. Suicide is an awful, and tricky subject, it feels uncomfortable to even go there, yet some men (and I respect that women go through this too) see that as the best, and most practical, option to stop their suffering. The truth is that there is a process to recovering your self and it involves honoring your feelings. Step by step. Little by little.
We are losing too many men to this issue, and the underlying cause is the shame around weakness; failure, vulnerability.
Men are simply not taught how to feel, they’re not given the environment to be vulnerable and to explore their feelings in safety. They’re not encouraged to explore vocabulary, there mostly told to shut up, be a man, chin up, boys don’t cry, you’re a good boy, be a good boy.
I heard Mark Greene, from the Good Men Project, speak to this on the ManTalks podcast; an excellent podcast run by Connor Beaton. He said that the masculine image of the provider really started around the industrial revolution of the west in the 19th century, that’s a relatively short time in history. It was then that we became disconnected from the family unit and became the people who provided materially for the family. This is one of the reasons that men were disconnected from their feelings. Disconnected from the role as a care giver in the family. As a society, we have been recovering from this disconnect recently, but there are still issues here. The man box theory really is an excellent exploration into that subject if you want further reading on this.
This alienation from being a caregiver in a family merely because the factories were started in that time and it was the men who generally went to work in them. The celebrated model of masculinity was strength, hard work, utility, sweat, progression due to this cultural identity. Men needed to work physically, work hard; blood, sweat, no tears. That suited the former role of hunter-gatherer too.
Before the industrial revolution women were the first nurturers and, of course, they gave birth but men were also integral to the caregiving environment.
The knowledge-based society that we are approaching — or are already in depending on what your perceptions are, is challenging the concept of masculinity again. The provider is no longer as celebrated, the manual labourer who goes out to work hard, sweating, and working machinery is largely a thing of the past in the west. Mostly, men had a physical advantage with that, it was part of our identity. Strength, not weakness. That has disappeared very quickly and we need to find a new narrative that allows and celebrates men to feel empathy and vulnerability, because that’s about the most courageous and strong thing we can do now.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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