Let me paint a picture for you. This is what men’s shame looks like in my counselling practice:
- Shame is the curve of your shoulders as you sit, hunched in your chair across from me, almost cowering
- Shame is the nervous laughter when I comment on something unique or strong about you and you just cannot let it sink in
- Shame is the sharp inhale after you have shared something vulnerable. It is the dread you feel as I start to respond because you are convinced I will judge you, criticize and scorn you
- Shame is the eyes that remain downcast while you speak, darting up briefly to meet mine, terrified of what they will find
- Shame is there in the boast that thinly masks the tremble in your voice
- Shame is there when I ask you what you like about yourself and you sit shifting in your chair because you cannot think of anything
For the most part, the men I work with have suffered from violence. They have used violence against themselves (often in the form of addiction) or others and are horrified by what they have done. Or they have had violence used against them. And often they have both used and experienced violence. They are wracked with shame. I meet them with a willingness to hold the gravity of the violence in one hand and hold in the other hand their strength, their tender parts, their capacity for kindness and care.
So often the shame has eroded their memories of their own kindness or gentleness or goodness. The shame has eaten away at their dreams and their hopes for the future. It has destroyed their sense of self and their ability to stand tall in their own integrity. They are left with the swirling pain of self-hatred and emptiness. Behavioural change seems impossible from this vortex of suffering.
My approach to shame is to speak it aloud. I will encourage you tell your story and I will hold it without condemning you. I will work to understand you – both the shiny and the shadowy parts, the parts you show the world, the parts you hide and the parts you have forgotten. The better I understand you, the better you understand yourself in your fullness. This is a more balanced and grounded way to see yourself. When you see yourself more fully, you can start to make conscious choices about what parts you want to foster, what parts you want to hold in check and what parts you want to allow to die off.
This experience of exposing the vulnerable stories to another person and seeing that you are still worthy of respect and acceptance as a person allows you to better change your behaviours. You can work on change from a grounded position, strong enough to take the necessary steps towards change and strong enough to handle disappointments and unexpected joys.
You have believed you are not worthy of acceptance or belonging. That’s a painful belief to hold. Let’s gently question that.