This is part 1 of a 3 part series on Men And Shame
First of all for some men there is a constant struggle to feel safe and appreciated in their family life. There is a lingering sense that they are not worthy or capable of being the man they want to be with their partners and children. As a result his can lead to increased substance abuse, domestic violence and even suicide. But most men that struggle with this it doesn’t go to that extreme. This humiliating feeling of not being good enough as a man usually leads to aggressive outbursts, blame, defensiveness and emotional numbing. Consequently the level of satisfaction can drop decidedly in their family life. I ask myself, what is happening when this feeling of unworthiness arises? What is the shame that comes up for men? Where does this come from and how can men work to heal this?
Where does the shame come from?
With self psychology there is a basic view that the need for proper mirroring by caretakers is what helps children develop an integrated sense of themselves. Therefore this means that when a child looks into their parent’s eyes they see reflected back to them a sense that they are good and worthy of love. A child in feels validated in who they are as a person. Likewise, children who receive this reflection are able to move through the development stages feeling safe and cared for. In self psychology the caretaker is referred to as the self object.
In his book, Self-Psychology An Introduction, Peter Lessen explains what happens when a child is mirrored properly.
Over the years, the accumulation of this type of idealizing self object experience results in the child representing this self-enhancing experience. Having done so enables the individual to be effectively self-soothing during times of stress and upset. Later on in development, another important consequence of the accumulation of idealizing self object experience appears. Kohut theorized that the positive identification with idealized figures paves the way for the development of the goals and ideals for adolescence and adulthood.
For most men this is their childhood experience. It allows them to feel safe in their adult relationships. This means that they are able to have strong healthy relationships with their partners. It also means that they are generally going to have a nervous system that is able to regulate when there are moments of distress. This includes arguments and fights.
Some men didn’t have this childhood experience. They were given a much more hostile reflection back that caused them to feel unsafe in their bodies. As a result in physical/emotional abuse or a caretaker that was suffering from mental health issues. For these men they will have a hard time progressing on schedule developmentally. The men may not flourish both emotionally and cognitively.
Furthermore in his book, When Good Men Behave Badly, Dr. David Wexler, points out how many men get lost when this mirroring doesn’t happen.
Broken Mirrors Children are deprived of these essential responses, or are instead subjected to criticism and ridicule for their efforts to achieve. Because of this they become arrested in their development of an internal sense of confidence and competence. As adults, these men are always looking to some outside source of approval or recognition.
The broken mirror
Even more for the man who grew up deprived of the loving care that would allow him to feel safe there is a constant need to find that healthy mirroring. As Wexler points out these men are looking to find that approval in others. So many men look for this in their partners. Unfortunately, there really is no mirroring that can satisfy a man’s need in his adult life for what he didn’t get in his childhood.
Certainly no mother, father, teacher, coach, or therapist ever provides the perfect mirror. A child’s mirroring figures may be quite fragmented themselves. This being they have little capacity to offer the loving and confidence-enhancing reflection that the child requires.
However this man is on a journey to find a way to end the pain of feeling fragmented in his sense of self. As he enters into adult relationships he wants his partner to help him feel that sense of being validated as a man. For heterosexual men this is looking into their wive’s eyes and searching for proof they are worthy of being loved.
When a man comes home to his wife and children, he expects that something will take place between them that will offer him a state of emotional well-being. Probably the need for self-cohesion is primary (Wexler, 2004).
Even if this man finds a healthy partner the good mirroring starts to break down. Certainly no wife or partner can ever be perfect. Eventually the man starts to feel the same childhood pain that led to his feelings of being unworthy and the shame starts to seep in.
Since the perfect mirroring inevitably wears off to some degree the man is doomed to a cracking of the mirror and a cracking of the self (Wexler, 2004).
Hurting our loved ones.
When the shame response starts men become stuck in this perpetual loop of feeling unworthy. Lashing out at loved ones for their lack of perfect mirroring and feel the shame of their behavior. Therefore the tendency to blame their issues on their loved ones is quite common. A man in this loop he struggles to see a way out. Consequently the shame is so painful that they must keep away from it but often their only way out is through aggression or emotional shutdown.
In his book, To Be A Man, Robert Augustus Masters explains this struggle for men,
Due to feeling crushed or dis-empowered by shame, he’s likely going to try to get as far away from it as possible, escaping, into the compensatory power he feels through aggression. And why thus escape? Because shame is such a squirmingly uncomfortable and contracted emotion. Especially when it is directed not just at our behavior, but also at our very being. Quite understandably, we want to get away from it as quickly as we can, ordinarily doing so by shifting into other states (numbness, exaggerated detachment, or aggression).
Most importantly, this leaves men in an unshakable dynamic of pain. In this constant shame response men are at risk of domestic violence, suicide and divorce. For many this will not happen but they will continue to cycle through this until they are able to see how shame is at the root of their behavior. While they can admit that they must change there is a new possibility of healing.
How This Shows Up In My Life
Hence I am not the product of improper childhood mirroring. My parents, although imperfect were “good enough.” However, I can relate to the feeling of inadequacy that overcomes me when my wife is disappointed or angered by something I have failed at. Likewise for men who already are dealing with the shame of being abused or neglected as children I can only imagine how much more intense these feelings are.
Even more, I have continued to work on my own shame and to develop the skills needed to get out of this cycle of shame. So, in part two of this three part series I will be writing about how to get out of this shameful dynamic.
If you struggling with shame schedule a free 30 minute consult.
Wishing You The Day You Need To Have!
My name is Bryce Giron Mathern and I’m the owner of Brass Balls Tender Heart. I am a licensed therapist in the Denver/Boulder Metro area. As a result of being passionate and committed to helping my clients have amazing relationships with their partners, children and other family members is primary. Therefore I have spent a big chunk of my life learning the skills necessary to create healthy relationships. If you are struggling in a relationship I encourage you to reach out for help. My belief is that through a process of healing old wounds and learning new skills people can build relationships that are nourishing and supportive.