This is part 2 of a 3 part series on Men And Shame
Shame is one of the major impediments to men having healthy relationships. How do we stop this cycle of pain? In this article we look at the power of mindful awareness and nervous system regulation as a way to shift out of the behaviors that hurt the people we love.
How the struggle shows up.
For Jeb and Marina there didn’t seem to be any peace in their lives. Jeb, at this point in his marriage, seemed to be completely shutdown. Marina didn’t know what to do. Whenever she asked Jeb about anything he would get upset, often yelling at her about how unloved he felt.
“I just ask if he was able to get something at the store, just so I know, and he gets angry with me. I’m at my wits end. ” Marina said. Jeb was not able to manage how he felt when he talked with Marina. He continually saw her as putting him down and he responded with anger and then emotionally shutting down.
“She is constantly on my case. I feel like nothing I do is good enough,” he said.
Marina and Jeb are caught in the shame cycle. In this case Jeb is struggling to feel safe and secure in the relationship. Marina is becoming more and more shutdown because she is constantly being berated for asking Jeb for anything. This couple is in serious danger of ending their marriage.
The shame cycle.
This cycle shows up for many men when they are looking to get the kind of emotional validation they desperately want from their partners and children. When men look into the eyes of the people they love the most and see disappointment or disapproval men become filled with shame.
Men who grew up in family systems that didn’t provide the loving nourishment that would allow them to build a healthy sense of self are likely to feel this way.
How do we end the cycle?
The best way to end the cycle is to start by realizing what is happening. For many men they tend to blame their partners for how they feel. This is misguided and men must begin by taking full responsibility for their reactivity. This means starting to change the narrative men have about their partners and themselves.
This is a difficult because for many men it is easy to hide behind their blaming self-righteousness rather than look at their own angry, reactive behaviors. If a man is willing do the work he can start to move towards a greater level of awareness. Once this is done the work can really begin.
Self-awareness comes through paying attention to our present moment experience over and over again. For many men this is difficult because we have been enculturated to not have this awareness.
Mindfulness can help retrain men to be more present with their internal process. This is the area of feelings and sensations. For most men there is a lot of awareness about cognitive processes (thoughts, images, memories). What many men are cut off from is their ability to notice nervous system responses that show up in the form of a tight chest, constricted throat or a queasy belly.
Mindfulness in action is closing one’s eyes, and bringing attention inward. This helps these sensations to emerge more easily. For many men there is no lack of sensation, there is a lack of awareness. This means that their body is attempting to talk with them but they are not getting the information. As a man becomes more mindful they start to feel more and more of the sensations they have been cut off from much of their lives.
Nervous system regulation.
The wonderful thing about our nervous system is that it is oriented towards a regulated state. However, when there is a perceived threat in the environment the nervous system works really hard to notify us about the threat. This comes in the form of sensations. We label these sensations with words like, anxiety, fear, anger and frustration. The main goal of our nervous system is the survival of the organism. These sensations are the way our nervous system talks with us.
Once we start to feel these sensations in our body through mindful awareness our nervous system begins to regulate much better. Our bodies want us to pay attention to something in the environment. Once we get the message it starts to settle down.
When a man goes into the shame cycle he becomes dysregulated and cannot make sense of what is happening. This is due to the way in which our nervous systems respond to threats in the environment. The body moves resources from our pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of our brain, to the more primitive parts of our brain. This makes it really difficult to make sense of what is happening.
By paying attention to the sensations in their bodies men can take time to come back into a more regulated place. This allows them to respond to what is happening in a healthier way.
Bringing it all together.
In my work with men I find that I am able to help them start to integrate the awareness of their bodily sensations to a more regulated nervous system. What comes out of this is a much more enjoyable relationship they have with themselves. When they are able to relate better with themselves they find it easier to relate to the people in their life.
For many men, the need to defend themselves and wall off from their shame causes them to emotionally shut down. This may stop more shame from coming in, but it is devastating to their partner and the future of their relationship. Once they are able to regulate themselves better they notice how they shutdown, get anxious or move to rage filled outbursts.
In noticing these nervous system responses, they can observe them and realize that they are just responding to the shame and not what their partner is doing. This allows them to begin taking responsibility for the shame cycle and letting it move through them without having to behave in ways that hurt the people they love.
You can get better.
Jeb came to my office feeling hopeless. As we worked on him becoming more aware of his emotions he started to see a slow change in how he was able to manage his reactivity. It was small things at first and then eventually he started to really show up differently.
After 3 months of hard work Jeb came into my office with a smile. “When Marina tells me I’ve done something wrong I don’t get as upset about it. I realize that this is just my shame and not really about her. I’m also sensing how it feels in my body which helps me slow down. The best part is that she is noticing it and we both feel more connected to each other.”
Like many of my clients there is a way out of this shame cycle. It takes the hard work of seeing the painful parts that we have been defended agains our whole lives. The hard work leads to healthier relationships and deeper satisfaction with being a man.
How This Shows Up In My Life.
In writing about shame I am struck by how prevalent it is in my own life. Much of my personal work is about coming to a place in my relationships where I am not lashing out when I feel triggered. I am doing a better job, although my wife would say I have a ways to go. I don’t know if I will ever do it perfectly but I have developed the mindful regulation skills to work with my own internal experience rather than putting that on my wife or my children.
It is not easy to do. That quick fix of self-righteousness is constantly there encouraging me to get on board and blame everyone else for my discomfort. The key for my growth has been continuing to increase the level of awareness I have of my emotional life.
If you want to get out of the shame cycle 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.