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"Daring Greatly" - Chapter 3 "Understanding And Combating Shame" (Second Half)

Charlottesville, Virginia

March 28, 2020

In this section of the chapter, Brown talks about the differences between men and women when it comes to experiencing shame.


Webs And Boxes - How Men And Women Experience Shame Differently

“My and daughters they’d rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off. You say you want us to be vulnerable and real, but c’mon. You can’t stand it. It makes you sick to see us like that.”

What I’ve come to believe about men and women now that I’ve studied both is that men and women are equally affected by shame. The messages and expectations that fuel shame are most definitely organized by gender, but the experience of shame is universal and deeply human.

Women And The Shame Web

When I asked women to share their definitions or experiences of shame, here’s what I heard:

1. Look perfect. Do perfect. Be perfect. Anything less than that is shaming.

2. Being judged by other mothers.

3. Being exposed—the flawed parts of yourself that you want to hide from everyone are revealed.

4. No matter what I achieve or how far I’ve come, where I come from and what I’ve survived will always keep me from feeling like I’m good enough.

5. Even though everyone knows that there’s no way to do it all, everyone still expects it. Shame is when you can’t pull off looking like it’s under control.

6. Never enough at home. Never enough at work. Never enough in bed. Never enough with my parents. Shame is never enough.

7. No seat at the cool table. The pretty girls are laughing.

The real struggle for women -- what amplifies shame regardless of the category -- is that we’re expected (and sometimes desire) to be perfect, yet we’re not allowed to look as if we’re working for it. We want it to just materialize somehow. Everything should be effortless.

What I saw was a sticky, complex spiderweb of layered, conflicting, and competing expectations that dictate exactly:

1. who we should be

2. what we should be

3. how we should be


- Be perfect, but don’t make a fuss about it and don’t take time away from anything, like your family or your partner or your work, to achieve your perfection. If you’re really good, perfection should be easy.

- Don’t upset anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings, but say what’s on your mind.

- Dial the sexuality way up (after the kids are down, the dog is walked, and the house is clean), but dial it way down at the PTO meeting. And, geez, whatever you do, don’t confuse the two -- you know how we talk about those PTO sexpots.

- Just be yourself, but not if it means being shy or unsure. There’s nothing sexier than self-confidence (especially if you’re young and smokin’ hot).

- Don’t make people feel uncomfortable, but be honest.

- Don’t get too emotional, but don’t be too detached either. Too emotional and you’re hysterical. Too detached and you’re a coldhearted bitch.

The issue of “stay small, sweet, quiet, and modest” sounds like an outdated problem, but the truth is that women still run into those demands whenever we find and use our voices.

Men and Shame

When I asked men to define shame or give me an answer, here’s what I heard:

1. Shame is failure. At work. On the football field. In your marriage. In bed. With money. With your children. It doesn’t matter—shame is failure.

2. Shame is being wrong. Not doing it wrong, but being wrong.

3. Shame is a sense of being defective.

4. Shame happens when people think you’re soft. It’s degrading and shaming to be seen as anything but tough.

5. Revealing any weakness is shaming. Basically, shame is weakness.

6. Showing fear is shameful. You can’t show fear. You can’t be afraid—no matter what.

7. Shame is being seen as “the guy you can shove up against the lockers.”

8. Our worst fear is being criticized or ridiculed -- either one of these is extremely shaming.

Basically, men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not be perceived as weak.

Whenever my graduate students were going to do interviews with men, I told them to prepare for three things: high school stories, sports metaphors, and the word pussy.

Like the demands on women to be naturally beautiful, thin, and perfect at everything, especially motherhood, the box has rules that tell men what they should and shouldn’t do, and who they’re allow

Pay No Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain

I was not prepared to hear over and over from men how the women -- the mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives -- in their lives are constantly criticizing them for not being open and vulnerable and intimate, all the while they are standing in front of that cramped wizard closet where their men are huddled inside, adjusting the curtain and making sure no one sees in and no one gets out.

Here’s the painful pattern that emerged from my research with men: We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it. In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust.

And men are very smart. They know the risks, and they see the look in our eyes when we’re thinking, C’mon! Pull it together. Man up. As Joe Reynolds, one of my mentors and the dean at our church, once told me during a conversation about men, shame, and vulnerability, “Men know what women really want. They want us to pretend to be vulnerable. We get really good at pretending.”

When I asked a man if he thought that it was his wife’s intention to hurt him or shame him, he responded, “I’m not sure. Who knows? I turned down a job that paid a lot more but required traveling three weeks out of the month. She said she was supportive, and that she and the kids would miss me too much, but now she makes little comments about money all of the time. I have no idea what to think.”

Pissed Off Or Shut Down

When it comes to men, there seem to be two primary responses: pissed off or shut down.

Men, when they develop shame awareness, learn to respond to shame with awareness, self-compassion, and empathy. But without that awareness, when men feel that rush of inadequacy and smallness, they normally respond with anger and/or by completely turning off.

“In that single moment (when a coach yelled at him), I became very clear about how the world works and what it means to be a man: “I am not allowed to be afraid.

“I am not allowed to show fear. “I am not allowed to be vulnerable. “Shame is being afraid, showing fear, or being vulnerable.”

Shame resilience—the four elements we discussed in the Chapter 2 —is about finding a middle path, an option that allows us to stay engaged and to find the emotional courage we need to respond in a way that aligns with our values.

I’m Only As Hard On Others As I Am On Myself

Women can be very hard on other women. We are hard on others because we’re hard on ourselves. That’s exactly how judgment works. Finding someone to put down, judge, or criticize becomes a way to get out of the web or call attention away from our box. If you’re doing worse than I am at something, I think, my chances of surviving are better.

We’re so desperate to get out and stay out of shame that we’re constantly serving up the people around us as more deserving prey.

What’s ironic (or perhaps natural) is that research tells us that we judge people in areas where we’re vulnerable to shame, especially picking folks who are doing worse than we’re doing. If I feel good about my parenting, I have no interest in judging other people’s choices. If I feel good about my body, I don’t go around making fun of other people’s weight or appearance. We’re hard on each other because we’re using each other as a launching pad out of our own perceived shaming deficiency. It’s hurtful and ineffective, and if you look at the mean-girl culture in middle schools and high schools, it’s also contagious. We’ve handed this counterfeit survival mechanism down to our children.

Empathy requires some vulnerability, and we risk getting back a “mind your own damn business” look, but it’s worth it. It doesn’t just loosen up the web for her. It loosens it up for us the next time it’s our child and our Cheerios—and you can bet it will be.

If we’re willing to dare greatly and risk vulnerability with each other, worthiness has the power to set us free.

Men, Women, Sex

From the time boys are eight to ten years old, they learn that initiating sex is their responsibility and that sexual rejection soon becomes the hallmark of masculine shame.

“I guess the secret is that sex is terrifying for most men. That’s why you see everything from porn to the violent, desperate attempts to exercise power and control. Rejection is deeply painful.”

Cultivating intimacy -- physical or emotional -- is almost impossible when our shame triggers meet head-on and create the perfect shame storm. Sometimes these shame storms are directly about sex and intimacy, but often there are outlying gremlins wreaking havoc in our relationships. Common issues include body image, aging, appearance, money, parenting, motherhood, exhaustion, resentment, and fear. When I asked men, women, and couples how they practiced Wholeheartedness around these very sensitive and personal issues, one answer came up again and again: honest, loving conversations that require major vulnerability. We have to be able to talk about how we feel, what we need and desire, and we have to be able to listen with an open heart and an open mind. There is no intimacy without vulnerability. Yet another powerful example of vulnerability as courage.

The Words We Can Never Take Back

When I talk to couples, I can see how shame creates one of the dynamics most lethal to a relationship. Women, who feel shame when they don’t feel heard or validated, often resort to pushing and provoking with criticism (“Why don’t you ever do enough?” or “You never get it right”). Men, in turn, who feel shame when they feel criticized for being inadequate, either shut down (leading women to poke and provoke more) or come back with anger.

Keys to solid relationships are vulnerability, love, humor, respect, shame-free fighting, and blame-free living. We don’t teach these relationship skills.

We can all agree that feeling shame is an incredibly painful experience. What we often don’t realize is that perpetrating shame is equally as painful, and no one does that with the precision of a partner or a parent. These are the people who know us the best and who bear witness to our vulnerabilities and fears. Thankfully, we can apologize for shaming someone we love, but the truth is that those shaming comments leave marks.

Shaming someone we love around vulnerability is the most serious of all security breaches. Even if we apologize, we’ve done serious damage because we’ve demonstrated our willingness to use sacred information as a weapon.

We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them—we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare.

I heard the idea of self-love as a prerequisite to loving others, and I hated it. Sometimes it’s so much easier to love my family than it is to love myself. It’s so much easier to accept their quirks and eccentricities than it is to practice self-love around what I see as my deep flaws. But in practicing self-love over the past couple of years, I can say that it has immeasurably deepened my relationships with the people I love. It’s given me the courage to show up and be vulnerable in new ways, and that’s what love is all about.

Becoming Real

When looking at the attributes our culture associates with masculinity in the US, researchers identified the following: winning, emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, playboy, self-reliance, primacy of work, power over women, disdain for homosexuality, and pursuit of status.

Shame is universal, but the messages and expectations that drive shame are organized by gender.

These feminine and masculine norms are the foundation of shame triggers, and here’s why: If women want to play by the rules, they need to be sweet, thin, and pretty, stay quiet, be perfect moms and wives, and not own their power. One move outside of these expectations and BAM! The shame web closes in.

Men, on the other hand, need to stop feeling, start earning, put everyone in their place, and climb their way to the top or die trying. Push open the lid of your box to grab a breath of air, or slide that curtain back a bit to see what’s going on, and BAM! Shame cuts you down to size.

The man in shame says, “I’m not supposed to get emotional when I have to lay off these people.” The man practicing shame resilience responds, “I’m not buying into this message. I’ve worked with these guys for five years. I know their families. I’m allowed to care about them.”

Shame whispers in the ear of the woman who’s out of town on business, “You’re not a good mother because you’re going to miss your son’s class play.” She replies, “I hear you, but I’m not playing that tape today. My mothering is way bigger than one class performance. You can leave now.”

Remembering that shame is the fear of disconnection -- the fear that we’re unlovable and don’t belong -- makes it easy to see why so many people in midlife overfocus on their children’s lives, work sixty hours a week, or turn to affairs, addiction, and disengagement. We start to unravel. The expectations and messages that fuel shame keep us from fully realizing who we are as people.

If we’re going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light. To push aside those lists of what we’re supposed to be is brave. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.” “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.” “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

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