As research for my upcoming book The Fear Cure, I’m rereading Brené Brown’s ground-breaking book Daring Greatly. In it, she discusses the difference between how men and women experience shame. There’s a lot of talk in our culture about how women have been oppressed by the patriarchy - and I’m not dismissing the validity of this conversation. But we spend less time talking about how women help perpetuate the shadow side of the patriarchy. The section in Brené’s book about how women experience shame left me nodding my head. “Yup. Felt that. Done that. Seen that.” But the section about how women shame men left me gutted and feeling at risk of what Brené calls a “shame spiral.” As in, “Oh shit. I’ve left men feeling that way.” It inspired me to share what I read with you, in case you too are guilty of triggering shame in the men you love.
Apparently, according to the research, men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not, under any circumstances, be perceived as weak.
When Brené interviewed men of all ages about what shame messages they experience, one answer prevailed. “Don’t be a pussy.” She talks about how men are raised to hide behind a curtain of strength, like the great and powerful Wizard of Oz who turned out to be nothing more than a blustery old man. As women, we tend to keep them behind the curtain because we don’t want to witness their weaknesses.
Over and over in her interviews, Brené heard men talking about how women were constantly criticizing them about not being open, vulnerable, and intimate, how women were begging to be let in, to have men expose their fears. But when men got brave enough to do this, the message they received from the women in their lives was “I can’t stomach your weakness.” When men dare to be vulnerable, women often recoil with fear, disappointment, and disgust, sending men the clear message that they better “Man up.” One of Brené’s mentors said, “Men know what women really want. They want us to pretend to be vulnerable. We get really good at pretending.”
But pretending doesn’t work. Men are human, so they’re not always pillars of strength. They get frightened. They feel vulnerable. They make mistakes. They sometimes feel small and weak, like scared little boys. Yet they don’t feel like they can let themselves be seen in these states of weakness, so they armor up. Unless men develop what Brené calls “shame resilience,” when men feel that rush of inadequacy and smallness, they wind up either getting pissed off or shutting down emotionally.
As women, we can help. We need to let the men in our lives, especially our sons, know that it’s okay to let us know when they feel weak and ineffective. Our sons need to know it’s okay to cry when they’ve been bullied, that fighting back is what weak men do, not what strong men do. Our sons need to know we don’t expect them to “man up” at ten years old, and they need to have healthy masculinity modeled for them, which includes showing their soft underbellies. They need permission to explore their creativity without being judged as “soft” and they need to learn how to open their hearts and keep them open, even when our culture threatens the tenderness of that open heart.
The adult men in our lives need to know that it’s okay to get fired or make a bad investment or be unable to pay the mortgage. They need reassurance that we still love them when they’re collecting unemployment or when they can’t get the mayonnaise lid off the jar. They need to know we’ll love them even if they get sick. And they need to know that we don’t need them to pretend to keep it all together when they feel like falling apart. They need to be able to tell us that it hurts if we reject them sexually and that sometimes they look at porn not because we aren’t pretty enough, but because there’s no risk of rejection at a strip bar or on the internet.
If we want men to feel close to us - and to be good partners when they grow up - they need to feel safe to unravel. They need to know we can take turns being the pillars of strength for each other. Yes, as women, we desire men who we can lean on when we feel weak or fuzzy or ungrounded. But we can’t expect men to play that role all the time. It’s just not fair - and it’s not serving any of us. Instead, we need to be able to be vulnerable with each other. As women, we need to be able to say, “Today, I need you to be my redwood,” but we need to let men know they can ask the same of us. Sometimes, it’s our job to be the pillar our men can lean into when they’re feeling wobbly.
Men need permission to stop faking it when they feel vulnerable, which means we need to demonstrate that we can sit in the puddle of their imperfections with them, without shaming them or making them question whether our love might be withdrawn.
Yes, men need to learn how to embrace the Divine Masculine qualities that allow them to feel strong and, at the same time, vulnerable, just as women need to learn how to embrace the Divine Feminine. But masculinity can be a cage our culture imprisons men in. Then we shame them for being armored up in the prisons we helped them make.
Instead of badgering men for being shut down and unemotional, let’s have conversations with the boys and men in our lives to let them know our love and acceptance is not conditional upon their strength.
Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, and the host of the hit National Public Television special Heal Yourself: Mind Over Medicine (link). Lissa blogs at LissaRankin.com, teaches teleclasses (link) with luminaries like Martha Beck, Rachel Naomi Remen, Amy Ahlers, and Tosha Silver, and has sparked a movement to revolutionize health care at HealHealthCareNow.com. She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, a lover of dancing, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
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