When meeting a new male client in my office, I often feel that I’m working hard to pull off layers of preconceived notions about how this therapy thing is supposed to go. I’m wondering if he feels compelled to give me an explanation for why he isn’t (fill in the blank) enough and hence is seeking therapy. Shame is so obviously making its little sneaky self known. I am keenly aware because – I’ve been there, done that!
Shame says that I am not sufficient in some way, not deserving, or not good enough. It’s a way of feeling like I need to do or be something other to get the acceptance that I’m looking for. I consider shame the opposite of worthiness; it is a human experience that none of us can avoid.
The problem is that men are not always perceived as wholly human. Men are typically recognized as first male, followed by an assessment of how well they conform to masculine norms and standards. After this original assessment, some folks may see beyond the masculine persona to the person with uniqueness of thought and emotion. In a therapy room, their uniqueness is all I’m interested in. I’m not here to judge, I’m here to assist in the healing that the judging has necessitated.
I know because I did it to myself. I remember latching onto one of my mentor’s sayings that “the harder I am on myself, the easier my life is… and vice versa.” Whenever there was a shortcoming in my ability to measure up to my idealized expectation for myself, my self-talk would sound harsh and tough. I was being a meaner, tougher, and harsher parent to myself than my parents ever were! I was trying to shame myself into productivity. Far from motivating, it was depressing.
When I allow shame to take the lead in my life, I know I can climb back out better, faster, stronger with the empathy and support of humans in my circles. However, when I am not aware of my conformity to masculine norms, I tend to over rely on the positive value of self-reliance. Self-reliance has its place in the world, however when it comes to the shame valley of the lives of men, we need each other to hoist one another out. Yes, I have been the person to decline many opportunities to ask for directions and have even been known to be challenged to engage in therapy. I am a work in progress, even when it comes to the things I preach most.
It can be difficult to get to the root of what often discreetly presents in men as struggling to communicate, marital or relationship conflict, career dissatisfaction, anger, and self-medication with drugs and alcohol. Shame is often at the root when coming up short of some idealized masculine norm. When men are told they’re not strong, competent, or “manly” enough, simply acknowledging the reason for therapy can feel emasculating. Men internalize the idea that they are not good enough if they don’t live up to others’ expectations of them. This very internalization process is the foundation on which shame grows. Shame grows in silence and isolation, and the more a man identifies with traditional masculine norms, the less likely he is to reach out for support.
I realize that defining the catch 22 of “the problem” doesn’t always lead to a clear answer, which is why I do not use a problem-focused approach in my therapy room. I’m attracted to using a strength-based and solution-focused approach. It’s a strength when a man can become aware of his conformity to gender stereotypes and choose when they serve him and choose something else when they don’t. If a guy is in my office, then we can celebrate his ability to do this and strengthen it if needed.
I realized that the most inspiring wrestling coach that I ever had was the one that was most encouraging. He knew that I was already overdeveloped in my ability to self-critique and underdeveloped in my ability to encourage myself. He knew that he couldn’t do it for me. Instead, he supported me in encouraging myself as I faced my own challenges. His support helped me develop greater personal strength. Providing culturally competent psychotherapy for men means honoring the positive value of self-reliance while using emphatic support to develop greater shame resilience.
We often think of therapy when we feel like WE aren’t enough in some way. Through support, we find that shame is a messenger telling us what we need. I am so interested in the message shame is bringing, but not at all interested in ignoring its existence, or even living in that painful place for a minute longer than I must! Shame illuminated for me that I needed encouragement in my life, for others it may be acceptance, connection, confidence, etc. We are all imperfect at meeting our own needs. Through support, we strengthen our ability to do this.
I believe men have a responsibility to help change the landscape and shake up the status quo. More than just asking for directions, I’m doing my part by showing up as my best empathic self when another man shares his vulnerabilities. I can show my supports that I value them greatly when they do the same for me. We can support each other by changing the way we talk to one another. We can change and reclaim the meaning of “manning up” from a message of “don’t feel or acknowledge what is alive in you” to something more supportive and empowering such as “have the courage to speak your truth.” We can feel uncomfortable with men expressing feelings, crying, or emoting in imperfect ways that do not conform to the stereotype, but we still can leave all the space for it. This is how we start to make change.