‘We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honour the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is what we nurture and grow; a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each 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.’
Brene Brown from her book The Gifts of Imperfection – defines love based on her research on shame.
In the quotation above the relationship between shame and love, intimacy and vulnerability is brought into sharp focus. Brene Brown defines shame as the intensely painful feeling of believing that we are unworthy of love and belonging, a fear of disconnection, that something we‘ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we have not lived up to makes us unworthy of connection. (For more about this see my article Shame: Understanding and Combating It.)
There is no true intimacy without vulnerability. If we accept this to be true, then understanding how our partner may experience feelings in a way that is different from ourselves will help us increase emotional intimacy.
How women and men experience shame is different because the expectations that our society has for each gender differs. The messages that each gender hears from parents, teachers, coaches, peers and the media throughout a lifetime influences the standard each gender holds itself and the other to.
Understanding shame leads us to examine the expectations and social standards that men and women are measured by in our culture. In a number of studies on conformity to sex role norms in the United States, and Canada some of the most important attributes of ‘being feminine’ were:
- being domestic (24% of Canadian adults think a women’s most important role is to take care of her home and cook for her family)
- caring for children (29% of Canadian adults think women should be the ones responsible to take care of the children)
- being nice
- pursuing a thin body ideal
- showing modesty by not calling attention to one’s talents or abilities
- investing in a romantic relationship
- keeping sexual intimacy contained to one committed relationship
- using resources to invest in appearance
Like me you may find these findings a little shocking and hard to believe that these ideas and stereo-types still exist. And now when we compare this list of attributes of ‘being feminine’ or expectations to how women experience shame.
Brene Brown’s research outlined in her book Daring Greatly found that women said shame is:
- Look perfect. Do perfect. Be perfect. Anything less than that is shaming.
- Being judged by other mothers.
- Being exposed – the flawed parts of yourself that you want to hide from everyone are revealed.
- No matter what I achieve or how far I’ve come, where I have come from and what I’ve survived will always keep me from feeling like I’m good enough.
- Even though everyone knows that there is no way to do it all, everyone still expects it. Shame is when you can’t pull off looking like it’s under control.
- Never enough at home. Never enough at work. Never enough in bed. Never enough with my parents. Shame is never enough.
- No seat at the cool table. The pretty girls are laughing.
That same research studies cited above about sex role norms found that the most important attributes associated with ‘being masculine’ were:
- emotional control (76% of Canadian adults believe boys are more likely to be made fun of if they cry)
- risk-taking (41% of Canadian men and 19% of women believe that being a man means taking more risks)
- self-reliance (38% of Canadian men and 21% of women believe to be a man you need to be tough)
- primacy of work (43% of Canadians think men should be responsible for earning income and providing for the family)
- disdain for homosexual or ‘feminine’ activities (89% of Canadians think boys are subject to mockery if they play with dolls, wear pink (73%) or are bad at sports (63%))
- power over women
- pursuit of status
This list is may seem just as shocking in a different way.
Brene Brown’s research found that men said shame is:
- Shame is failure. At work. On the football field. In your marriage. In bed. With money. With your children. It does not matter – shame is failure.
- Shame is being wrong. Not doing it wrong, but being wrong.
- Shame is a sense of being defective.
- Shame happens when people think you’re soft. It’s degrading and shaming to be seen as anything but tough.
- Revealing any weakness is shaming. Basically, shame is weakness.
- Showing fear is shameful. You can’t show fear. You can’t be afraid – no matter what.
- Shame is being seen as “the guy you can shove up against the lockers.”
- Our worst fear is being criticized or ridiculed – either one of these is extremely shaming.
So, shame for women seems to be more about not meeting expectations, never being enough in the realm of appearance, motherhood, balancing work, domestic and relationship activities and fitting in. For men, shame has more to do with fear of being seen as weak, fear of being a failure, fear of rejection for one’s defectiveness.
Both men and women want to avoid the painful feeling of shame. Shame can be hard to detect in men. When men feel shame they get angry and say something harsh or shut down in anger. It may be hard to recognize that they are filled with shame and mistake it as anger alone. When women feel shame they tend to feel flooded with a mixture of anger and fear and a feeling of disconnection. They may shut down too but it appears more like hurt and upset than anger.
Understanding Your Partner’s Shame
Think a situation in your life, as a child or perhaps more recently when you felt more than just guilty, embarrassed or humiliated. You felt shame. Perhaps it is a secret you have never told anyone before because you feel so ashamed of yourself.
- Could you share this story with your partner? Could you be that vulnerable and courageous?
- What concerns do you have about how your partner might react? Are you worried your partner would be judgemental or critical? Do you worry you would appear weak or defective?
- How empathetic, compassionate, accepting of you as a person and kind will your partner be?
- Re-read the quotation at the top of this article about love.
- Ask your partner to read 1,2, and 3 and then if you both think it would be safe, ask if you could exchange telling each other your shame story. Be as compassionate, kind, loving and accepting as you can to your partner when they share.