The Culture of Shame: Men, Love, and Emotional Self-Amputation

ShameThe Culture of Shame: Men, Love, and Emotional Self-Amputation

By Mark Greene

For Americans, shaming is how we make people do what we want.

We use shame as a heavy-handed short cut in our adult relationships. We use it in our political and public discourses. Whether its about the cultural, the sexual, the religious, or the social, we don’t just disagree, we shame those who don’t speak or behave in ways we approve of. We express shock, anger and outrage at their core personhood. We say, “you should be ashamed of who you are.

Shaming for Men Begins As Children
In an article for Psychology Today titled “Don’t Shame Children in Pursuit of Discipline,” Dr. Peggy Drexler has this to say about shame and children.

Often when we talk about shaming, we talk about the obvious forms: spanking or other physical punishments, public reprimand. But there are other, subtler ways that parents shame their children in the pursuit of discipline. These include making a child feel guilty, deficient, or “bad”; a source of trouble; just plain dumb… As a form of behavior modification, though, shaming — whether obvious or subtle — is ineffective and even destructive.

In 2012, 77% of men, and 65% of women, 18 to 65 years old, agreed that a child sometimes needs a “good hard spanking.”

A large percentage of parents, intentionally or unintentionally, rely on shaming as their primary parenting tool. Take for example, spanking.  Child Trends Data Bank reports that in 2012 a nationally representative survey showed 77 percent of men, and 65 percent of women 18 to 65 years old agreed that a child sometimes needs a “good hard spanking.”

I can only imagine how many of these parents were thinking primarily of boys.

Child Trends notes:

Use of corporal punishment is linked to negative outcomes for children (e.g., delinquency, antisocial behavior, psychological problems, and alcohol and drug abuse), and may be indicative of ineffective parenting. Research also finds that the number of problem behaviors observed in adolescence is related to the amount of spanking a child receives. The greater the age of the child, the stronger the relationship.

Dr. Saliha Bava, a couples and family therapist with a practice in New York City, puts it simply:
“There is no circumstance in which shaming others is a valid response. Shaming is an act of violence. Do you want to create a culture of love, compassion, caring and discovery? Or do you want to create a culture of violence?”


Having been raised in the American culture of shame, many American men do a curious thing. We seek out a romantic partner, form a relationship and then we immediately start monitoring the relationship for which parts of us do not meet with our partner’s approval.

Men and Emotional Self Amputation
Many American men do a curious thing, especially when we are young. We seek out a romantic partner, form a relationship and then immediately start tracking our partners responses to what they are learning about us.

We take even the slightest indications of confusion or uncertainty in our partner as adequate cause to suppress those parts of ourselves which might not be a good fit for them. The process around our sexual desires can be doubly challenging. Especially for those of us who have been shamed about their sexual needs or, when we were younger, shamed about the initial exploration of our bodies.

The degree to which men are ready to suppress distinctive and intimate parts of ourselves as automatically warranting disapproval is a staggering testament to the power of shame in our lives.

The degree to which men are ready to suppress the most distinctive and intimate parts of ourselves asautomatically warranting disapproval is a staggering testament to the power of shame in our lives.

The Man Box
American men face an oppressive set of sexual and cultural restrictions on how to perform masculinity. One collective set of these cultural expectations is often referred to as the Man Box. (Charlie Glickman defines the Man Box beautifully here.) The smallest social or sexual deviations from these rules can result in punitive private and public shaming, by other men, by our partners, by our families.

Our culture’s voracious appetite for condemning difference leaves men little in the way of flexibility in how they live their lives. In order to avoid behind shamed, a man who dreams of being sexually submissive may choose to never share this with his partner. Or a man who is inclined toward family life instead of professional pursuits may still go to the office every day. American men are trapped in a narrow definition of how to perform masculinity. Breaking out can be hugely challenging. This applies to even the smallest aspects of our lives.

If you doubt this, see what happens to the average American man who wears bright pink socks for a day. See how many micro aggressions and shaming moments arise. This may be the land of the free, but most of us aren’t free to even pick our own socks.


Surrendering Without a Fight
When American men are told they don’t share their emotions, it is this intense and ongoing process of self-editing that is playing out. Our partners, be they men or women, are witnessing the habitual suppression of parts of our emotional landscapes that we have deemed to be too challenging, too messy, or too non-masculine for our partners to witness. And when we do share details of those emotional landscapes, we often find our partners unable to manage the emotional challenges these revelations can create because, as a society, we have never encouraged the capacities we need to navigate and explore these landscapes with each other. It takes a partner of significant emotional capacity to manage to flood of emotions that can emerge when men or women are free to reveal their hidden emotional sides.

Herein lies the great tragedy of the culture of shame. It is an insidious mechanism for shutting down whole areas of possibility before they ever have an chance to be explored. We surrender the field without a fight.

And so, herein lies the great tragedy of the culture of shame. It is an insidious mechanism for shutting down whole areas of possibility before they ever have an chance to be explored. As men, we surrender the field without a fight. Instead of braving the unknown, and working through the miscommunication that often marks new relationships, men quickly jump to culturally acceptable scripts, in a panic to affirm that we can successfully perform masculinity in approved ways. These scripts include a range of stereotypes such as:

  • Man as provider
  • Man as decisive
  • Man as having the final word
  • Man as sexually aggressive
  • Man as emotionally stoic
  • Man as straight
  • Man as sports focused
  • and so on…

We assume that women want these aspects in men, even as women assume men aspire to perform them. Women, like men, are victims of the same sets of cultural expectations, miscommunications, fears and shame. Accordingly, the conversations about richer alternatives don’t take place. It is in this way that the culture of shame collectively enforces conformity and control over men and women.

Having been shamed, we willingly suppress whatever is within us that does not conform to prevailing cultural standards. Precisely because we have been shamed, for us, everything we are is suspect. We can only imagine someone wanting us in spite of our secret needs and aspirations, never because of them. The culture of shame suppresses our capacity to value what is good, strong and loving in our distinctness.

Accordingly, we eventually become discouraged with each narrowly defined relationship and move on to the next, in which we again self-edit. We bury the non normative parts of ourselves that are pathways to a richer more fully engaged life. It is this shame-driven cycle of self suppression, that contributes to the vast sense of disconnection and isolation so indicative of modern American life.

And when we witness someone who is breaking out of gender or sexual stereotypes, we rush to shame and punish them, because they threaten to dig up of the forbidden sides of ourselves that we have buried in a potter’s field somewhere. It is the external and internal suppression of men’s desires and aspirations that contributes to epidemic levels of male anger and reactivity, male depression, alcoholism, domestic violence, divorce and suicide.

When we dispose of the vibrant non-conforming parts of emotional selves, we are left with unfulfilling lives. We end up slogging through our days, trapped in the limiting confines of the Man Box. And no amount of religion, sex, sports, financial success, or cultural conformity will address the gap this loss creates in us. It is a gap between ourselves and the vibrant, unpredictable, celebratory life that eludes us.

AND NOW FOR THE GOOD NEWS: Can men overcome the drumbeat of shame in our daily lives? The answer is yes. And here’s how.

Dr. Saliha Bava has a simple and powerful answer for men who are dealing with the culture of shame: talk about it.

“Shame thrives on confusion and misunderstanding. When you illuminate shame by talking about it, its power diminishes. When we talk about shame, as shame, we can explore it and bring our more private aspirations forward. Once we learn to speak about those aspirations, we can become more comfortable doing so in an ongoing way.

Shame is also deeply personal. We can not know what others view as shaming unless we talk with them about it. And this includes our friends, wives, husbands, parents and children.

“When we talk openly about the culture of shame, the activity of talking shifts the culture. In the moment we speak, we change our path forward.”

When we talk openly about the culture of shame, the activity of talking shifts the culture. In the moment we speak, we change our path forward. Change our lives. We have the power to replace the culture of shame with something new that is getting created. What I choose to create is called the culture of permission. You may want to choose something different. Perhaps, for you, it is a culture of compassion. Or a culture of adventure.

As couples and families, we can create these conversational spaces in which we talk with curiosity about what shame is for us as individuals. We can create spaces for listening. Create spaces for difference.

These are meant to be ongoing conversations. That weave in and out of our daily talk. As part of this, we can help ourselves identify moments of shaming. We can learn to spot shame when it appears. Once we see shame for what it is, we can identify it throughout our lives and guard against letting it have a hold on us.”

Dr. Bava’s point is clear. If men don’t talk about the messages we give and get; if we don’t clarify our aspirations for ourselves, the culture of shame will, by default, define our lives for us.

So let’s start pushing back against the culture of shame by bringing our full emotional selves out of the shadows and into the light. Let’s make the choice to talk about what we truly want and need in our relationships, and lets start by talking with the people we love most.


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