Paralyzing feelings

Like many other therapists, I have concluded that fear, hurt, and shame are three feelings that can be positive, and more often negative, motivators of men’s behavior. As a facilitator who has observed these painful emotions in various men’s groups, and as a man who harbors them himself, I believe that identifying and managing these feelings is essential to mental health and a happy life.

Fear of shame

For several years, I participated in a supervision group for therapists. At one meeting, we were talking about hurt, fear, and shame. The group leader, a great man and therapist, made a couple comments which opened doors in my thinking. First, he said, “Hurt really isn’t in the same category as fear or shame. It’s painful, but not as corrosive and deadly.” I thought, “Yes, hurt hurts, but it doesn’t sear like fear or make one double over like shame. So I really don’t think it’s the Big Three, hurt, fear and shame; I agree it’s just fear and shame.” Second, he added, “Really, it’s all about fear of shame. We do not fear the particular situations in which we might feel rejected or disappointed as much as we fear being and feeling shamed—being ridiculed or humiliated and harboring the resulting sense that we’re bad and worthless. We get painful messages as boys that we’re not OK, and in adulthood, similar experiences bring up the old feeling. Shame goes deep, and it leads to depression, seclusion, and even violence when some triggers an old wound.”

I could make a list of men’s thoughts and behaviors that stem from shame and fear of shame, but I think we all know that men’s lives are riddled through with it. Men are of course the target of relentless bullying, frequent embarrassment for minor foibles, highly critical self-talk and constant reminders of their inferiority and stupidity on TV—the seediest of which are often beer commercials. Many, perhaps most, men live in a excruciating cloud of shame, and they will engage in aggressive, even violent behaviors—physically attack a man or women who’s shaming them—in order to quiet their fear and stave off further shame.

Feelings management

Like other feelings, there are several ways to manage shame. I find self-soothing to be the most effective. I say to myself, and if necessary repeat over and over again: “What I’m experiencing, though very painful, is only a feeling. I can lessen the hurt of shame. I know that I am basically a good person. I am OK. This feeling will pass. Things have a way of working out. I can think about something else. When I feel the pain of shame again, I will think about something else again. Everything will be OK.”

Watch yourself for your fear of shame, and for shame itself. It’s a killer. Don’t let it sit and eat out your inner life. Talk to someone about it—a concerned and trustworthy friend, perhaps a therapist. You do not have to be at the mercy of shame. It’s only a feeling, albeit a powerful one, and you’re large and in charge.