I have been working on looking at how shame plays such a huge role in paralyzing men today.  Up until this point, we have been looking at how shame gradually takes hold of a man and gradually sucks the life out of him.   Shame causes us to put up such a wall of emotional protection that we stop connecting with others and lose our ability to be authentic.   Today we are going to start looking at how to overcome shame in our lives.

To look at overcoming shame, I found some results of some research done by best-selling author and research professor Brene Brown.  For long time readers you may remember me talking about Brene’s work before.  She has an excellent TED Talk that is available that I highly recommend you viewing.  Brene recently wrote a book titled, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

Brene Brown’s research has led her to make the conclusion that the cure for shame is vulnerability.  Often times, men look at vulnerability as if it is the plague.  Being vulnerable would mean we have to let down our guard and possibly let others see us for who we really are.  Men view being vulnerable as a weakness.  It is almost thought to be too feminine for a man to show vulnerability.  However, Brown’s argument is that showing vulnerability is the highest form of courage.  She says that,”to admit fear and pain, to reach out to others for help, to quiet the ‘gremlins’ that tell us to keep our mouths shut and soldier on: this is how we become engaged, make human connections, and live wholeheartedly.”

Brown also makes the case that the relationship between shame and vulnerability are especially gender dependent.  Men tend to largely see any of their weaknesses as shameful.  Since men perceive vulnerability as a weakness this presents an issue where it is especially risky for a man to express vulnerability.

Brown describes shame as “the most powerful, master emotion.  It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.  For men, it’s the fear of not being wealthy enough, tough enough, or smart enough.  Men walk this tightrope where any sign of weakness illicit shame, and so they’re afraid to make themselves vulnerable for fear of looking weak.  Women can either embrace and help men walk across the tightrope, or we can be the ones who push them off.”

Brown also has surprisingly found that men’s shame is not principally inflicted by other men.  Brown found that the women in a man’s life are much more likely to be repelled when men show their weaknesses.   Brown says that, “most women pledge allegiance to this idea that women can explore their emotions, break down, fall apart – and it’s healthy, but guys are not allowed to fall apart.”  Brown has found that men are often pressured to open up and talk about their feelings, and they are condemned for being too closed up; but if they open up and become authentic they are often times met with revulsion.

Brown’s research has found that shame is overcome by empathy.  If weakness is brought into the light and allowed to be treated with dignity, shame cannot survive.  Brown states that, “the best marriages are the ones where we can go out in the world and really put ourselves out there.  A lot of times we’ll fail, and sometimes we’ll pull it off. But good marriages are when you can go home and know that your vulnerability will be honored as courage, and that you’ll find support.”

So, why do guys struggle with being truly authentic with their wife?  Brown says, “men are smart.  They hear us asking for their vulnerability, but are also very aware that we may act scared or resentful when they show their vulnerable side.  You wouldn’t believe how often men tell me, ‘I pretend to be vulnerable, but I keep it under control,’ or ‘I give her enough to believe I’m being open because if I were totally truthful about how afraid or out of control I feel, she would judge me.’ Underneath the pretending lies hurt, disappointment, and shame.”

So, how can men learn to be more vulnerable?  Brown says that men need clear boundaries about what our values are.  From there, men should set out to be courageous and stand firmly within those values so that when things get rocky men will not get knocked down.  One thing she states really stood out as I was looking at it.  Brene Brown says, “The bottom line is that our capacity to be whole-hearted can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted.  It’s okay if you get crushed sometimes, because you’ll be growing and will be getting closer to the place where you want to be.  The outcome of a life spent performing, pleasing, and perfecting is resentment, grief, judgment, and anger.  Being vulnerable is about saying ‘I love you’ first, risking heartbreak, and being all in.”  Men need to be able to take ownership of their failures.  It is okay for men to apologize and accept responsibility for their weaknesses.

How can a wife help her husband be more vulnerable and authentic?  Men need to know that it is okay for them to make mistakes.  They need to know that they will be respected when they aren’t able to be superman.  Men are going to have issues whether it is job related, providing enough income for the bills, or just struggling with leading a family.  They need to know that it is okay for them to not have to pretend that everything is alright and they have it all under control.