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Shame-O-Phobia

Why men fear therapy

by David Wexler

Several years ago, I was on a family trip, sitting on a bench with my wife in a plaza in Paris. Loaded down with shopping bags, she asked me to grab her purse and carry it over to a new spot across the plaza. That's all. Yet even though I knew I was being stupid, I couldn't do it. The 15 seconds being seen carrying a purse were beyond my capacities as a card-carrying male. My wife looked at me like I was nuts and shook her head in disgust.

So what was my problem? All I could envision were people smirking as they saw me publicly toting that damn purse, all of my hard-earned Guy Points accumulated from my half-century of being male suddenly vanishing without a trace.

Shame may be the least understood dimension of men's inner experience—by both men themselves and the people who live with them. In Affliction, Russell Banks's classic novel about the tragedy of masculinity, a ne'er-do-well named Wade Whitehouse plans a special Halloween weekend with his 11-year-old daughter, Jill, who lives with her divorced mother, Lillian. Wade's clumsy efforts to make sure Jill has a good time succeed only in making her feel anxious and out of place, and she winds up pleading with him to take her home. But instead of her distress, what stands out for him is his sense of failure: he's shamed by the fact that she's unhappy.

Eventually, still searching for a way out of the pain, Wade gets into an ugly brawl with his ex-wife and her new husband, after Jill secretly calls them to pick her up. As irrationality, belligerence, and self-destructiveness take over, Wade becomes a good man behaving badly, blinded by the specter of his own shameful failure.

Men who've experienced toxic doses of shame early in life will do anything to avoid reexperiencing it as they grow older. It can originate from family experiences, from peer experiences, or just from the culture at large. A shamed boy becomes a hypersensitive man, his radar always finely tuned to the possibility of humiliation. His reaction to slights—perceived or real—and his ever-vigilant attempts to ward them off can become a kind of phobia. Tragically, the very men who are most desperate for affection and approval are the ones who usually can't ask for it: instead, they project blame and rejection and perceive the worst in others. Sometimes the smallest signs of withdrawal of affection will trigger old wounds, and they'll suddenly lash out at those they see as slighting them, even as they're unaware of the dark feelings stirring inside them. This is a state of mind that many of us in the field call shame-o-phobia, an endemic condition throughout Guy World.

With their profound fear of appearing weak or—god forbid!—feminine, most men will do whatever it takes to prove their manhood. In one recent study, men were assigned to three different groups and given the task of keeping their hand in painfully icy water for as long as they could. Those who were told that the ability to withstand the discomfort was a measure of male sex hormones and an index of physical fitness showed greater cardiovascular reactivity, reported feeling more performance expectations, and kept their hand in the water the longest. This was in contrast to the group who were told the test was a measure of high levels of female sex hormones and the ability to bond with children, and with the third group, who received no explanation at all.

What does this tell us? The length of time a guy will tough it out with his hand submerged in freezing water depends on whether he thinks his masculinity is in question. For some men, their hand could fall off before they'd risk the shame of not seeming "man enough" to take it.

Women feel shame, too, of course, and much of the emotional experiences for men and women are more similar than not. But there are still some fundamental differences in how men are both hardwired and acculturated that can't be ignored in the therapist's office. Even as infants, boys are more overstimulated by direct eye contact and show less ability to regulate arousal through intimate connection. These infant boys then grow up in a Guy World culture that emphasizes successful performance and deemphasizes reliance on others as a way to self-realize. Furthermore, evolutionary psychology teaches us that men are wired for procuring and performing (while females are wired for tending and befriending)—a trait that may provide a biological backdrop to the modern male focus on success. Without that, he ain't much—or so he feels.

To ignore the powerful effect of shame-o-phobia is to risk not really "getting" men, even if you happen to be a man yourself. An otherwise benign or mildly embarrassing event—like carrying the purse across the plaza, or a daughter who isn't having a good time at a Halloween party—can overactivate a man's fear that he's failing at some central task of being a real man.

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