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Shame-O-Phobia - Page 2

The Broken Mirror

A metaphor from self-psychology, the broken mirror, is particularly helpful in understanding the dynamics of male shame. This sensitivity to shame—to feeling incompetent, not valuable, unloved, unneeded, unimportant—is often governed by the psychological relationships with mirroring-self objects in our lives. It works like this: the response from others serves as a mirror, reflecting an image that governs our sense of well-being. Sensitivity to mirroring-self objects and broken mirrors isn't gender-specific, but men are more vulnerable to experiencing these mirrors as referenda on their performance and personal value. When the mirror image is negative (or is perceived as negative), the reflection can reactivate a man's narcissistic injury and deliver a blow to his feeling of competence. There's no more potent a mirror for a man than the one reflected by his intimate partner. If she (or he, in a gay relationship) is unhappy, he's failed. If she offers even a normal, nonabusive criticism, it's as if she's yelling at him: "You've failed at making me happy." And the shame-o-phobic man, vulnerable to broken mirrors and narcissistic injuries, will hear that message whether it's unintended or not.

A few years ago, I was interviewed on a radio show about the psychological concept of the broken mirror. Afterward, the (male) interviewer said to me off-air: "Damn! Now I get what happened to me yesterday! I came out of the bathroom after shaving and I'd nicked myself a little on the cheek. My girlfriend looked up at me and said ÔWhat happened to you? That's the second time you've done that this week?' And I just went off. I started yelling at her, and then I stormed off, and our plans for the day were ruined. And it was all because I had a manhood attack. I know she didn't mean anything like that, but that's what I heard. What the hell's wrong with me?"

This man experienced his girlfriend's comments as a stab at his masculinity. It was as if she'd said, "What kind of loser are you that you can't even shave properly? Any man should be able to pull that off!" To a guy whose self-esteem—particularly his masculine self-image—feels vulnerable (this includes most men), this simple interchange, silly as it sounds, can feel like as an unbearable assault. My radio interviewer, as best as I could tell, didn't suffer from a narcissistic personality disorder, nor was he particularly outside the norm. He experienced the broken mirror and reacted in ways that are typical, in one form or another, for many of us men.

Men and Therapy

The field of counseling and psychotherapy hasn't done a particularly good job of creating a user-friendly environment for male clients. The problem begins with a lack of awareness about the profound impact of shame-o-phobia and the vulnerability to broken mirrors. Furthermore, there's a mismatch between the relational style of many men and the touchy-feely atmosphere of most counseling and psychotherapy.

Think of what we typically ask a man to do in therapy settings: recognize that something is wrong with him, admit that he needs help, openly discuss and express his emotions, get vulnerable, and depend on someone else for guidance and support—all extremely challenging tasks in Guy World.

Too often therapists—both male and female—try to massage men into being more like women in the ways they express themselves and experience their emotions. So it isn't surprising that only one-third of psychotherapy clients are men. Either men have fewer psychological problems (not likely!), or else many are too turned off by the whole therapy enterprise to seek the help they need. In fact, men usually get therapy only because someone else has insisted on it. When I ask men in an initial therapy session, "What are you doing here?" the answer I hear is "My wife told me I needed to be here." Other times, it may be their boss or their grandmother or their doctor, or even a probation officer. They perceive the decision to use the therapeutic services and the process of using them to be not particularly helpful and not particularly masculine—often even downright threatening. It's our job, as counselors and therapists, to adapt our approach to these realities.

Part of what makes treating men challenging is that they generally don't signal their psychic pain as clearly and straightforwardly as women. In the postfeminist turmoil of shifting relationship dynamics, men have been struggling to find a way to relate intelligently, parent sensitively, and manage their emotional needs with more consciousness and depth. Many of us haven't figured out a way to do all these things and still really feel like men. Author William Pollack describes men's anger as their "way of weeping"—an expression of underlying pain that women would more likely display with tears or more direct expressions of sadness and loss. Men also "weep" by drinking, withdrawing, acting defensive, blaming others, getting irritable, being possessive, working excessively, becoming overly competitive, suffering somatic complaints and insomnia, and philandering.

As therapists, we have two choices: shoehorn men into a process that's traditionally been more user-friendly for females, or reshape what we do and how we present it to better reach male clients.

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