What is Toxic Shame?As the revelations about male sexual harassment and assault continue, many men are surprised at its pervasiveness, but women are not. Even if never overtly harassed or assaulted, they’ve experienced the destructive effects of sexual objectification, including abuse and violence, eating disorders, body shame, depression, risky sexual behavior, and sexual dysfunction. However, both men and women are largely unaware of the damaging impact on men that a culture of male dominance can cause. It causes shame to both men and women.

Sexuality brings abundant opportunities to exaggerate both our vulnerability and shame, to feel pleasure and close, but also to feel unworthy, unacceptable, and unlovable.

Shame and Manhood

Boys must separate from their mothers to establish their masculinity. To accomplish this task, they look to their father, peers, and cultural standards and role models to define what it is to be a man.

Hypermasculinity

Hypermasculinity exaggerates stereotypical male behavior, such as an emphasis on physical strength, aggression, and sexuality. Masculine ideals of toughness, success, and anti-femininity are promoted. It rejects all feminine traits such as tenderness, compassion, and empathy. Being socialized this way, many boys and men have had their emotions shamed in order to conform to the masculine ideal of toughness, creating homophobia around tender feelings. It puts pressure on men to measure up to these norms and simultaneously shames other parts of them. In a culture that encourages hypermasculinity, some fathers humiliate their sons by calling them “sissy,” or “Mama’s boy.”

I was invited as a therapist to attend a ropes course that challenged young teens at risk. The challenges were designed to be frightening — even to adults. Over my objections, one of the male leaders brutally shamed any boy who showed fear, and worse, tears. He traumatized the boy, while re-enacting abuse he’d likely received growing up. This is how shame gets passed down.

Gay Men

In adolescence, teens strive to be accepted as equals among their peers at a time when they’re also establishing their ability to be sexually intimate. It’s a difficult period for all youth, but especially for those in the LBGT community. For a gay boy, it’s shattering to discover that he’s different. He may struggle in isolation. I’ve treated patients who suffered silently for decades and listened to sermons condemning them to hell. Gay teenagers wonder, “Can I become a man and sexually prefer men?” They’re confused, afraid, and ashamed. Because signs of femininity are despised by heterosexual boys trying to establish their own identity, gay teens experience bullying and shaming at school, which may account for a higher rate of adolescent suicides among LGBT youth and substance abuse than heterosexuals..

Objectification of Women

Countless men are socialized by their fathers, brothers, and male peers to objectify, dominate, and degrade women. Objectification of women strengthens these values and strains male relationships with women. It’s reinforced through “girl watching,” promiscuity or competition among men to “score,” having a beautiful woman as a trophy, and addiction to pornography, especially if it involves male power over for females (Elder, 2010).

The popularity of violent porn is growing, and studies show that it contributes to pedophilia, misogyny, and violence against women. Hard porn is often the basis for male sex education. It normalizes male conquest, control, and dominance and promotes the fantasy that all women enjoy what men demand, including aggression, or that they can be easily coerced to (Jensen, 2007). Teenage boys then believe that they can and should behave this way, but are disillusioned and disempowered when they discover reality differs. Power over the opposite gender is used to bolster male low self-esteem and deeply denied shame. (This includes shame for any reason, not just sexual shame.) But it comes at a price.

Impact on Boys and Men

Shaming of emotions, the body, or normal needs and wants that is chronic or severe is deeply wounding and can result in trauma, addiction, aggression, and codependency (Lancer, 2014). Usually, this occurs in an environment of dysfunctional parenting, where shame, and often abuse, has already undermined boys’ developing sense of identity. Teaching boys to be hypermasculine and to disrespect women as equals encourages domination, emotional abuse, and violence. The emotional toll on men is never discussed, because it’s considered “weak” and shrouded in shame.

When shamed, children internalize parental messages as toxic shame and conclude that they’re unlovable. Without treatment, it can last a lifetime, negatively affecting a boy’s self-esteem, sexual identity, and relationships with women. Some suffer silently, not knowing how to meet their parents’ expectations; others try harder to conform to masculine ideals. Many boys must play act to be someone they’re not.

Passage into manhood often exposes them to humiliation during a period when openness and honesty aren’t allowed. They have to hide their feelings and natural instincts. They feel alienated from other boys and from their real self. They may reject the tough, abusive role model their father represents. Some teens withdraw and have difficulty establishing their masculine identity. When boys and men have to defend their toughness and image, it further heightens their vulnerability to shame as well as their defensiveness. Some boys and men become bullies to compensate for insecurity. Like the counselor at the ropes course, they shame others or their own children the way they were shamed at home.

Depersonalizing sex and objectifying women both absolves men of responsibility for their actions and protects them from the shame of rejection (Carnes, 1992). Yet, half of men feel shame about their behavior toward women, leading them to question their worth and lovability as human beings (Elder, 2010).

Shame and Intimacy

Men want connection as much as women. But all of these expectations on them generate insecurity and vulnerability to shame that make connection and authenticity difficult. Real intimacy can be too frightening and carries shame-anxiety. Instead of receiving nurturing and closeness, many men separate love and sex — and substitute sex for love to avoid the anxiety of intimacy. Sex is also used to allay anxiety, fill emptiness, lift depressed feelings, and build identity and self-worth. But loveless sex sets the stage for impotence and depression later (May, 2011).

Although both partners may be gratified sexually, they’re often not fulfilled, nor does their self-esteem benefit. It can potentially leave them with guilt, shame, low self-esteem, and feeling even emptier than before. Sex can become addictive, since there is short term pleasure, but the emptiness is never filled. New partners must be found to ensure excitement and avoid intimacy. Affairs and sexual flirtation with someone outside of a committed relationship are often initiated to boost self-esteem but risk damaging the partner and the relationship, creating more shame.

Over time in long relationships, sex may be divorced from all feeling and become machinelike, especially when any emotional connection has waned. It’s dehumanizing to both partners and their needs for real connection are never met. But emptiness is neither fillable from sex, nor from exerting power over others, and the gap between men’s real self and the persona they believe they must project gets ever wider.

However, shame and psychological emptiness can heal with psychotherapy and self-love and compassion. (See Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You).

 

References:

Brooks, G.R. (1995), The Centerfold Syndrome: How Men Can Overcome Objectification and Achieve Intimacy with Women, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Carnes, P. (1992). Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction. Minneapolis, Minn: CompCare Publishers.

Elder, W. B. (2010). The Centerfold Syndrome: Exploring the Constructs of Heterosexual Male Sexual self-Schemas,” . University of Utah .

Jensen, R. (2007). Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity . Brooklyn, NY : South End Press.

Lancer, D. (2014). Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. Hazelden Foundation.

May, R. (2011). Love and Will. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

©Darlene Lancer 2017