By Laurel Boyd, MA, LMFT, LPC
One common thing that emerges in counseling sessions (both for individuals and in marriage counseling) is a deep need for connection. Actually, aside from knowing Jesus, I believe the deepest need humans have is for love and connection. By this I mean an energy that is created when someone feels seen, heard, understood and valued. I think it is huge and the importance of it can’t be overstated.
But this connection doesn’t come free. We must be vulnerable and let our real self come out in the presence of someone else and it can be very uncomfortable and scary. Unfortunately, we can trick ourselves into thinking it is easier to NOT put ourselves out there to really be known because there is the chance of rejection. So we stay disconnected from others and from our spouse and keep feeling lonely and disengaged.
Why is this so hard? I think because people often have a hidden sense of unworthiness or shame—a feeling of not being “enough.” Not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough, not a good enough parent, not rich enough, not a good enough job or body, etc. The list is endless.
Most people have had the experience at some point in their life of being vulnerable and shamed for it. Very often the first time is somewhere in childhood. Young kids don’t yet know that they are supposed to act like they have it all together. Sadly, around ages 7–9 they seem to learn how much it hurts to show your real self and be shamed for that.
Here is an example. Imagine a 7-year old boy that has a sleepover with a friend for the first time. At bedtime, the boy happily states that he needs to go put his pull up on before getting in bed because he sometimes wets the bed. Depending on the friend’s age and experience it is very likely that friend could laugh and cause a lot of humiliation for the boy. You can be sure he would learn shame from that. And after several different shaming experiences, that boy will learn to hide his real self because he believes he is somehow flawed.
We get and begin to believe false messages that we are not enough so we began to hide our real self and wear more socially acceptable masks. Visit any middle school and you will see the masks are well in place on kids that just a few years earlier were their true, carefree selves.
Men and women each experience shame differently. Woman feel expected to be perfect and have it all together. Be the perfect mother, go on every field trip, have Pinterest-worthy cupcakes made for everything, be a thin, sexy wife always having self and home completely put together at all times, and have a respectable, lucrative career. And, of course, this should all be effortless. These expectations set women up for failure and shame. Who could do all that? But the unwritten expectation is there—and since you can’t be all that, then you are not enough. Shame on you!
Men are expected to be strong, and not be perceived as weak. They have a lot tied up in their identity—their job and how much they make, their sports ability, how tough they are, etc. They have been told their whole lives to “man up,” which can be translated to mean when you have emotions, push them down and hide them. Always act like you’ve got it all together and you’re fine. But men are human too. Sometimes they feel sad even to the point of tears. Shame on you!
Men and women respond to shame differently also. Often when women feel shame, they resort to criticism and nagging. They deflect the shame they are feeling from themselves and put it on someone else. When men feel shame they usually have two go-to responses—anger or shutting down.
Interestingly those are common things spouses say about each other in marriage counseling. “He has an anger problem,” wives often say. “She is constantly nagging me,” say the husbands. Throwing an anger management workbook at this problem, or learning how to not nag would do little good. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. Deeper probing is needed in a safe environment so each one can show their real self and talk about what they are feeling.
Then what is needed is empathy. When you risk letting your mask down and someone else sees the real you with your shortcomings and all, they will NOT be shocked that you are not perfect because they are also human with their own shortcomings. Being seen, heard, and understood, and then having someone else convey to you that in their humanness they have had those same emotions—of fear and humiliation and embarrassment and rejection—feels so good! It is called a connection and it’s one of your deepest needs.
If you would like to read more about this subject of shame and how it can affect us personally and our marriages, read the book which influenced this article, Daring Greatly by Brene’ Brown.
Laurel Boyd, LPC, LMFT, counsels both couples and individuals and can be reached at lboyd@FBCJ.org. Boyd is in network with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi.