The increasing problem of male suicide has been in the news a lot in recent weeks. Across all the articles that have been written on the subject, one word keeps re-appearing: “shame”.
For example, we hear that men feel ashamed of expressing their emotions and we are reassured that there should be no shame in experiencing depression. Shame is mentioned often but rarely is it properly examined. Shame, by its very nature, is something that we do not want to discuss. As a man who is recovering from mental health problems and who has struggled with suicidal thoughts in the past, I have had to face up to shame and discuss it in detail. It has been a painful and at time’s frightening process but one that has been key to my recovery.
I think that we, as a society, need to start having a discussion about shame and the dark places that it can lead to when people’s feelings of shame get out of control. When we look at the problem of male suicide and men’s mental health in general, we need to look at how our society sets up young men to experience potentially unmanageable levels of shame and we need to work together to build a society where this is no longer the case.
Shame is an incredibly complicated emotion and I’m not a psychologist so my input here will be very limited. My aim is only to share my own experience of shame, my reflections on it and how I am reducing its negative influence on my life in the hope that my story will help others and will do something to bring the problem of male shame to the forefront of the discussion.
When shame really takes hold of you it’s a profoundly frightening and painful experience. It’s the sense that you are deeply flawed. It’s a nagging voice that tells you that you are not clever enough, not strong enough, not attractive enough, not charismatic enough, not capable enough. It’s the feeling that makes you sink into despair or lash out when something reminds you of how flawed you feel. It’s the sense that you are bad, worthless and unlovable and there’s nothing that you can do about it. Your basic human need to be loved and accepted feels like a sick joke.
You don’t talk about how you are feeling not because you find it embarrassing or uncomfortable or don’t want to make a fuss, but because you feel that your entire sense of self will disintegrate if you fully acknowledge how you feel about yourself. You can’t grow or develop yourself because it’s too painful to acknowledge even your slightest imperfection. To fail at something is so painful that you can’t learn from your mistakes.
You certainly can’t ask for help. If anyone notices you are struggling and offers help then they have effectively pointed out your imperfections and so you will push them away. You spend long, exhausting hours chasing your thoughts in circles trying to build some sense of self-worth. If you made a mistake you can’t let it go so you try to convince yourself that it was because you were distracted or weren’t really interested in what you were doing anyway since you had more important things to do. If someone didn’t like you then you try to convince yourself that they’re an [insert expletive here] anyway.
'Society sets boys and men up to feel shame in a particularly destructive way'
You might look for shortcuts to achieve something that would prove to yourself that you are wonderful really but each shortcut leads nowhere – it’s another failure that fuels that nagging voice telling you that you really are hopelessly flawed after all. A life lived like that is incredibly painful so you start to look for escape. Escape can take the form of fantasy, perhaps of being the unflawed person that you think you must be or the fantasy of being loved in a way that would make the pain of being you go away. Escape can take the form of zoning out in front of the TV, drinking until you aren’t aware of your feelings anymore or any number of ultimately unhealthy activities. In extreme cases, escape can take the form of suicide.
Of course, women as well as men can feel like that so why do I say that shame is a particularly important topic when we’re look at men’s mental health? It’s because society sets boys and men up to feel shame in a particularly destructive way. Our society has, quite rightly, spent much time and effort sending girls and women the message that they can be strong, capable and successful. We have, however missed the fact that we have kept on sending boys and men the messages that they must always be strong, capable and successful.
The first of these messages is helpful and empowering, the second is potentially disastrous since it sets boys up from a very young age to have unrealistic expectations of themselves which can lead them to feel unhealthy levels of shame when they are unable to live up to those expectations. And this shame will be reinforced by those around them. Boys will be bullied if they are not always strong, men will be dismissed as “losers” if they are not always capable and successful.
'We need to foster empathy for men'
Even in the way that society seems to value boys, it doesn’t get it right. Boys are too often seen as little potential doctors, lawyers, businessmen or sports stars to be. This may look like encouragement and support but when it gets in the way of seeing boys as children, it can become positively harmful and stops them from growing and learning. A father’s shame of failing to live up to the unrealistic expectations placed on him can be passed on in the form of unrealistic hopes and dreams for his son – shame masquerading as nurturing.
We miss all of this because we have assumed that because the messages that girls received from society for so many generations were disempowering, then all of the messages that boys received from society must have been empowering. It is because people cannot see past this assumption that they react with confusion, silence or mockery when boys start to fail at school and men’s mental health suffers.
When people talk about the “fragile male ego” they usually don’t realise that they are actually talking about the consequences that men suffer from having grown up in a world that feels almost designed to induce shame in them.
Psychologists will tell you that a key tool in combatting unhealthy shame is empathy. Empathy is when people understand your pain, accept you as you are and help to create an environment in which you can learn to accept yourself and realise that you are ok despite your imperfections.
Phrases like “fragile male ego” and comments like “we don’t need an international men’s day because every day seems like one” are unhelpful precisely because they contribute to a culture where there is little empathy for men. It’s my hope that we can use International Men’s Day 2015 as an opportunity to rebuild some of that empathy for men and start to heal the epidemic of male shame.
Dealing with my unhealthy levels of shame has changed my life. Not all of my problems have gone away but without the influence of shame, I can now identify those problems and work on them, try things and fail, learn from my mistakes and grow, relax and enjoy life and connect with others in a way that I was never able to before.
The author is an aspiring blogger with a particular interest in mental health, culture and how the two interact. He was inspired to take the leap and start putting his thoughts out there by the recent discussions about International Men's Day. As a man who is recovering from mental health issues himself, he is especially interested in how culture interacts with mental health for men in modern day western society. He hopes that by sharing his personal experience and reflections he will be able to contribute to the discussion and encourage others in their journey towards recovery. He also enjoys film, music, socialising, hiking and he has recently learned to enjoy the gym and keeping fit. He also loves dogs.
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