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Men's Shame
Written by John Howard Prin, LADC   

This article appeared in The Phoenix

Kaufman and Bly

A sometimes tearful, sometimes laughing audience of 200 to 250 men gained frequent, often poignant, insights from two authorities on the subject of shame during a one-day workshop last April. Part of the Alfred Adler Institute's 1989 Lecture Series, Men's Shame: A Day With Robert Bly and Gershen Kaufman, PhD., enlightened as well as encouraged the primarily 25 to 55 year-old audience of listeners.

The presenters, in tandem fashion, offered scholarly and scientific findings (Kaufman) combined with poetic and humorous perspectives (Bly). Kaufman, a dark-haired, bearded professor and author, sporting bright suspenders with his dark suit, spoke with the resonant authority of a Ph.D. but without the stuffiness; his concepts flowed freely in lay terms anyone could easily understand. Bly, a Minnesota-based poet with a national following, smiled an irreverent grin, which complemented his shock of unruly white hair and boldly striped vest, and strummed a mandolin frequently; his saucy jokes added counterpoint to the proceedings.

Robert Bly
Robert Bly
Gershen Kaufman
Gershen Kaufman: unlocking the
emotions we're trained to suppress

Kaufman's overview, based on more than 15 years of specific research into the dynamics of shame, first defined it as: ". . . a painfully diminished state that makes us feel foolish, awkward and paralyzed, a wordless emotion that makes our eyes turn inward so that we feel exposed, inferior." He then described the classic reactions to shame-hiding, withdrawal and physiological reactions such as dryness in the throat-then touched on cultural and gender differences.

Men in particular, he noted, are conditioned from boyhood to experience shame in five areas:

  • Crying. While this natural reaction to loss or disappointment is common to everybody, males in American society are shamed into stifling it ("Don't be a crybaby," etc.). A bind develops within most boys and shame is touched off whenever the mere urge to cry occurs. "Even to the point where men feel ashamed of feeling sad in the first place," said Kaufman, "and think they have to apologize for showing associated emotions."
  • Fear. From boys' earliest encounters—being frightened by a nightmare or a monster in the basement—they are scolded to not show fear ("Don't be stupid, that's nonsense"). The strong message is that men are not supposed to be afraid, that fearlessness or lack of cowardice is the only acceptable response to fearful situations. "Men think something is wrong with them for feeling fear, therefore, and that they are deficient for showing signs of fear," added Kaufman.
  • Touching/Holding. Kaufman claimed that "we are a touch- phobic culture" and described how boys are taught not to hug, that only handshakes are okay. "Yet holding is an important aspect of feeling security and touching is an essential part of holding. Both are confused with sexuality. Unfortunately, the only touching that is condoned occurs with adversarial sports, where physical and mental vanquishing of a foe is the aim." Thus, men are allowed to touch only on the gridiron (or other site of contest), in a bar (after some drinks) or at the airport (if brief).
  • Eye Contact. "Every person needs to be part of a group and desires to bond with, be identified with, members of that group," explained Kaufman. "It is through the eyes that we merge and fuse with one another." He went on to illustrate that this may have occurred most intensely as babies when feeding-gazing for long periods into a mother's eyes—or as teenagers when falling in love for the first time ("They only have eyes for each other."). "Instead, we are told, not to stare'," said Kaufman, "and so we block this very natural impulse."
  • Failure. Kaufman described the now-familiar trap that men may fall into by assigning too much importance to their jobs and careers. "Failure is seen as shameful and tantamount to being cursed," he commented. He also acknowledged one participant's comment about men who, in general, are blamed by women for failing in so many roles, from being poor fathers and husbands to becoming rapists, child abusers and mass killers.
  • Kaufman concluded his morning remarks by calling for each man in the audience to face the shame in his life, "to relive and re-experience the times when you were shamed and to let yourselves be a little boy again—thereby unblocking the natural human emotions we've all been trained to suppress. In that way you can access your emotions again and gain freer expression of the full range of human emotions we are entitled to."

THE LITTLE SHAME BOY

Robert Bly then ambled up to the platform, strummed his mandolin and recited one of his poems. In a breezy, off-handed way, he cracked jokes ("One-hundred-and-two percent of all families are dysfunctional.") and the mood lightened. As he spoke of "the little shame boy in all of us," his face turned serious. "When we get shamed as adults," he said, "that little boy emerges again and takes the pain. We need to mourn for the little children in us who've died from shame."

Concurring with Kaufman, Bly stated that emotional growth is stunted when a shame incident occurs in childhood or adolescence (for boys or girls), and that these times must be relived. "This lack of growth is what prevents us as men from grieving at funerals or dealing with other kinds of loss as adults. But now that we are older, strong and mature enough, we need to go back to those times when we were so deeply ashamed and couldn't handle it and handle it. As mature people, we can do this."

Bly described in wrenching detail his hard-drinking father, a farmer in rural western Minnesota. As an eight-year old boy, Bly and his brother had to go to town and find their father, then haul him out of bars or off the street, "which meant we were fathers to our father." Bly then offered an insight that captivated the members of the audience: "My father wasn't hooked on alcohol, as you'd expect ... no, he was hooked on shame. Yes, shame."

Bly detailed his father's boyhood, particularly the years his mother had humiliated him about his masculinity and made put-downs about men in general ("They only want one thing," etc.). Bly believes an intensity developed within his father, a passion, based on shame. "Shame itself is an intense experience and we can get hooked on it, then seek to repeat it—to `be alive again.' As he did." Bly said his father's alcohol abuse just happened to be his favorite way of tapping that intensity, that passion. It was his way of triggering the same shameful intimacy he had once had with his mother. "It may have been the only vulnerability he ever knew," sighed Bly.

The white-haired bard then discussed his own list of occasions when shame affects people, men or women; for example, inherited shame from ancestors, feelings of inadequacy due to body shape, and events like being arrested for shoplifting. His comments about "false selves" also intrigued the participants. "Your parents probably did not want the kind of energy you brought into the world when you were born. To please your parents, you created a false self-and felt deep shame for doing so. But survival instinct required it and we all did it or we wouldn't be here. But now, as adults, we need to go back and claim that original self again."

Strumming his mandolin, Bly quoted snippets of poetry and observed that shame and blame have only two different letters. "Our shame tanks are too small to hold all the shame so we pass it on by blaming others." Kaufman nodded his head at this and cited the "blaming response" as one of the primary reactions we have toward shame.

THE MANY GUISES OF SHAME

After lunch, the two hosts sat comfortably on stage talk-show style and expanded on the reactions to shame (hiding, urges to escape and retaliate, physiological changes such as blushing) and discussed the many kinds of labels shame wears. "Language is so imprecise," stated Kaufman. "What we call guilt is really a form of shame, a kind of moral shame. And shyness is another form of shame, and so is embarrassment and bashfulness. Then there's inferiority, the feeling of being inherently flawed." In response to a question from the floor asking for the distinction between guilt and shame, Kaufman replied that "guilt refers to an action which can be atoned for, whereas shame is a sense of general inadequacy when atonement is not possible."

Bly, always the jester quipped, "Catholic priests used to be good at both, today feminists are." The audience broke up. Kaufman, himself chuckling, went on to clarify that "shame is inherently healthy and alerts us to injustices to human dignity. But it can pass reasonably quickly, as it should, or it can linger and continue to damage." He then led the group in a "re-parenting exercise," a verbally guided return in the participants' memory to their boyhood years for 15-20 minutes to reconstruct what could have happened in a painful shame incident but didn't.

This reporter, momentarily as a second grader, heard his own dad say, "It's okay that you didn't make the Little League team. There are lots of things you'll be good at besides baseball. It's not the only thing worthwhile to do. You're okay, Johnny. Your drawings of farm animals are really good. I'm proud of you for them." It never happened but could have.

Bly then took his turn and led an exercise which involved pairs of participants telling each other an incident when they'd experienced shame coupled with a time when they were victorious over shame. Bly further explained how shame puts us into a trance. "By reliving early victim scenes when we are young and defenseless—now consciously interrupted by our adult self acting on our own behalf as rescuer—we can break the trance, rewrite the scene and take its power away."

Summing up, Kaufman said, "I want to do everything I can to keep shame from having crippling effects. First, we should name it for what it is, shame. Then we should allow the rightful rage we felt to be released so that the emotions pass quickly, once and for all. The goal is to render shame more understandable and, ultimately, more manageable."

Added Bly, "Don't accept shame. Say `no' to it. Get in touch with it and handle it." Strumming his mandolin, he recited a final few lines of poetry and the two presenters stood—to a long round of applause in the lecture hall.