I recently commented on social media that “inadequacy, powerlessness and shame are drivers of abuse.” I know this to be true from my own experiences and, given the number of people who endorsed my comment, it seems many others are in agreement.
The comment was in response to an article about male status and harassing behaviour toward women, after a recent Australian-American study found that “poorer-performing males are significantly more hostile towards females.” While this study was conducted in an online gaming environment, it is all too easy to see this replicated in everyday life.
While I don’t believe men have the monopoly on masking shame with hostility, Australians are currently uncovering an ‘epidemic’ of male-to-female aggression. In 2015, 79 women have died by violence, with the vast majority being killed by males who are known to them. Domestic violence is complex and multi-faceted topic. When you remove the circumstantial elements surrounding violence, control and abuse, however, it is shame, inadequacy and powerlessness that remain.
On the whole, men are thought to be more pragmatic and less emotional than women. In line with traditional rules around emotional expression, this has been seen as a positive. When it comes to shame or powerlessness, however, I am not convinced this quality is helpful to men. Studies have shown that men are more likely to confront or solve threats than women; however they are also less likely to express powerlessness or helplessness.
This may be because men have a natural desire to feel useful and prove their ability and, as a consequence, society has come to view anything less as simply not enough. Indeed, an article about men being proactive says “the pain that comes from inaction is low-grade, makes you soft and makes you decay”. Perhaps this sentiment is why, when faced with problems they are unable to solve, men tend to either shut down or lash out.
Being motivated is wonderful; however it’s important not to view the alternative as weakness; because before too long, weakness can become hopelessness. In Australia men are four times more likely than women to take their own lives. In the US, they are three-and-a-half times more likely. In Japan, men are shutting themselves away for years, unable to cope with the pressures of life.
However, some bold new initiatives have emerged out of these stark realisations. And they are all about redefining masculinity to encourage men and boys to identify feelings of shame and inadequacy, connect with others and to find constructive ways to resolve conflict without violence.
I also believe that self-compassion is the major ingredient in shame resilience. Self-compassion offers an alternative to both lashing out and shutting down. It is acceptance of, and connection with, the self. That is; not just the successful self, but also the suffering self. Because self-compassion reminds us that suffering is part of the human experience.
Self-compassion practice doesn’t come easy to anyone; however it can be especially foreign to men. This is why it’s encouraging to see the concept being packaged especially for men, by men.
Finally, the following articles provide valuable insight for continuing to engage with and empower men:
Photo credit: Andy Nicastro