Men see vulnerability as weakness, men see shame as weakness. They hide vulnerability and shame under a mask of emotional control, work, status and violence. How can they throw off the mask and start living in the power of vulnerability?
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.
Her 2010 TEDx Houston talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the most watched talks on TED.com with over 7 million views. She gave the closing talk, Listening to Shame, at the 2012 TED Conference in Long Beach.
These talks have rebounded around the world and changed the landscape in thinking about vulnerability, shame and guilt. She has made people realise that this is an area we are all involved in.
Her 2012 TED talk went deep into this issue. In this article I will use quotations from her talk to look at how this issue affects men, in particular.
She used a famous quote from Theodore Roosevelt that is particularly relevant to men. It’s about ‘the arena’ where men fight their battles, daily, and where men establish their idea of masculinity.
“It is not the critic who counts. It is not the man who sits and points out how the doer of deeds could have done things better and how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena whose face is marred with dust and blood and sweat. But when he’s in the arena, at best he wins, and at worst he loses, but when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly.”
The idea of ‘daring greatly’ is appealing to many men, but the question is how to achieve it without appearing weak. The problem is when men equate failure with weakness, or they think that others, those they love and respect, equate failure with weakness.
Brené went on to say,
“That’s what life is about, about daring greatly, about being in the arena. When you walk up to that arena and you put your hand on the door, and you think, “I’m going in and I’m going to try this,” shame is the gremlin who says, “You’re not good enough. […]
I know you don’t think that you’re […] smart enough or talented enough or powerful enough. I know your dad never paid attention.” Shame is that thing.
“Shame drives two big tapes — “never good enough” and, if you can talk it out of that one, “who do you think you are?” The thing to understand about shame is it’s not guilt. Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior.
“There’s a huge difference between shame and guilt. […] Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. And […] guilt, inversely correlated with those things.”
Guilt is easy to deal with, we see it dealt with often in the public arena. You only have to look at Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods to see being dealt with publicly. They admit their guilt and expect to move and re-start their lives. But there is a feeling that there is something left behind, something that they don’t want to admit to.
“For men, shame is not a bunch of competing, conflicting expectations. Shame is one, “Do not be perceived as what — weak?” […] A man looked at me one day after a book signing and said, “… you say to reach out, tell our story, be vulnerable. But you see those books you just signed for my wife and my three daughters? They’d rather me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down. When we reach out and be vulnerable we get the shit beat out of us. And don’t tell me it’s from the guys and the coaches and the dads, because the women in my life are harder on me than anyone else.”
“You show me a woman who can actually sit with a man in real vulnerability and fear, I’ll show you a woman who’s done incredible work. You show me a man who can sit with a woman who’s just had it, she can’t do it all anymore, and his first response is not, “I unloaded the dishwasher,” but he really listens — because that’s all we need — I’ll show you a guy who’s done a lot of work.”
When my first marriage ended up in divorce I felt, and acknowledged, the guilt of what I did to create that disaster. I know what I could have done better and I know what I failed to do.
I have not, however, looked shame in the face and owned up to my failure. I have not looked my sons in the face and owned up to what happened, inside me. I am ashamed of much that happened and I have still to see the truth of the situation.
Brené looked at what is important for men and women, what she found is frightening,
“Some research by Mahalik at Boston College. He asked, what do women need to do to conform to female norms? The top answers in this country: nice, thin, modest and use all available resources for appearance. When he asked about men, what do men in this country need to do to conform with male norms, the answers were: always show emotional control, work is first, pursue status and violence.”
Emotional control, work and status were important to me. When my marriage failed I threw myself into them. It was a time of power and success for me, a time when I was at the top of my profession.
Vulnerability, for me, is the key to strength for men. Vulnerability comes from having and inner certainty that allows you to face outer uncertainty. I did not have that inner certainty and I hid that fact behind a mask, a mask of control.
Now I have the inner certainty I can move forward into the uncertainty of facing the shame, of being vulnerable.
We need to go into the arena just as we are, we need to accept the uncertainty of life,
“If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it’s seductive to stand outside the arena […] and think to myself, “I’m going to go in there and kick some ass when I’m bulletproof and when I’m perfect”. […] But the truth is that never happens. […] We want you to go in. We want to be with you and across from you. And we just want, for ourselves and the people we care about and the people we work with, to dare greatly.”
Find your inner certainty and be vulnerable.