What It’s About
Shame is thoughts and feelings about who you are.
It involves feeling unworthy of respect or positive consideration by others, feeling like you deserve to be judged and criticized, and feeling embarrassed in front of others.
Like guilt, shame is hard to bear. It can make it difficult to overcome the negative effects of bad childhood experiences.
And like guilt, shame isn’t all bad. There are times we should feel ashamed and try to win back the respect and trust of others. Without a sense of shame, we’d be in trouble.
But shame can be a huge problem, of course. It can go too far, go on too long, and prevent us from relating to others in healthy ways.
Yet many men have found they can beat shame and leave it behind, using the tools of understanding and self-awareness.
And this won’t be news to anyone: For men with histories of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, such intense and long-term shame can become an unshakable part of life.
You already know a major reason why…
Being a Man Who Has Had Unwanted or Abusive Sexual Experiences
For the vast majority of boys and men, it feels shameful to have experiences that totally conflict with how males are supposed to be.
- Males are not supposed to be dominated, let alone victims, especially sexually.
- Males are not supposed to have sexual contact with other males (if this was the case for you).
- Males are not supposed to experience vulnerable emotions, especially fear and sadness.
- And males especially aren’t supposed to feel ashamed. (This one can create a vicious cycle of ‘shame over feeling ashamed’ that can seem impossible to escape.)
For many, the shameful sense of not being a ‘real man’ because of what happened is a huge burden in their lives. It affects what and how they think and feel about themselves. It leaves them fearing how others would see them if they knew what happened. (Sometimes they can’t shake the belief that others must know – even when they couldn’t – and see them as ‘not a real man.’)
This shame is felt to some extent by just about every man who had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood. Yet it can be overcome, and many, many men have managed to do so.
But for many men who experience extreme shame – shame so intense that it drives many of their thoughts and behaviors, including always trying to ‘prove themselves’ – there are other, deeper, and older sources of shame.
Sources of Extreme Shame
For men struggling with such extreme shame, it may seem to be all about the sexual experiences. But is also, sometimes even mostly, about shame learned in their youngest years and earliest relationships.
What do we mean? It will take some explaining, but we encourage you to read on and think about whether what follows might apply to you.
Sometime during the second year of life, children become capable of imagining how others think of them. They become ‘self-conscious.’ They also start feeling shame.
When someone a child cares about expresses disappointment in him, rather than acceptance and enjoyment of his presence, he experiences shame. Suddenly, there is a disconnection in the relationship, and the child feels (at a minimum) less secure and less supported.
When the important person expressing disappointment is a parent or other important caregiver, the child wants to end the situation of disapproval and avoid having it happen again. In healthy relationships, this is just what the child tries to do, over and over again. In this way, he learns to maintain the overall approval and love of parents and other caregivers, despite his unavoidable mistakes and ‘bad behavior.’
Yet when parents and caregivers don’t merely disapprove of specific things a child does, and don’t just temporarily treat him as less worthy of respect and love, but instead repeatedly express a lack of love and appreciation, and even contempt and hatred toward him, then shame becomes a constant. It becomes overwhelming. And it leads to extreme attempts to escape it.
What does this extreme shaming look like?
- Like a little boy who, whenever he approaches his father or mother full of pride, about to tell about something he’s done, is met with ‘leave me alone,’ or a hand waving him away, a blank look, or no response at all.
- Like a little boy who, whenever he’s made a mistake or done something wrong, hears from his parents things like ‘you’re so stupid,’ ‘you’ll never amount to anything,’ ‘you’re such a terrible, ungrateful child,’ or the ultimate ‘I wish you were dead.’
When such experiences are repeated over and over again, any boy will be torn between his need for connection and love and his fear of shaming rejection, criticism and ridicule. Any boy will come to see himself as a bad and unlovable person.
For a boy treated this way in his home, shame is not about how to manage his relationships with people whose approval he needs. Instead, shame is about how he’s a bad and unlovable person who deserves rejection and contempt, even hatred.
At some point, even the most basic needs for love and attention – so often met with rejection, criticism and ridicule – themselves become sources of intense shame. Once this happens, until and unless truly loving and healing close relationships are found, shame will be a constant companion. It will color all of his relationships and all of his attempts to find his way in the world.
The two faces of shaming are rejection and contempt. Repeated shaming rejections in childhood can create a person who fears and avoids close relationships. Repeated shaming contempt can saddle a person with lots of anger and hostility for years.
Repeated rejection and contempt, whether alone or combined, tend to create boys and men who fear and avoid asserting their needs in healthy ways. And so, men who were severely shamed as boys have a big internal obstacle to seeking help – or even feeling entitled to seek help, including help with getting over their shame.
Shame Can Be Overcome
It is possible to overcome shame, even the most extreme shame. We can’t emphasize that enough.
- It is possible to reach out for genuine connection from people capable of providing it.
- It is possible to find the help you need to overcome the shame you feel about the sexual experiences, even to overcome a deeper layer of shame created by shaming early relationships.
Many other men have done it. Many other men have found themselved amazed, and rightly proud, of how they’ve overcome their shame and turned their lives around.