While the felt experience of shame is the same for men and women (Brene Brown calls it the “warm wash of shame”), what triggers shame is different for men and women. Let’s break it down:
The number one trigger is around our appearance and body image: we’re not thin enough, young enough, beautiful enough. It doesn’t matter that I’ve given birth to three children, I should still be able to get rid of that bulge around my tummy. Why should I care? Because I’ll look “better” and right now I don’t look quite good “enough”. It’s crazy and I’m as susceptible to it as any other woman.
Coming in at a close 2nd is motherhood. And it isn’t just mothers who get hammered on this one. How many times has a single woman been asked when she’s going to get married and for the married woman, “when are you going to start having children”? So much of our identity as women is wrapped up in this. And it sucks. How many times have I compared myself to other mothers and felt I didn’t measure up? How many times have I felt like a crappy mother because of what my children did? And in the midst of those crappy feelings I’ve snapped at my children instead of offering understanding and empathy, which is what they really needed.
According to Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, there are 12 shame categories: appearance & body image, money & work, motherhood/fatherhood, family, parenting, mental & physical health, addiction, sex, aging, religion, surviving trauma, and being stereotyped or labeled. But undergirding them all for women is the expectation to be perfect and on top of that, it should be effortless. Our culture has handed us a list of conflicting, competing expectations of who / what / how we “should” be. And we can’t possibly meet all those expectations so we’re inundated with messages of shame.
For men, there is only one trigger: do not be perceived as weak. It happens in all the shame categories but the message is still the same – don’t be weak. I think this is a tragedy. It puts men in a straight-jacket and makes it extremely difficult for them to work their way out from under shame. Because most of the time, being vulnerable and showing empathy are considered “weak” in our culture. These are the very things that help people process their shame and develop resiliency to it.
I’m only scratching the surface on this topic. Brene Brown talks about it in her TED Talk: “Listening to Shame”. She also writes about it in chapter 3 of her book Daring Greatly (Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, New York: Gotham Books.)
Emma Watson gave a speech to the United Nations launching the “HeForShe” campaign in September 2014. In it she highlights the ways in which our gender stereotypes harm men as well as women. I believe it does a good job illustrating what I’ve been talking about in this post. It’s well worth taking the 12 minutes to watch.