Anyone that has been following me for a while knows how much I love the work of Brene Brown from the University of Houston. Dr. Brown is a social worker who has spent more than a decade studying really messy issues like shame, vulnerability, and wholeheartedness in an effort to really understand what breeds connection, and what destroys it.
In her third and most recent book, “Daring Greatly”, she explores the concept of vulnerability at a deeper level. But before she can really get into the trenches with vulnerability, she has to lay a groundwork with us readers about shame, what it is, how it works, and how it plays into our daily lives.
Shame, she says, is the fear of disconnection. It is the very primitive fear that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Shame is being rejected. It is losing your job. It is calling him, but never getting a call back. And it is everywhere in our daily lives.
She goes on, making sure that we understand that shame is different from guilt. Guilt is “I did something bad.” But shame is “I am bad.” There’s a huge difference. And while guilt can actually inspire us to improve by pointing out how our actions differ from our values, shame is destructive, and impedes progress and growth.
As she is explaining shame, she discusses how her research illustrated that men and women experience shame differently. Women, she said, deal with shame in a web. Here is a list describing shame for women straight from her book:
– Look perfect. Do perfect. Be perfect. Anything less than that is shaming.
– Being judged by other mothers
– Being exposed – the flawed parts of yourself that you want to hide from everyone are revealed
– No matter what I achieve or how far I’ve come, where I come from and what I’ve survived will always keep me from feeling like I’m good enough.
– Even though everyone knows that there’s no way to do it all, everyone still expects it. Shame is when you can’t pull off looking like it’s under control.
– Never enough at home. Never enough at work. Never enough in bed. Never enough with my parents. Shame is never enough.
– No seat at the cool table. The pretty girls are laughing.
All these implicit demands on women are extremely contradictory, Dr. Brown points out. Thus as a woman attempts to escape the web of shame in one way, she falls right into another spot, getting stuck. And the more she wrestles to get out the more she gets tangled.
Men, on the other hand, experience shame in another way. Once again, a list from her book:
– Shame is failure. At work. On the football field. In your marriage. In bed. With money. With your children. It doesn’t matter – shame is failure.
– Shame is being wrong. Not doing it wrong, but being wrong.
– Shame is a sense of being defective.
– Shame happens when people think you’re soft. It’s degrading and shaming to be seen as anything but tough.
– Revealing any weakness is shaming. Basically, shame is weakness
– Showing fear is shameful. You can’t show fear. You can’t be afraid – no matter what.
– Shame is being seen as “the guy you can shove up against the lockers.”
– Our worst fear is being criticized or ridiculed – either one of these is extremely shaming.
One phrase she said that she heard all the time was for men the rule is “don’t be a pussy.” For men, shame is a box that they are trapped in, giving them room for aggression or non-emotion.
She recounts a story from a student who explained that as a child he loved to paint and draw. He was obsessed with it. One day he overheard his father and his friend talking in the kitchen. The friend pointed at the paintings on the fridge and said “So you’re raising a faggot now?” From that day, his father forbade him from taking any art classes. But it didn’t matter, because this boy was so shamed that he hadn’t drawn a thing since that day.
The trouble with shame for men is that not only is it reinforced by other men, but women are willing to beat the emotional shit out of a man that lets himself be vulnerable. What she eventually learned was that women often want a “pretended” vulnerability. They want a man to be sensitive, but only superficially. Because deep down they can’t take it if their man breaks down. They want him to be their rock.
As I read through this today I kept nodding my head. And eventually tears made their way to the surface. But as I read it, I thought, yes, I’ve experienced the “box” shame like other men do, but I also experience it as a web, just like the women. The more I read the more I thought “gay men experience both of these. We’re torn between both.”
I remember being three years old, and asking my parents for the one thing I truly wanted for my birthday: the Barbie set of Aladdin and Jasmine. I can still remember how much I wanted those two dolls. My dad isn’t a hard-ass when it comes to conforming to masculine ideals, but this still bothered him. My mom didn’t think it was a huge deal. So they compromised, and I got Aladdin, but not Jasmine.
I did, however, get birthday money, and I knew exactly what I wanted. So we went to the store, and I wanted to buy Jasmine. My dad did not like this at all. My mom finally made a strong stand, that it wasn’t a big deal, and so I got to buy Jasmine.
That was the beginning of a Barbie collection that contained a number of dolls, male and female. My dad used to joke that he was concerned, until I pulled Ken’s head off his body, and he knew I’d be fine. Since I’ve come out, he doesn’t tell that story anymore.
I tell this story to make the point that every gay man experienced this “sissy” accusation as a child. We were called “girls” or “gay” or “faggots.” We were held up to that masculine ideal, and being by nature more sensitive, expressive, artistic people we failed that ideal every time. And the final clash against that “weakness” measuring stick was coming to terms with our sexuality. We finally accepted that by our very natures, we didn’t fit.
Some of us are okay with that. Some still struggle with it. But even in the mainstream gay community I see it playing a role. Being too sensitive or emotionally vulnerable (even in a relationship) can be dangerous ground for a gay man. We are still very guarded, and still deal with shame over allowing ourselves to be somewhat more feminine. Some circles of gay look down on that, while others celebrate it. But it is still there.
Mostly I see this in the need to always be in control. We have to be cool and collected. We have to be the life of the party, charismatic and totally in control of the situation. Any weakness, any emotional crack in our porcelain shield, and we get eaten alive. We think we’ve escaped the box, but we still get trapped by it.
But that’s not the whole deal for the gay community. We play the web game too. Since embracing my sexuality I definitely have a greater drive to be absolutely beautiful. I want to look flawless. Our community is full of the drive to be perfect, in every single way. We need chiseled abs, defined pecs, and a great ass. Our hair has to be perfect, and our clothes are either Armani Exchange or nothing at all. Our apartments must be immaculate, our cars fast and sexy, and our boyfriends gorgeous. And I haven’t even talked about money. Money is the lifeblood of the gay shame game. If you have money, you can be as beautiful and perfect as you want. No money? Then don’t even talk to me.
We get stuck in the same web issues that women do. Be sexy all the time, but don’t be a slut. Be classy and sweet, but don’t be insincere or too soft. Be assertive and in control, but don’t be a bitch. Or be a bitch, but the one that everyone wants to be with.
There is this deep and underlying drive that if we can look, act, and surround ourselves with perfection, then we will finally be good enough. We’ve come out of a world of male shame patterns that we can’t live up to, so we created our own hybrid, because at least there we can compete. It’s ironic that rather than breaking shame games all together, we just created a version we think we can master.
It’s vital to realize that the shallowness and judgment that are so characteristic of the gay community are there because that is how we are treating ourselves internally. Shame is on every street corner of Fabuopolis. And our drive for perfection has been so complete and so terribly desperate that we have created some of the most incredible art in the process.
Granted, not all of that is due to shame, and not all of the gay community is the way I have described them. But those are the overarching characteristics of shame in the gay community. Looking at it this way, it’s clear that our community needs this wholehearted work. We need to learn to be vulnerable, especially in our relationships with our wonderful boyfriends. Vulnerability scares the hell out of us, and we’ll drink or spend ourselves into the ground before we let ourselves be perceived as vulnerable, but it has to happen.
The good news is that if there is any community that is in a position to revolutionize itself, it’s the gay community. We are a group that has always been counter-culture, and constantly needing to redefine ourselves in light of all the ways we don’t fit into the rest of society. What this means is that we have the ability to redefine our relationships without anyone’s permission. Because of the “fuck you” attitude we’ve had to develop to survive, we can give our own culture’s shame demands the middle finger. In a time when gay relationships are being restructured and redefined, we can embrace vulnerability and work through shame together. Because really, whether we’re a twink or a bear, a jock or a drag queen, that experience of shame is the one thing we all share. We can look at any other LGBT individual and say “I get it, hon.”
This is not an easy thing to do. It’s not comfortable, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. But if we want something more than endless weekends half-drunk at the club or relationships that are more than just the flavor of the month, then this has to happen. We can be a cruel bunch to one another, and to ourselves, but the rainbow-colored flag gives me hope. It gives me hope because I know that we have already been through so much.
We are a people of persistence and determination. From the early years when our drag queens at Stonewall said “no more!” to the marches for equality in San Francisco, around the nation, and around the world, we are a people with a proud history of rising above. We are a resilient people. A beautiful people. And with the courage to be vulnerable, to dare greatly, we can change everything.