I recently devoted a lot of energy to avoiding an uncomfortable conversation with my wife. It involved, as many uncomfortable conversations with spouses do, the distribution of unpaid labor in our house, as well as the distribution of responsibility for paying the bills. It was difficult for her to see, and for me to explain, why it seemed like she was shouldering more than her fair share of both. The reason for the imbalance was that I had been devoting more time to chasing implausible dreams of the writerly variety than to doing household chores, which, in my capacity as a (mostly) stay-at-home dad, would seem like something I should be able to stay on top of.
I started thinking about this book I had read, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown, on a hunch that it might shed some light on why I was dreading this conversation. I had seen Brown speak at a dad-blogging conference (yes, that's a real thing), not knowing who she was, or what she was going to talk about. It turned out that Brown is a bestselling author and research professor who studies "vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame," topics I didn't think I would find very compelling. But, like the other 200 men (and handful of women) in the audience, I soon found myself nodding my head, not necessarily because I felt she was talking directly to me, but because I recognized the culture she described in which institutionalized, nagging shame can cause people to put on so much emotional armor that they can't connect with others or access their authentic selves. I might have called those repressive forces "fear," or "self-doubt," or "insecurity," but, yeah, "shame" kind of covers all the bases.
According to Brown's research, the antidote to crippling shame is vulnerability. We tend to think of vulnerability as weakness; but in fact, she argues, it is the highest form of courage. To admit fear and pain, to reach out to others for help, to quiet the "gremlins" that tell us to keep our mouths shut and soldier on: this is how we become engaged, make human connections, and live "wholeheartedly." And, according to Brown's research, the processes and effects of shame and vulnerability are highly gendered.
I was able to have a phone conversation with Brown, and I asked her to explain how shame and vulnerability manifest differently for men and women. She told me that "messages of shame are organized around gender." For women, she said, there are whole constellations of often contradictory expectations that, if not met, are sources of shame. But for men, the overarching message is that any weakness is shameful. And since vulnerability is often perceived as weakness, it is especially risky for men to practice vulnerability.
What Brown also discovered in the course of her research is that, contrary to her early assumptions, men's shame is not primarily inflicted by other men. Instead, it is the women in their lives who tend to be repelled when men show the chinks in their armor.