'Messages of Shame Are Organized Around Gender'

A conversation with Brené Brown about how men and women experience shame differently

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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.

"Most women pledge allegiance to this idea that women can explore their emotions, break down, fall apart—and it's healthy," Brown said. "But guys are not allowed to fall apart." Ironically, she explained, men are often pressured to open up and talk about their feelings, and they are criticized for being emotionally walled-off; but if they get too real, they are met with revulsion. She recalled the first time she realized that she had been complicit in the shaming: "Holy Shit!" she said. "I am the patriarchy!"

Given the behaviors that men develop around the messages we receive about avoiding being perceived as weak, I wanted to know what kind of practical things we could do to be vulnerable in a positive way. Brown suggested that there are three main practices men, in particular, need to engage in. The first is asking for help. The second is setting boundaries; for example, not taking on work or activities that you don't want to do. And the third is apologizing and "owning it" when you are wrong.

I mentally ticked through this list. Asking for help? Check. There was a time when I would risk life and limb on the construction site rather than ask for help, and I followed the same policy with abstract problems as well; but at some point, I can't say when, I realized that it was easier to admit that I couldn't do it myself. Saying no? That's tricky, but has become much easier to embrace than asking for help, especially since I now have kids as a reason to not spread myself too thin. As far as apologizing and owning my mistakes—I'm working on that.

I finally had the conversation with my wife about what I'm doing on the days it doesn't seem like I've been doing much of anything. I realized that I'm a little embarrassed (ashamed?) to admit that I think my own dreams are worth pursuing, and that's why I had dreaded the conversation so much. There are many gremlins asking me who the hell I think I am. But it's a dream I've deferred for decades, and if I want to pursue it, I need to dedicate some daylight hours to the hustle required of people who want to do creative work. That's what I needed to tell her. So I did, and I felt momentarily vulnerable. But it was fine. She didn't tell me to follow my heart or project my desires out into the universe, but we talked about goals and timelines and money. I don't know if that counted as "daring greatly," but it was a lot better than putting in the thankless labor of avoiding vulnerability.