I read an I-can’t-put-it-down-book last week entitled, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It’s Not): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power. The title notwithstanding, Brené Brown’s book is, primarily, about shame.
If you just had a visceral response—and not a good one—while reading the word “shame,” you’re not alone. Most of us have an aversion to shame: our own, someone else’s, just the word “shame” itself.
Brown defines shame as:
“The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”
“Guilt” refers to feeling bad about or regretting something, which can propel us to change. Guilt can, then, be a transformative force in our lives.
Not so with shame, which is all about the deficiencies and faults we believe define us. Shame makes us believe we can never change.
While most of us were raised in a family or society (or both) that fostered shame—and taught us, overtly or subtly, to shame others—we lack a cultural, personal, and relationship vocabulary to manage shame’s destructive effect.
Why address shame in a post about parents‘ relationships? For starters, a lot of women experience motherhood as a shame trigger (whether or not we have kids). Parenting, too, is among the top shame categories, according to Brown.
The remaining categories are: Appearance & Body Image; Family; Money and Work; Mental and Physical Health; Addiction; Sex; Aging; Religion; Being Stereotyped and Labeled; Speaking Out; and Surviving Trauma. (FYI, we don’t necessarily experience shame in every category, but I’d wager we could all point to at least one that triggers our shame and our judgment/shaming of others.)
These categories apply to men, too. But, Brown notes, women’s shame is layered and often contradictory e.g., be sexy yet not too sexy. Men’s shame, instead, is often about threats to masculinity, e.g., weakness, fear, failure. While not specifically tied to marriage or fatherhood, how men define what it means to be “a man” impacts their approach to being a husband and a dad. In other words:
Failing to meet gender expectations can trigger shame in both men and women.
The role of shame in our lives is pervasive and complex. Many relationship issues can be addressed through the lens of shame. So much so that I encourage all of us to spend some time assessing how our shame (in the categories cited above) might be impacting our relationships and parenting.
Yet, as I was reading Brown’s book, I kept circling back to an issue that’s always near the top of heterosexual* parents’ conflict list: Childcare and Housework. (BTW, while I focus on straight relationships in much of this post, these–and related–issues apply to some gay and lesbian parents, too.)
Why focus on that stress-point? My hunch is that—despite strides in women’s rights, despite the prevalence of dual-income families, and men’s increased parenting and household roles—if masculinity is at issue for many men, and motherhood is at stake for a lot of women, then it’s probable many couples play out shame dynamics around childcare and housework.
The thing is: (1) We’re not always (or often) aware of our shame triggers; and (2) What we consciously think—e.g., I’m a man who’s cool with housework or I’m a woman who likes my hubby to clean—and what we feel might not match.
I’m not only thinking of some men’s conscious or unconscious resistance to childcare or housework, I’m also thinking of some women’s mixed messages and judgmental responses to their spouses when they do try to help.
Many moms feel the pressure of “doing it all”—working in or outside the home, caring for children, taking care of a household, supporting and remaining attractive to spouses—and that pressure can easily morph into shame when the reality hits that we can’t do it all, or at least not for long.
Some men’s shame might, then, be triggered by doing certain types or amounts of childcare/housework that challenge notions of masculinity, or by being asked by wives to help more, which might feel emasculating. Plus, just as women hold themselves to unattainable standards, so too might their spouses, who sometimes judge them for not handling everything child- and house-related.
Likewise, some women’s shame might be triggered by having to ask for help—by admitting they can’t do it all—and by their spouses’ assistance, which those same women might judge harshly if they’re already judging themselves or are concerned about the judgment of others.
I genuinely believe that the men and women who say they want more equitable relationships really do want them. I also believe that what we want and what we act out in daily life don’t always sync up, especially when shame is triggered.
How can we decrease shame’s impact on us as individuals and on our relationships?
A great place to start is to increase awareness of how shame feels and what triggers it, especially around issues that most affect our relationships with spouses and kids.
Most of us experience shame physically. In my case, my throat clenches, I feel nauseous, and I simultaneously feel paralyzed and defensive.
To explore your experience of shame, click to download Brown’s “shame worksheet.” In addition to increasing our shame awareness, Brown suggests 3 tools to reduce shame’s impact, all of which can be explored with spouses (and our older kids):
(1) Contextualize: Shame is often taught or reinforced by social, religious, educational, media, government or other influencers. Recognizing the degree to which our shame is reinforced by larger cultural forces helps us…
(2) Normalize: Shame is a lonely experience, yet we all feel it. Whatever shame categories trigger us, there are many women and men who, also, feel shame in these areas. We’re not alone, which is why it’s important to…
(3) Demystify: Speaking out about shame with those we trust to respect our vulnerability can be supportive, if scary. Plus, it reduces shame’s sting.
Feeling ambivalent about looking at shame? I get it. I do. But we’ll all benefit from considering shame’s impact on us…and our kids. As Brown writes:
“Parenting is a shame minefield. Not only do we hang our self-worth on how we are perceived as parents, but we hang a big part of it on how our children are perceived.”
Unless we decrease shame’s effect on us, we’re poised to pass it on to our kids. Since they’ll get a good dose of it elsewhere (e.g., in school, sports, at a dance), it’s up to us to lessen its impact on our lives. Doing so will benefit everyone, including our spouses and kids.
There’s no shame in that.
* Interestingly, research shows that lesbian and gay couples don’t battle about housework to the degree that straight couples do. Research among lesbian parents indicates that while gay moms argue about childcare, it’s usually about wanting more time with their kids, not more assistance caring for them. See my article on gay and lesbian parenting at http://bit.ly/h3jERV.