The shame of not being a manly man
“If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment” — Brene Brown
I turned 38 last week. A well meaning post by an uncle of mine reminded me of the worst years of my life. I am the youngest of three brothers and was reminded every day by people close to me that I was not a manly man. The popular narrative was and is that my brothers were “rough and tough” but I was a “mama’s boy” and a “pretty boy” who cried a lot. I did. Almost every week, averaging 20–30 minutes per cry session. For 9 years straight.
As the years went by I was told to just suck it up and get over my emotional baggage. I mean I did have a privileged life, so who was I to complain? I am a man. I was never sexually abused. I always had food, clothing, shelter. I went to good schools and my dad never beat up my mom. As the years went by I also told myself that my pain and shame was not real enough. So I ignored it. I poured secrecy, silence and judgment on my shame. End result was really bad and destructive behavior.
Any time I received feedback and felt similar sensations of shame, I’d break down. I’d often turn to rage and highly self destructive behavior. In my teen years I used to cut my eye lashes because I didn’t want to look “girlish”. I’ve punched myself repeatedly so I’d become tough, and this is before I ever saw Fight Club. I was told as a kid that I had a pear shaped body. So I would tie my belt REALLY tight to somehow reduce the width of my hips. It never worked obviously, but it was worth a shot.
A large chunk of my memories involve being ridiculed and crying in front of a lot of grown ups. Over the years I’ve played musical chairs on finding people to blame. While blaming one person or another for my misery helped make sense of my hurt, it didn’t solve anything. Fact is, everyone else meant well and were doing the best they could. But that doesn’t reduce or take away the piercing sensations I’ve felt and still feel. And here in lies the dilemma.
What’s even the point of writing this post?
I am writing this post today to normalize my shame. While shame thrives in an environment of secrecy and judgment it dies out when doused with empathy and transparency. I write this post because I want to change the patterns that are deeply programmed in me. My daughter is a little over 3, when she screams at me, I am again reminded that perhaps she does it because I’m not a manly man. And so I’m tempted to turn to rage. I am tempted to put her in her place and be “tough” with her.
But if I do that, the cycle won’t break.
I am also writing this post for other young men who can’t find a place to have difficult conversations. Somehow acknowledging our pain is seen as letting our family down. Writing is therapeutic and cathartic. Writing influences our thoughts and our thoughts influence our writing. I write today to own my experience and to own my pain. And here lies the second dilemma.
Why even publish this post?
I publish this today because I’ve found so much love and acceptance on the Internet. Far more than anything I found as a child sitting in a bathroom crying for an hour because a well meaning nurse called me “girlish” and the whole room erupted in laughter, looking at me with pity. I was a pretty boy and I so hated it. I don’t want to hate it anymore. I also don’t want to be that manly man who is “rough and tough” on the outside but highly fragile on the inside.
3x as many men commit suicide compared to women. The ideas of a manly man and the shame of not being a manly man are as toxic for men as they are for women. Recently I heard a man who I could relate with talk about these issues on a podcast. That really helped me. Because I felt he had context.
I publish this post for men who have been ridiculed for not being manly men. I write this post to let you know that it’s OK to cry. I write this post to tell you that secrecy, silence and judgment are awful for you. Speak your truth. Write about it. Read what you’ve written. Normalize your shame.
Thank you for reading this. I am eternally grateful for the love and support you’ve given to me and for the sense of belonging you’ve provided. This is why I love the Internet so much. It matches curious people who share the same obsession. It helps weirdos belong. It creates a sense of belonging.
I cried writing this. But I feel better already.