How America’s Culture of Shame is a Killer for Boys

Put an end to shaming by doing one beautifully simple thing.

For Americans, shame is how we make people do what we want.
We use it on our children to get them to attend to us. We use it as a heavy-handed short cut in our adult relationships. We use it in our political debates and public discourses. Whether its about the cultural, the sexual, the political, or the religious, we don’t just disagree, we shame those who don’t speak or behave in ways we approve of. We express shock, anger and outrage at their core personhood. We say, “you should be ashamed of yourself.
This is not a right wing or left wing issue. This is not about class, race or gender. This issue cuts across all segments of American society. Shaming in our American culture is epidemic. It shuts down dialogues, triggers defensive binary arguments and blocks us from finding common ground in our relationships, families, personal and professional lives.

When we shame our kids, two things are happening, we are training them to feel bad about themselves and we are teaching them to shame others.

It starts with the littlest of our children. Not only do we tell them about right and wrong, we go a step further with statements like, “don’t be so selfish” or “you are exhausting” or worse, “you have disappointed me, failed me.” We shame our kids into behaving, which may be effective in the short term, but do we really understand what are we training them into? When we shame our kids, two things are happening, we are training them to feel bad about themselves and we are encouraging them to shame others.
A large percentage of parents, intentionally or unintentionally, rely on shaming in the form of spanking as a primary parenting tool.  Child Trends Data Bank reports that in 2012 a nationally representative survey showed 77 percent of men, and 65 percent of women 18 to 65 years old agreed that a child sometimes needs a “good hard spanking.”
Child Trends notes:

Use of corporal punishment is linked to negative outcomes for children (e.g., delinquency, antisocial behavior, psychological problems, and alcohol and drug abuse), and may be indicative of ineffective parenting. Research also finds that the number of problem behaviors observed in adolescence is related to the amount of spanking a child receives. The greater the age of the child, the stronger the relationship.

This is why parenting advocates ask us to point out the action, error or poor decision our kids make without condemning the child themselves. A crucial distinction for how we treat children and adults alike if we are to break the cycles of shame in our culture.
This summer, my wife and I were swimming in the Frio River in Texas. It was a beautiful sunny day. There were a hundred or more people hanging out on the river.
In front of us, towered a thirty foot high slab of rock jutting up vertically out of the water. Kids were using a rope line tied at the top to scale the steep incline of the slab and jump off the other side into a deep blue swimming hole. One boy had climbed to the top but could not bring himself to jump. Each time he tried to jump, he would start toward the edge, involuntarily sit down and then scoot back up towards the top the rock. He tried over and over again, but he could not jump off. Kids were lining up behind him, going past him, and jumping.
His father began to call out to him from below. Encouraging him to be brave and jump. His dad was supportive and encouraging, but his voice carried all across the river. More and more people were watching as the boy would take a few halting steps toward the drop off and then panic and back up. His fear became a public spectacle. Climbing back down the way he came was also a frightening prospect, the sheer face of the rock where the rope dangled would have been very difficult to descend. Jumping was likely the safer option.
After about five minutes of this, a single boy below in the water yelled out. His voice, high pitched and clear, rose and echoed off the cliffs around us.
“What are you, a girl? You’re just a scared girl!”

When the boy above heard this, his expression shifted from fear to total despair. He was like a hunted animal, caught between his fear of getting hurt and his fear of being publicly shamed.

When the boy above heard this, his expression shifted from fear to total despair. The shaming moment had arrived, held in check thus far, by the number of adults interspersed among the kids in the river. The boy above was deeply ashamed of himself for not being able to master his fear, we could all see it in his face. But now he was like a hunted animal, caught between his fear of getting hurt and his fear of being publicly shamed. His dad began to climb the rock face to get to him.
Another man from the boy’s family group, began to call to him from below. “Just jump! Just count to three and jump!” There was a tone of impatience in his voice. Was he, in some way, feeling shame at the boy’s fear? Or was the man genuinely concerned about the emotional impact the boy would face as the seconds dragged on?
The people below watched the increasingly painful public spectacle. When the boy in the water called the boy on the rock “a girl,” I immediately was aware of how many girls were watching and listening. Perhaps a few of the girls on the bank smiled at the ruthless efficiency of this taunt. I don’t recall.  But the dozen or so mothers, faced upturned, were not laughing.

Shame moves in ripples through a population, in different ways, depending on one’s age or view of the world.

In moments like this, shame moves in ripples through a population in different ways, depending on one’s age or view of the world. Clearly, someone had regularly shamed the boy in the water. Was it his parents, his teachers, or kids at school? Who knows. But the boy had learned how powerful a tool shame is, and he now casually employed it in a very public way against another boy who was in distress. He not only shamed the boy on the rock, he degraded every girl within hearing and left every adult in the area with a choice: Do I remain silent or call out something supportive, or what?
We began yelling encouragement to the kid, but it seemed to only make him more aware of how public this humiliation had become.
The boy’s father made it to the top of the rock and took his son’s hand. They got ready to jump together, hand in hand, then the boy balked. He was still too afraid. His father decided that dragging his son over the side by the hand was too risky. He shifted his strategy, picked up his son, spoke to him quietly, and then tossed him off. As the boy fell, I could see he was going to hit the water badly. He pitched forward into a belly flop. Arms flailing, his body made that hollow pop sound when he hit the water; blinding pain to go with the humiliation.
The boy’s father jumped right behind him. The boy lunged up out of the water yelling, “oh my god!” over and over, gasping for air and weeping. It was a train crash horrible moment. Slowly everyone went back to their conversations. The father took his son aside and sat with him as he cried it out. I looked away, trying to give them some kind of privacy there on the muddy river bank.
What keeps coming back to me is how shame was operating all around us that day.
To begin with, the boy in the water, the boy who taunted the kid on the rock, was clearly taking pleasure in employing shame. It was a glory moment for him. You could see him looking excited and proud as he taunted the other boy, glancing around in the moment, looking for acknowledgement. The implication was, “I’m only saying what everyone else is thinking, right?” It was as if he expected others to acknowledge his shaming as an act of leadership.  
For many boys and girls, shaming is a central tool for climbing higher in the pecking order, accruing authority, and confirming their conformity. This boy learned it; now he was using it. How much shame of his own he was burdened with, I don’t know. But it is safe to say that the most fierce advocates for employing shame are themselves, often filled with it.
I was acutely aware of how familiar this all felt to me. And probably to other adults who were watching. When I was a boy, witnessing some kid being publicly shamed was so commonplace as to be a daily or even hourly occurrence. Shame was the language we all spoke. The cruel machinery of the all important pecking order. It brought back the nausea I had always felt, watching victims (usually other boys) being force-fed their own self-loathing. It might be about their bodies, or their clothes, or their lack of a girlfriend. It was always something they had little power over. Always something ultimately unfair or vacuously irrelevant, which just made it all the more humiliating.
The trick as a child was not to be the target of a public shaming. Never be the target.
Meanwhile the boy on the rock. What about him? When I saw how quickly his struggle to jump collapsed into public shame, I knew he also had been shamed. Maybe not from his father, but perhaps from his peers. I could see shame radiating off him as he stood suspended between his fear of getting injured and his fear of failure. Failing at what? Jumping off a rock? What made this moment so powerful a trap for him?
He did not have the confidence, the self esteem, to simply say, “Nope, no thanks. This is not for me.” So, he dangled, frozen, in a display of crippling public shame.

Once we have been trained to be ashamed of ourselves, we don’t need active confirmation from others. We assume they are disappointed in us, even contemptuous of us. We fill in the blanks with the most damaging possible messages.

I’m also left wondering, did he automatically assume our contempt as he scanned our upturned faces? Sadly, the answer is probably yes. Because once we have been trained to be ashamed of ourselves, we don’t need active confirmation from others. We supply it on their behalf. We assume others are disappointed in us, even those we love. We fill in the blanks between us and others with the most damaging possible messages. Even when those messages are not their intention at all.
It is this willingness, this need to fill the blanks with self condemnation and shame, that collapses relationships and destroys marriages. It leads to all manner of self destructive behaviors. Shame fuels itself, becomes its own self-fulfilling prophesy. And no one, no matter how kind or supportive they are, can sustain support for someone who has succumbed to the voice of shame.
If I was that boy’s dad, (and I think his dad did a good job under difficult circumstances) I would have made a different choice. I would have said, first and foremost, “You don’t have to do this. Period. We’ll get you down. Just back off and sit.”
But the boy felt he had to jump off the rock. Once he faltered, shame, spoken and unspoken, rushed in immediately. By not jumping, he felt he was a public failure in front of his friends and his family. The messages this boy supplied himself, the ease with which he delivered the most brutal self-assessment possible, left him no room for alternative courses of action. This is when shame is most destructive.
When adults or children succumb to shaming, we surrender our power to choose what is right for us. We buy into the idea that we are not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough or successful enough. We feel intense shame each time we fail in the eyes of others.  Even if we simply think we have failed. Once shame takes a hold of you, it never stops trying to enter every interaction.
Shame strips us of our natural sense of self preservation and replaces it with a willingness to do anything to get off the arbitrary and hateful hot seat as defined by whatever bully might seek to shame us. Some children see their parents that way. Its a chilling thought and should give us all pause. I often ask myself what messages am I giving my son? Love, patience and encouragement? Or irritability, annoyance and shame? Amidst the hurly-burly of parenting, I have to stop and think hard about this on a regular basis.

Shame can leech the joy out of life. It is a loop of self-destructive internal dialogues that blind us to what is good and magical and strong in us.

For adults, shame can be about everything; our sexual selves, our failures, our imperfect bodies, our difficult pasts, our losses, the relentless litany of our regrets. Shame can leech the joy out of life. It is a loop of self-destructive internal dialogues that blind us to what is good and magical and strong in us. Shame is a sure fire recipe for depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, alienation and despair.
And because we Americans are so prone to using shame to get our way with others, it has infused our public and private lives. It is so universal, that we simply can not grasp the vastness of it. It is the forest we can not see for the trees. It is the very air we breathe and the water we drink. Shame is everywhere, insinuating itself into the memories of our childhoods and the voices of our loved ones. And the only clue we have of how universal shame actually is, is the privileged position it holds as that little voice in our heads that whispers over and over, “You’re never going to be good enough.”
Shame sucks.

AND NOW FOR THE GOOD NEWS: Can we overcome shame in our daily lives? The answer is yes. And here’s how.

Dr. Saliha Bava, a couples and family therapist with a practice in New York City, has a simple and powerful answer for dealing with the culture of shame: talk about it.

“Shame thrives on confusion and misunderstanding. When you illuminate shame by talking about it, its power diminishes. When we talk about shame, as shame, we can share how we intend to be heard, because so often, others can hear statements as shaming that are not intended that way.
Shame is also deeply personal. We can not know what others might view as shaming unless we talk with them about it. And this includes our friends, wives, husbands, parents and children.

“Shame thrives on confusion and misunderstanding. When you illuminate shame by talking about it, its power diminishes.”

When we talk openly about the culture of shame, the activity of talking shifts the culture. In the moment we speak, we change our path forward. Change our lives. We have the power to replace the culture of shame with something new that is getting created. What I choose to create is called the culture of permission. You may want to choose something different. Perhaps, for you, it is a culture of compassion. Or a culture of discovery.
As couples and families, we can create these conversational spaces in which we talk with curiosity about what shame is for us as individuals. We can create spaces for listening. Create spaces for difference.
These are meant to be ongoing conversations. That weave in and out of our daily talk. As part of this, we can help ourselves and the children in our lives identify moments of shaming. We can learn to spot shame when it appears. Once we see shame for what it is, we can identify it throughout our lives and guard against letting it have a hold on us.”

Dr. Bava’s point is clear. If we don’t talk about the messages we give and get, and clarify our intentions for others, the culture of shame will, by default, define those messages for us.
So let’s start pushing back against the culture of shame by bringing it out of the shadows and into the light. Let’s make the choice to talk about shame, and lets start by talking with the people we love most. Mark Greene
This article originally appeared on Good Men Project.
Read More By Mark Green:
When “Check Your Male Privilege” Becomes a Bludgeon
Why Traditional Manhood is Killing Us
Mark GreeneGood Men Project Executive Editor Mark Greene’s articles on masculinity and manhood have received over 100,000 FB shares and 10 million page views. Mark’s book, Remaking Manhood is a collection of his most powerful articles on American culture, relationships, family and parenting. It is a timely and balanced look at the issues at the heart of the modern masculinity movement.
Greene writes and speaks on men’s issues for the Good Men Project, the New York Times, The Shriver Report, Salon, HLN, and The Huffington Post.
To stay up to date with Mark and the Remaking Manhood movement, join him on Facebook.

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Man Of The Week – Jordan Gray

This week’s Man Of The Week is Jordan Gray for his work as a sex & relationship coach. Jordan is a #1 Amazon best-selling author, a public speaker with nearly a decade of experience in the field. For as long as he can remember, Jordan has always been a giver and helper to people. In his coaching, he allows people to become aware and in turn remove their emotional roadblocks to maintain healthy and intimate relationships. To ensure everybody has some of the tools they need to persevere, Jordan started a blog, which since launch has reached over ten million viewers globally. When Jordan isn’t coaching clients or writing, he loves to pretend he’s good at surfing, immerse himself in new cultures, and savour slow-motion hangouts with his closest companions. If you know anyone looking to deepen their connection to their partner, Jordan’s sensitivity and intuitive perspective will definitely help you step up in your relationships!

Age: 29

What do you do? (Work)
I’m a sex and relationship coach, and writer.

Why do you do it?
Because I believe that a deeply fulfilling love life should be available to everyone.

How do you make a difference in the world? (Work, business, life, family, self)
I reach over a million people per month with my writing at and I coach people 1-on-1 as well.

What are 3 defining moments in your life?
– Having my heart broken at 20.
– Starting my business at 25.
– Learning to love again at 27.

What is your life purpose?
My life purpose is to spread and inspire deep levels of love around the world, in all that I do.

How did you tap into it?
As cliché as it might sound, I really don’t think I ever tapped into it. It just was me, from a young age. I’ve always had such a huge heart for people. Even before I knew I could create my own career, I knew I would be doing something similar to what I’m doing now.

Who is your Role-Model or Mentor?
I have many role models and mentors for different areas of my life (too many to list)… so I’ll take this in a slightly different direction. The person who currently inspires me the most in the world is a man named Sonny Moore (aka Skrillex). He’s a musician who works tirelessly to improve in his craft, he honours the variety of his creative impulses whether they make sense within his cohesive brand or not, and he loves serving his audience.

Do you have any daily habits? If so, what are they?
Yes, and they all occur in the morning. I write before sunrise (articles, books, etc.), I have a morning gratitude practice, and I have a green smoothie that’s loaded with essentially all of the nutrients that I need to get me through the day.

When do you know your work/life balance is off?
When I sit down to write an article that I know my mind is excited to write, but my heart is unable to meet me halfway. When my creative energy feels stifled I know that I need to take some down time to recharge.

Vulnerability is a challenge for most men – share a vulnerable moment from your life with us.
I went through an emotionally devastating breakup in my early 20’s that rocked me to my core. During the breakup my emotionality and sensitivity were heavily shamed and for a period of over five years I hid my negative emotions from all women. I didn’t cry in front of a woman for those years (which is a huge feat because I’m totally a crier) and had a huge emotional block to women in general. It was only over the last 2-3 years that I’ve been able to fully open up again and honour my sensitive nature in all scenarios.

What did you learn from it?
The things inside of ourselves that we most resist are the things that we most need to stop fighting. And when we stop fighting, we will find our greatest gifts that we can offer to the world.

If you are or were going to be a mentor for another man, what is one piece of advice you would give him?
It totally depends on who the person is and at what point they are in in their journey. Every good mentor knows that any advice is useless except for the man who desperately needs to hear that one piece of advice in that very moment. But if there was one overarching piece of advice that I feel would appeal to anyone that I feel has the most benefit, it would be to “Question everything.”

Question the gender roles you have been handed. Question what society says you can or cannot do for your life’s work. Question the marketing that is presented to you. Question the advice of your mentor. I’m not recommending that people become hardened, cynical, or doubtful of the world… in fact, quite the opposite. You must strike the balance between not taking everything at face value, while having a sense of open, playful curiosity with how the world appears to you. Everything should be questioned.

How do you be the best partner (Boyfriend/Husband- past or present)
My short answer to this question is the same as when people ask me what my favourite sex position is (“It depends on the partner I’m with”) since everything is about calibration. Some of the things that I’ve gotten the most consistent feedback about is that I listen deeply and without distraction (my phone is almost always in airplane mode), I am highly physically affectionate, and I naturally gravitate towards being lavish with my verbal praise. The people I love always know how much I love them and exactly what I love about them. They never have to question it.

Do you support any Charities or Not-for-profits? (Which one(s) and why?)
Yes. I donate to Vancouver’s Friends For Life society. FFL provides support to people with life-threatening illnesses. I initially heard about them because my parents discovered them and have been volunteering with them for nearly a decade. As an aside, most of what I’ve learned about being a good person was modeled to me by my parents. I hit the jackpot by being born into their family.

If your life had a theme song, what would it be?
My Way by Frank Sinatra. Not because I pride myself on going at it alone or hustling, white knuckling, or forcing life to happen… but rather because I believe in living life with a high degree of intentionality. I’m constantly asking myself “What do I want?/Why do I want that?/How do I go about achieving that?” At the end of my life, I want to know that I loved deeply, inspired a deeper ability to love in others, and always honoured myself and chose my own path.

Where do you see yourself in 3 years?
With how rapidly my life has changed in the last decade, it feels almost impossible to hypothesize a response to this question. But assuming that there won’t be the major shifts in technology, distribution models, and culture that will inevitably happen over the next three years, my answer would be the following.

In three years time, my writing will reach over 25 million people per month and be inspiring a more open, honest, and shame-free conversation about sex and relationships. I will be a two-time New York Times bestseller. I will do approximately ten public speaking engagements per year, while also coaching clients 1-on-1 digitally, and holding small retreats and workshops around the world for couples. I will also be married, my eyes will be bright, and I will be splitting my time between Vancouver, Paris, and Ubud.

What legacy do you want to leave for future generations?
When it comes down to it, everything that I do with my life is about love and intentionality. I want to leave a legacy that leaves people feeling inspired, expansive, loved, and empowered. Yes, you can tell that person what you love about them. Yes, you can chase down any career path you desire. Yes, you can ask them to marry you. All of it is attainable. Everything you desire is just on the other side of a deep breath and twenty seconds of courage.

What One book would you recommend for any Man?
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is a brilliant read for any man looking to be able to trust and surrender to the idea that every person has internal messages that must be listened to. The runner up to that, that I feel every person the planet would benefit from, is The Six Pillars Of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden. It’s written in a (relatively) much more dry way, but it has some densely packed value in there.

If you know a Man that is making a positive impact on the world, we would love to hear from you! Contact us at [email protected]


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