What Causes Shame? How Men and Women Differ

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What causes shame? Do men and women experience and respond to shame differently?

According to Brene Brown, the author of Daring Greatly, what causes shame in men is different from what causes shame in women. Men feel ashamed when they feel weak and inadequate in some capacity. In contrast, women feel ashamed when they fail to live up to the societal expectations around appearance, femininity, and motherhood.

Read about what causes shame in men and women, and how we respond to it.

What Causes Shame?

There are significant consequences to being part of a culture where shame is rampant. You internalize it, believe what it tells you about who you are, and act on those beliefs. But what causes shame? Naturally, the factors that make us feel ashamed are different for men and women.

Women and Shame

The expectation for women in our society is “be perfect, and make it look easy.” They’re caught in a catch-22. Be sexy, but only at the right times. Be honest, but don’t upset anyone. Be yourself, but only the good parts. Every choice leads to shame. 

What causes shame for women are the societal expectations around appearance and body image, with motherhood clocking in at the number two spot. And it doesn’t even matter if you don’t have kids—the value of a woman in our culture is still tied to motherhood. Single women are often asked when they will be finding a spouse, and the only reason this question is asked is that marriage is seen as the first step to becoming a mother. Once married, the question becomes, “When are you having kids?” Once you have kids, the judgment begins, and the arising of shame is inevitable. 

Core Feminine Norms
  • Be hot
  • Be thin
  • Be nice
  • Be humble
  • Be nurturing
  • Be in a relationship
  • Be sexual (but only with your partner)
  • Be effortless

It doesn’t matter if we intellectually understand that these expectations may be sexist or destructive, we still abide by them, and that’s what causes shame to proliferate.

Men and Shame

No matter the category of shame, the message for men is “weakness is not an option.” What, for men, falls under the umbrella of weakness?

  • Being afraid
  • Being nice
  • Being emotional

If you’re a man in our society, you are expected to show no weakness, but you are also expected to be seen as powerful at all times. It often results in a dichotomy akin to the insecure man with the loud, expensive car. The misguided belief is this: If you’re loud, aggressive, and powerful, no one will see your weak spots. Research notes that for men, the experience of fear or shame is very physiological, and their reactions to it are often very visceral, as opposed to women, who may process those emotions more cerebrally. Men generally have one of two reactions when they feel shame.

Male Shame Response #1: Anger

Anger is considered one of the only acceptable emotions for men to feel and express. When they experience the pain or fear of shame, expressing anger is a way for them to regain their sense of power.

An example might be a young man in high school being bullied by his peers. Let’s say his peers call him names meant to diminish his masculinity and highlight his “weakness” (a common one is “pussy”). He might, to save face, get into a physical fight with these peers. If he can shut them up with his anger, it has a twofold effect: he has “proven them wrong” and he is now the one with the power. 

Male Shame Response #2: Numbness

If a man doesn’t want to express anger, he will typically shut his emotions down entirely as an alternative. Numbness involves suppressing emotions partially or completely. 

For example, this might look like the man who, when faced with conflict at home, retreats to his office and shuts the door. Or, the man who, to avoid inner conflict, smokes a ton of weed to deaden his emotional reactivity. 

Men and Shame Regarding Women

Research also shows women are actually major reinforcers of male shame. How so? They enact their own double standard, and criticize men for their lack of vulnerability, while simultaneously fearing that same vulnerability when it’s revealed. This fear can often communicate disillusionment, or even disgust, driving home the notion that expressing vulnerability is shameful. The message received? Pretend to be vulnerable, but never be truly vulnerable.

Another surprising thing discovered in research groups was the evidence that men feel quite vulnerable when it comes to sex. Why? Men are socialized to believe themselves responsible for making the first move sexually. Therefore, being sexually rejected is considered the ultimate male shame. Women are often concerned about how they are being physically perceived by men in a sexual scenario, but it turns out, men are more concerned with the emotional aspect of the experience. 

Considering all this, it’s fair to say that part of the shame problem in romantic relationships is the fear and misunderstanding in the space between the male and female experience of shame.

What Causes Shame? How Men and Women Differ

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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