I am currently taking an online class based on the book, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, PhD. Brown, who is a professor at the University of Texas, describes herself as a vulnerability researcher who studies authenticity, shame and courage. I was drawn to this class on Brown’s work because of her focus on empathy, connection and authenticity which are all running themes in my life because of my interest in Nonviolent Communication.
In her work, Brown defines shame as the “…intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” and describes it as the “warm wash that comes over us that makes us feel small, flawed and never good enough.” It was hard to read that as a 41 year old gay man and not think about my childhood of being bullied, my teen years of trying to play straight and certainly my early 20s when I struggled to come to terms with my sexuality. I am realizing from this book, this class and my own life that growing up gay is a crystallized example of being “in shame” as Dr. Brown describes it in her work.
I can remember after I was gay bashed in 1990. Just a few days after it happen I was looking in the mirror at a face I did not recognize because it was so swollen and black and blue. I was pulling my bottom lip down so I could count the stitches where my teeth caused a hole when I was kicked in the face . I would try to use a hand mirror to look at the black and blue marks on my back. I truly believe at that time that I deserved what had happen to me because I was gay. What happen was ultimately my fault because I was defective. I was not worthy of love and belonging and I didn’t feel I had a place in my life where I belonged. I know now and can name what that was. It was shame. It was the warm wash that came over me that I am convinced to this day is what caused me to physically heal in record time. My doctors were amazed at how fast my black and blue marks, swelling and cuts and bruises healed. I think I wished myself better to make the shame go away.
What was that shame really about? We live in a society where being gay is still viewed as weak, passive, the opposite of masculine. While the last 25 years have brought great change to those views, it hasn’t changed enough to stop gays and lesbians from growing up feeling defective and unworthy of love for who they are. The record suicide rates of youth bullied for their perceived sexual orientation is an example of just how damaging these views can be.
You can watch her Tedx Huston talk:
I am going to throw a premise out there I have been thinking about over the past few weeks about shame and homophobia. We shame young men into being tough, into hiding their feelings, into hiding themselves and we do it with homophobia. I believe this damages heterosexual marriages and the men and women in this marriages. Let me attempt to explain what I have been thinking.
Our picture for what a real man should be is really just “not a faggot” as the perception of the stereotype is this weak, emotional, effeminate, show tune loving guy who looks good in pink. We raise our young men and boys by painting them a picture of what a man is supposed to be and then paint the opposite of that as a faggot. Thus making men want to avoid anyone thinking their are gay even if they are because it somehow makes them less worthy of love and belonging, (shame.)
Researcher Jackson Katz, an author, educator and film maker explored these ideas in his 1999 film “Tough Guise” where he breaks down the stereotypes we use to tell men what being a man is. Before continuing to read the premise I am presenting, watch this short clip from the film and pay particular attention to what the young men say when asked the qualities of being a man.
One of the themes I have heard in this class from other men about living authentically is just how hard it is to be yourself in a world where you are programmed to live up to a certain framework of what a man is supposed to be. I was thinking about this idea of the picture of what a man is “suppose to be.” Men don’t show emotions. Men don’t show vulnerability. Men don’t show compassion. Men dress tough, drive trucks, play football, burp, and fart. The drink beer not wine. They have steak and certainly they don’t eat quiche. Men also spend lots of time NOT doing anything that might lead people to think they are gay. Some even going as far as killing other men to prove they are not gay, deemed the so called, Gay Panic defense. They kill men who hit on them as opposed to just saying “thank you but I am straight but flattered.”
Despite the damage this is doing to gay men and boys, one has to wonder, what does all this do to heterosexual men and boys especially in light of all the new research out there in the past 10 years around mirror neurons, empathy, connection and motivation. I have been reading a ton of books about shame, empathy and human connection and one of the things I find is that all these researchers agree, as men we are emotional, we are creative and those are not signs of being gay, but being human. In fact, many of the characteristics that get attributed to gay men are hold and hidden in straight men.
Homophobia and our refusal to accept and affirm gay men and relationships gives many bullies their power. Just looking at the numbers of who gets bullied and what things bullies say to young men is a clue to just how powerful shame can be as a tool to make men feel small. You want to make a man feel small, flawed and unworthy of love and belonging, call him a faggot. Why is that so shaming, so powerful? Because we allow it to be. It reinforces to men that they have to appear macho not effeminate. What would happen if we changed that stereotype?
I would like you think about what this shame and programming would do to a young, emotional and creative young boy who then grows up and marries a woman. He has been programmed to not communicate his feelings because that is for fags. So he is unable to express to this woman the things she really needs to hear from her partner to make things work. He isn’t going to be told what to do by a woman because men who aren’t their own boss are again perceived as passive which is also another quality of the stereotype of gay men. This leaves a man who faces conflict about chores and won’t be negotiating with his wife, he will want to be the boss. God knows that last thing we teach young men is to be vulnerable, so it is unlikely he will be sharing honestly when he is in pain.
Two of the top reasons heterosexual marriages end are communication breakdowns and abuse. I can’t help but wonder if these communication breakdowns are based in how we shame men into being “not gay” and would these change if we starting accepting gays and supporting them to be healthy, whole and authentic about their stories. If we accepted gay men, straight men would no longer care about being perceived as gay as it would no longer be a bad thing. What if we taught men to have the courage to be who they really are rather than “not gay.” That would mean calling a straight man sensitive wouldn’t send him into the warm wash of shame where he then wants to prove his “not gayness” to the world with destructive behaviors.
I would presume:
I really do think that homophobia hurts straight men just as much as it hurts gay men. I believe it hurts heterosexual marriages for the same reasons. Women with unrealistic and inaccurate views of what being a man is and men trying to live up to unrealistic and inaccurate views of the same. Not sure I see that turning around anytime soon. I do believe that affirming gay relationships, affirming boys desires to explore who they are will serious change so many of the negatives that comes from men trying to prove they “aren’t gay.”
When we can get society to the point where being gay is just no big deal. It is no longer seen as negative. We will also be removing the shame we place on men, gay or straight, when they do things out of authenticity like show emotions, cry, cook, dance, or ignore the Superbowl.
Brene Brown has started a bit of a movement of men and women committed to living authentic lives. To living”wholeheartedly” and willing to have the courage to tell and be okay with their own stories. I truly believe that way to change some of the damage we do to men and boys is to get them to embrace who they are. If you are a straight boy who likes ballet…good. If you are a gay boy who likes pink, good. It is all good, just be yourself. Go dance barefoot in the kitchen to disney songs and it will make you no more and no less or a man.
I leave you with another of Brene Brown’s talks. I find the information in her research her just transformative!
The chances of any of us being taken hostage by an armed madman are thankfully pretty low. On the other hand, our chances of being held psychological hostage to our own fears or the control of others is pretty high. In fact, I would bet to say many of us are psychological hostages to the unresolved conflicts in our lives. George Kohlrieser has been a professional hostage negotiator for decades and brings his years of conflict resolution skills in compact form in the book, Hostage at the Table.
From the get-go this book is captivating with stories of hostage situations taken from Kohlriser’s own experiences as a hostage negotiator. By explaining the nature of conflict and the biology of the “fight or flight” nature of our minds, he gives us a clear picture of why so many of us are being held psychological hostages. He takes us through the skills hostage negotiators use to resolve conflicts and shows how those same skills can be used by business leaders, parents and educators to prevent us from being psychological hostages to the everyday conflict that comes up in our lives. Noting that hostage negotiators have a success rate of over 90 percent, this book offers skills to make life more wonderful by learning to deal with conflict.
I found that most of this book and its offerings fit really well with the foundations of Nonviolent Communication. Kohlriser talks about the importance of “bonding and attachment” and learning to bond even with an ‘enemy’ and becoming a “secure-base” are the keys to never thinking like a hostage. He talks extensively about how the bonding process is one of the key skills all hostage negotiators use to create a safe space where dialogue and negotiation can occur. He stresses the importance of connection, which is the goal and purpose of Nonviolence Communication. For this reason, I would recommend all NVC practitioners read this book. I would also urge all business leaders, community activists and politicians to also read this book.
Kohlrieser uses an interesting metaphor in his book that he calls, “putting the fish on the table” where he compares conflict resolution to cleaning and gutting fish. It is a rather gross and bloody metaphor and it works beautifully by noting that when we leave the fish under the table, they fester become toxic and rot under the table and when we put the fish on the table and do the work of gutting and scaling, we are working toward a beautiful dinner that we can enjoy. His point being that to live a beautiful life, we need to put our fish on the table and deal with the mess before we can move on to the beauty of life.
Kohlrieser points out that all hostage takers have suffered great loss. For almost every event of shootings, hijackings, or people barricading themselves into their homes, we find the individuals have suffered great losses. Whether it was a job, the death of a loved one or the loss of one’s home.
Some of Kohlrieser’s guidelines for solving conflict:
An important thing I would like to note about this book is how Kohlrieser explains that the research shows that a person is incapable of killing another person. First, they must dehumanize them to where they are seen as an object. By creating a bond with their captors, many people have managed to stay alive. In the opening story, Kohlrieser tells of a grandmother who bonds with a man who broke into her house in the middle of the night by offering to cook him dinner and give him a place to sleep. Later, in the morning they discover the man was a psychopathic murderer who had murdered the family who were the nearest neighbors. This lesson about bonding and dehumanizing is a valuable lesson to understanding hate crimes and the part that “hate speech” plays in these crimes. By dehumanizing gays and lesbians, blacks, immigrants, and others into objects rather than people, it is easier for everyday people to justify violence against them. This is why it is so important that we bond and create dialogue with those who create such speech so they understand the outcomes of their words.
You can read the first chapter of the book, including the story of the grandmother here. (PDF files and requires AcrobatReader)
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Martin Luther King Jr.
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