As men, we often learn to hide our emotions. For example, we all know the saying “boys don’t cry”. I can remember on one occasion growing up being happy and dancing to music on the radio. I was told to stop dancing because men don’t dance! We don’t cry, we don’t express happiness, we don’t feel. One of the consequences of this is we learn to hide our emotions and become emotionally illiterate. We lose the emotional language to name what we are feeling.
Often all a man is left with, is his anger. When a man experiences fear, he becomes angry because anger is safer than fear. When a man experiences uncertainty, he becomes angry because the anger provides certainty.
Then there is the stereotypical view that gay men are more emotionally aware and sensitive. Yet a man who is emotionally aware however he identifies sexually learns the need to hide his emotions.
Hiding our emotions not only affects us socially, it also impacts on us sexually. The sexual act is not just a physical act, it is also an act of the emotions. A limited emotional range impacts on the range of emotions we bring to our sexual activity, foreplay and orgasms. Ecstasy requires an emotional range when it is not taken in pill form.
For many men, it is not just our emotions we learn to hide it is also our sexuality. Gay men, men who are bi, men who do not identify with any category but enjoy occasional male to male sex all learn to hide our sexuality to some degree or other.
The consequence is that many men grow up hiding. Hiding behind a construct of masculinity we hope is acceptable to our circle of friends, our families and our wider social network but all the time being anxious in case who we really are and what we really feel leaks through.
What has all this got to do with shame?
Shame is the sense that we are fundamentally flawed, that there is something wrong with us. Shame grows behind the facades we present to those around us. Often because we have lost our emotional language we cannot name our shame. We just have a sense that we are not right. That we could be better.
This sense of shame, even though we cannot name it doesn’t go away. Very often shame gets acted out in our behaviours. For example, how much of our alcohol consumption is because we enjoy a relaxing drink or two or because we are just wanting to drink to take the edge of “that feeling”? How much of our drug use is an attempt to make us feel happy because we are feeling unhappy, discontent and something is wrong?
The bitchy Queen who has the cutting comment and can put everyone down or in their place, how much of that behaviour is driven by an insecurity of not being enough?
Shame is toxic, it is dangerous for our mental health and well-being. That sense, “there is something wrong with me”, leaves us feeling isolated and alone. Unless shame is addressed in our lives it can be like a parasite, it feeds on our sense of ourselves and we don’t realize it is hiding in us.
One of the challenges for members of the LGBTQI community with the current SSM debate is not to go “into hiding”. With the negativity that is being expressed there is the risk of falling back into old habits of hiding. Hiding can re-activate any sense of shame that is lying dormant and “hiding” in our lives because we have not recognised it.
Shame can be challenging but not impossible to deal with. We all have a responsibility towards each other. When our friends are going into hiding, we need to be there for them. We need to remind each other we are all imperfectly perfect. Often we want to be perfect because we feel that will make up for all the put downs and all the shame we experienced growing up. We will never be perfect. There is no such thing as perfection but there is the beauty of being imperfectly perfect, or as Leonard Cohen expressed it “the crack in everything, that lets the light in”
If you feel you are beginning to hide, or you are fed up with that sense that something is wrong with you, the AIDS Council has counsellors who can assist you work through the sense of shame and help you re-discover the uniqueness of yourself.