How men can overcome shame, live free

Depressed man

My doctor diagnosed me with severe depression.

Photo credit: Pool

Neal Donald Walsch said ‘all attack is a call for help’. This paradoxical statement explains the antisocial behaviour by men in Kenya. There is a rise in sexual assault against women and children. In most cases, the perpetrators are men.

We are also seeing a spike in Intimate Partner Violence with men being the aggressors in a majority of reported cases. We now have more men struggling with Substance Use Disorders than we did in the past and although accurate statistics are hard to come by, there is an observable increase in reports of suicide among men.

More men are killing their partners and spouses than in any recorded period in independent Kenya. It is also notable that a critical mass of Kenyan men, particularly those with little to no disposable income, are struggling with gambling. These and other unhealthy behaviours have many wondering what is ailing men.

To understand these issues, let’s focus on the root of things, not the symptoms. A good starting point is to appreciate that all behaviour is coping. Said differently, all behaviour serves a purpose. If all behaviour serves a purpose, then what function does harm to oneself and others serve in men? The answer lies in understanding how men deal with the pain of shame.

Offloading pain

It’s much easier to offload pain than to feel it. What many men are doing is offloading pain. This begs two questions; what pain are men feeling and why the struggle to feel it? Kenyan men are suffering the pain of shame.

 Shame is the feeling that your whole self is wrong. Many are steeped in this feeling since childhood. Men have been socialised to know that it’s wrong to express emotions. They were raised by men who easily displayed anger, but never expressed hurt, worry and grief in healthy ways. In other words, men have been socialised to be invulnerable.

They attended schools with the unfortunate colonial legacy of using shame as a tool for behaviour modification. In these schools, boys’ feelings were repeatedly invalidated. These boys then leave school and join work and social spaces that are cultured in shame, where dynamics of invulnerability are the currency of relations.

 These men then become partners and fathers and since you cannot offer another what you are not offering yourself, are unable to love, nurture and protect their loved ones because they have never known how to be kind to themselves.

Shame

These men believe that their whole selves are wrong for not living up to their own and their families’ constructs of what they should be and because men socialise each other, this shame is passed down from fathers to sons by men who are unaware of how their being captive to shame influences the way they operate as parents.

Brene Brown, the American shame researcher and best-selling author states that men deal with shame in two broad ways: they get ‘pissed-off’ and they withdraw. These two styles of coping explain many of the behaviour problems we are seeing among men.

Men who are ‘pissed-off’ are hurting. When men lack awareness for how to deal with pain, they offload it through hyper-aggressive and narcissistic behaviour, self-harm, and philandering. When they cope by withdrawing, they gamble, take drugs, consume pornography and struggle with masturbation, buy prostitutes, attempt suicide, and wallow in depression.

To improve the mental health of men, stability of families and gender relations, we must appreciate the place and power of shame in constructing how men perceive themselves.

Muchiri Karega, KU

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