On Monday, I sat in the audience of a packed auditorium listening to the brilliant words of Dr. Brene Brown. For those who don’t know her, she’s a social researcher who became widely known from her famous TED talk on vulnerability, shame, and building real confidence.
In this article, I want to examine her findings on shame and apply it to the struggles men face in their dating lives.
Understanding the difference between shame and guilt
During the talk, Brene hit an interesting point on the difference between shame and guilt. Her research has shown that shame is one of the most powerful, destructive emotions that everyone experiences (unless you lack empathy).
Simply put, the difference between shame and guilt is…
Shame is judgment on yourself and your worth as a person. Guilt is judgment on your behavior and the actions you take. Telling yourself:
“I can’t believe I did that, I’m a complete idiot” is shame.
“I can’t believe I did that, it was a dumb decision” is guilt.
When you filter your mistakes through shame, you internalize that you are a bad human being. You are belittling your self-worth. You believe you’re a failure as a person.
When you filter your mistakes through guilt, you internalize that you simply made a wrong choice. You are upset with your actions but not yourself as a whole. You believe the failure was temporary and can be adjusted and learned from next time.
Shame is never a useful tool. Her research shows that it leads to depression, aggression, resentment, addiction, violence, and even suicide.
Guilt, on the other hand, leads to the exact opposite with a less likelihood of all the above. It is an uncomfortable yet important emotion into understanding that our slip-ups are human and failure helps us grow.
Recognizing how shame manifests
Men experience shame much differently than women. After working with hundreds of guys, I agree with Brene that the root of most male shame is:
Don’t be weak. If you are weak in any way, you have failed.
In dealing with men trying to connect with women, shame reveals itself in various ways. Here are some situations that make guys feel inferior and their resulting negative thoughts:
- Being too afraid to approach women that you’re interested in. You incorrectly believe this fear makes you pathetic.
- Getting friend zoned by not being physical or expressing your sexual intentions. You must be missing some sexual appeal that turns women off to you.
- Having little or no sexual experiences. Obviously, if you haven’t had sex with 10 girls yet then you are not a man.
- Getting rejected or turned down by a girl you approached. You’re not be good enough to date attractive new women.
- Texting a number you got and receiving no reply. You must be a creep and women only give you their numbers out of pity.
- Being dumped by a girl you’re seeing. If she left you, there must be something permanently wrong with you. No other girl will ever want you.
The truth is that these situations do not reflect your value as a person. Everyone has experienced them in some way or another. Your worth should only be dictated by how you perceive yourself. The subsequent false beliefs are just manifestations of shame.
Dealing with shame in unhealthy ways
As a reference, let’s use the idea of approaching a girl only to have her turn you down. This could be her saying she has a boyfriend, expressing that she’s not interested, or turning her back to talk to her friends. This can be painful and deters men from meeting more women.
Once men feel ashamed of themselves, they usually take one of two routes:
- Shutting down: This can be closing yourself off to people. Avoiding putting yourself out there again. Being apathetic and acting like you didn’t care about what happened when you actually did. Making excuses, getting defensive, or blaming external circumstances. Turning to outside substances to make yourself feel better.“Whatever, not like I gave a shit anyway. I wasn’t even really trying to talk to her, I was just bored. This is why I don’t waste my time trying to meet new girls.”
- Anger: This can go both ways: towards yourself or towards others. That includes self-loathing and beating yourself up. Harboring resentment and frustration with women. Blowing up or showing aggression to the people closest to you. Being cynical. Victimizing yourself and believing the world is against you. And even physical violence.“Wow, I’m such a loser. What girl would ever like me? I’ll never find someone so I might as well give up.” or “Stupid bitch, what the hell does she know? She seems like a stuck up snob anyway. All women just want jerks who treat them like crap or that have money. They don’t go for good guys like me so I’m going to start being an asshole, too.”
These paths have one thing in common: you’re not being vulnerable. You are protecting yourself and your ego. Therefore, you are preventing yourself from growth. It’s a vicious cycle that reinforces shame and shreds your self-esteem.
But there is a better way…
Dealing with shame in healthy ways
The right way to manage shame is by being vulnerable in the moment. It‘s opening your mind and your heart to face this terrifying emotion. Follow these four steps to conquer shame:
- Analyze and Use Self-Observation: Understand where those negative beliefs stem from. Examine their validity. Deconstruct why you still carry them and how they are hurting you.“Having a women reject me makes me feel abandoned. My mother didn’t show me much attention and I think it reminds me of the lack of connection I felt from her. I also had an ex-girlfriend who I loved that dumped me and I’m afraid women all women will cheat or leave.I understand that I’m holding onto my past and projecting. I’m being unfair and generalizing. I’m not giving other women an honest chance because of my own fears and preconceived notions. And all it’s doing is limiting my options.”
- Accept and Forgive: Understand that everyone has these feelings – they’re temporary and normal. Remind yourself that it’s okay to be afraid and it doesn’t make you any less of a man. Praise yourself if you took any sort of action regardless of outcome.“This made me feel awful. I put myself on the line and got rejected. But, I know that almost everyone has been in this position before and I am not alone. Just because she was not interested, doesn’t mean I’m unworthy or that other people won’t like me. I’m proud that despite all my fears, I challenged myself to approach a girl. That took a lot of courage.”
- Empathize: Try to see other points of view and where they could be coming from. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume that everyone will be the same because of one person’s actions. Relate how you’ve been in similar situations yourself. When you see everything as “you vs. them”, you detach yourself from people and stop yourself from making connections.“She might not have been interested and there could be many reasons why. Maybe she had a bad day, maybe she was nervous herself, maybe she does have a boyfriend, maybe she felt unattractive, or maybe she just wasn’t into me. Whatever it is, that’s okay and she or other women aren’t bitches if they reject me. I’m not interested in every woman I meet so I can’t expect the same from them, it’s not possible.”
- Reflect and Take Action: Can I learn anything from this? What could I have done better? Sometimes though, there is no answer and you have to realize that much of your success is out of your control. You then come up with a plan of action for next time based on your reflections.“I realize that I was anxious and didn’t hold eye contact. I have to remember next time to maintain my gaze even when my body tries to fight me. I’m going to keep approaching girls and focus on practicing strong eye contact until it feels natural.”“I felt like I went in really strong. I was smiling, relaxed, and expressive. She was smiling back but said she had a boyfriend — there’s a good possibility she was telling the truth. I’m going to keep approaching girls and continue being forward with my intentions.”
Repetition builds habit. Every time you feel ashamed, you have to be conscious of how you react to that emotion.
Are you going to get down on yourself, others, and take it personally? Are you going to let shame hold you back from getting what you want? Or are you going to face it with vulnerability, understanding, and view it as a learning experience? Only the latter leads to confidence.
If you valued these insights, I highly recommend you check out Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly.