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Shame or Grandiosity or…

In his book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, author and therapist Terrance Real describes the interplay between shame and grandiosity in the lives of men who have been relationally wounded by societal gender roles instilled during our earliest development stages as children. This wounding (at a subconscious level for most men) spawns covert depression and a sense of shame, unspeakable and, for many, unnamable, as men attempt to live in relationship with their families and in the larger world of work and play. And for men with little tolerance for shame, the response is to gravitate quickly to the opposite end of the continuum—grandiosity. Evidence of this in men’s lives can be seen everywhere from the sports and action heroes that are idolized, the war-making that is rampant, the vitriolic political speech that floods our media, and the cool, “you can’t hurt me” air that pervades especially younger male culture.

This dance between shame and grandiosity in the lives of men is played out at a systems level in the dialogue on domestic violence. On the one hand, as women have gained voice in the last 50 years, they have raised important and world-changing critique of the behavior of men and the corresponding plight of women, leading to welcome empowerment and social gains for women. This has left men, though, often feeling the weight of shame as the statistics have mounted and the social commentary has exposed the extent of male privilege and the impact of male violence and abuse of power. Especially when heard through the voices of more strident or radical feminism, this message about men has sent many men looking for cover.

Is there little surprise, then, when much of the Christian men’s movement has responded with a call to return to the glory days of male pride and power? Under the guise of an interpretation of Scripture that plays well to the insecurities of men who feel condemned by an often secular, but also sometimes faith-based, challenge to the strongly held beliefs and values of the male-dominated theology of the past, Christian men’s organizations ramp up the rhetoric of traditional male leadership in family, community, business, and politics, and characterize true masculinity in terms of knighthood, with women as damsels needing to be rescued.

Is there an alternative to these two extremes—seeing men unilaterally as perpetrators or arguing for men to regain their lost power over women? Can we find a way forward that will not unduly promote a position of shame for men, or spark a reactionary grasping at footholds of grandiosity? Can we develop a model of response to issues of male violence that brings men and women together to envision a cooperative, life-enhancing mutuality that is not a zero sum game of “who’s got power now”? Who are the voices of humble reconciliation, who do not minimize the work of exposing truth and demanding change, but who do so with a call to recognize mutual brokenness and dependency on God’s grace? How can the Christian community provide leadership in this journey, bringing God’s message of healing and hope to men and women?

This article appeared in CBE’s e-newsletter, Arise.

Author: Don Neufeld
Don Neufeld (MSW) is a private practice clinical social worker in Saint Catharines, Ontario. After spending 18 years in child protection services, he pursued private practice as a generalist therapist. This has included extensive group work with men who have been convicted of domestic violence offenses and a parenting group primarily for socially disadvantaged fathers. Since entering the field, Neufeld has become intrigued by the dialogue between theology and the social sciences, most recently with the intersection of these as they manifest in clinical settings. Neufeld and his wife, Gayle, have three sons and live in the town of Virgil, Ontario.

14 Comments

  1. Jennifer Whiting
    Comment #96779 posted October 11, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    Thank you for your eloquent and cogent presentation of this important issue! This is the flip side of the issue of equality for women. Women will experience their freedom not at the expense of men, but alongside men’s freedom from societal gender roles. Both sides gain healing when both men and women step into the balance that God intended for us all.

  2. Sue
    Comment #96781 posted October 12, 2012 at 6:06 am

    Good questions, but I believe the answer is to spend more time looking at Jesus, who characterized humanity, in ways that embody strength and compassion. Jesus has power, but it’s not a power that wins or wounds.

    • Susan L.
      Comment #96789 posted October 13, 2012 at 8:31 am

      Good point, Sue. I wonder if it’s typically easier for women to access this combination of strength and compassion than for men? Seems sometimes men see Jesus as completely “other,” the ultimate role model but completely out of reach.

      • Comment #96799 posted October 14, 2012 at 11:11 pm

        Maybe it is easier because it’s more socially acceptable which goes back to the original article which talks about how men have been shamed in their young years for being gentle and compassionate.

  3. Don Johnson
    Comment #96782 posted October 12, 2012 at 8:05 am

    That is a great insight that I will need to continue to ponder. All too often one either succumbs to an idea or its antithesis, when the path forward is the ability to choose a third option, perhaps currently unseen when enmeshed in the original idea or its antithesis.

  4. Suzanne
    Comment #96783 posted October 12, 2012 at 11:17 am

    Thank you for this article! This is a very complicated human issue and you have brought truth and clarity to it through this short article. I will be getting your book in hopes of more freeing truth.

  5. Comment #96784 posted October 12, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Great insight on the dynamic going on for men right now as they also search for a new, more sustainable gender identity for themselves as men in the wake of women’s re-evaluation of their own gender prescriptions. I identify with the author’s question “Can we develop a model of response to issues of male violence that brings men and women together to envision a cooperative, life-enhancing mutuality that is not a zero sum game of “who’s got power now”? Who are the voices of humble reconciliation…?”
    I would suggest that there is already a movement of people modeling life-enhancing mutuality in this fashion, confronting issues of male violence with voices of humble reconciliation… That would be the Pro-Feminist movement, led by educators like Jackson Katz and Michael Kimmel, which casts a new vision of masculinity for men in which men act as women’s allies and demonstrate solidarity with women. The movement supports men in taking a vocal and visible stand for the protection and honor of women among their male peers.

  6. Liz Liz
    Comment #96786 posted October 12, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    In our ministry life we were involved with many domestic abuse situations in the homes of those attending our church and some from other situations. While we spent considerable time and effort supporting women and often helping them leave an unsafe environment, we have always been aware that men are people too. People with damage to their emotions and reasons for why they behave as they do. We use the expression “this explains behaviour but does not excuse it”.

    As this post so eloquently explains, males develop shame quite young if they don’t match up to what their peers and society expect of them. Trying to fit the expected attitudes and behaviours can be a big contributor in acting outside of their inner feelings. As parents of 4 boys, now grown men and 3 with sons of their own, we have experienced this firsthand and tried hard to encourage them to be themselves and to follow Christ’s example, but at times it has been hard for them to maintain, especially as they were approaching adulthood.

  7. Liz Trevor
    Comment #96794 posted October 13, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    We are currently visiting a young male who is in prison for the second time for having broken a violence restraining order against his partner. He is presently undergoing an anger management course within the prison system. As he reaches the conclusion of the course he is required to undergo psychological assessment to establish a) whether he has learned anything positive from the course, b) whether his behaviour is likely to be modified in the near future and c) whether a) or b) qualify him to be considered for early parole.

    On our last visit he boasted that he could have answered the questions put by the psychologist in the affirmative and improved his chances of an early parole. But he wanted to be totally honest and say what he really felt, the sum of which was that he felt that his partner deserved to be beaten because she has not managed their children well. He also said (to us, not to them) that if he gets released and finds that she has custody of the children he would not hesitate to kill her because she is incapable of treating ‘his’ children well. So repeated violence is his only solution to what he conceives to be a personal injustice in that he feels misunderstood and used.

    Naturally we remonstrated with him about such a course of action. How could that benefit the children if he were imprisoned for life? His answer, at least ‘she’ would not have them. Where does such an abusive mind-set come from. This young man is the third child of a woman who had three children by three different fathers. His own father was abusive and he witnessed repeatedly his mother being beaten. He is also aware that his father sexually abused his step sister. While he detests his father for having treated women so badly this is all he knows to do for himself. In fact, he is not only angry toward women but is aggressive and confrontational by nature having a history of starting fights.

    We knew this young man as a child, a teen and a young adult. As a child he was very artistic and showed great promise to break with his past. Unfortunately, influenced by his mother’s soft attitude to drugs and her own using in front of him, he got heavily into the drug scene. He spiraled downwards and out of control from that point, never able to take responsibility for his own wrongdoing, capable only of recognising the failures of others, especially toward him. Here is a young man who is out of control for all the reasons that began in a mindset of what the post author has alluded to above. We are doing our best to talk of and model for him another way.

    • Comment #96797 posted October 14, 2012 at 4:49 pm

      what a tough challenge—i wonder if he can be made to understand that his partner’s “unfitness” as a parent is at least partly caused by him being on her all the time—i know from experience that when a parent or a partner is always “on your case” it makes you nervous and you make even more mistakes—-if they would back off and leave you alone you would do just fine—or at least somewhat better

      • Liz Trevor
        Comment #96798 posted October 14, 2012 at 7:14 pm

        Thanks Maggie for your observation, that may well be a part of the tension that existed with this couple at one time because he is a very short tempered and impatient person. Her background is highly dysfunctional too in that her mother has children by multiple relationships and is an abuse survivor. Drug addiction and sexual infidelities have been the biggest contributors to the young man’s belief that his former partner is not able to be a consistently competent mother. The children are presently in the care of the Department of Child Protection and have been for some considerable time.

        I might add that we have been involved with his former partner too and sadly she is on the same track as her mother in that she is currently in and out of bad relationships. When she is deemed, by the DCP, to be in a somewhat stable relationship she has custody of the children, but it is never for long.

  8. Rich
    Comment #96859 posted October 23, 2012 at 12:00 am

    I appreciate your efforts to surface some of the very real challenges men face as they deconstruct the beliefs and prejudices they have incorporated knowingly or otherwise into their life values. Within many faith communities this includes pervasive systematic devaluing of women leading to the oppression and abuse so many women have suffered. For men seeking to participate in movements toward mutuality we must develop language and experiences that foster a greater continuum of understanding of our feelings than the concepts of shame and grandiosity that actually represent aspects of hierarchical belief systems that limit awareness, grieving, healing, and growth for men thus perpetuating male behavior that oppresses women. Your work is helping us broaden our understanding, thank you.

  9. Comment #96924 posted November 4, 2012 at 11:35 am

    Happened to come by and read this excellent article. Thanks, it is good to know that feminists can be sensitive to how men can react when confronted by the truth about patriarchy and millenia-old male domination.

    I have often been challenged and reminded that while I need to speak the truth about the genders, it has to be done without bitterness and with hope and obvious forgiveness – not because I am a woman, but because I follow the Lord who was forgiving, patient and never bitter or cynical.

    • Liz Liz
      Comment #96925 posted November 4, 2012 at 4:47 pm

      How good to read that you want to act in the right way because you are a follower of Jesus rather than because you are a woman. I have always wanted to be recognised as a Christian first and foremost…gender is a secondary part of a person.

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