Judgement from others is a frightening experience and evokes a powerful series of feelings that can be haunting for many. It is a pervasive feeling that can manifest internal thoughts of humiliation, distress, and worthlessness. External judgment can translate into inner shame. Shame is a private experience that each person experiences for themselves while also working hard to keep it hidden. For many men who were raised to be strong, told to man-up, and reminded to never show weakness it can be a feeling that is extremely difficult to acknowledge.
Sometimes, our shame can be seen by others. This typically takes place through the related feeling of embarrassment. Embarrassment offers physical signs. Such as blushing, downward gaze, manipulated or forced smile, that others can see whereas shame can live under the radar. Shame can become such a controlling and de-valuing feeling that our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions are manipulated by it.
The pressure one feels from their internal shame can become magnified while in a formalized or social group. Group norms and behaviors can dictate how safe we feel contributing. For countless men, when the moment does arise and they’ve decided to take a risk and lean into a conversation with courage and vulnerability, they still throw out a safety net. For instance, the safety net can be something as simple as the statement “don’t judge me man.” For others, the safety net is to simply remain silent and hold back from speaking their truth.
When I work with groups of men, I often witness incredible moments of vulnerability from participants while also too commonly experiencing cautious contribution from others. Working in a group setting is a dynamic experience that offers a unique perspective unto itself. It is something that you cannot explain, but rather you just need to experience it. Personalities always vary, and the content discussed can swing from wildly electric and moving to a heavy dull silence. While the therapist’s objective is to help navigate discussion and support participation, I also find the dull silence is what intrigues me.
All too often, a group can be dominated by one or multiple personalities while most other participants become passive contributors or simply witnesses to others. The characters within a therapeutic group are not so different than the characters within a group of friends sharing in a social setting. Both types can become boisterous and full of life while also momentarily experiencing fleeting moments of awkward silence.
Often the dull or awkward moments of silence can open creases in the conversation that offer the opportunity to share and experience incredible moments of vulnerability. Unfortunately, what frequently occurs is a quick detour from those moments to “Who’s buying the next round” or “I’ve got to use the bathroom, be right back” or “Hey, did you see that tweet from so and so…”
On the other hand, when the moment does arise in those instances of silence, and someone decides to lean into sharing their truth, I have come to witness and experience that’s what makes a group dynamic so extremely powerful, supportive, and liberating.
Addressing judgment and processing shame is not an overnight “fix” and there is not a simple exercise to remedy the pain. Shame can be an extremely pervasive feeling and for each of us the path to overcoming it is different.
As a first step, I always encourage clients, especially men, to look for those moments of silence in a conversation and recognize the opportunity to lean into the person sitting across from them and share their truth. Easier said than done I know, although while the first time can be the hardest the results can be freeing!