For years I worked as a facilitator of groups for men on the Central Coast, NSW who used abusive or controlling behaviours in their intimate relationships with women. I also work with women who use abusive and controlling behaviours toward men, but that’s another story. I co-facilitated these Central Coast men’s groups with a male therapist/counsellor.

A few times I heard my male co-facilitators say, ‘I’m ashamed to be a man’. Whenever I heard this, I felt irritated and confused. When I see a woman behaving badly, I don’t think or say, “I feel ashamed to be a woman”. Why are they telling me this and why does it bother me? I recognised my feelings were a cue to dig a little deeper.

To me it could mean one of two things:

One possibility is these male therapists’ have done something or behaved in some way they are ashamed of. If we’ve harmed another person, it is appropriate and healthy to feel shame. It’s called ‘healthy shame’ or guilt. But there’s no point of proclaiming ‘I feel ashamed to be a man’ if you don’t do anything about it.  All it does is put you in a self-induced prison of shame and victimhood. It’s not helpful for you, me, or your partner, ex-partners, children, or the people who’ve harmed.

If you are experiencing shame talk about it, unpack it, free yourself and others. Get help. As Brene Brown says “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive’.

I have worked with hundreds of men who have told me things they’ve done to harm women, other men, and children. I’m talking bad sh*t; stuff that lands men in prison. I know it takes huge courage for these men to share their most shameful actions, their most shameful secrets, with me.

When a man sits before me in his shame, I meet them with compassion. For me these moments are moving, profound, and transformative. I never feel any judgement. To the contrary, I feel respect for him for having the courage to bring his shame to the light. I’m sure he feels it too which is why it’s special.

While admitting it to me, the therapist, is important, it’s not enough. Not by a long shot. Being accountable and truly apologising to the people you harmed is what’s needed. That’s where a man can heal himself and gives the possibility for others to heal.

The second possibility is my male colleagues have nothing to be ashamed of and/or have already attoned for the ways they have harmed others. This is “misplaced shame”. The shame you feel when there is no good reason to feel it; it belongs to someone else. It’s a waste of your time and mine; unless you do something about it.

To the men who proclaim, “I’m ashamed to be a man”, I say one of two things:

  1. Don’t sit there, do something about it. Dig deep. Have the courage to own your mistakes – be accountable. And make true, honest, and heart-felt apologies to the people you’ve harmed. Even if you feel they have harmed you too. Expect nothing in return.
  2. If you have honestly done nothing to be ashamed of, why feel ashamed for the mistakes of others? Do something about it. If you see other men or boys disrespecting or harming others, call them out. Be assertive. But please don’t be aggressive. If you act aggressively and violate another person’s boundaries, then you ought to feel shame, and the toxic cycle of shame continues.

Calling someone out on their poor behaviour in an assertive way takes skill and courage (google: non-violent communication). Saying “I’m ashamed to be a man” and doing nothing about it, doesn’t.

We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of. Hurt people hurt people. We’re human and we all make mistakes. I have. When I’ve reflected on my life, I can see my actions hurt and harmed others. I didn’t mean too, but I did. Being accountable was hard, apologising was hard. I felt vulnerable, exposed, and powerful. While the responses I received were mixed, it was liberating and healing for me, and I hope it was for them, even if it happens in the future.

Be Courageous. If you’re wrestling with shame, see a therapist who knows about shame. Facing shame takes courage and humility. Do it for yourself, do it for anyone you’ve harmed, do it for your children, and stop the destructive cycle of shame. The world needs it.