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Updated: May 28, 2022

As children, we are utterly dependent on our caregivers for our survival. Yet, they often use shame, rejection, and the withdrawal of love to control and “socialize” us. This leaves deep scars on our soul, and it often happens unintentionally. Preverbal babies as young as fifteen months will enter into the physiological state of shame when their mothers break eye contact from them,(15) perhaps while doing something as simple as responding to a text message or needing to attend to another child. None of us receives “perfect” love—even with the best intentions, our caregivers are flawed, busy humans and cannot be attuned to and attend to every one of our needs. As children we assume this is our fault, that we are somehow unworthy. Taking the blame gives us some sense of control and the hope that, with enough effort, we may be able to prove or improve ourselves. This affords us more agency than seeing our caregiver or the world as the problem. We presume that perhaps through our accomplishments and success, we will finally earn the love we desperately want and need. In the words of the psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn, “It is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than to live in a world ruled by the Devil.”(16) A world ruled by the Devil leaves us hopeless and powerless—nothing we can ever do will land us in a place of safety. Conversely, being a sinner in a world ruled by God, we can retain some hope that through our efforts and willpower we may redeem ourselves and finally earn God’s forgiveness and love.

No amount of success, accomplishments, and power can touch these primal wounds. In that way, the underachiever and the overachiever share the same plight. In the words of John Bradshaw, “The most paradoxical aspect of neurotic shame is that it is the core motivator of the super-achieved and the underachieved, the star and the scapegoat, the righteous and the wretched, the powerful and the pathetic.”(17)

Trying to compensate for our sense of deficiency doesn’t work. In fact, it often backfires, leading to behaviors which generate more shame. And the shame around our sexuality can lead to even more harmful behaviors in sexual contexts. To quote Terry Real again, “The defenses one chooses to avoid shame often afford relief while breeding more shame.” Trying to prove we’re better than others in order to earn love, connection, and belonging puts us in competition with our brothers, leaving us isolated and lonely in the long run.

Efforts to prove or earn our worth are like trying to build a house on an unstable foundation. For the house to stand, we need to find and fill the holes in our foundation with loving awareness and presence. Dan learned to speak to those tender and vulnerable young parts, giving them his assurance that “I am here and will always be here with you, whenever you need me.” As we learn to re-parent those shamed places, our foundation becomes solid and we develop true confidence in our inherent value, not our achievements. We show up authentically, vulnerably, and with more capacity for intimate connection with ourselves and others, men and women alike. As Dan did, so can we all, summoning our courage to dive into the darkness of our shame where we can recover the true dignity of authentic masculinity—a masculinity that is heartful, powerful, sensitive, and potent.

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15. Masculine Shame: From Succubus to the Eternal Feminine by Mary Ayers (2011). New York, NY: Routledge.

16. Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality by Ronald Fairbairn (1974). London, UK: Routledge.

17. Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw (1988). Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.



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