#Metoo and the Psychology of Shame

Why feeling ashamed for being a man is not an overreaction.

Posted Mar 21, 2018

My dominant emotion in response to the recent deluge of the revelations of sexual misconduct is shame. Not shame for something I did in the past. I believe that I have been better than average in this respect (although probably 80% of men think the same). No, I feel ashamed for being a man.

You may think that this is an overreaction. Here is an example why it’s not. Yesterday I was sitting in on the subway. A woman got on and there were two empty seats: a fairly spacious one next to me and a really tight one between two women. She chose the tight one.

Was she explicitly thinking that I am a man and therefore suspicious and to be avoided? Probably not. Was her choice influenced by the fact that I am a man? Probably yes. And I can’t blame her for choosing this way. Her choice was perfectly understandable. She was acting on what she saw and she saw that I’m a man.

We are, at least to some extent, who society thinks we are. So by virtue of being a man, in 2018, I am seen as a potential sexual predator. This is something to feel ashamed of, like it or not. It’s no good arguing that I am different – I’m a different kind of man, I’m a nice guy. It’s only the other men who are dangerous. That is completely irrelevant. What matters is that I’m seen as a man with all that it entails.

Emotion scientists have a lot to say about shame. The consensus is that shame is not all bad. It can be a positive emotion. For example, it can remind you of your values. When my vegetarian friend feels ashamed about eating meat, this can remind her of how important vegetarianism is to her. And that may help her not relapsing next time.

Shame can also help you becoming a better person. If you feel ashamed that you did not leave enough tip in the restaurant, this can get you to tip more generously next time (because you want to avoid that nagging feeling of shame next time).

But can we feel shame for something we have no way of changing? I can’t change the fact that I’m a man (not easily, anyway). How does it make any sense then to feel ashamed for being a man?

It’s true that I can’t change being a man. But I can change, in some small ways, what society thinks of men. And this is a way in which the #Metoo movement could turn out to be transformative not only for women, but also for men.

The reaction from men in response to #Metoo has not been great, alas. Those who don’t ignore or dismiss it are quick to point out how they’ve never done anything wrong. This is just lazy. If men are seen as sexual predators, then those of us who are not sexual predators should go out of our ways to try to change this image.

This is obviously not easy. And that’s where shame may be an important and empowering emotional response. If more of us felt ashamed for being a man as a result of #Metoo, more of us would feel the need to change what society thinks of men. That way, shame can turn into compassion – something we really need now.