We have presented a case for women’s development of managerial competence in the business world previously dominated by men. Now we turn to the benefits of shame for powering individual development, where women also may have a biological advantage.
Self-doubt and its companion vulnerable self-esteem are manifestations of inborn shame. Despite men’s claims to superiority in strength, competition, warfare and leadership, developmental psychologists generalize that girls approach young adulthood roughly five years ahead of boys. Among the reasons are that girls’ biological access to shame since early childhood1 gives them a tremendous head start over boys towards developing fluent awareness of not only shame but also four other vulnerable inborn emotions. These include distress and its amplifications in sorrow, fear and joy, as well as surprise with its potential for awe and wonder.
It is because of their acute sensitivity to shame that girls and women are deeply moved when relationships are hurting and in need of repair. As a result they are far more persistent than most boys and men to keep trying until they find solutions to the relational problems that plague us. Much of what is called women’s intuition may indeed grow from this passionate and relentless pursuit into our darkest corners in search of the fundamental harmonies that nourish our common humanity. This intuition also connects some of us, men and women, in intimate connections with other animals. But women also develop it through their preverbal bonding with babies.
Over 50 years ago I was surprised to find in the diaries of Swiss post-war dramatist Max Frisch2 a pronouncement that women normally gain more wisdom than men with advancing age. Frisch wrote that women lose the outward beauty that some of them rely on to help them cope with their lives, so they’re motivated to gather more knowledge and skills to manage. In contrast, men are likely to keep much of their personal and social power (more recently renamed “male privilege”), so they don’t try to learn as much from life experience.
Frisch apparently didn’t realize that women’s intense shame awareness about every perceived mistake drives them even at a young age to pursue correction of their presumed faults. Perfection in our lives is not possible. But an emotional perspective shows that we are moved to continually improve ourselves when powered by our feelings of shame and distress, along with excitement for learning, and when rewarded with joy for our success. For most women this drive extends from keeping their kitchens clean3 to working on their relationships with all sentient beings. Also women are at least twice as likely as men to engage in that individual tutoring called psychotherapy and its close relative “spiritual growth” at various times in their lives.4 Thus shame and suffering lead women to gain more wisdom than men do from observing and discussing their thinking and feeling with experts in many aspects of life. This dedication to lifelong intimate relations in pursuit of personality growth promotes new mental, physical and emotional skills and sources of guidance that are generally known as wholeness.
If this is women’s advantage, what can men do to catch up? Men can listen to women, which for most men is easier said than done. For this will require men to learn more of the observational skills and emotional vocabulary that women develop with each other. And men can begin to discover and study their own shame moments, which means learning to respect and even cherish that painful awkwardness. This means men need to cultivate the courage to face and inspect those situations despite their initial message that tells us to get as far away from it as possible. We will provide an introduction to careful study of shame moments for personality development in the final blog.
1.See shame blog 5 summary of Olesker W (1990). Sex differences during the early separation-individuation process. J Am Psychoanalytic Assoc 38(2), 325-346. 2.Max Frisch Die Tagebuecher, 1946-49, 1966-71 (1984) German. 3.In dream interpretation according to C.G. Jung kitchens are symbolic tools of self-nourishment and personality growth. So a lifelong focus on keeping ones kitchen in good working order could be an external projection of women’s inner life attention to personal development. 4.It was Jung who led the field of psychotherapy beyond Freud’s atheism to include the need for a “higher power” that was not a mere projection of human ego or of a human attachment such as wealth or scientific certainty. Thus Jung restored the unity between psychotherapy and spiritual development as numerous paths towards wholeness with various resting places but no ultimate end. For this reason one of my deceased wife’s professors at San Francisco (Presbyterian) Theological Seminary told her that Freud and Jung would eventually be accepted as the avatars of the present millennium, because they have brought the teachings of Jesus home to live and thus be available for discovery inside each person.