The Tragedy of Hiding Individual and Societal Shame


The hiding of human emotion is common in modern culture. We become so good at it that we end up hiding our emotions not just from others, but from ourself. We pay a high price for this coverup, individually and as a society.

“Emotions are like breathing—they cause trouble only when obstructed,” says Thomas Scheff, sociology professor at UC Santa Barbara.

In a recently published paper, Scheff examines the emotion shame. In our society that reveres individualism, Scheff finds that shame is the most obstructed emotion. Because it is the most hidden, it is also the most destructive.

Hidden vs. Helpful Shame

This does not mean all shame is bad. If you have ever done or said something hurtful, and then experienced an inner jolt of shame, that is your internal sense of morality or compassion reigning in your behavior. Paying attention to our natural shame reactions helps us cultivate good relationships.

The shame that withers our soul comes from the mouths of others. If we hear, “Shame on you,” often enough, we forget shame is about questionable behavior and begin to think of our self as being shameful. We may react to this shame by fearing to assert ourself, or by becoming aggressive.

Professor Scheff points out that hidden shame, which is prevalent in our culture right now, may be responsible for both individual and societal acts of aggression. There is research supporting the idea that behind violent behavior lies hidden feelings of humiliation.

Societal Shame and Aggression

“Especially for leaders, both shame and anger are carefully hidden behind a veil of rationality,” writes Scheff. For instance, Scheff suggests the U.S. invasion into Iraq after 9/11 may be owed to the Bush administration’s hidden sense of helplessness and shame over the terrorist attack.

People in modern societies learn to be “civic respectable” and hide their anger and shame. Yet, most of us experience both emotions. If they are not expressed effectively, they will be expressed ineffectively or to our detriment.

Resolving Hidden Shame

Shame is epidemic in our society, yet those who feel shame usually feel alone. Know that, except for a few rare individuals, everyone in the modern world—consciously or unconsciously—has issues with shame.

When asked how to resolve hidden shame, Professor Scheff had some excellent advice, use laughter:

“That is, laugh at yourself or at the universe or at your circumstances, but not at other people. Most of the laughing we do in comedy is good. No matter the actors, we are really laughing at our own selves that we see in their foolishness.”

If your sense of shame is deeply ingrained and beyond the effects of laughter, seek out someone you can talk to. You need to express your feelings and have the experience of being accepted as you are.

Photo by Samantha Marx

Source: Science Daily


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