Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What is shame?

Shame[1] is looked upon as one of the most important of all emotions[2] in everyday life and the most important of all of our social emotions. The American sociologist Thomas J. Scheff (2003) argues that this is because shame has more functions than other emotions. Shame is a major component for our conscience, a moral feeling. Shame signalizes a moral transgression even without thoughts and words. Shame comes into being in situations characterized by a threat against inter relational bonds. It signalizes problems in a relationship, the feeling of having failed to live up to ones social and moral standards. Shame plays a part also in how we express, and how we comprehend all of our other emotions. One can be so shameful over all ones emotions that they can be totally suppressed.
            Still, shame shows itself almost invisibly because of the taboo that arises as a result of denial and silence in our modern society[3]. My starting point for studying shame is to emphasize a social angel, how shame shows itself in social systems. Most definitions of shame put weight on the emotions psychological aspects. How I decide to define shame will be important for how I carry out my study of shame. I start therefore with a discussion of what shame is and end up with a conceptual and operational definition of shame which integrate the self (emotional reactions) and society (social bonds). This will make a basis for the choice of method I use for exploring shame.
            Several forefathers of sociology have made some general formulations around the importance of emotions. Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote that values are the basis for social structures and that all values can be understood as emotional beliefs (1904/2006). Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) used shared emotions in creation of solidarity through the moral society (1897/2006).  Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) lifted emotions forth as a component to our social actions and are emphasized in his classical AGIL pattern (Adaption, Goal attainment, Integration, Latency) (1965). Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) involved emotions in the tensions between classes and in the solidarity inside the specific class that is in a conflict or rebellion (1848/2006). All these classical formulations have not contributed to any special new development of knowledge about emotions, because they have only evaluated emotions on a broad basis. General statements about emotions have in many ways very little practical use. Our personal knowledge about emotions through experience are not general, but on the contrary very specific. The above mentions theorists and others that have written about emotions in general have not developed concepts about emotions, they have not explored how emotions actually come forth in everyday life, or collected data on emotions. Their discussions have not given us new knowledge that will give us better insight in the emotions that we share with each other.
            Gershen Kaufman (1989) writes that shame is a taboo in our western society. We relate to studies about shame as though they did not exist. He writes that there are several reasons for this.
            “There is a significant shame about shame, causing it to remain hidden. The cultural
taboo surrounding human sexuality in an early age is thus matched by an equally pronounced taboo surrounding shame today…Lack of an adequate language with which to accurately perceive, describe, and to bring into meaningful relationship this most elusive of human affects…Without an accurate language of the self, shame slips quickly into the background of awareness…Finally, psychological theorist as well as practitioners have found it both easier and safer to explore “guilty” impulses rather than a “shameful” self.” (p.4)
His thoughts about feeling shame about shame, our relationship to sexuality, lack of an adequate language about shame and self, and that we are inclined to explore guilt instead of shame just because this is an easier task, gives us some explanations to why shame seems to be a taboo in our society today. People feel often shame about shame and therefore risk resistance whenever one refers to it.
            This may make it necessary to establish a new working concept about shame in order to explore it closer. Such a concept, together with a theory and method on emotional/relational processes and structures, might bring forth an understanding of the close bonds between self and society. Shame is precisely an emotion that seems to threaten these bonds.  The American sociologist Thomas Scheff calls this form for social shame for a bonding affect (2003). Scheff is of the opinion that shame must be defined much wider than we usually do today in order to understand the conclusive function that shame has as a social control mechanism.
            The narrowest definitions of shame are found in our ordinary, daily language, in orthodox psychoanalytic theory and in experimental social psychology. The wider definitions are found in qualitative and micro linguistic research and in the ordinary dialects of traditional societies. Among the sociologists who have used a wide definition of shame can be mentioned George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) and Erving Goffman (1922-1982).
            Most languages have a word for everyday, not so serious shame and another word for the more negative and strained form for shame. Scheff (2003) argues that the English language lacks an adequate word for the everyday and not so serious shame. Here are some examples:

(Scheff and Retzinger, 1991, p.7)

One way to get by the taboo of shame is to use a somewhat softer and less threatening member of the same family of emotions and do like Goffman (1967/2006) who treats the embarrassment as a key emotion to all social interaction.
A more social definition of the self can serve as a starting point for a broader definition of shame. This because shame comes into being in the self and strikes the whole self, at the same time shame is social and points outwards towards society. Mead (1934/1967) suggested that the self is a social phenomenon just as much as it is biological. His thoughts about seeing things from the viewpoint of others just as much as from ones own, is central to his social psychology. This way of thinking is of central importance also for Cooley and Goffman. Mead had the need for his idea about taking the viewpoint of the other, so that he could better explain his concept of reflective intelligence. Mead gave little of no attention to shame or other emotions.
Cooley (1902/2006) writes that both shame and pride comes from seeing oneself from the viewpoint of others. His concept of “the looking-glass self” refers directly to both shame (mortification) and pride. He saw the principle of self-reflection in three steps.
“ …the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his
judgement of that appearance, and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or
mortification.” (p.184).
Cooley connected the principle of inter-subjectivity to pride and shame. Sociology and social psychology have valued and often quoted “the looking-glass self”, but have disregarded the part that has to do with pride and shame. Unfortunately, Cooley never came with an explanation of what he meant with pride and shame. Both are very complex emotions. The word shame bears very many negative associations with it, so many that it is a taboo. Cooley seems to be inattentive to this problem.
            Goffman also used the idea that emotions were created through taking the viewpoint of the other, but in much lesser degree than Cooley, and was more concerned with embarrassment than shame. But more than Cooley and very much more than Mead, Goffman showed the connection between embarrassment and taking the viewpoint of the other by showing to a large number of examples. Goffman (1959) uses a figure called “Everyperson” that was desperately worried about his self image in the eyes of others. “Everyperson” always tries to present himself from his best side. Goffman created also the important sociological point about embarrassment, which he meant came from being offended in some way or another, either they were real or not, expected, just a fantasy or without regards to how commonplace they might seem to an outside observer.
            Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Joseph Breuer (1842-1925) gave in their book Studies on Hysteria (1895/2004) shame a central role as cause in psychopathology, but after writing The Interpretation of Dreams (1900/2004) Freud ignored shame in all forms of orthodox formulations. He did this because he made anxiety and guilt into the central emotions in psychoanalytic theory. Erik Erikson (1902-1994) rejected Freud’s belief that guilt was the primary emotion in adults in his book on Childhood and Society (1950/1995). He argued instead that shame was the most important, this because shame involved the whole self and not just ones actions.
            The sociologist and social philosopher Helen Merrel Lynd (1896-1982) evolved this idea from Erikson further in her book On Shame and the Search for Identity (1961/1999). She used concrete examples in order to clarify the idea of shame. She was the first to realize the need for a concept of shame that was clearly defined and which differed from ordinary everyday use.
            Silvan Tompkins (1911-1991), one of the most influential theorist of 20th-century psychology and is generally considered the founder of modern affective science, made the next step in the direction of a more social definition of shame in his two volume writings of Affect, Imagery, Consciousness (1963/2006). He acknowledged the central position that shame plays in the process of becoming a self. He argued that embarrassment, shame and guilt should be seen as members of the same family of affects. His work has had a tremendous influence on emotion research. Researchers have since carried out hundreds of studies on face expressions that say something about the different emotions. But these studies have contributed little to the knowledge of shame. This is because, firstly, shame has not been seen as a genuine emotion, and secondly, researchers who only use snapshot pictures of face gestures have ignored the verbal and non-verbal contexts of affects.
            The psychoanalyst Helen Block Lewis (1913-1987) developed an extensive theoretical definition of shame and used an operational definition of shame in her work. She meant that shame depends only on very specific aspects of social relations. This differs from other emotions. She emphasised also the idea that shame was a social emotion, in a bio-psycho-social way. Shame is an instinct, she says, which function is to signalise threats to the social bonds. She suggested that shame is on the outside of our attention. Her theory is built on hundreds of psychoanalysis therapy sessions with patients. She used what is called as the “Gottschalk-Gleser” method, which is a systematic method used for identifying emotions by using transcriptions from recorded conversations. This method implies using long lists of keywords that correlate to specific emotions, like anger, fear, anxiety and shame. Her most important finding was that shame was found in all of the psychotherapy sessions, that patients and therapists very seldom showed direct signs of shame in these conversations, and that there was a relation between shame and anger, where anger seemed to be used to hide shame. Her research and theories on shame can be found in her book called Shame and Guilt in Neurosis (1971).
            Social psychologists like Rowland S. Miller (1997); June Price Tangney and Ronda L. Dearing (2002); Keith Oatley, Dacher Keltner and Jennifer M. Jenkins (2006), all focus on emotions as experimental variables. Their studies come very close to what sociologist Thomas J. Scheff (1997) call “part/whole analysis”, inspired by the Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677) who argues that people are so complicated that we can only start to understand them by looking at them part by part (i.e. words and gestures) and put this together with the larger whole (i.e. concepts, theories and contexts). None of the these social psychological experimental studies look at the social dimensions of emotions.
            A first step towards a definition of shame, which makes it possible to treat the emotion in a systematic fashion that satisfy scientific standards, is to use the concept as a name to a class of emotions. Such emotions arise when one gets a negative self image by looking at oneself through the eyes of others, or just by expecting such a reaction. This will include the work of Erving Goffman (1967/2006) with embarrassment. A social definition of shame will be in conflict with ordinary, everyday use of the word, which is narrower, like a form for disgrace. The research done by Helen B. Lewis (1971) has taught us that shame, or the expectation of shame, is a continuous existence of being found in forms most social interactions.
            Shame is combined with other emotions and creates therefore affects. Disgust and guilt would be two good examples of this. Disgust seems to be an affect of shame and anger, where the anger is pointed outward. Being insulted, one would maybe try to hide ones shame and anger by being aggressive. Guilt seems to have a similar appearance, but with the anger pointed inwards, towards one self.  Guilt serves an important social function by leading one towards doing something right in order to compensate for the wrong one has done. But at the same time, it serves to hide ones shame, this because it focuses on the outgoing actions, ones transgressions and the activities one does to make right ones wrong doings. Guilt does not replace shame, but functions instead as one of many masks that conceal shame. Shame does not go away, it just goes underground.
            If on looks at shame as a large family of emotions, including related word and variations, the most common emotions would be embarrassment, guilt, humiliation and similar emotions like being sky when it is because one feels a treat to a social bond. A social definition of shame must include both the self (emotional reactions) and society (social bonds). If one declares that shame is created by a treat to a social bond, regardless of how small, than a wide range of related words and variations follow with it. Not just embarrassment, being sky and bashful, but every kind of emotion that has to do with ones self-consciousness must be included. Shame comes to being through a treat to a social bond and will therefore be the most important of our social emotions. Shame is the emotion that Émile Durkheim could have described as the social emotion, if he had mentioned such an emotion.
            Helen B. Lewis (1971) was one of the first to treat shame in an operationally way. Her definition is still useful and applicable for identifying shame. I have made an adapted version of what she sees as characteristic for shame experiences. It is important to remember that the way one positions oneself I relation to the other is always an inferior position.

Tabel 1: Self and “Other” in shame and guilt.
Shame experiences
Self (unable)
1. Object of scorn; contempt; ridicule; reduced; little
1. The source of scorn, contempt, ridicule
2. Paralyzed; helpless; passive
2. Laughing; ridiculing, powerful, active
3. Assailed by noxious body stimuli; rage, tears, blushing
3. Appears intact
4. Childish
4. Adult; going away; abandoning
5. Focal in awareness
5. Also focal in awareness
6. Functioning poorly as an agent or perceiver
Divided between imaging self and the “other”
Boundaries permeable; vicarious experience of self and “other,” especially in humiliation
6. Appears intact

Guilt experience
Self (able)
1. The source of guilt as well as of pity and concern; regret, remorse (virtue)
1. Injured, needful, suffering, hurt
2. Intact
2. Injured
3. Adult; responsible
3. Dependent, by implication
4. Occupied with guilty acts or thoughts
4. Subject of thought as related to guilt, otherwise “other” need not be involved
5. Functioning silently
5. Nothing comparable to vicarious experiences in shame, humiliation
(Lewis, 1971, p.88)

Tabel 2: Working concept for shame and guilt:

1. Disappointment, defeat or moral transgression
1. Moral transgression

2. Deficiency in self
2. Event, act, thing for which self responsible

3. Involuntary, self unable
3. Voluntary, self able

4. Encounter with “other”
4. Within the self
Extent of libidinal component
1. Specific connection to sex
1. Connection to aggression
Conscious content
1. Painful emotion
1. Affect may or may not be present

2. Autonomic reactions
2. Autonomic reactions less likely

3. Connections to past feelings
3. Fewer connections to past feelings

4. Many variants of shame feelings
Guilt feeling is monotonic

5. Fewer variations of cognitive content (the self)
5. More variations of content – things in the world

6. Identity thoughts
6. No identity thorughts
See Table 1

Position of the self in the field
1. Self passive
1. Self active

2. Self focal in awareness
2.Self not focal in awareness

3. Multiple functions of the self at the same time
3. Self intact, functioning silently

4. Vicarious experience of “others” view of self
4. Pity, concern for “other’s” suffering
Nature and discharge of hostility
1. Humiliated fury
1. Righteous indignation

2. Discharge blocked by guilt and/or love of “other” discharge on self
2. Righteous indignation
Characteristic defences
1. Denial
1. Isolation of affect

2. Repression of ideas
2. Rationalization

3. Affirmation of the self
3. Reaction formation: good deeds or thoughts

4. Affect disorder: depression
4. Thought disorder: obsession and paranoia
(Lewis. 1971, p. 90-91)

Kaare T. Pettersen
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[1] The Encarta Dictionary defines shame as a negative emotion that combines feelings of dishonour, unworthiness, and embarrassment and offers the following synonyms: disgrace, embarrassment, dishonour, humiliation, indignity, infamy. Pride is here mentioned as an antonym to shame.

[2] The following are working definitions that provide a roadmap to the terrain. There are some partial overlaps among these phenomena, and are not offered as orthogonal constructs. For example, people in certain moods tend to show certain emotions and feelings producing an affective style.
Emotion: refers to a relatively brief episode of coordinated brain, autonomic, and behavioural
changes that facilitate a response to an external and internal event of significance for
the organism.
Feelings: are the subjective representations of emotions. Note that they can reflect any or all of
the components that constitute emotion.
Mood: typically refers to a diffuse affective state that is often of lower intensity than emotion,
but considerably longer in duration. Moods are not associated with the patterned
expressive signs that typically accompany emotion and sometimes occur without
apparent cause.
Attitudes: are relatively enduring, affectively colour beliefs, preferences, and predispositions
toward objects or persons.
Affective styles: refers to relatively stable dispositions that bias an individual toward a
particular emotional quality, emotional dimensions, or mood.
Temperament: refers to particular affective styles that are apparent early in life, and thus may
be determined by genetic factors.
(Davidson et al, 2003. p. xiii)

[3] Many have written about this in the last decades. I wish to mention here especially Helen Block Lewis (1971) who explored shame over 25 years as part of her practice as a psychoanalytic psychiatrist and the psychologist Gershen Kaufman (1989, 1991 and 1996) who has developed a powerful and multi-dimensional  view of shame.

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