Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dissertation on shame. Chapter 11.1 Test Group

11.1 Test group

Before starting the interviews, I used a test group of three university/college students (two men and one woman) who volunteered to help me. Here I will call them Sam, Arne and Inger. All of the three were in their twenties. Sam was married and had two children. Arne and Inger were both single. We spoke together in one meeting for two hours. Recording equipment was tested, seating arrangements and other practical details were evaluated. Very quickly I realized how easy it was to fall into the traditional interviewer role of the question-answer interview, instead of taking part in an open conversation. It was also obvious that the three students found it difficult to speak about shame and that guilt was somewhat easier to talk about. One of the test group participants, Sam, said:

Sam:                           When I think about myself, I don’t believe that I feel shame. I have never thought that I feel shame. I have more a feeling of guilt. I can not remember that I have ever thought that now I’m feeling shame and that now I’m shameful. For me shame is old-fashioned. But maybe I should feel shame? For me it’s more a feeling of guilt.

Sam begins the conversation be saying that shame is an old-fashion concept and he does not feel shame, instead he talks of guilt. The conversation between the participants in the group seemed to proceed in a way that enabled them to help each other find experiences of shame and examples of how shame is embodied. Inger told a story about visiting a municipal office with her mother as a child and about how she felt ashamed because her mother was applying for social assistance. She says that she was ashamed of her mother, but this can be interpreted as being ashamed of being seen there together with her mother or feeling shame over being the daughter of her mother. It might be that this situation has to do with an ideal conception she has of her mother, as one who should not have to apply for economical assistance. It might also be that her mother was also feeling embarrassment or shame over the situation (waiting in line with others, having to explain her situation to an executive officer, and so on) and that her feelings also influenced her daughter who felt a part of the situation and therefore just wanted to disappear. We did not elaborate over these possible interpretations. What was important for her to say something about was how her body experienced this situation. She explains that her shame felt like a lump in her stomach. She can still feel this lump when she tells her story.

Inger:              I feel for the most part lumps in my stomach. I feel it like a lump in my
stomach ((Laughs)) it just lies there and oh…shame. It feels heavy and then it sinks down.
Kaare:             Can you still feel that the lump is there? Or is it gone?
Inger:              No. I can still feel it.
Kaare:             When you tell the story now, can you still feel it?
Inger:              Yes.
Kaare:                         That long after?
Inger:              Yes, but just not as intense.

When she describes the lump like this, she is describing a shame that has become embodied. Her story was personal and she had not told it to many before. She cried several times as she felt the clump rise toward her throat. We had to take a small brake at that time so that she could wash her face and let the lump fall to place again. It seemed obvious that telling her story involved and awakened many emotions, requiring alertness from me (as the mediator) in order to not go further with the interview so that it became intimidating in any way. The demands on the mediator in focus group interviews being qualified to observe emotions and reactions that evolve during the interview and take necessary measures so that ethical boundaries are not crossed and group members are not subjected to unnecessary pain is described by Överlien, Aronsson and Hydén (2005) in their study of young women talking about sexuality. They conclude that “focus group probably provided us with more natural and less intrusive format than individual interviews” (2005: 342). Showing ones feelings is natural when sensitive subjects are brought to the surface in storytelling. Inger herself did make a big deal about crying, on the contrary she felt that it felt good to let out some pressure, and that she felt better afterwards. It seemed to be more difficult for Arne and Sam to see Inger cry, then it was for Inger. These lead to an opportunity to talk about showing ones emotions to others and what it means to cry.

Inger’s story and the following discussion about emotions seemed to open a door for Arne, who now feels that he wants to tell a story about shame from his childhood as well. The story he tells is about emptying his bowels on the hillside while he was out playing. This was not something shameful as such, but a pain in his side when his mother came and took up the stools from the ground. This seems to have to do with being seen, literally “with ones pants down”. Several times when he tells his story, his voice becomes so low that is inaudible, indicating that this story is still difficult to talk about.

Arne:                          Yes ((Difficult to hear because of his low voice)). I have a memory from when I was a child. I was playing on a hilltop where we lived and had to go to the bathroom. So I emptied my bowels on the hillside. My sister saw me do this, and ran home and told my mother what I had done. Then I felt embarrassed and I also think about it with shame.
Kaare:                        Was it shameful to empty your bowels on the hillside or that your sister told your mother about it?
Arne:               It was shameful when my mother came and removed the stools from the
Kaare:             Ok. It wasn’t shameful to go to the bathroom on the hillside?
Arne:                          No, I don’t remember that as being shameful. ((His voice becomes weak and vague.))
Kaare:             Did she say anything?
Arne:                           No, not that I can remember. I just remember that I had a bad feeling. ((Says something inaudible.))  When I look back, I can feel it like something piercing me in the chest.  
Kaare:             Like a wound in the chest?
Arne:               Yeah, and that’s something I don’t do anymore.
Kaare:             In the heart?
Arne:                          Here in the side. ((Points to his side under his left arm, in the heart region.))

Arne describes his shame as a wound in his side, in the heart region, as embodied shame. He does not know of any heart problems or other physiological reasons for having this pain in his chest. This is a pain he feels when he looks back. It seems plausible that Inger’s openness towards showing her emotions, opened up for Arne’s emotions, and those emotions have something to do with ones body. After listening to both Inger and Arne, Sam has reconsidered his notion about not ever feeling shame and tells a story about shame that he experienced not long ago. He talked negatively about another person without knowing that the same person was standing not far away and might have heard his opinions about him as a person. First when he realized that the other person was close nearby, did he feel stupid and that he had stooped low. He calls his reaction as shame.

Sam:                           Well, it was outside the school here. I was standing with some other students and talking about another person who was not there. I had some opinions about that person. It was almost slander. I was probably the one who was talking the loudest. When I turned around, the person we had been talking about was standing only a few feet away from me. Then I didn’t feel so very tall – I had stooped pretty low.
Kaare:             What did you feel?
Sam:                I think I felt shame. Yeah, that’s what I felt.
Kaare:             How did that feel?
Sam:                           Well, how is it possible to be so stupid and talk like that? Yeah. But I felt shame also simply about how I could be so evil-minded. How could I be so evil-minded? I think I felt shame about that. Yeah. Whether it was the situation or the atmosphere or the others around me who made me want to impress them, which made this possible, I don’t know, but I felt ashamed. How was I capable of being so evil-minded?

The conversation shows that Sam begins by saying that he has never felt shame, only guilt. When he hears the stories of the other group members, he re-evaluates his standpoint and changes his mind. He realizes that he has had an experience where he had shown a part of himself that he was ashamed of, and he describes this feeling as not “feeling very tall”; of having stooped very low.
Here, the three informants in this test group demonstrate an example of the value of talking together in a focus group. They talked together about difficult experiences, and when one of them opened up it became easier for the others to follow up. They describe three different experiences, but their descriptions of shame show that shame has to do with the whole person, and is not just about doing something wrong and asking for forgiveness afterwards. 

This test group taught me that sensitive issues may arise during the interviews, demanding that I be alert and be sure that the research method is not misused in any way. This is done by letting the informant’s use the time they need to think and re-think about how they present their stories and that I respect their right to answer as they choose and to tell the stories they seem appropriate. I also learned that emotions will most certainly be shown and that this is not necessarily something negative, but that it requires that I monitor the discussion closely and stop when emotions need to settle down or be concerned with. Since the interviews are to be used for research and not for therapy, it became evident that I have others as a back-up, qualified personnel who are able to take care of group members during or after the focus group interview, if they need to work further with memories or emotions that the story telling awaken.

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