Monday, September 17, 2012

Dissertation on shame. Chapter 6.5 The repression of shame

6.5 The repression of shame

Turner (2006) argues that Scheff (1988, 1994, 1997b) merges the thoughts of Cooley (1902/2006) and Lewis (1971) and comes up with a new theory of emotions. Scheff’s theory is characterized by its combination of psychoanalytic tradition and symbolic interactionism. Scheff argues that shame is a repressed emotion; we have a tendency not to show our shame so that shame is almost invisible in western culture. Kaufman (1980/1992) supports this point of view when he says:

Our culture is a shame-based culture, but here, shame is hidden. There is shame about shame and so it remains under strict taboo. Other cultures, for example, Eastern and Mediterranean, are organized more openly around shame and its counterpart, honor. What we need in our culture is to honor shame, and thereby redeem it (Kaufman 1980/1992: 32-33).

Scheff and Retzinger (1991) write that our society, which represses shame, is characterized by meetings between people where shame is not acknowledged. Many people deny feelings of shame throughout their lives. This repression of shame in our society leads to a diffuse hostility which can be used and/or misused by political leaders, like Hitler during the Nazi era. Scheff (1995a) characterizes shame as the master emotion. Likewise, Lewis coded shame rather than guilt as the most common emotion. Turner (2006) calls repression the master defence mechanism.

The more negative the emotion and the more they are associated with a failure to verify self, the more probable is repression…Most important, the more emotions are repressed, the more they will be transmuted into new kinds of emotional response (Turner 2006: 286).

In my interviews, the informant Knut speaks of getting caught while playing sex games with friends as a child and how this caused a terrible feeling of shame. He was also sexually abused in his youth by an aunt, something he says he enjoyed at the time even though he knew that it was forbidden. He speaks of his feelings of sexual pleasure, abuse, childhood sexuality, and how all of this had to be repressed and had a negative effect on his life as an adult.

Knut:              I’m sitting here and thinking about how it was before, and there are some
things I don’t agree with, some things I don’t think about. I believe that umm sexuality in childhood is a taboo. Nobody ever talked about it. And now when people talk about how one should speak to children about sexuality today, well then I think of my own childhood, where in my environment, brothers and sisters, friends, also played sexual games. But it was very taboo. Nobody ever talked about it. We never told anyone about what we did. If we got caught red-handed, so to speak, it meant reprisals and shame. For me, that’s my absolute greatest shame…It was taboo. It was a shame. I hid myself behind a towel and didn’t participate in everything. When I had sex with my transgressor, well that was also a real shame. I did something that was strictly forbidden. It worked though. But it was inside of me, behind the closed door. That’s something I’ve had in my body ever since. So as a grown-up now, I still feel the shame today, but I call it a guilty feeling for not allowing myself to live the life I want. I know that sex is not something shameful. The rational part of me knows that…but I don’t dare touch those feeling or live them out. So I kept it a secret and in doing so I created my first repression as an adult.

Kaare T. Pettersen

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