Friday, September 28, 2012

Dissertation on shame. Chapter 9.5 The sources of shame

9.5 The sources of shame

In order to answer the question of what makes people feel shame, it seems necessary first to reflect upon this human capacity. It seems clear that these emotions involve feeling bad, and the capacity to feel shame and guilt therefore builds on a natural basis of feeling bad. Both shame and guilt can be understood as involving an unpleasant awakening and both are also related to anxiety (Lewis 1971).

Baumester et al. (1994) propose two sources that guilt and shame can stem from: the awakening of empathy and the anxiety associated with social exclusion. Both of these are important and vigorous sources of emotions and motivation in close communal relations. Humans are prepared to feel empathic despair in reaction to the suffering of others. Guilt and shame combines empathic despair with a sense of responsibility for the distress and suffering of others. This is discussed further by Hoffman (1982) in Development of Prosocial Behavior: Empathy and Guilt. Here he argues that when one sees the sufferings of others, one will feel badly, and this bad feeling is the basis of guilt and shame. Even if empathic despair can arise in response to any kind of suffering, it is usually acknowledged as at it strongest in close relationships. Communal concern for the well-being of others is probably strongly bound up with empathic reactions. Together with empathy, belonging and devotion are powerful foundations for emotional reactions.

Humans experience anxiety when they face the threat of separation (Scheff and Retzinger 1991). Incidents which increase the threat of social exclusion may create anxiety which presents itself in the form of guilt or shame. This is particularly true if one has done something which may cause rejection from a partner. The result of the anxiety could then be experienced as guilt or shame. Guilt and shame often focus on those who are closest to one’s self but can also reflect the increasing feeling of communion with other people. Seen this way, as Baumeister et al. (1994) argue, the emotional basis for guilt and shame has a strong interpersonal component. This view differs considerably from perspectives that are based on factors like castration anxiety, self-aggression, or the conditioned anticipation of punishment put forth by Freud (1930/2005). The emotional roots of guilt and shame seem to lie in human belonging and awareness; this involves the human capacity to feel the suffering and despair of others and the basic fear of alienating actual or potential relationship partners. In one of my interviews, Margaret talks about the importance of accepting emotions as part of our lives, and says that all of our emotions, even shame and guilt, should be looked upon as positive.

Margaret_1:    I think everything about emotions is positive…When you’ve experienced something very disturbing, then you need to get hold of the emotions in it. That’s fine in my opinion…If I don’t get hold of what I feel, then they just sit there and grind inside me. And then you can find yourself in different kinds of situations that trigger these emotions, those that are just lying there, waiting. That’s why I believe that the more you can open up,  the better and freer you’ll feel…When you talk, everything is just mental and you don’t get hold of your emotions…Emotions are in the body…Often in the stomach ((scratches her nose)) yeah very much in the stomach…Umm they lie here ((her hand strokes the upper part of her body)), emotions lie here ((places her hand on her stomach)), emotions ((strokes her stomach)). It’s like having a stomach ache when you’re nervous about something, then your stomach aches…They are the innermost parts of us, these emotions. They’re strong stuff…When you’re working to get your emotions up and out and to get free, you’re able to open up for the world outside, something which you couldn’t do when you felt that you were stuck…Those who struggle and feel the abuse physically, uhh they can feel a whole lot of pain (.), not just afterwards but also during the process of working through, trying to get rid of the emotions. That can hurt real bad…The first commandment is always to accept the emotions you have. For example it’s really complicated to feel that you love your mother and at the same time despise her. But you have to let it out, whatever it is. Don’t feel ashamed about it and about yourself because you feel the way you do. It’s ok to feel that way. I’ve got a damned right to feel like that. I say that to myself all the time…If we hold everything back, than we’re just standing still. We don’t move. But if we provide a secure environment, so that they can be exactly who they are, and feel that it’s ok that they feel the way they do, whatever it is, if it’s shame, guilt, rage, hate, anger, whatever, but they have to let go of something and leave it here.

Emotions are a part of us, of whom we are, and Margaret argues that it is essential that we accept the large variations of emotions in our fellow human being. She says that all of our emotions are important. Scheff (2003) considers shame to be one of the most important emotions in everyday life and the most important of all of our social emotions. He argues that this is because shame has more functions than other emotions. Shame is a major component of our conscience; it is a moral emotion. Shame signals a moral transgression even without thoughts and words. Shame comes into being in situations characterized by a threat against inter relational bonds. It signals that there are problems in a relationship; it conveys the feeling of having failed to live up to one’s social and moral standards. Shame also plays a part in how we express and comprehend all of our other emotions. One can be so shameful over all of one’s emotions that they can be totally suppressed. Still, shame often proves to be almost invisible because of the taboo that arises as a result of the denial and silence in our modern society[1].

[1] Many researchers have written about this during 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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