Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dissertation on shame. Part 5. Exploring the concept and phenomenon of shame

Part 5: Exploring the concept and phenomenon of shame

Part Five is the largest section in the exploration and consists of 11 chapters. Here the concept and phenomenon of shame is explored through a qualitative study where 19 employees and uses of the Incest Centre in Vestfold were interviewed. The interviews were carried out in five focus groups which were interviewed two times for a total of four hours each, a total of 20 hours. I have also carried out in-depth interviews with four of the participants for a total of six hours. All the interviews were carried out in Norwegian, videotaped and transcribed. First after categorizing the material in the analysis where quotations were chosen to be used in the dissertation, was the Norwegian text translated to English. This might in my opinion have reduced the validity of the material. The participants were therefore given the opportunity to read the Norwegian transcriptions and the English quotations used, and lists of critical categories are listed in the appendix with the original Norwegian word that was used. Using quotations in the text is meant to increase the validity of the investigation. The categories derived from the analysis are divided in two main groups: self and others. And the 11 chapters are created according to the analysis of 633 pages of transcriptions. The relation between shame and self is explored and thereafter shames relation to other emotions (guilt, anger and embarrassment), self-harming, body and food. Shame in relation to others (significant others) consists of a discussion of shames relation to fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, children and partners/sex. The results of the investigation show that shame involves an acutely painful experience, individuals who experience shame will often feel a sense of worthlessness, incompetence, a generalized feeling of contempt for themselves, and these negative evaluations can engulf the entire self. The results also show that sexually abused men and women suffer from the violation of their dignity and not only from the assault on their bodies. At the core of their sufferings lie disrespect, humiliation and degradation. The informants speak of shame, guilt, and stigma when they describe themselves and portray their lives with words that convey despair and suffering.

The growing number of research projects regarding shame can be useful in drawing attention to the existence of shame in large groups of people and several studies have highlighted important ways in which early abusive family environments might contribute to the development of shame and shame related problems (Gilbert, Allan and Goss 1996; Murray, Waller and Legg 2000).

The notion of shame as a context-free intra-psychic variable makes the social construction of shame less visible and may distract researchers from investigating the management and repair of experiences of shame and shameful identities. Leeming and Boyle (2004) argue that it is perhaps difficult to define the concept of shame because researchers are more interested in shame as a stigmatizing discourse within a particular social context, the roles or subject positions available to an individual, and with shame avoidance strategies.

Shame has been described by Scheff (1995a) as the master emotion that shapes the nature of society, yet it seems that it has received relatively little attention until the last few decades, at least in comparison to other emotions. One reason for this might be the suggestion set forth by Darwin (1872/2007) that shame and other self-conscious emotions cannot be described solely by examining a particular set of facial expressions. Shame is much more complicated and one needs to observe bodily reactions more than facial cues. Another complicating factor might be that shame is not produced by a single clear or specific cause. Whereas happiness can for example be produced by seeing a significant other, there are few specific situations which predictably elicit shame. Lewis (2000) argues that shame, and other self-conscious emotions, most likely require classes of events that can only be identified by the individuals themselves.

Four participants in my study, Sally, Ruth, Pia and Trude discuss whether shame is a positive or negative emotion, or if shame can be both positive and negative at the same time? They are all employed at the Incest Centre in Vestfold and have all suffered sexual abuse as children. Shame makes one understand a transgression, says Sally, and Ruth agrees that shame educates us, but she prefers to speak about the negative effects of shame and shaming others. Shame does something to us on a deeper level. Ruth argues that there is nothing positive about shame. Sally concludes that although shame is destructive and negative, it can be changed into something positive.

Sally:                          Shame can be something positive, too. If I, I mean if I am ashamed of something I’ve done wrong (.) then it has to be shame that makes me understand that I’ve done something wrong. I see that I’ve done something I shouldn’t have done. That shame has to be something positive. It’s positive because it makes me realize that I’ve done something wrong.
Ruth:               I believe that shame umm educates ((Points to Sally)) us in a way.
Sally:               Uh-huh
Ruth:                          But when we educate our children by shaming them, what are we really doing? ... No, there’s nothing positive about shame. Shame is umm (.) destructive. (.) It does something to us on a deeper level.
Pia:                  That’s true.
Ruth:               You become so [small.
Pia:                  [Uh-huh.
Ruth:                          When you’re ashamed. And what kind umm what have I done to deserve feeling so small? The mistakes should be proportional to the shame I feel…The bottom line is that shame is not something that is ok. There’s nothing good about shame…It’s a horrible thing to feel small.
Trude:             Small, that’s a word I’ve been looking for for a long time. ((Looks towards Ruth)) and it ((Gazes into the air)) umm I have a feeling of shame that has always haunted me. I believed it is a feeling that we all have, that we feel shame and real small. Umm… ((Bites her lips together)) umm ((Nods her head)) and, but I felt, and it’s there when I worked with these feelings and thought that I was feeling guilt. But it was shame. And I, I, really wished that I were this small ((Holds her thumb and index finger near each other))…((Bites her lips together and nods her head)) Uh-huh I can still feel it today. But I can’t do anything (.) ((Looks into the air)) it’s so unwieldy. It’s a feeling ((Places her hand on her chest)) inside of me. That’s where I’ve put it.
Sally:               We let the users here talk about their experiences and try to help them to leave them behind… One way of doing this is to transform the negative experience to a positive one, and I can also share my experience.

In my opinion it’s important to try to understand ones life by looking back, finding ones story and sharing this story with someone as Sally says. But Sally also say that this is done so that the users can put the past behind them and live their lives forward by transforming negative experiences into a positive one. Leaving ones victim identity in the past and creating a survivor identity for the present and future seems to me as one of the most important tasks at the Incest Centre.

The four women, who speak together above, have two children each and discuss here how shame is sometimes used in the upbringing of children. Sally says that shame can help us realize a wrongdoing. This is a positive characteristic with shame. Not realizing a wrongdoing can be comprehended as something negative, and such a person might be called “shameless”. Ruth argues that shame is used in the upbringing of children. “Shame on you”, “you should be ashamed of yourself”, “you’re a shame for the family” are ways we might convey shame to our children. But Ruth asks what are we really doing when we shame our children? She answers that we make them feel small. Ruth seems to speak of child upbringing in a general sense, something we all do with our children from time to time. Trude recognizes this feeling from her own history of being sexual abuse by her father and this is something that has haunted her for a long time. She can still feel the childhood sensation of being small today. Feeling small seems to suggest a sensation of a diminishing self esteem, a characteristic effect of being a victim. Vetlesen (2005) argues that shame cannot have any positive attributes. On the contrary he says that shame is connected to victimization:

For there to be shame, there must be victims; only in the perspective of the victim will shame appear and lay claim to becoming an issue for reflection (2005: 136).

This statement implies, in my opinion that shame might diminish when a victim becomes a survivor. It seems difficult if not impossible to heal shame as long as the person feeling shame has the identity of a victim. Therefore, it might seem imperative to focus on the victim identity and not directly on shame. Sally, Ruth, Pia and Trude above do not speak of being a victim as a positive experience. They say on the contrary that it seems unbelievable that we deliberately victimize our children through shaming them. Children that are shamed by their parents as a part of their upbringing are in my opinion, subject to being victimized. This may not be the intention of the parents, and that is why Ruth so distinctly says that shame is not something good. Ruth argues that shaming our children is destructive. Victimizing our children by shaming them, makes them feel small, reduces their self esteem, and may give them an experience that will follow them for many, many years. There is naturally a great difference in the level of seriousness in the victimization of children through shaming them in child upbringing and in sexual abuse. But the general consequence of “feeling small” may be a shared experience, though at different levels of gravity. Ruth’s conclusion that “shame does something to us on a deeper level” can be understood  as “for there to be shame, there must be victims” as mentioned above. How can one come out of this victimized role of feeling small? What Sally is saying at the end of this extract may give hint to the answer to this question. She argues that the negative experience of shame can be transformed to something positive and that this can be done by sharing ones shame experiences with other. My understanding of Sally here is that this sharing is done through dealing ones shame experiences with others through story telling. The stories that are told are life histories. One should as Kierkegaard argues, understand ones life backwards but live ones life forwards (1843/1968 A-164: 61). Looking back and telling ones life story is important for understanding whom one is and is essential for living ones life forward. Plummer (1995) argues that telling stories of ones sexual abuse may give the storyteller power over ones life history and thereby transform victims into survivors.

Very often, the experience has been denied by the victim – much rape is so painful that the victim may repress all knowledge of it. But when it has been recognized for what it is, the stigma of being raped or abused may be sensed as so great that it has been kept silent…But over the last past twenty years a new story has become more and more heard, more and more visible. This takes the initial suffering, breaks the silence around it (usually with the help of another women) and the uses the traumatic experience as a mode of radical change – to become a survivor. (1995: 51)

In my opinion, telling ones life story seems to be essential in order to change ones victim identity to a survivor identity. It is my belief that there is a way out of shame as Sally has argued above. One possible way seems to go through acknowledging ones shame through story telling, stories about shame experiences. I will in the following explore the concept and phenomenon of shame through the stories given to me by workers and users of the Incest Centre in Vestfold. I have categorized the stories in two main groups, those that have to do with ones self and those that include others. In the following chapter I will focus on the connection between shame and other emotions like guilt, anger and embarrassment. Then I will explore the relation between shame and self-harm, body and food. All these stories have to do with the consequences of shame to the individual self being in shame within the context of sexual abuse. I start therefore with an exploration of the concept and phenomenon of shame in relation to self.

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