Monday, December 3, 2012

Dissertation on shame. Chapter 28.4 Exploring the concept and phenomenon of shame

28.4 Exploring the concept and phenomenon of shame

I carried out a qualitative study in order to try to explore the concept and phenomenon of shame using a qualitative investigation. 19 users and employees of an Incest Centre were interviewed. The results indicate that shame is to be found within a number of different categories, and these were investigated more closely. The categories manifested in the interviews were divided into two major groups, those concerning self related shame and those concerning shame related to others. The main categories connected to shame and self were; emotions, self-harming, body and food. The main categories connected to shame and others were; fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, children and partners/sex. The findings of this qualitative study seem to show that the concept and phenomenon of shame is created and developed through the process of Honneth (1996) calls disrespect, a process involving both one’s self and others (significant others). In this exploration, the lack of both self-respect and the disrespect from others seems to lead to a negative self-evaluation. This may lead to a loss of self if ones shame is not recognized. The person who feels shame might try to conceal the shame by for example repression of ones emotions or hiding oneself from others.

The categories that have been discussed involving the relation between shame and self have been: emotions; self-harming; body; and food. The common denominator in these categories seems to be the harming of oneself in a large variety of ways. It seems as though the different forms of self-harming have been used in an attempt to gain temporary relief for the inner pain the informants suffer in this exploration, and that self-harming seems to stem more from shame than from the sexual abuse itself.

Shame was not surprisingly the concept that was talked about the most in the interviews. Since shame and guilt seem to be so interwoven as concepts, I had expected guilt to be the concept that would be mentioned most often after shame. But guilt was actually the fifth most mentioned concept in the interviews. Shame was the central theme throughout the interviews, and body, the Incest Centre and self-image were concepts that were mentioned more often than the concept of guilt.

Guilt, anger and embarrassment were investigated as emotions often mentioned in the interviews. Guilt seems to be a concept that can be used both independent of shame and in conjunction with shame. The participants say that guilt is an emotion that arises from a wrongdoing, something that can be forgiven; guilt helps keep relational bonds together and is viewed more positively than shame. They also use the concepts of guilt and shame interchangeably; especially when they blame themselves for the abuse they have suffered and are not able to forgive themselves. They feel guilty about participating in the abuse, their self-evaluations are negative and they feel shame.

The participants in this study reported some of the consequences of losing one’s self, such as the repression of emotions. This again often seems to lead victims to treat themselves and others as objects, entrapped within monological I-It relationships. There seems to be two types of I-It relationships: one in which the self is objectified and a second type where others are treated as objects. This seems to lead to even greater suffering, although many informants seem to experience temporary relief from inner pain during and directly after self-harming. Some informants experience blaming and shaming after treating the self or others as objects, while still others react with indifference. It seems in my opinion to be a finding of this study that the temporary relief of pain is often replaced by blaming (Mother-Blaming and Child-Blaming) in combination with shaming (Mother-Shaming and Child-Shaming). This leads, among other things, to a destructive spiral of shame and guilt that can continue for many years.

The interviews with the participants have been analyzed according to five different categories of significant others; fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, children, and partners. Mothers were spoken of more than fathers (123 versus 79 times) in the interviews. I had expected the opposite result since fathers are sexual abusers much more often than mothers (Incest Centre in Vestfold, 2005, Årsrapport). None of the participants described their mothers as perpetrators of sexual abuse, but blaming and shaming seems to be related more often to mothers than fathers all the same. Mother-Blaming and Mother-Shaming is explored and discussed. Few participants mentioned their brothers and sisters, but all of them talked about children. Child-Blaming and Child-Shaming is discussed because the participants seem to have blamed themselves and condemned themselves for the abuse, often since early childhood years and many have experienced blaming and shaming by mothers, fathers, perpetrators, and from society in general. Almost all of the participants also mentioned their partners, and the major topic in this connection was sexual problems.

It seems as if the participants often experienced their abusers as indifferent to the consequences of their actions. There is no information in the interviews that the abusers have acknowledged their shame or guilt in relation to the abuse. When participants discussed their abuse, it was often in connection with their own role as victims of sexual abuse. Their descriptions seem to suggest that their abusers have found a certain degree of satisfaction in the abuse, in spite of the suffering of their victims. It seems common to keep the abuse hidden, as a secret between the abuser and the child. The child is sometimes threatened or even tortured in order to procure silence. This silence is necessary if the abuse is to continue and perpetuates the spiral of abuse. It is my hope that this exploration of the concept and phenomenon of shame within the context of sexual abuse and settings of the Incest Centre of Vestfold will be a contribution to making life for victims of sexual abuse more respectful and less shameful. 

Kaare T. Pettersen

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