The three simple words – shame on you – can temporarily, or when used too often, permanently, destroy an individual’s sense of value and self-worth, a new study has warned.
“In modernity, shame is the most obstructed and hiddenemotion, and therefore the most destructive,” said Thomas Scheff, at University of California – Santa Barbara. “Emotions are like breathing – they cause trouble only when obstructed,” Scheff said. When hidden, he continued, shame causes serious struggles not only for individuals but also for groups.
In an article published in the journal Cultural Sociology, Scheff examined the ubiquity of hidden shame and suggests it may be one of the keys to understanding contemporary society.
According to Scheff, a society that fosters individualism provides a ripe breeding ground for the emotion of shame because people are encouraged to “go it alone, no matter the cost to relationships,” he said. “People learn to act as if they were complete in themselves and independent of others. This feature has constructive and creative sides, but it has at least two other implications: alienation and the hiding of shame,” he added.
Scheff noted that while shame is no less prevalent now than in previous years or decades or generations, it is more hidden. “Shame is a biological entity like other emotions, but people are more ashamed of it than they are of the others. The hiding of emotions is more widespread in modern societies than in traditional ones,” he said.
Scheff suggests that shame – or the reaction to it – can manifest itself in larger acts of aggression, such as wars and other military conflicts. “Especially for leaders, both shame and anger are carefully hidden behind a veil of rationality,” he said.
While some people are more susceptible to the effects of shame, for others the emotion is more manageable. “Those lucky rascals who as children were treated with sympathetic attention from at least one of their caregivers feel more pride – accepted as they are – and, therefore, less shame and rejection,” Scheff said.