UCSB Sociology professor Thomas Scheff published an examination on the topic of hidden shame in an article released in a February issue of the peer-reviewed academic journal, Cultural Sociology.

The article, titled “The Ubiquity of Hidden Shame in Modernity,” explored how shame is a “hidden” or easily-blocked emotion that can be the key to understanding more about a contemporary, individualistic society such as that of the present-day United States. However, the article’s research also focused on how hiding these emotions can have destructive implications of social alienation, which can potentially destroy a person’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth.

Scheff, former president of the Pacific Sociological Association, has authored of over a dozen books on sociology and emotion, in addition to a number of articles that specifically discuss shame and its impact on modern society. According to Scheff, shame is sometimes hard to detect but is almost always present, whether a person is feeling it consciously or not.

“A person might not be aware that they’re in a state of shame,” Scheff said. “No matter your rank or station, you’re dealing with shame all the time but in a hidden form, for the most part.”

The difficulty associated with coping with shame, according to Scheff, starts from early childhood and is influenced by family dynamics. However, most modern-day societies encourage hiding these emotions, Scheff said.

“What you learn in your family, as a child, is that the way to deal with shame or any other emotion is to swallow it — just change the subject,” Scheff said.

But according to Scheff, doing this can “cause a lot of difficulties” once a person reaches adulthood. Such obstacles include bullying and aggressive behavior among younger children, as young males in a school playground setting may quickly learn that “it is not a good idea to acknowledge the pain” being felt by themselves or others, Scheff said.

“What [males learn] to do is say, ‘Well fuck you, you son of a bitch!’ and hide shame behind anger and aggression, [in] the way the other boys are doing,” Scheff said.

These social norms of masculinity, which can be developed in early childhood, feed into the ‘Be a man’ stereotype perpetuated by modern culture, according to Scheff, who said this encourages emotional repression.

“Certainly, if you’re a boy, the other boys will punch you in the nose if you talk about your emotions,” Scheff said. “They’re trained that [that is] not the right thing to do if you’re to be a real man.”

Scheff said the social norms against displaying emotional shame are not limited to men, however, as they are becoming more prevalent among women as well.

“Women are used to get away with crying, but increasingly as they get into the workforce, they’re finding out that you can’t get away with it,” Scheff said. “You’re supposed to hide it.”

According to Scheff, hidden shame is a side affect of the rapid individualization of modern society that results in widespread social alienation. He said people are “tying to be individuals” and seek to “get ahead in the world, no matter what it costs in relationships.” However, this will most likely end up with those people experiencing isolation from others, he said.

Moreover, a connection between aggression and shame exists in terms of war and international conflict, as Scheff said the Iraq War may have occurred because the U.S. government was “embarrassed with 9/11 happening on their watch.”

“They attacked another country that was not involved … that’s the other common reaction to unacknowledged shame,” Scheff said.

To avoid such negative behavioral habits, Scheff said people should constantly try to listen, share and practice empathy when approaching emotional challenges.

“Having a sympathetic ear is the greatest help in the world for all emotions,” Scheff said. “Get out and talk about it.”


This story is a Daily Nexus online exclusive.