The problem of hidden shame and how to fix it
Shame on you. These three simple words can temporarily or permanently destroy an individual’s sense of value and self-worth. In an article published in Cultural Sociology, Thomas Scheff, professor emeritus of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, examines the ubiquity of hidden shame and suggests it may be one of the keys to understanding contemporary society.
“In modernity, shame is the most obstructed and hidden emotion, and therefore the most destructive,” he says. He posits that a society that fosters individualism like ours, “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.”
People are more ashamed of shame than other similar biological entities. But the problem with that is that shame is actually a useful emotion. Scheff argues, “Shame is the basis of morality. You can’t have a moral society without shame. It provides the weight for morality. There are a hundred things in your head about what you should or shouldn’t do, but the one that hits you is the one that has shame behind it.”
Like many emotions, some people are more susceptible to shame—and hidden shame—than others. The lucky ones, Scheff says, fit this pattern: “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.”
So how does one resolve hidden shame? The answer, according to Scheff, is to have a good laugh. “That is, laugh at yourself or at the universe or at your circumstances, but not at other people. Most of the laughing we do in comedy is good. No matter the actors, we are really laughing at our own selves that we see in their foolishness.”