by Monica A. Ross, LPC
I went through some old boxes recently and dug up a paper I had written as an undergraduate—it was my thesis for the Honors program in Sociology at The University of Texas. My topic for the paper was the sociology of emotions and a look specifically at the emotions of guilt and shame. In the paper I start first by talking about guilt.
Our feelings of guilt have a strong linkage to our feelings of fear. Early on we as children come to learn our sense of guilt from the fear of punishment by our parents. According to the sociologist Theodore Kemper, writing in the late 1980s, as we grow into adulthood that same fear becomes internalized such that no one need know how we have transgressed. It’s the mere act of doing something for which we feel there ought to be punishment that can spark our guilt.
Kemper also cites a previous study conducted by Virginia Demos indicating that mothers use mainly positive verbal interactions with their children aged 9 to 15 months. Another researcher, Martin Hoffman, found that mothers use more corrective pressures for their children ages 2 to 4 years—guiding their children to change their behavior on average every 6 to 8 minutes during the child’s waking hours.
Now these studies were conducted in the later part of the 20th century and with children who were born into the X generation. But still, it’s common sense and still widely observed today that as children get into the toddler stage they tend to do more exploring and test boundaries and as such likely incur greater guidance by their caregivers.
But what the article by Kemper also notes is that part of the effectiveness of something like the socialization of guilt might be the concomitant withdrawal of love by a caregiver, which may be what the young child perceives their punishment as. And the withdrawal of love can be a very powerful motivator.
But what does guilt do for us really as human beings? Without guilt we may not have reform, some argue. In other words, it is something we go through in repentance arguably to the one or ones wronged. In this way, guilt might be thought of as necessary for reinforcing the social order and for changing one’s behavior.
However, according to Kaufmann in Without Guilt and Justice, guilt doesn’t serve anybody justice really. The person feeling guilty may blame the victim as the source of their guilt and the victim may feel guilty because the perpetrator resents him. Instead of guilt Kaufmann advocates for humility and ambition, which recognizes that we are all fallible and that we aspire to do better.
This goes well with the idea that at any given point in time we are only acting from the level of conscious awareness we have in any given moment. I wrote earlier on the topic of forgiveness and the notion that letting go of guilt is letting go of the hope that the past could have played out any differently.
So how does shame differ from guilt? Shame is linked to our concept of self in relationship to and comparison with others. With shame we are consciously aware of ourselves as a separate entity from others, and from such a place note both our similarities and differences with a focus on differences.
Whereas with guilt we might in some sense extract the guilty act from our sense of self, with shame the act we commit for which there might be some sense of shame attached is more intimately tied to our sense of self or our identity. Researchers like Susan Shott from The University of Chicago wrote about this.
While guilt might have the associated emotion of fear tied to it, with shame we often experience anger and/or embarrassment. The anger that comes with shame may not be outwardly expressed but inwardly expressed—it is anger towards ourselves at times for our own perceived deficiency. And we know that anger directed inwardly can lead to things like depression.
But shame might also give rise to an unfocused and outward expression of anger and hostility towards a real or imagined other, which in a way mobilizes our wounded selves for action and gives us a false sense of empowerment. June Tangney at George Mason University has written about this.
Shame could be about a loss of pride or a perceived loss of status. Carl Schneider in Shame, Exposure, and Privacy asserts that we in modern society “…believe in an isolated identity (‘I am as the Other sees me’) and deny our communal nature (‘I am as the Other is’). The recovery of a proper sense of shame would go hand in hand with our acknowledgment of radical sociality.”
His words tie in nicely with Kristin Neff’s more recent work on self-compassion and the notion of our shared common humanity. Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger, both from UC Santa Barbara, propose that our Americanized myth of individualism is in direct response to the pain of threatened bonds. When our bond with another is threatened, we might lean more on individualism so as not to feel the pain that is sometimes involved in relationships that are in disrepair.
And/or we go the other way with it and in some sense tolerate relationships that do not meet our needs rather than face the loneliness of isolation. John Bowlby would add that the nearer that people get to a state of bondlessness or alienation from others the more likely they are to become violent or mentally ill or both.
So how to begin to tie all of this together? Well, the original idea for exploring these negative emotions on my part is because these emotions come up for people with stigmatized identities whether these identities are concealable or not. Stigmatized identities fall under the category of identities associated with things like mental illness, sexual identity, racial identity, physical disability, social deviancy, economic disadvantage, and physical appearance.
Stigmatization of behaviors occurs in society as a means of establishing social norms. A social norm is simply the behavior that a society deems acceptable. Why even have social norms? We have social norms so that we don’t fall into chaos as a society and so that we can set expectations for the ways in which we interact.
We have social norms so as to provide some sense of social order. However, while social norms perpetuate prosocial behaviors which can be a good thing, some argue that they can also lead to negative consequences and maladaptive behaviors like obsessions over beauty or weight or the tendency to lean towards perfectionism.
Social norms might also be viewed as a means of social control. A well-known American sociologist Talcott Parsons wrote about this in the late 20th century.