Thomas J. Scheff

Thomas Scheff Ph.D.

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The Emotional/Relational World

Shame and anger in interpersonal relationships

Posted Sep 02, 2009

By way of introduction, I am a sociologist and social psychologist. My first study was of the mental hospitals of Wisconsin many years ago. It showed that they were mostly warehouses for the poor and old. It shocked the legislative sponsors of the study, but it was soon replicated independently in California by a legislative group there. As a result, a new law was passed in California that made it difficult to hold people for more than 72 hours. This law was soon adopted by every other state.

I went on to develop the labeling theory of mental illness, which proposed that whatever the original causes of symptoms, the way that others react plays a vital role over the long term. The recent film Lars and the Real Girl gives a brilliant playing out, moment by moment, of the meaning of this approach for treatment of the mentally ill.

After a chance encounter with my own hidden fear and grief, I began studies of fear, grief, anger, and especially shame. Along with my wife, Suzanne Retzinger, we found shame loops to be one of the basic causes of depression or violence. One of the more obvious shame loops occurs in persons who blush easily. They report that when they realize that they are blushing, they become even more embarrassed, which leads to further blushing, and so on around the loop.

If an insulted person hides his or her shame, which is usually the case, the result can be a spiral of shame that leads to silence, or a shame/anger loop that leads to aggression. The idea of a shame-shame feedback loop helps explain total withdrawal and silence, and a shame-anger loop, limitless violence.

Dr. Retzinger showed that shame/anger loops caused quarrels. By viewing videotaped marital quarrels, second by second, she showed that shame caused by an insult, even an unintentional insult, always preceded escalation of anger. There are three loops, within both persons and between them, a triple spiral. My own historical studies proposed that triple spirals within and between nations were a central force in the origins of WWI and in the rise of Hitler in Germany.

I have also published a theory of how certain types of shame, anger, and fear management give rise to hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity, and interaction between them. Men are taught to suppress fear and act out anger. Women are taught to suppress anger and act out fear. Hyper-feminine mothers and wives encourage their males to be hypermasculine to protect them, thereby helping produce hyper-masculine violence. Two of my forthcoming columns will also show the role of shame loops and social isolation in depression and, potentially, in a practical treatment of depression.

For many years I have been teaching undergraduates courses based entirely upon discussion. These courses, even when large, have been quite successful, since they relied on having students role-play some of their own most difficult dialogues. Most of the students have found them to be of practical value in their own lives.

Realizing one of the intense interests of my students, I also conducted a study of types of pop song lyrics. The study shows the various ways love is represented in these lyrics, and compares these ways with reality. A book on this topic will be published shortly: What's Love Got to Do with It? The Emotional/Relational World of Pop Songs. I also will be teaching a series of courses on pop songs on my campus, as a way of giving practical help to students about emotions and relationships.

My aim as a researcher has been to get to the roots of things in a way that might be of practical as well as scholarly value. Until recently, in our society, emotions and relationships have been ignored in favor of behavior, thought, and the material world. If humankind is to prosper, that will probably have to change.