Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Thomas J. Scheff

Thomas Scheff Ph.D.

Hidden Emotions in Withdrawal and Silence

Why don't we complain about things that make us unhappy?

Surely more than half of the public in this country are deeply unhappy about the current financial/political situation. Yet only a tiny fraction, far less than 1 percent, are Occupying in NYC, Boston, Washington, and other cities. Why do people withhold their complaints?

Of course there are many reasons, but perhaps the main one has to do with emotions. Hiding our emotions, for most of us, leads to withdrawal and silence. I saw a version of this in the many years that I have been working for Veterans for Peace at our Iraq War Memorial by the Santa Barbara wharf.

My job has been to greet the tourists who stopped to look. In the first few years, often they would ask: Which war? I would answer Iraq. They would say, What for? I would answer To honor our dead. They would look again at the thousands of white crosses. Many of the women would then cry. Many of the men would look sad and hand me a donation. But they all then said virtually the same thing: Before I saw this, it was JUST A NUMBER TO ME.

We all carry millions of just numbers, facts, beliefs and memories in our head. The only thing that makes most of them important is the emotions that go along with them. In this case, because their grief over our dead soldiers was hidden from them until they saw our memorial, it was just one of millions of irrelevant matters.

As it turns out, hidden grief is only one of the emotions that have huge impact. Hidden anger, fear, and shame may be even more important in leading to silence. I will start by discussing how this works with fear, which is the easiest to explain.

Hidden fear is much more of a problem for males than for females. If males don't learn to hide their fear, grief, and shame by the example of their parents and/or brothers, they learn it very early in grammar school on the playground. Men learn to equate fear with cowardice, a terrible mistake.

Despite the public belief that humans, like animals, must fight when angry or flight when afraid, other options are equally possible. For example, when angry, we can talk it out without yelling.
Fear is our friend, it helps us survive. It is an early warning system for PHYSICAL DANGER to life and limb. Most men swallow their fear so many times that it becomes invisible, even to self. Certainly that was true of me by the time I was 12 or 13. At 25 I allowed myself to be drafted during the Korean War even though I had a valid deferment. A great poet wrote: "No man under 40 thinks he will ever die."

When I was a leader of the local Vietnam protest in the late sixties, my colleagues called me courageous. RECKLESS would have more accurate, since I felt no fear. In 1970, due to group psychotherapy, I learned to feel fear and other emotions after years of invisibility. I became much more prudent in the protests I lead, probably saving my life or at least keeping me out of prison.

Some hide their fear and other emotions by angry aggression. (More about that next time) But by far the most hide them by silence and withdrawal. Instead of saying I am afraid, I learned to hide my emotions by silence, and finally by invisibility. Perhaps most of the public, especially the male public, withdraws from political and other kinds of contention largely because their emotions have become invisible and therefore unmanageable. If you don't know how to deal with or even recognize your emotions, you avoid situations that might produce them.

Next will be anger and shame/humiliation.


About the Author

Thomas J. Scheff

Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara.