Suppression of Emotion: A Danger to Modern Societies?

by Thomas J. Scheff (January 2011)

This essay proposes that suppression of emotions is a key institution in modern societies, and that it underlies the denial of death and both interpersonal and inter-group violence. The thesis begins with a comparison of traditional and modern societies with respect to their treatment of the social-emotional world. Next a relatively minor instance of suppression is considered: wholehearted belief in an afterlife in heaven. The next step in to review a much more serious process: studies that suggest that war and collective conflict, such as terrorism, may be caused by humiliation and vengeance. Finally, some preliminary steps toward change are discussed.

Individuals and thought vs. relationships and feeling

In traditional societies, individuals are much less visible than relationships. One's identify is based largely on position in a family and other social networks than it is on one's own characteristics. Modern societies completely reverse this emphasis, tending to see individuals more or less isolated from their social networks. Since this idea is widely accepted, it will be treated briefly.

There is a parallel difference in the treatment of emotions. In traditional societies, emotions get at least as much attention as behavior and thought, if not more. For example, individual morality often revolves around the attempt to keep one's family from being shamed. But in modern societies, behavior and thought are treated as much more important than emotions, which tend to be ignored or hidden.

The overemphasis on the social-emotional world compared to the individual/ thought world in traditional societies has usually given rise to stalemate; these societies tend to be stuck in their traditions and conventions. For this reason, most of them have by now been either overrun or supplanted by modern societies.

On the other hand, modern societies have undergone rapid change because of their focus on individuals and thought: creativity and invention tends to be located in individuals rather than groups. However, in this process an important part of life has been all but lost, the social-emotional world.

Modern societies are very advanced in their knowledge of the material world and behavior, thought and perception. But they still are in the flat earth stage about emotions. A New Yorker cartoon is apropos. A male client, lying on the couch, is saying to the analyst: “Call it denial it you like, but I think that what goes on in my personal life is none of my own damn business!” Like much of the best humor, this caption hits a core truth.

What is usually learned about emotions is that they should be neither seen nor heard or even felt: “Don't be so emotional!” In childhood we get accustomed to denying and hiding our emotions to the extent that it becomes a habit. For this reason, most adults find it difficult if not impossible to feel most of their own emotions: they are none of our own damn business! Angry? Not me, I don't have an angry bone in my body.

Emotions are usually contagious because we have all built up an enormous backlog of uncried cries, unlaughed laughs, and so on. The more backlog lying in wait, the more intimidating the prospect of feeling any emotions. Perhaps that explains how little crying there is these days at funerals, and how so much quarreling, depression and alienation occur in conjunction with a death in the family.

Grief and loss

In order to make these ideas concrete, a specific emotion, grief, will be discussed in connection with the denial of death in modern societies. The facts that are agreed upon: like other mammals, humans are hardwired to become attached to those near and dear to them, particularly their caretakers and siblings. It’s like imprinting, especially on our early intimates: we can't help but do it. We miss them when they are away, and feel normal when they are around. You can be attached to someone you don't even like. Attachment is involuntary because it occurs in the limbic system of the brain: it is completely physical, like breathing.

The emotion of loss of an attachment is grief, sometimes called sadness or distress. One function of belief in an afterlife is to help avoid the pain of grief. If the loved one is not really gone, we needn't feel and express grief.  Funerals can become celebration rather than mourning by denying death and loss. One simply cannot suffer loss without the pain of grief, but if one thinks that there has been no loss, perhaps most of the pain can be deferred. The idea of deferring emotions will be discussed below. Religious denial of emotion is just a part of a larger system of denial of emotions by all of the institutions in modern societies, including the sciences.

For example, most university department of psychology have sections on behavior, cognition, perception, memory and so on. I know of only one that also has a section on emotion. Emotions are not only seldom studied in higher education, but teaching is almost entirely centered on thoughts rather than feelings.

Specifics of Mourning

How long does mourning take to ease the pain of loss? Here the story gets complicated. We know that traditional societies had rituals of mourning that lasted a long time, many years. In the ancient Hebrew tradition of kadish and sitting shiva, one mourns the death of parents for the rest of one's life.

To continue the discussion it will be now necessary to consider matters where there is little or no agreement. Are there some kinds of mourning that shorten the period and intensity of pain? Since there is no agreement what follows is just my opinion, based on my own experiences and those I learned about from my students.

I think that a certain kind of cry, sobbing with tears, resolves grief, including deferred grief, and therefore shortens the period of mourning. One needs to distinguish a good cry, one that brings immediate relief, from a bad cry, one that doesn't. A good cry seems to happen when we feel safe and are not completely lost in the grief (a bad cry).

An instance from my own life follows. During the divorce from my first wife, when I was 40, I was utterly miserable because I was separated from my children during in the first year of the divorce. Learning to cry at this time was a big help: I cried every day, without missing a single day, during that year. I learned to review the events of the day after I was home, because I cried very little at work.

At first I thought I was crying only about missing my kids. But I was also serving as chair of my department at UCSB at that time. I was under a great deal of stress from the job, particularly since I was quite active in the protest against the Vietnam War. It soon occurred to me that the crying was helping with much of that stress also.

Which brings up a further issue. I was crying so much and so often that frequently I didn't know what I was crying about. Since I hadn't really cried for some 25 years, perhaps I was getting into my backlog of uncried cries, the ones that had been deferred earlier. Also I had some emotional experiences that suggested that I had a backlog of other emotions, such as fear, anger and embarrassment, as well.

A worrisome thought: suppose everyone has a backlog of uncried cries. If that's the case, then our society is in bad shape.  In the fast pace of modern societies, one learns that there is “No Time to Cry” (song by Iris Dement 1993).

My father died a year ago today, the rooster started crowing when they carried Dad away
There beside my mother, in the living room, I stood 
With my brothers and my sisters knowing Dad was gone for good 
Well, I stayed at home just long enough to lay him in the ground 
And then I caught a plane to do a show up north in Detroit town 
Because I’m older now and I’ve got no time to cry 
I’ve got no time to look back, I’ve got no time to see
The pieces of my heart that have been ripped away from me
And if the feeling starts to coming, I’ve learned to stop ‘em fast
‘Cause I don’t know, if I let them go, they might not wanna pass 
And there’s just so many people trying to get me on the phone
 And there’s bills to pay, and songs to play, and a house to make a home.
I guess I’m older now and I’ve got no time to cry.

Emotions and Violence

A theory of the emotional causes of violence was proposed by Gilligan (1997), based on his experiences with violent men as a prison psychiatrist:

The emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence…  The different forms of violence, whether toward individuals or entire populations, are motivated (caused) by shame. (pp. 110-111).

Gilligan is careful to point out that he is not referring to ordinary shame but shame that is held in secret:

[Their secret shame is] probably the most carefully guarded secret held by violent men…The degree of secret shame that a man needs to be experiencing in order to become homicidal is so intense and so painful that it threatens to overwhelm him…

The link between secret shame and violence is not spelt out by Gilligan, but is available from other sources (Retzinger 1991: Scheff and Retzinger 1991). When a person feels intensely ashamed about being ashamed, they may hide their shame by covering it over with anger and aggression. The anger and aggression often takes the route of revenge, although it may go in other directions also.

A study of 211 cases of familicide (one spouse kills the other and one or more of the children) Websdale found evidence strongly supporting Gilligan’s hypothesis. In all of the cases that contained enough detail such that an analysis of shame could be made (more than two thirds of the cases) Websdale found evidence of intense shame. A typical case: a middle class man who was proud of being a good breadwinner for his family lost his job. He revealed his job loss to no one, pretending to be going to work every weekday has if nothing had happened. After he killed his wife, children and himself, it became clear that he was completely humiliated, and was plotting the killings.

In an earlier book (1994), I proposed that revenge was the direct cause of WWI and, indirectly, of WWII, since revenge was a prominent feature of the rise of Hitler. The first world, I argued, was instigated by France as revenge against Germany for defeating them in 1871. The French media 1871-1914 were overflowing with references to redeeming French honor through revenge: newspapers, novels, popular songs and poetry.

The book goes on to suggest that Hitler’s rise to power in Germany was based on his promise to overthrow the Treaty of Versailles (1918), which Germans found humiliating. Hitler’s personal life and his speeches are aflame with references to honor, shame, humiliation, and revenge. These three wars (Franco-Prussian, WWI and WWII) seem to show how revenge begets counter-revenge.

The thesis that shame leads to violence can also be illustrated by recent studies of the motivation of terrorists. Several studies strongly suggest that massive experiences of humiliation could be the main motivation of terrorists, such as Palestinian suicide-bombers (Strozier, et al 2010, pp. 143-147. See also Jones 2008, p. 36, and Stern 2003).

A remark by the then prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, frames our dilemma. When asked by a reporter why Palestinians crossing the border are kept waiting so long, he replied: “We want to humiliate them” (Reported in a talk by Jones 2010). Both Helmick 2003 and Michalczyk 2003 suggest that humiliation was an intentional Israeli policy. If this was true, it would be fair to say that Israeli policy was manufacturing terrorism against Israel. Governments can get away with such policies because emotional causes are not recognized.

Resolving Unresolved Feelings

The following suggestions apply not only to grief, but to four other feelings as well. Laughing may be helpful in itself, and also help with all emotional expressions. Doesn’t seem to matter if its comedy, jokes, or just laughter from nowhere. Genuine laughter may begin to resolve our backlogs of unlaughed laughs, that is to say, our unresolved shame (1). Another exercise is yawning yoga. If you fake a few yawns, you may have a fit of enjoyable yawns (and spread the contagion to others). Yawning seems to relieve physical tension (2).

All emotional expressions are contagious, because almost everyone carries a backlog of unexpressed emotions. Contagion occurs because even the slightest encouragement from others may overcome our long established sense that we will be punished if we express our true emotions and/or that we may be overwhelmed if we allow ourselves to feel.

For persons who don’t cry (sobbing with tears), or those who have bad cries (one doesn’t feel any better after a bad cry), a helpful exercise is Best Moments. Make a list of the best moments in your whole life, the longer the list and the greater the detail, the better.

This idea came from seeing photos of Olympic winners after receiving their medals. The winners of a men’s track event, for example, are standing on their pedestals with their new medals, all three crying. Why? Because it is the best moment in their life so far. Best moments yield good (relieving) rather than bad cries. A good cry signals the resolution some of our backlog of grief (3). Too bad we can’t all be Olympic winners.

We can practice being angry without shouting by explaining our frustration in a courteous way. The offending person, once they understand that we are angry even though courteous, is more likely to apologize. In addition, we may be less hyper (adrenaline charged bodily mobilization) through body heat. Most people, even those that are loud and aggressive, carry a backlog of unresolved anger (4) and resentment.

Backlogs of fear (5) may be accessible through telling stories of physical danger, seeing horror films, riding roller coasters, etc. The telltale sign of resolution of fear is shaking and sweating. Oddly, this kind of catharsis usually occurs with our minds blank, and is quite pleasurable. Reviving our emotions both in private and in public can become a way of bettering our life, and not just in respect to death.

Until we make headway toward resolving hidden emotions, our society is in deep trouble because emotional motives are invisible to politicians and the public as well. Our job as social scientists and as citizens is to try to make the social-emotional world visible and as important as the political-economic one.



Gilligan, James. Violence – reflections on a national epidemic. New York: Vintage Books (1997)

Helmick, R. G. (2004). Negotiating Outside the Law: Why Camp David Failed. London: Pluto Press.

Jones, James W. 2008. Blood that Cries Out from the Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

­­­__________2010. Shame, Humiliation and Religious Violence. The Shame Factor Conference, Lincoln Nebraska, October 24-26.

Michalczyk, John. 2003. Different Drummers: Daring to Make Peace in the Middle East. (Video).

Retzinger, S. M. (1991). Violent emotions: Shame and anger in marital quarrels. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

Scheff, T. (1994). Bloody revenge: Emotions, nationalism, and war, Boulder: Westview Press.

Scheff, Thomas and Suzanne Retzinger. 1991. Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books. (Reissued by iUniverse 2000)

Stern, Jessica. 2003. Terror in the Name of God. New York: Ecco Press.

Strozier, Charles, David Terman, and James Jones. 2010. The Fundamentalist Mindset. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Websdale, Neil. Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Style of 211 Killers. Oxford: Oxford University Press  

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Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Sociology, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His latest book is What's Love Got to Do with It?: The Emotional World of Popular Songs (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers) 2010


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