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

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.

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

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

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.

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.

My father died a year ago today, the rooster started crowing when they carried Dad away
The pieces of my heart that have been ripped away from me
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:

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

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.

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 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).

Resolving Unresolved Feelings

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.

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.



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.

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


 What's Love Got to Do with It?: The Emotional World of Popular Songs (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers) 2010

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