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Silencing the Self Theory


Dana C. Jack, EdD is Professor at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies/ Western Washington University.  Her research examines women’s depression and anger in the U.S. and internationally, and qualitative research methods.  Alisha Ali, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at New York University.  Her research examines social influences on women’s depression, including the effects of emotional abuse, racism, and 9780195398090harassment.  Together, they edited Silencing the Self Across Cultures: Depression and Gender in the Social World.  The book offers evidence regarding why women’s depression is more widespread than men’s and why the treatment of depression lies in understanding that a person’s individual psychology is inextricably related to the social world and close relationships.  In the excerpt below, from the introductory essay by Jack and Ali, we learn about the Silencing the Self theory (STS), which details the negative psychological effects when individuals silence themselves in close relationships and how the authors created a scale to measure silencing in patients.

…STS theory is based on a longitudinal study of clinically depressed women’s descriptions of their experiences…, including their understanding of what led up to their depression.  The women detailed how they began to silence or suppress certain thoughts, feelings, and actions that they thought would contradict their partner’s wishes.  They did so to avoid conflict, to maintain a relationship, and/or to ensure their psychological or physical safety.  They described how silencing their voices led to a loss of self and a sense of being lost in their lives.  They also conveyed their shame, desperation, and anger over feelings of entrapment and self-betrayal.

Though this process feels personal to each woman, it is in fact deeply cultural.  A male-centered world tells women who they are or who they should be, especially in intimate relationships.  Self-silencing is prescribed by norms, values, and images dictating what women are “supposed” to be like: pleasing, unselfish, loving.  As I (Dana Jack) listened to the inner dialogues of depressed women, I heard self-monitoring and negative self-evaluation in arguments between the “I” (a voice of the self) and the “Over-Eye” (the cultural, moralistic voice that condemns the self for departing from culturally prescribed “shoulds”).  The imperatives of the Over-Eye regarding women’s goodness are strengthened by the social reality of women’s subordination – the experience of being a target of male violence, and the difficulties of financial dependence and poverty.  Women’s inner arguments about how they should act and feel revealed a divided self that results from self-silencing in an attempt to preserve relationships.  Inwardly, they experienced anger and confusion while outwardly presenting a pleasing, compliant self trying to live up to cultural standards of a good woman in the midst of fraying relationships, violence, and lives that were falling apart.

As I followed the negative self-evaluation (words like “no good” and “worthless”) in their narratives, it became clear that women’s self-judgment and behavior were guided by specific beliefs about how they should act and feel in relationships.  When followed, these self-silencing relational schemas create vulnerability to depression by directing women to defer to the needs of others, censor self-expression, repress anger, inhibit self-directed action, and judge the self against a culturally defined “good woman.”  In tandem with women’s wider social inequality, such beliefs can keep a woman entrapped in negating situations as she blames herself for the problems she encounters.

In order to measure self-silencing, I designed the Silencing the Self Scale…., a 31-item self-report instrument.  The STSS reflects the components of relational schemas held by depressed women.  The statements that comprise the scale came directly from the narratives of clinically depressed women, yet are gender neutral.  Respondents endorse each statement on a 5-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree.  Four rationally derived sub-scales measure the relational schemas central to self-silencing, and each is understood as an interrelated component of the overall construct.  The subscales are considered to reflect both phenomenological and behavioral aspects of self-silencing:

1. Externalized Self-Perception assesses schema regarding standards for self-judgment and includes the extent to which a person judges the self through external standards.  For example, item #6 reflects seeing the self through others’ eyes: “I tend to judge myself by how I think other people see me.”  The last sentence on the STSS, item #31, reads, “I never seem to measure up to the standards I set for myself.”  Immediately following this item, the questionnaire instructs, “If you answered the last question with a 4 or 5 [agree or strongly agree], please list up to three of the standards you feel you don’t measure up to.”  This allows for continuing investigation  concerning the standards depressed individuals use to judge the self, including gender- and culture- specific standards.

2. Care as Self-Sacrifice measures the extent to which relationships are secured by putting the needs of others ahead of the needs of the self.  For example, if a women strongly endorses item #4, “Considering my needs to be as important as those of the people I love is selfish,” then that belief directs her vision of the hierarchy of needs within relationships; it guides behavior by directing how she should choose when her needs conflict with those of others she loves; and it provides a standard for negative self-judgment if she veers from its command.  Further, it can arouse anger as, following its dictates, she places her needs second to those of others, yet it also commands the repression of anger by purporting a moral basis for the suppression of her own needs.  It reinforces a woman’s low self-esteem by affirming that she is not as worthy or important as others, and finally, it legitimizes the historical and still prevalent view of women’s nature as essentially self-sacrificing and maternal…

3. Silencing the Self assesses the tendency to inhibit self-expression and action in order to secure relationships and to avoid retaliation, possible loss, and conflict.  Item #8 which is reverse-scored, reads, “When my partner’s needs and feelings conflict with my own, I always state mine clearly.”  The items in this subscale measure both behavioral and phenomenological aspects of self-silencing, as in item #30: “I try to bury my feelings when I think they will cause trouble in my close relationship(s).”

4. Divided Self measures the extent to which a person feels a division between an outer “false” self and inner self resulting from hiding certain feelings and thoughts in an important relationship.  In women, it appeared that the false self was characterized by a mode of relating through compliance to the partner’s wishes, and that the feelings hidden were oppositional or angry, challenging ones, as in item #16: “Often I look happy enough on the outside, but inwardly I feel angry and rebellious.”

The STS was validated in three groups of women in radically different settings: undergraduate women, mothers who abused drugs and were caring for young children, and a battered women’s shelter group.  Results demonstrated not only that STSS scores correlated with scores on the Beck Depression Inventory but also that STSS means varied with contexts in predicted ways.  Participants’ means in the three groups of women varies signifigantly from each other, with self-silencing highest among residents at battered women’s shelters, intermediate among mothers who abuse drugs, and lowest among undergraduate participants.  Across subsequent investigations, higher levels of self-silencing have been found to be associated with variables representing inequality, oppression, and other threats to self and relationships…

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