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Shame is a psychological condition and a form of religious, political, judicial, and social control consisting of ideas, emotional states, physiological states and a set of behaviors, induced by the consciousness or awareness of dishonor, disgrace, or condemnation. Genuine shame is associated with genuine dishonor, disgrace, or condemnation. False shame is associated with false condemnation as in the double-bind form of false shaming; "he brought what we did to him upon himself". Therapist John Bradshaw calls shame the "emotion that lets us know we are finite".


Being shamed

To shame is to induce shame in others by attacking or destroying the personal dignity of a person or a group. Shame can be induced verbally by ridicule, name-calling or publically exposing a person's or a groups vulnerability or weakness; and physically by assault, rape, and beating. Shaming actions attack and diminish the human dignity of a person or group and separates them from the human family.

When someone says "You ought to be ashamed of yourself", they often mean that the target did something that they believe, rightly or wrongly, to be shameful. Sometimes shortened to "Shame on you." this form of shaming shames the target as a human being, rather than the deed itself.

Shaming attacks human dignity. Since shame is a complicated and often taboo condition, people often confuse shame with guilt (see guilt and explanations below) when they shame others. In addition, for those who care about human dignity, it is always important to separate false condemnation from genuine guilt as specious shame is often used as form of relational aggression against innocent people.

Self shame

It is also possible to self-shame with genuine or false forms of self-condemnation. In one graphic form, the Canadian film Black Robe shows a Catholic priest who flagellates himself for having forbidden desires. Another form of self-shaming occurs in people who connect their internal self-worth with external conditions as in "I lost, therefore, I am a loser.", 'He rejected me, therefore, I am no good.', or "We were hit by a tidal wave, therefore, we were wrong". Because self-shame often depends on internalized ideologies of shamed vs shameless self-hood, it is often a powerful but covert form of religious, legal, or social control that begins in childhood.

Self-shaming can be internalized as an identity following abuse. A person can feel their dignity has been permanently lost, either by being a member of a group that is socially stigmatized or by experiencing abuse or ridicule. Children are especially vulnerable to formation of a self-shaming identity during their development.

Characterizing shame

Shame vs. guilt

There is no standard distinction between shame and guilt. The cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict describes shame as a violation of cultural or social values while feelings of guilt arise from violations of internal values. It is possible to feel ashamed of thought or behavior that no one knows about as well as feeling guilty about actions that gain the approval of others. However, In Facing Shame, therapists Fossum and Mason state "While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one's actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person." Shame is needed to establish limits, in childhood, since young children are unable to associate cause and effect by themselves. However, as children become better able to judge their own actions, guilt becomes the conscience former. Although, in general, guilt guides adult consciences, intrinsic shame is often present in adults too, as shaming is a form of religious, political, and/or legal control in cultures worldwide.

Shame vs. embarrassment

Shame differs from embarrassment in that it does not necessarily involve public humiliation: one can feel shame for an act known only to oneself, but in order to be embarrassed, one's actions must be revealed to others. Also, shame carries the connotation of a response to qualities that are considered morally wrong, whereas one can be embarrassed regarding actions that are morally neutral but socially unacceptable (such as an accident). Another view of the difference between shame and embarrassment is that the two emotions lie on a continuum and only differ in intensity. The wish to sink into the ground and disappear from view, to hide oneself from eyes that witness one's embarrassment or humiliation is common to both.

Toxic shame

Psychologists often use the term 'toxic' shame to describe false, and therefore, pathological shame. Therapist John Bradshaw states that toxic shame is induced, inside children, by all forms of child abuse. Incest and other forms of child sexual abuse can cause particulary severe toxic shame. Toxic shame often induces what is known as complex trauma in children who cannot cope with toxic shaming as it occurs and who dissociate the shame until it is possible to cope with. According to Bradshaw, behaviors associated with toxic shame can include perfectionism, striving for control, rage, blame, judgmentalism, contempt, patronizing, caregiving and helping, people-pleasing, and envy.

Shame (and shaming) is often associated with torture (see the psychology of torture). It is also a central feature of punishment, shunning, or ostracism. In addiction, shame is often seen in victims of child neglect, child abuse and a host of other crimes against children. Parental incest is considered the ultimate form of shaming by child psychologists.

Religious shame

Shame is a key (if controversial) theme in religion. Religions that claim only God or other spiritual beings are perfect in that sense impute a certain kind of shame on human beings. In many cases, that shame is associated with sexuality and other carnal characteristics of human beings, though others would argue that only sinful expressions of those characterstics should be shameful.

Religious faith can create the basis for shame because shame reflects internalized ideas as to what is right and proper and about what is wrong and improper. This means that torture tactics intended to shame religious adherents might merely titillate other people (e.g., nudity). Conversely, religions may associate honor with certain behaviors (e.g, martyrdom in Christianity, veils in Islam) that others consider shameful. The ideas and the strength with which religious (and other) ideas are held seems to influence whether shame occurs and how much shame occurs in a subject.

Vicarious shame

Psychologists recently introduced the notion of vicarious shame, which refers to the experience of shame on behalf of another person. Individuals vary in their tendency to experience vicarious shame, which is related to neuroticism and to the tendency to experience personal shame. Extremely shame-prone people might even experience vicarious shame: shame on behalf of another person who is already feeling shame on behalf of a third party (or possibly on behalf of the individual proper).

Shame in society

Shame also generally considered one pillar of socialization in all societies.

Shame is enshrouded in legal precedent as a pillar of punishment and ostensible correction.

Shame has been linked to narcissism in the psychoanalytic literature. It is one of the most intense emotions. The individual experiencing shame may feel totally despicable, worthless and feel that there is no redemption.

According to the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, cultures may be classified by their emphasis of using either shame or guilt to regulate the social activities of their members. Some Asian cultures, for example China and Japan, are considered shame cultures. European and modern American cultures, as for example the United States, are considered guilt cultures. For example, traditional Japanese and Ancient Greek society are sometimes said to be "shame-based" rather than "guilt-based" in that the social consequences of "getting caught" are seen as more important than the individual feelings or experiences of the agent.

Shared opinions and expected behaviours that cause the feeling of shame (as well as an associated reproval) if violated by an individual are in any case proven to be very efficient in guiding behaviour in a group or society.

Shame is the favorite form of control used by those people who commit relational aggression, also known (incorrectly) as female bullying. It is a potent weapon in marriage, family, and church settings. It is also used in the workplace as a form of covert social control or aggression.

See also


Further reading


  • Bradshaw, J (1988). Healing the Shame That Binds You, HCI, . ISBN 0-932194-86-9
  • Broucek, Francis.(1991)Shame and the Self, NY: The Guilford Press, ISBN0-89862-444-4
  • Fossum, M, and Mason, M, (1986). Facing Shame: Families in Recovery, W.W. Norton, ISBN 0-393-30581-3
  • Gilbert, P (2002}Body Shame: Conceptualisation, Research and Treatment. Brunner-Routledge. ISBN 1-58391-166-9
  • Gilbert, P (1998} Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology and Culture. ISBN 0-19-511480-9
  • Goldberg, Carl. (1991) Understanding Shame, Jason Aaronson, Inc., Northvale, NJ. ISBN 0-87668-541-6
  • Lewis, H. B. (1971). Shame and guilt in neurosis. International University Press. New York.ISBN 0-8236-8307-9
  • Lewis, Michael. (1992) Shame: The Exposed Self. NY: The Free Press. ISBN 0-02-918881-4
  • Kaufman, Gershen,(1992). Shame: The Power of Caring, 3rd edition, Schenkman Books, Rochester, VT, ISBN 0-87047-052-3
  • Middelton-Moz, J, (1990). Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise, HCI, ISBN 1-55874-072-4
  • Morrison, A (1996) The Culture of Shame. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-37484-3
  • Morrison, A (1989) Shame: The Underside of Narcissism. The Analytic Press. ISBN 0-88163-082-9
  • Nathanson, D., ed. (1987) The Many Faces of Shame. NY: The Guilford Press. ISBN 0-89862-705-2
  • Nathanson, Donald. (1992) Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. NY: W.W. Norton, ISBN: 0-393-03097-0
  • Schneider, Carl D. (1977) Shame, Exposure, and Privacy. Boston: Beacon Press, ISBN 0-8070-1121-5
  • Vallelonga, Damian S. (1997). An empirical phenomenological investigation of being ashamed. In Valle, R. Phenomenological Inquiry in Psychology: Existential and Transpersonal Dimensions. New York: Plenum Press, 123-155.


  • Allan, S., Gilbert, P. & Goss, K. (1994). An exploration of shame measures: II:

Psychopathology. Personality and Individual Differences, 17, 719-722.

  • Andrews, B. (1998). Shame and childhood abuse. In, P.Gilbert & B Andrews (eds).

Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology and Culture (pp. 176-190): New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Cheung, M.S.P., Gilbert P & Irons, C (2004). An exploration of shame, social rank and

rumination in relation to depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 36, 1143-1153.

  • Fessler, D.M.T. (2004). Shame in two cultures: Implications for evolutionary approaches. Journal of Cognition and Culture 4, 2, 207-262. Full text

Gilbert, P. (1998). What is shame? Some core issues and controversies. In, P. Gilbert & B. Andrews, (eds) Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology and Culture. (pp 3-36). New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Gilligan, J. (2003), Shame, guilt and violence. Social Research, An International Quarterly of the Social Sciences. 70, 11149-1180.
  • Goss, K., Gilbert, P. & Allan, S. (1994). An exploration of shame measures: I: The

‘other as shamer’scale. Personality and Individual Differences, 17, 713-717.

  • Greenwald, D.F & Harder, D W (1998). Domains of shame: Evolutionary, cultural, and

psychotherapeutic aspects. In, P. Gilbert & B. Andrews (eds.). Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology and Culture (pp. 225-245). New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Lazare, A. (1987). Shame and humiliation in the medical encounter. Archives of Internal

Medicine, 147, 1653-1658.

  • Lewis, M. (2003). The role of the self in shame Social Research, An International Quarterly

of the Social Sciences, 70, 1181-1204

  • Mack A (2003, ed.) Shame. Social Research: An International Quarterly of the Social

Sciences 70, 1105-1378.

  • Mills, R.S.L. (2005). Taking stock of the developmental literature on shame. Developmental

Review, 25, 26-63.

  • Nathanson, D.L. (1994). Shame and Pride: Affect Sex and the Birth of the Self. New York:

Norton Paperbacks

  • Scheff, T.J. (1988). Shame and conformity. The deference-emotion system. American

Review of Sociology, 53, 395-406.

  • Scheff T.J (1998). Shame in the labeling of mental of illness. In, P. Gilbert & B. Andrews

(eds). Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology and Culture (pp. 191-205). New York: Oxford University Press

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