The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame
2019-08-11 21:57

People who feel shame readily are at risk for depression and anxiety disorders


The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame


In Brief


We feel shame when we violate the social norms we believe in. At such moments we feel humiliated, exposed and small and are unable to look another person straight in the eye. We want to sink into the ground and disappear.


Shame makes us direct our focus inward and view our entire self in a negative light. Feelings of guilt, in contrast, result from a concrete action for which we accept responsibility. Guilt causes us to focus our attention on the feelings of others.


Women are quicker to feel humiliated than men, and adolescents feel shame more intensely than adults do. As a result, women and adolescents are more susceptible to the negative effects of shame, such as low self-esteem and depression.


We have all felt shame at one time or another. Maybe we were teased for mispronouncing a common word or for how we looked in a bathing suit, or perhaps a loved one witnessed us telling a lie. Shame is the uncomfortable sensation we feel in the pit of our stomach when it seems we have no safe haven from the judging gaze of others. We feel small and bad about ourselves and wish we could vanish. Although shame is a universal emotion, how it affects mental health and behavior is not self-evident. Researchers have made good progress in addressing that question.


Bad for Your Health


According to philosopher Hilge Landweer of the Free University of Berlin, certain conditions must come together for someone to feel shame. Notably, the person must be aware of having transgressed a norm. He or she must also view the norm as desirable and binding because only then can the transgression make one feel truly uncomfortable. It is not even always necessary for a disapproving person to be present; we need only imagine another’s judgment. Often someone will conjure an image of a parent asking, “Aren’t you ashamed?” Indeed, we may internalize such admonishments so completely that the norms and expectations laid on us by our parents in childhood continue to affect us well into adulthood.

柏林自由大学(Free University of Berlin)的哲学家希尔格•兰德威尔(Hilge Landweer)认为,某些特定的条件必须结合在一起,才能让人感到羞耻。值得注意的是,这个人必须意识到自己违反了规范。他或她还必须把规范看作是可取的和有约束力的,因为只有这样,越轨才会让人感到真正的不舒服。甚至不赞成的人也不一定要在现场;我们只需要想象别人的判断。经常有人会想象出一个家长在问:“你不感到羞耻吗?”事实上,我们可能会把这种训诫完全内化,以至于父母在童年时期对我们施加的规范和期望,会一直影响到我们成年。

June Tangney of George Mason University has studied shame for decades. In numerous collaborations with Ronda L. Dearing of the University of Houston and others, she has found that people who have a propensity for feeling shame—a trait termed shame-proneness—often have low self-esteem (which means, conversely, that a certain degree of self-esteem may protect us from excessive feelings of shame). Tangney and Dearing are among the investigators who have found that shame-proneness can also increase one’s risk for other psychological problems. The link with depression is particularly strong; for instance, one large-scale meta-analysis in which researchers examined 108 studies involving more than 22,000 subjects showed a clear connection.

乔治梅森大学(George Mason University)的琼•坦尼(June Tangney)研究羞耻已经有几十年了。在与朗达·l·休斯顿大学和其他人的众多合作中,她发现感觉羞耻的倾向一称之为羞耻倾向特征——自尊较低(这意味着,相反,一定程度的自尊可能保护我们免受过度羞耻的感觉)。唐尼和迪林等研究人员发现,羞耻感也会增加一个人出现其他心理问题的风险。与抑郁症的联系尤其紧密;例如,在一项大规模的元分析中,研究人员调查了涉及2.2万多名受试者的108项研究,结果表明两者之间存在明显的联系。

In a 2009 study, Sera De Rubeis, then at the University of Toronto, and Tom Hollenstein of Queen’s University in Ontario looked specifically at the trait’s effects on depressive symptoms in adolescents. The project included roughly 140 volunteers between the ages of 11 and 16 and found that teenagers who exhibited greater shame-proneness were also more likely to have symptoms of depression. There also seems to be a connection between shame-proneness and anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, as Thomas A. Fergus, now at Baylor University, and his colleagues reported in 2010.

在2009年的一项研究中,多伦多大学的色拉尔·德·鲁贝斯(Sera De Rubeis)和安大略省皇后大学的汤姆·霍伦斯坦(Tom Hollenstein)专门研究了这种性格对青少年抑郁症症状的影响。该项目包括了大约140名年龄在11岁到16岁之间的志愿者,他们发现,表现出更多羞耻感的青少年也更有可能出现抑郁症的症状。正如贝勒大学(Baylor University)的托马斯·A·费格斯(Thomas a . Fergus)和他的同事在2010年报告的那样,羞耻感倾向和焦虑症之间似乎也存在联系,比如社交焦虑症和广泛性焦虑症。

Sex and Age Differences


In 2010 a team of psychologists led by Ulrich Orth of the University of Bern studied shame in more than 2,600 volunteers between the ages of 13 and 89, most of whom lived in the U.S. They found not only that men and women manifest shame differently but also that age seems to affect how readily people experience it: adolescents are most prone to this sensation; the propensity for shame decreases in middle age until about the age of 50; and later in life people again become more easily embarrassed. The authors see this pattern as a function of personality development. The identities of teenagers and young adults are not completely formed; in addition, people in this age group are expected to conform to all manner of norms that define their place in society. Uncertainty as to how to deal with these external expectations may make them quicker to feel shame. By middle age, in contrast, our character is more or less set, and norms have less impact. But as we enter old age and worry about declines in our body and our appearance, we begin to feel self-conscious again.



Guilt and Shame: Related but Different


It has been speculated that humans feel shame because it conferred some kind of evolutionary advantage on our early ancestors. For instance, it can potentially promote a group’s well-being by encouraging individuals to adhere to social conventions and to work to stay in others’ good graces.


Yet Tangney and others argue that shame reduces one’s tendency to behave in socially constructive ways; rather it is shame’s cousin, guilt, that promotes socially adaptive behavior. People often speak of shame and guilt as if they were the same, but they are not. Like shame, guilt occurs when we transgress moral, ethical or religious norms and criticize ourselves for it. The difference is that when we feel shame, we view ourselves in a negative light (“I did something terrible!”), whereas when we feel guilt, we view a particular action negatively (“I did something terrible!”). We feel guilty because our actions affected someone else, and we feel responsible.


Tangney and her co-authors explained it well in a 2005 paper: “A shame-prone individual who is reprimanded for being late to work after a night of heavy drinking might be likely to think, ‘I’m such a loser; I just can’t get it together,’ whereas a guilt-prone individual would more likely think, ‘I feel badly for showing up late. I inconvenienced my co-workers.’ Feelings of shame can be painful and debilitating, affecting one’s core sense of self, and may invoke a self-defeating cycle of negative affect.... In comparison, feelings of guilt, though painful, are less disabling than shame and are likely to motivate the individual in a positive direction toward reparation or change.”


Further, guilt is a sign that a person can be empathetic, a trait that is important for one’s ability to take someone else’s perspective, to behave altruistically and to have close, caring relationships. Indeed, we can feel a sense of guilt only if we can put ourselves in another’s shoes and recognize that our action caused pain or was injurious to the other person. As is generally true of young children, people who are unable to empathize cannot feel guilt. Guilt holds us back from harming others and encourages us to form relationships for the common good. When we feel guilty, we turn our gaze outward and seek strategies to reverse the harm we have done. When we feel ashamed, we turn our attention inward, focusing mainly on the emotions roiling within us and attending less to what is going on around us.


One study that clearly associates guilt and empathy was published in 2015. Matt Treeby, then at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and his colleagues first examined the extent to which test subjects tended toward shame or guilt. Then they had the 363 participants look at facial expressions and determine whether the person was angry, sad, happy, fearful, disgusted or ashamed. Guilt-prone volunteers proved to be more accurate in their observations: they were better able to recognize the emotions of others than were shame-prone volunteers.

2015年发表的一项研究明确地将内疚和同理心联系起来。马特·特里比(Matt Treeby)当时在墨尔本的拉筹伯大学(La Trobe University)工作。然后,他们让363名参与者观察他们的面部表情,判断他们是愤怒、悲伤、快乐、恐惧、厌恶还是羞愧。事实证明,有内疚感的志愿者的观察结果更准确:他们比有内疚感的志愿者更能识别他人的情绪。

Of course, guilt and shame often occur together to some extent. Guilt can trigger a sense of shame in many people because of the discrepancy between the standard to which they hold themselves and the action that caused the guilt. The connection between guilt and shame grows stronger with an increase in the intentionality of our misbehavior, the number of people who witnessed it and the importance of those individuals to us. Shame will also increase if the person who was harmed by our action rejects or rebukes us.


Haunted by Original Sin


In the bible, nakedness is a source of shame. The book of Genesis 2:25 says of Adam and Eve, “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” That changed when they rebelled against God’s commandment and ate of the tree of knowledge. From then on, they felt ashamed in each other’s presence: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.”


This biblical interpretation of nakedness as shameful still deeply informs the social norms and conventions that determine how we deal with human physicality and sexuality. Although our notions of whether, how, where and in the presence of whom a person may be undressed have changed over the centuries, the shame we feel when we transgress the norms has remained.


Ridding oneself of guilt is often easier than overcoming shame, in part because our society offers many ways to expiate guilt-inducing offenses, including apologizing, paying fines, and serving jail time. Certain religious rituals, such as confession, may also help us deal with guilt. But shame has real staying power: it is much easier to apologize for a transgression than it is to accept oneself.


Some kinds of guilt can be as destructive as shame-proneness is—namely, “free-floating” guilt (not tied to a specific event) and guilt about events that one has no control over. In general, though, it appears that shame is often the more destructive emotion. It follows, then, that parents, teachers, judges and others who want to encourage constructive behavior in their charges would do well to avoid shaming rule-breakers, choosing instead to help them to understand the effects of their actions on others and to take steps to make up for their transgressions.


More to Explore


On the Intensity of Experiencing Feelings of Shame in Mental Disorders. Annette Kämmerer in Psychotherapie, Psychosomatik, Medizinische Psychologie, Vol. 60, No. 7, pages 262–270; July 2010.


Tracking the Trajectory of Shame, Guilt, and Pride across the Life Span. Ulrich Orth et al. in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 99, No. 6, pages 1061–1071; December 2010.


Shame, Guilt, and Facial Emotion Processing: Initial Evidence for a Positive Relationship between Guilt-Proneness and Facial Emotion Recognition Ability. Matt S. Treeby et al. in Cognition and Emotion, Vol. 30, No. 8, pages 1504–1511; December 2016.


Shame and Guilt: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Video lecture by June Tangney. Presented by George Mason University and ResearchChannel:

羞耻与罪恶感:好、坏、丑。June Tangney的视频讲座。由乔治梅森大学和研究频道提供:



Annette Kämmerer


Annette Kämmerer is a psychologist and professor emerita at the Institute of Psychology at Heidelberg University in Germany. She sees patients in private practice and trains young psychotherapists.

安妮特·卡默勒(Annette Kammerer)是德国海德堡大学(Heidelberg University)心理研究所的心理学家和荣誉教授。她在私人诊所看病,并培训年轻的心理治疗师。

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