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What Is Shame?

By September 18, 2019September 30th, 2019No Comments

It has become popular among politicians and comedians.

Feminist psychology and feminism in general have been at the forefront of the discussion of the dynamics of shame. Shame is used in many cultures as a behavioral and psychological system of control. Eastern cultural training, for example, depends strongly on shame. In the West, although the use of guilt may be more common, it has also been used to maintain gender-prescribed behavior and to eliminate the proscribed.

Shame is not guilt, which stems from external demands and remains external and often moralistic. Shame instead goes to the deepest level of the psyche and of the self. Both can motivate behaviour and cause psychological harm, but in different ways.

Shame is a sort of psychological prison that can be easily established in almost every individual, with the possible exception of psychopathic and narcissistic individuals. I do not mean to imply that these character types have no shame, but they typically do not experience it as such due to their rigid system of defense.

Of course a field that specializes in gender and the objectification of women’s bodies in particular would be deeply concerned with the use of shame to maintain the societal status quo. Much of the research and clinical literature has also emphasised the damaging effects of the use of shame in child-rearing.

Women’s bodies are both admired and shamed by the omnipresence of the masculine gaze[1], as it has been called. Feminist and other culturally conscious approaches center the incapacitating effects of shame in their psychotherapeutic models and in their epistemologies. The less shame, the more access the individual has to herself and her ability to tolerate change. Reducing shame allows access to individual strengths.

Body-shaming and, in particular, fat-shaming, are issues of importance for women and other marginalized genders. The experience is one of a heated desire to disappear or self-destruct, thus linking it as well, in the extreme form, with suicidality. It is said colloquially that the person “wants to shrivel up and die.”

Of course we all develop various ways of defending against feeling the pain of shame, but we all pay a psychological price for these defenses in the form of disconnection from and denial of our own selves.

Of late, we have seen politicians revert to shaming opponents and we have seen the all too present shaming perpetrated by internet trolls. These are not acts of self-confidence or psycholgical security. Instead they are attempts to project the shame felt by these individuals on to others, an attempt to feel better by making others feel worse.

Shame is not an effective tool for psychological learning or for punishment of children or adults. It is instead psychologically damaging. This includes gender shaming, body shaming ,and the many less popular forms of shaming. People come in different sizes and shapes, diifferent genders, etnicities, and abilities. This is the diversity of humanity and it should be respected. We still have not learned this psychological lesson as well as we must to achieve optimal mental health within each cultural context, but we must try not to support psychological shaming culturally or politically and instead to support and help to heal those who have borne the brunt of it for the sake of the psychological well-being of us all.


[1] Kaschak, E. (1992) Engendered Lives: A New Psychology of Women’s Experience, Basic Books.

Kaschak, E. and Bruns, C. Feminist therapy: history and geography. In J. C. Chrisler & D. R. McCreary (Eds.), Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology Volume 11: Gender Research in Social and Applied Psychology. New York: Springer 2009.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychologist, author and teacher. She is well-known as a speaker, workshop leader, human rights advocate and a public intellectual.