The Significance of Shame on Human Development and Relationships

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The Significance of Shame

With an Overview of Integrating Adlerian Theory


The word shame is derived from the Indo-European root akam or skem – bothe the hide that covers us naturally and the hide within which we seek to cover. The affect of shame refers to our inner experience when we feel uncovered Loader (1998). 21

What is shame’s significance in human development, interpersonal relations, and the psychotherapeutic endeavor?


Table of Contents







Healthy Aspects of Shame……………………………………………………………………….

Shame versus Guilt………………………………………………………………………………

Problematic Aspects of Shame………………………………………………………………….

The Psychopathology of Shame…………………………………………………………………..

     Affect Development…………………………………………………………………….

     Expressed Manifestations……………………………………………………………………

     Manifestations by Age…………………………………………………………………………

     Maladaptive Behaviors………………………………………………………………………..

Individual Psychology…………………………………………………………………………

     Family Constellation……………………………………………………………………….

     Early Recollection………………………………………………………………………….

     Impact of Shame on Life Tasks……………………………………………………………….

     Societal Impact of Shame…………………………………………………………………….

Treatment modalities…………………………………………………………………………….








The Significance of Shame


Universality of Shame

Shame is a universal affect as essential to the human existence as anxiety or suffering, but is much more elusive by nature. Being universal in nature, shame has inherently adaptive and therefore distinctly positive features. World-wide, shame has been crucial to various cultures’ development of identity, conscience, and to sense of unified dignity Bk Kaufman (1992).

Shame promotes socially responsible behaviors within those cultures. The adversity and pain associated with shame also motivates individuals to increase their intellectual, physical, and social competencies. Thus, shame plays a vital role in learning and in the advancement of society as a whole 14-Van Vliet (2008).

The self-conscious emotion of shame, often plays an alternating role with guilt, and pride which embody a special class of emotions that help people to navigate successfully in the social environment. According to Tangney and Tracy (2012), these emotions serve to monitor our interactions with other people, and lead us to correct moral and social infractions as cited in Muris and Meesters (2014). 12  Lewis and Sullivan (2005) noted self-conscious emotions usually entail self-evaluation and self-reflection, and thereby need higher cognitive operation. Further, this means that the self-conscious emotions of shame, guilt, and pride slowly emerge during the maturation development of children, guiding them to progressively deal with social interactions and intimate relationships in a more favorable way. However, if not well managed, these emotions will lose their adaptive quality and can show varying psychological defects, which can quickly occur at a relatively young age as cited in Muris and Meesters (2014). 12  Further, Kelter and Gross (1999) made the point that most scientists agree on the premise that emotions serve the important function of prioritizing and organizing ongoing behavior for the purpose of enhance adjustment to the stresses of the social and physical surroundings as cited by as cited in Muris and Meesters (2014). 12   Pride can serve the goal of encouraging future behavior that agrees with personal and social standards, thereby not only enhancing one’s self-worth but also maintaining or even improving the individual’s position on the social hierarchy. Comparable to the distinctions made between guilt and shame, there is a difference in desirability of two types of pride depending on the person’s attribution made in response to the positive self-evaluation. Authentic pride is associated with a prosocial personality profile (i.e., high self-esteem, high agreeableness, high conscientiousness, and low narcissism), whereas hubristic pride is related to a reversed, more “anti-social, dominance” profile Muris and Meesters (2014). 12

These self-conscious emotions typically involve self-reflection and self-evaluation, and as such, require some advanced level of cognitive functioning. These findings mean that, ideally, feelings of guilt, shame, and pride gradually evolve during the development of children, helping them to increasingly deal with social interactions and intimate relationships in a more favorable way. However, if not well regulated, these emotions can lose their adaptive value and display their psychological downside, which may already have happened at a relatively young age Muris and Meesters (2014). 12

Kaufman (1992) describes American society as a shame-based culture, but where shame is hidden from view, while Japanese and Mediterranean cultures are much more openly organized around shame and its counterpart, honor. Further, our public-school system was, and to some extent still is, based on the ritual humiliation of its pupils.

Kaufman (1992), states the critical distinction is between shame as an innate affect that functions simply to amplify awareness, and shame that has become internalized and magnified to the point that it now progressively captures and dominates the self. The significance of shame lies in its profound impact on personality, psychopathology, and interpersonal relations, as well as in its role in minority group relations, minority identity development, national identity development and international relations.


The word shame is derivational from the Indo-European root skam or skem, which is also our derivational source of  the English words ‘skin’ and ‘hide’. Both hide us naturally and hide that within which we seek to cover (Nathanson, 1987b) as cited by Loader (1998). 21

Shame, according to the affect system (Tomkins, 1984), is one of nine innate affects comprising the human affect system. There are nine innate affects, indicating there are nine ways of paying attention. The positive affects are: Interest-Excitement, Enjoyment-Joy, Surprise-Startle; the negative affects are: Distress-Anguish, Fear-Terror, Anger-Rage, Shame-Humiliation, Dissmell, and Disgust.

According to Kaufman (1992), learning how to become a person originates through identification, as we first identify and thereby have a beginning base from which to navigate the human world. This idea is pivotal to all that follows. Only later do we individualize by differentiating our own unique self. These two processes, identification and differentiation, alternate with one another as we go about the task of becoming a fully separate person. Without an identification securely established, individuals may continue to fail in their struggle to answer: Who am I really? What is the core of life for the me inside? Where do I belong?

Healthy Aspects of Shame

Shaming is constructive when it promotes a realistic self-appraisal, encourages modesty, humility, and an appreciation for one’s limits. This embodies an important part of our sense of belonging during the process of socialization. Conversely, shaming is unhealthy when it is use as a means of achieving the shamer’s own needs and goals, intending no consideration of the needs of the other; supporting the other vs using the other, is the difference Loader (1998). 21

17 Yard (2014), cited Carl Jung (1969) who suggested that affect occurs when forces of the conscious and the forces of the unconscious meet and explode with a force or energy. Once we are aware that an affect has been triggered, we call it a “Feeling.” The term emotion is reserved for any combination of an affect with our memory of any such previous experience of that affect. Consciousness itself is a special channel of neurocortical activity made available only by affect. Nothing can enter the dynamic unconscious unless it first triggers one of the affects. When something unacceptable to our way of being or within our rules for living is shunted away from consciousness, it is accomplished through shame.

As expressed by Kaufman (1992: “The principal effects of shame on the self are hiding, paralysis, and perceived transparency. The urge to hide, to disappear from view, follows quickly in the wake of shame. Reducing that often agonizing scrutiny is critical, and all hiding behavior therefore originates in the necessity of covering the self. Furthermore, exposure itself creates an experiential paralysis: speech is silenced, movement is interrupted, the self becomes frozen. Even the contents of consciousness may become experientially erased by the sense of exposure inherent to intense shame, thereby causing eventual repression of whatever has become associated with shame. Finally, we feel transparent because we feel painfully revealed in the moment of shame; others seemingly can see inside of us and know our innermost being.”

If the inner experience of shame is exposure, the outer view of shame is captured in its characteristic facial signs: eyes down, head down, eyes averted, and blushing. These various, though universal facial displays signify the experience of shame. They also serve to communicate shame both to the person who is feeling it and to any others present or watching. The shame response of lowering the eyes or head is a direct consequence of heightened visibility. But this response also reduces that painful visibility, thereby producing the universal symbol of the head hung in shame. From this poignant image comes the historical equation of shame with “loss of face” Kaufman (1992).

In older individuals, shame typically is followed by various secondary reactions, most notably other affects. The three most frequent are fear, distress, and rage. Fear of further shame experiences is a natural secondary reaction that is widely observed to follow shame. Fear, which often manifests as anxiety, frequently functions in anticipation of further shame. Distress – the crying response – is another affective reaction to shame; many children and adults will respond to their own shame by crying. The third principal secondary reaction is rage, which is an exaggerated inflation of anger affect. Where anger is typically toward someone or something specific, rage is against a “faceless, unidentifiable” threat. This rage serves a vital self-protective function: it insulates the self, creating a protective cover, actively keeping all ‘others’ away to avoid further occurrences of shame 17Yard (2014).

Yard (2014) further explains: “The affect of shame typically manifests in various forms. The principal variants of shame are discouragement, embarrassment, shyness, self-consciousness, inferiority, and guilt. Embarrassment is shame before an audience, while shyness is shame in the presence of strangers. Discouragement is shame over a temporary defeat, while inferiority is shame that is permanent. Self-consciousness is shame over performance, while guilt can be shame over immorality. Other phenomena rooted in shame include alienation, failure, worthlessness, and defectiveness.”

Summarizing the affect of shame (Kaufman, 1992), to feel shame is to feel seen in a painfully diminished sense. Inherent to the experience of shame is this sudden, unexpected sense of exposure: we stand revealed as lesser. Exposure is an important characteristic of shame and is, therefore, central to understanding its dynamic impact. Exposure can be to others or to the self alone. Developmentally, shame begins as a wordless effective experience; only later does it take on qualities of cognitive self-evaluation.

The experience of shame is directly about the self, the focus of evaluation. While shame is a universally expressed emotion, it often goes unrecognized and unacknowledged often due to the unconscious nature of shame. Instead, attention goes to its various manifestations 38Chilton (2012). According to Kaufman (1992), learning how to become a person originates through identification, as we first identify and thereby have a beginning base from which to navigate the human world. This idea is pivotal to all that follows. Only later do we individualize by differentiating our own unique self. These two processes, identification and differentiation, alternate with one another as we go about the task of becoming a fully separate person. Without an identification securely established, individuals may continue to fail in their struggle to answer: Who am I really? What is the core of life for the me inside? Where do I belong?

The many various definitions in the literature on topics relating to shame convolute the subject. 17 Yard (2014) suggested three differences and distinctions:

  1. Shame is both an affect and a defense.
  2. Shame is about the self, not simply guilt about an act.
  3. Shame can be seen as something known only by its effect on another situation or person, e.g., states of brooding, withdrawal, self-absorption, self-silencing.

Defenses against shame include narcissistic self-inflation, projecting upon and shaming of others, lying, and replacement of a gap in a person’s memory by a falsification that he or she believes to be true, thus avoiding responsibility or fault. Defensive shame can also appear in the case of pathological perfectionism. Perfectionism is an overwhelming driving tension to get everything right, to appear flawless and sinless, thus avoiding the critical scrutiny of others and not be exposed as weak, a sham, vulnerable, or fraudulent. The perfectionist tie to shame is the need not to be discovered or exposed as having flaws Yard (2014). Further, Yard identifies moral masochism as another potent defense. Masochist’s shame is unconscious guilt coming from other sources such as survivor guilt, or separation guilt. Whatever the cause, if ignored and untreated, moral masochism can lead to a life-long need for punishment. Additionally, Yard (2014) included in defensive shame, the moral narcissist who depletes his true object relations in order to restore childish delusions of great self-sufficiency, by the erasure of passion and elimination of self, instead emphasizing love of humanity over love of human beings.

More succinctly, Load (1998) 21 outlines the responses and defenses to shame which  include:

Contempt – an attitude of cold superiority where one automatically looks down on the other, insulating the self against any possibility of shame

Power over others – protects against shame by keeping the other in a weakened position whether this be via a hierarchical structure or by physical threat

Self-deprecation – actively taking the one-down position in social relationships protects against finding oneself placed in this position

Striving for perfection – attempting to avoid the possibility of shame by always getting it right

Withdrawal – withdrawal into oneself and withdrawal from social contact protect against shame by minimizing the risk of exposure

Denial – the last bastion of protection is the exclusion from awareness of the experience of shame, which can lead to apparent shamelessness

Further, while these defensive postures protect against the experience of shame, if they prove ineffective, or the individual becomes overcome by shame, there are some more common reactions:

  1. Isolation – shame is always accompanied by the urge to hide away and this may literally happen if the possibility exists
  2. Shame-Rage – shame can be reacted to by indiscriminate irrational anger at the shamer, and object, or no one specifically
  3. Humor – masking shame with humor or making fun of the shamer
  4. Transfer of responsibility – the individual may (try) to shift the responsibility for their shameful dilemma onto another person (e.g. ‘you made me do it’). This transfer is often easiest when the other person is in a subordinate position, such as an employee or a child.
  5. Indifference – the shamed person may profess not to care, thus denying the shame experience. This can lead to a possible demeanor of impertinence.
  6. Total humiliation – a reaction of total defeat and mortification.

Shame Versus Guilt

According to Tangney, Wagner, Hill-Barlow, Marschall, & Gramzow (1996), “Shame and guilt are both negative self-relevant emotions. People typically experience shame, guilt, or both when they behave in a manner they view as morally or socially unacceptable. Shame and guilt differ, however, in the ways in which such negative self-relevant events are construed (Niedenthal, Tangney, and Gavanski, 1994; Tangney, 1990, 1995) as cited by Tangney et al. (1996). As cited by Further Tangney et al. (1996), it appears that such differences in the framing of events are related to quite distinct patterns of affect, cognition, and motivations, as indicated both by qualitative case study analyses (e.g., Lewis, 1971; Lindsay-Hartz, 1984; Lindsay-Hartz, deRivera, & Mascolo, 1995) and several systematic empirical studies of the phenomenology of shame and guilt (e.g., Tangney 1889, 1993; Tangney, Miller, & Flicker, 1992; Wicker, Payne, & Morgan, 1983).

When shamed, a person’s focal concern is with the entire self. Some negative behavior or failure is taken as a reflection of a more global and enduring defect of self, with corresponding feelings of shrinking and being small. The shamed person feels, in the moment of shame, worthless and powerless. The self is impaired. Additionally, because shame also involves a sense of exposure (before a real or imagined audience), there is a press to hide, to sink into the floor and disappear (Tangney et al., 1996). 121

In contrast, guilt is concerned with a negative evaluation of a specific behavior. Thus, in guilt the person is feeling regret and remorse over the bad thing done, wishing that he had behaved differently, and thinking how he could undo the harm. These differences become manifest in the functionality of both emotions: guilt motivates reparative behavior by making apologies and engaging in attempts to fix the situation, while shame motivates defensive and avoidance behavior, possibly serving as an innate mechanism of communicating submission (Muris, 2015).

Though shame as an emotion is of outstanding social importance and crucial to one’s self-identity, it can, whether genetically or environmentally seep deeper than the interpersonal, social realm, becoming an internalized private feeling related to our own negative personal judgements of our attributes, characteristics, feelings, and fantasies wreaking havoc through many facets of one’s life. Therefore, shame can guide our behavior in social contexts, influence our feelings about ourselves, shape our sense of self-identity, and feelings about our social acceptability and desirability Pinto-Gouveia & Matos (2011). 22

The negative self-conscious emotions of guilt and shame are typically experienced in situations in which some behavioral standard is violated, and this transgression is visible to other people. In this situation, the person has done something that is inconsistent with the current norms and values and/or with his/her own expectations, and he/she believes that others will disapprove of this action and that its result will be rejection and losing face. Guilt and shame are evoked by similar types of situations and for this reason, these emotions are often used interchangeably Muris and Meesters (2014). 12


However, following initial work of Lewis (1971) and subsequent work by Tangney (1992), and others, there is increasing evidence indicating that shame and guilt are definitely different types of self-conscious emotions. The compelling difference is that guilt is concerned with a negative appraising of a specific behavior, where shame by contrast, pertains to a negative appraisal of the overall Self. Thus in guilt, the person displays empathy whiles feeling regret and remorse over the bad thing done, wishing that he/she behaved differently, and thinking of how he/she could undo the harm. In contrast, shame is usually characterized by a feeling of being inferior and worthless, leading to a desire to escape, disappear, or seek indiscriminate retaliation demonstrating a distinct absence of empathy as cited in Muris and Meesters (2014).

These differences also impact the functionality of both emotions: guilt motivates reparative behavior by making apologies and engaging in attempts to fix the situation, while shame motivates defensive, avoidance, withdrawal behavior Muris and Meesters (2014). The experience of shame is often accompanied by a sense of shrinking, of being small, of worthlessness and powerlessness, and of being exposed.

Due to its intolerability, people in the midst of a shame experience often resort to any one of a number of the defensive tactics previously mentioned. Not infrequently, they become irrationally angry with others, sometimes resorting to overtly aggressive and destructive actions with no remorse. Years ago, there was a converging theoretical, clinical, and empirical evidence to indicate that shame may motivate not only avoidant behavior but also a defensive, retaliative anger and a tendency to project blame outwards.

Research consistently shows differences in the psychological and social correlates of shame and guilt. As cited by Pulakos (1996) 84, Tangney (1990) found that although there was a substantial positive correlation between scales measuring the shame and guilt, shame was differentially related to a measure of externalization, indicating that a portion of the scales represent different concepts. A series of studies have supported this difference. Tangney (1991) found that shame-prone individuals were less empathetic than non-shame prone people whereas proneness to guilt was positively correlated with empathetic responsiveness. Positive correlations have also been reported between shame-proneness, anger arousal and other indices of indirect hostility. Proneness to guilt, on the other hand, showed an inverse relationship to externalization of blame and some indices of anger and hostility (Tangney, Wagner, Fletcher, & Gramzow, 1992). Tangney and her colleagues (Tangney, Wagner, & Gramzow, 1992) have also examined the relationship between guilt, shame, and psychopathology. They report that shame was strongly related to all 12 indices of psychopathology whereas guilt was only moderately related to psychopathology. In addition, they report that part-correlational analyses showed that the moderate correlations with guilt resulted from the shared variance between shame and guilt. Thus, evidence is beginning to mount that shame and guilt are indeed different emotions with different correlates and effects.

Further, Stuewig et al., (2015) cite results of a longitudinal study (Hosser, Windzio, & Greve, 2008) of 1,243 male prisoners between the ages of 14-24 who were serving their first incarceration in Germany. Shame and guilt was assessed at the beginning of incarceration, and the results were found to predict recidivism following release. Specifically, using log-logistic hazard models, shame positively predicted recidivism (assessed using official records of convictions) and guilt negatively predicted recidivism. Of note, these effects remained significant even after controlling for the influence of psychological treatment.

In general, proneness to guilt appears to be the more adaptive or constructive emotional style, whereas proneness to shame seems to carry with it some personal costs Stuewig, Tangney, Kendall, Folk, Reinsmith Meyer, and Dearing (2015).3

Problematic Aspects of Shame

There is internalized shame and externalized shame; correlating to that which is held-in to the detriment of the individual’s emotional functioning, and that which is expressed externally through actions usually detrimental to the self, relationships, and/or society. The propensity for females to internalize shame of abuse and therefore be susceptible to more is, perhaps, a contributing reason as to why they are more likely to suffer from PTSD than males whose shame tends to be externalized leading to problems of conduct (La Bash & Papa, 2014).

In a study presented in Tangney et al. (1996), proneness to shame was substantially correlated with anger arousal. In contrast, proneness to guilt uncomplicated by shame showed a modest negative correlation with anger among children and virtually no relation to anger among adolescents, college students, and adults. Shame-prone individuals appear to adopt one of two strategies when faced with situations involving interpersonal conflict – active aggression or passive withdrawal – neither of which is likely to foster a positive change in the situation or relationship at hand. In fact, shame-prone individuals reported that the likely long-term consequences of these everyday episodes of anger would be more harmful and less beneficial than those of their less shame-prone counterparts.

Additionally, Tangney et al. (1996) cited the enhanced capacity for interpersonal empathy observed among guilt-prone individuals of all ages (Tangney, 1991, 1995; Tangney, Wagner, Burggraf, et al., 1991) likely plays a key role in shaping the guilt-prone person’s responses to anger. Such feelings of other-oriented empathy no doubt contribute to the observed tendency of guilt-prone individuals to cognitively reappraise the target’s role and intentions in anger-eliciting situations. Stability of results from middle childhood through adulthood showed that individuals of all ages with proneness to shame were associated with maladaptive and destructive responses to anger, whereas proneness to shame-free guilt was associated with constructive anger-management strategies and outcomes.

With all the data and correlations taken together, the results suggest that a consideration of shame and guilt (and the distinction between the two) may be very helpful when intervening with individuals who present with aggressive or antisocial behaviors. While feelings of anger, and acts of aggression may not be rooted in shame, shame is part of the picture. It is especially important to entertain this possibility because feelings of shame are often overlooked in clinical and educational settings. People often have difficulty verbalizing their shame experiences (Lewis, 1971; Lindsay-Hartz, 1984; Tangney, 1989, 1993) as cited by Tangney et al. (1996), so shame lurks underground beyond the notice of therapists, counselors, teachers, or clients and students themselves. Interventions with aggressive and acting out behaviors may be more effective to develop a third ear for identifying and addressing feelings of shame and low self-worth, which may likely be involved in many instances of maladaptive responses to anger.

Additionally, the observed link between shame and maladaptive anger underscores the importance of avoiding interventions that would further serve to shame people with aggressive problems. In a school setting, for example, it may be extremely counterproductive to intervene with aggressive students by focusing on global, character-type aspects of the person because such a strategy will probably reap further feelings of shame and, in response, continued maladaptive anger. A more useful and effective intervention would involve underlining the consequences of specific aggressive or antisocial behaviors, a strategy that might be likely to foster feelings of other-oriented empathy and an improved capacity for constructive guilt Tangney et al. (1996).

The Psychopathology of Shame

Affect development

According to Tangey & Dearing (2002),the self-conscious emotion of shame arises from our early interactions with significant others and develops later than primary emotions (e.g. fear, joy) because it depends on certain unfolding mental abilities. These mental abilities include beginning to understand language, awareness of Self separate from others, demonstrating increased independence, and with it some defiant behavior, normally temporary separation anxiety, and higher-order thinking that enables understanding, analysis, and control of one’s thinking has control, all of which mature around 2 years of age as cited by Pinto-Gouveia & Matos (2011). 22

Susceptibility to shaming and its effects is part of the human experience, and typically shame identification is introduced within the family. Starting at a very young age, we often struggle to maintain a secure place or identity in our evolving world. Shame originates in relationship to others, and most often by how we are seen as children by our parents and other family members. Because of the deeply personal and dependent relationships between family members, there is extensive opportunity for the shaming process to be abused. The susceptibility to the effects of shaming are exaggerated for the child because of the normal trusting dependence on their parents and the power difference typical in a parent/child relationship Loader (1998). Further, Loader (1998) cited Nathanson, 1987a; Kinston, 1982, 1987; Kaufman, 1989 as some researchers who have focused on the parent/child relationship as the origin of shame-based problems in later life.

Parents can utilize shaming in a variety of forms to serve different functions as outlined by Loader (1998) below:

Shaming for the Benefit of the Child

An important task for the parent and a crucial part of child development allowing them to learn their limitations and what is expected of them. When this occurs in a safe, loving relationship with expectations which are age-appropriate and realistic to the specific culture, it is helpful, not harmful. Instead, it nurtures the development of a reasonable sense of self-determination and freedom accompanied by a sense of belonging and responsibility to others.

This application of shaming is imperative for the development of the human qualities of modesty, humility, and respect for others. Parental failure in this aspect will tend to lead to a child who lacks these societal pre-requisites and who develops an overly self-centered pattern in his relationships due to his off-putting behavior.

Shaming only for the Benefit of the Parent

Toxic shaming of the child takes place when it is implemented for the benefit of the parent, not the child. While this difference is important, it may not always be easy to spot, especially by the child, who may be unwittingly told the parent’s shaming behavior is ‘for his own good’. Shaming the child may serve several purposes which has nothing to do with the welfare of the child.

  1. To enhance self-esteem deficient in the parent

Sometimes the parent/child system operates as if there is a limited supply of self-esteem to be divided between the parent and child. Sustaining of the parent’s self-esteem necessitates belittling (shaming) the child, allowing the comparative parent to stand tall. Repeatedly, the child may be made aware of his shortcomings compared to the parent’s qualities. The conveying of parental disappointment is a powerful source of shame to children, and may create the feeling that the child cannot please the parent regardless of what the child does. Such disappointment in the child may be expressed directly, or it may be inherent in the child’s repeated failure to meet unrealistic performance expectations set by the parent (e.g. school work, athletic prowess, etc.).

Parents often find it tough to deal with failings in the child that exemplify difficulties or failings of their own. The child’s lack of success may trigger a reactivation of shame felt by the parent associated with a similar — usually unacknowledged — problem or situation.

  1. Transferring revenge against one’s own parent(s) onto one’s own innocent child(ren)

A parent may attempt to quell anger for suffering their own shame as a child, by doling out shaming upon their own child in revenge to their own experiences imposed by their own parents in a twisted form of inter-generational legacy. In shaming the child, the parent is turning the tables – no longer the helpless victim of unbearable shaming, it is their turn to dish it out. It is a hollow victory, however, as, without parental ownership of the negative self-images, the problem cannot be resolved but is doomed to be acted out again and again with the child, and probably passed on, in due course, to the next generation (Tomkins, 1987) as cited by Loader (1998).

A parent, when a child, may have experienced overt rejection and total lack of affection throughout their own childhood. That person, now the parent, can complain of their own child’s clinging behavior and inability to do things for themselves. The parent may chastise the child as ‘useless, pathetic, and repulsive to look at, let alone touch’, etc. Here, shaming amounts to disguised rejection, but it may also serve functions for the parent in the maintenance of their own self-esteem, and in managing (by the mechanism of reversal) their own childhood trauma.

  1. Rigid, conditional acceptance as a means of controlling the child

The above functions of shaming clearly involve a misuse of parental power and control over the child. Shaming can also be used more directly as a means of controlling the child’s behavior and even shaping their personality. Of course, parents always shape their child’s personality to some extent, but when this occurs to the exclusion of the child’s unique nature, it represents a serious threat. Children need their parents’ appreciation for who they are, and when this is met with consistent disapproval and disappointment, they face a real dilemma. Either they comply with parental expectation – denying their need for authentic self-expression – of they are true to themselves – denying their need for parental approval. This type of shame is commonly referred to as ‘emotional blackmail’.

This dilemma is most marked when the primary caregiver (usually the mother) uses the child as an extension of herself. The child receives affirmation and affection only insofar as he meets their mother’s needs and is therefore rejected in terms of their own unique personality and way of being. As cited by Loader (1998), Kinston (1987) describes this situation as painful, horrible, and traumatic for the child: “Should s/he exist as himself or herself, the child is subjected to rejecting and invalidating attitudes and finds that s/he causes pain, depression, rage, or resentment in the parent. Should the child comply with the parental projection, s/he must destroy his or her own experience. The former course is clearly associated with low self-esteem, identity disturbances, and problems of self-regulation. The latter course results in an artificial  sense of well-being due to the receipt of (false) approval and love, and the absence or psychic destruction of personal need, frustration, or conflict”. Kinston views this childhood scenario as being particularly associated with shame which would manifest in the development of adult narcissistic disorders.

Some degree of exploitive shaming is inevitable in any parent/child relationship. What matters for the child’s well-being is the degree of exploitation, its consistency, the degree of parental awareness of what they are doing, and the presence or absence of alternative sources of genuine support Loader (1998).

A Shame-Based Family Culture

This may occur when the parents feel inferior in some way or another, perhaps because of the position in society or due to some family disgrace in the past. The shaming of each other may be the language of the family, with each member learning and using shaming mechanisms to jockey for position in a family hierarchy dominated by a pervasive sense of shame. This can be obvious or disguised by humor so that it is sometimes hard to distinguish, from good-natured banter.

Another way shame is often triggered in a child is when parental, or care-giver maltreatment abuse – physical, emotional, relational — occurs to an extent that is harmful to the child. Attempted efforts to please by the child are ignored or openly rejected. The abused child, regardless of the form of the parental/caregiver maltreatment, is left to conclude that the pain it feels at the hands of this trusted entity is his fault and deserved because of the way he is. This deduction may well be supported by the parent/caregiver stating that their treatment of the child is ‘for his own good.’ The child’s overriding attachment to and need to believe that his parents/caregivers care about him drives him to conclude that there is something fundamentally wrong with him, and consequently, to experience an unconscious but profound, inescapable, and often life-long, sense of shame; a constant, subconscious mistaken notion he is a worthless and deeply flawed person with no reason to hope (for relief).

Parents who abuse their children may well have been defending themselves all their lives against their own sense of shame, and are now doing so by shaming their children, who, without support, may well carry the problem in the next generation. The family curse of child abuse is the curse of shame Loader (1998).

The Psychopathology of Shame

Although guilt and shame primarily are functional and adaptive in nature, it has also become clear that some people display an excessive proneness to experience the self-conscious emotions, which means that the strongly dominate the person’s affective, cognitive, and behavioral responding. In other individuals, guilt and shame are so weakly present that their adaptive function is no longer realized, and so morally inacceptable behaviors are no longer corrected or repaired. Not uncommonly, such dysfunctional balance of self-conscious emotions have been associated with various types of psychopathology. Research has shown that shame is positively related to a wide range of psychological problems including aggression, depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and personality pathology (Muris, 2015).

The relationship between guilt and psychopathology is more inconclusive, but prevalent literature indicates that this self-conscious emotion is only maladaptive when it is experienced in a deliberative way or bound with feelings of shame (Tangney and Tracy, 2012). Under other conditions, the common conception is that guilt plays an important role in the development of empathy and conscience, and so prevents the occurrence of socially problematic behaviors such as aggression and delinquency (Tangney et al., 1996).

Muris and Meesters (2014), (12) identified 22 studies that examined the relation between guilt and shame and psychological problems in children and adolescents. Overall, this research revealed a highly similar pattern of results as documented in the adult literature. Specifically, data generally indicated that shame was positively related to internalizing as well as externalizing symptoms, which confirms the premise that dysregulation of this self-conscious emotion should be viewed as a vulnerability factor for various types of psychopathology. In contrast, guilt was found to be negatively linked to externalizing symptoms, which is in keeping with the idea that this self-conscious emotion protects against the development of such problems.

Based on research discussed in Stuewig, et al. (2015), the authors hunch is that the proclivity to experience shame relatively early in childhood sets into motion a cycle of bad behavior, shame, more bad behavior, and so forth. On several counts, shame-prone children are likely to suffer from a cumulative disadvantage beginning at least in the early school years, such that failure in one area leads to failures in other areas. These ever-expanding shame experiences may culminate in an escalating cycle or risky, counterproductive patterns of behavior and maladaptive shame reactions; one such pathway may begin with academic problems.

Further, children’s moral emotional styles appear to be well established by at least middle childhood, with distinct downstream implications for risky behavior in early adulthood. The painful feeling of shame can lead to withdrawal and depression, but it also tends to provoke defensive externalization and irrational anger. Thus, another potential pathway from shame-proneness to risky behavior may be through peer-related problems.

All children must cope with failure, and there are adaptive and maladaptive responses to failure. Adaptive response to failure at a new task, may be to search for new information and strategies to get it right the second time through. Their focus is on the challenge of the new task, not on themselves. But for the shame-prone child, failure may be especially difficult due to the tendency for negative self-focus they associate with the failure and its implications for their developing sense of self-worth. These children are much more likely to experience of shame. They are more likely to become “stuck” in the shameful feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness, for which their chosen misery stabilizer may lead to drinking and drug use (Stuewig, et al. 2015).

(Place here (from #3), the study on whether shame or guilt is involved in early adolescents with delinquency).

Additional peer-related problems may include any of several expressions.

1. bullying (article?) which can be a subconscious effort to compensate from for one’s own feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness — from home or elsewhere – by causing those feelings in another while elevating one’s self out of powerlessness and worth looking out for. An additional peer-related problem may include

2. Participation in delinquent gang activity. Another may be

3. Miscellaneous eating disorders can have their evolving origin from severe shaming and bullying by family, peers, or social media developing social anxiety in association with pathological dissatisfaction with one’s body. Treatment programs might need to target the types and duration of trauma — including bullying, shaming, and teasing – to determine the impact that those experiences have had on the individual’s emotions, cognitions, and behaviors into adulthood (Sweetingham and Waller, 2008).

In short,

As cited by Muris (2015), “The current edition of the diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edn  (DSM5) (APA, 2013) still includes ‘feelings of inappropriate guilt’ in the criteria of major depressive disorder, but from a theoretical (Tangney and Tracey, 2012 and Tracey and Robins, 2004) and empirical (Kim, Thidodeau, and Jorgensen, 2011) point-of-view, it would be more appropriate to employ ‘feelings of shame’ for defining this type of psychopathology.”

(3) (From abstract)Guilt proneness assessed in childhood predicted fewer sexual partners, less use of illegal drugs and alcohol, and less involvement with the criminal justice system. Shame proneness, in contrast, was a risk factor for later deviant behavior. Shame-prone children were more likely to have unprotected sex and use illegal drugs in young adulthood. Children’s moral emotional styles appear to be well established by at least middle childhood, with distinct downstream implications for risky behavior in early adulthood (Stuewig et al., 2015).


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