Reconsidering the Differences Between Shame and Guilt


Although most researchers maintain that shame and guilt are distinct emotions, the debate on their differences is still open. We aim to show that some of the current distinctions between shame and guilt need to be redrawn, and their adaptive and social implications need to be revisited. We suggest the following distinguishing criteria: the kind of self-evaluation involved (inadequacy versus harmfulness); one’s focus on the perceived discrepancy between actual and ideal self versus one’s focus on the perceived responsibility for one’s fault; and consequently the different domains of self-esteem involved. Although these criteria have been in part suggested or alluded to in the relevant literature, we use and integrate them with each other in a novel way. This allows to better distinguish between shame and guilt, as well as to account for their possible coexistence or the shift from one emotion to the other.

Shame and guilt have much in common: they are self-conscious emotions, implying self-reflection and selfevaluation (e.g., Tangney & Tracy, 2012); they involve negative self-evaluations and feelings of distress elicited by one’s perceived failures or transgressions (e.g., Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007); they strongly correlate with each other (e.g., Ferguson & Crowley, 1997; Harder, 1995), and often coexist (Eisenberg, 2000; Lewis, 1971). However, most researchers maintain that shame and guilt are distinguishable from each other, and that their differences matter. While agreeing with this general statement, we disagree with some of the criteria used for distinguishing between them, and with the prevailing negative view of shame which, in comparison with guilt, often plays the role of the “ugly” and anti-social emotion (e.g., Tangney & Tracy, 2012).

Before discussing the most common criteria used for distinguishing between shame and guilt, and then suggesting our own criteria, we need to explain why it is important to distinguish between these emotions. In so doing, we will also outline the core of our proposal.

As widely acknowledged, emotions accomplish both an informative function about our relationship with the environment, by signaling the (prospective or actual) failure or attainment of our goals (e.g., Damasio, 1994; Keltner & Ekman, 2000; Lazarus, 1991) and a motivational function (e.g., Frijda, 1986; Plutchik, 1984), by triggering goals aimed at favoring the attainment, or avoiding the failure, of the desired states of affairs. Therefore it is generally adaptive to understand what the experience of an emotion is “telling” us.

Both shame and guilt are “self-critical” emotions. However, self-criticism may take different self-evaluative forms: on the one hand, people may view themselves as ugly, stupid, handicapped, or morally defective–in a word, lacking (in physical attractiveness, intelligence, skills, moral worth, and so on); on the other hand, they may view themselves as wicked, unjust, sinful–that is, endowed with the power to violate norms and thwart others’ goals, and willing (or inclined) to do so.

We suggest that it is adaptive to have differentiated emotional responses to different forms of self-criticism. As also pointed out by Tangney, Miller, Flicker, & Barlow (1996, p. 1256), “to the extent that emotions inform and foster change, one might expect humans to develop particularly well-articulated affective responses to negative events”. Thus, it is worthwhile to explore what kind of information is conveyed and what kind of change is fostered by each self-critical emotion.

As we will argue, guilt implies a negative moral self-evaluation. Without attempting to give a definition of moral, we suggest that a necessary condition for regarding an evaluation as moral is that it should concern someone’s behavior, goals, beliefs or traits for which (s)he is regarded as responsible. The evaluation will be positive or negative depending on the beneficial or harmful quality ascribed to such behavior, goal, and so on. Guilt is indeed concerned with one’s responsibility for a harmful attitude or behavior.

By contrast, shame implies a nonmoral negative self-evaluation. Note that “nonmoral” is not synonym to “immoral”. By “nonmoral” we mean that shame is not focused on responsibility issues. As we shall see, it is rather concerned with a perceived discrepancy between one’s actual and one’s ideal self. In fact, one may feel ashamed of one’s ugliness, disability, or any other flaw for which (s)he is not responsible. However, one may also feel ashamed (rather than guilty) of a responsible fault. We will suggest that even when a responsible fault is at stake, ashamed people do not focus on responsibility issues, but on the disappointing fact that such fault reveals their defectiveness with regard to their ideal self. To the extent that shame can make people care about the social order, it can be said to be a moral emotion (e.g., Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999). However, to the extent that this care is motivated by a self-focused concern (i.e., building one’s aspired-to identity), shame is not properly moral, in the sense we have outlined above. According to Rozin et al. (1999, p. 574), both shame and guilt “involve ongoing assessments of the moral worth and fit of the individual self within a community”. We also suggest that shame is concerned with self-worth. But, first, it is concerned with both moral and nonmoral self-worth; second, when moral self-worth is at stake, what matters to the ashamed person is not his or her responsibility for the fault, but how this fault impacts on his or her ideal self.

Shame implies perceived lack of power to meet the standards of one’s ideal self, whereas guilt implies perceived power and willingness to be harmful, that is, to violate the standards of one’s moral self. These differences have important motivational consequences, both positive and negative: whereas guilt is likely to motivate either reparative or self-punitive behavior, shame is likely to motivate either withdrawal or increased efforts in building one’s aspired-to identity. More generally, distinguishing between shame and guilt has significant implications for basic research on human emotions as well as for clinical treatment, by helping understand if and how these emotions relate to a variety of phenomena, such as empathic concerns, narcissism, self-destructive behavior, and moral compliance.

As we will try to show, the distinguishing criteria suggested in the relevant literature do not satisfactorily account for the differences between shame and guilt, whereas our own criteria allow to better identify the respective features of the two emotions.

Criteria Used for Distinguishing Between Shame and Guilt

We will group the most widespread distinguishing criteria into three categories: the kinds of failure or transgression that elicit these emotions; the action tendencies typically triggered by shame versus guilt; and the ascription of the fault to one’s self versus one’s behavior.

In addition, we will consider a number of elements which are viewed as indicative of remarkable differences between shame and guilt in terms of their adaptive value: the cognitive states, as well as other feelings, that are associated with shame versus guilt; and the psychopathological symptoms related to shame-proneness versus guilt-proneness.

Kinds of Failure or Transgression

Three possible kinds of fault have been identified: the public versus private experience of the fault; its proscriptive versus prescriptive nature; and the moral versus the both moral and nonmoral nature of the fault.

Public Versus Private

According to this distinction, shame is elicited by public faults, and (one’s fear of) others’ negative evaluations, whereas guilt is a private feeling, elicited by one’s own negative self-evaluation (e.g., Benedict, 1946; Combs, Campbell, Jackson, & Smith, 2010; Wallbott & Scherer, 1995).

The public versus private criterion has already been questioned, both theoretically and empirically. For instance, Creighton (1990, p. 282) has objected that “the internal/external criterion cannot be used to distinguish guilt from shame, since at some point in the developmental process both are internalized”. Empirical research has indeed shown that both emotions can be experienced either publicly or privately (e.g., Tangney et al., 1996).

Still, this does not rule out that, when experienced privately, shame might imply either thinking that one’s fault can become public or imagining a judging audience. As often suggested, shame is more likely than guilt to imply a feeling of exposure to a judging audience (e.g., M. Lewis, 1992). According to Kaufman (1996, p. 28), “to feel shame is to feel seen, acutely diminished”–which is also supported by the person’s typical wish to disappear and tendency to hide (e.g., Darwin, 1872/1965; H. B. Lewis, 1971; M. Lewis, 2008). In fact public exposure of one’s faults has been found to be associated more with shame than with guilt (Smith, Webster, Parrott, & Eyre, 2002).

However, if one assumes that shame is elicited by (actual, or expected, or imagined) external sanctions, one might draw the inference that this emotion coincides with a mere fear of others’ disapproval, and that it can be experienced without evaluating oneself negatively–which is indeed stated by some authors (e.g., Ausubel, 1955; Calhoun, 2004; Wollheim, 1999).

We question that shame coincides with being afraid of others’ disapproval. One can be afraid of other people’s negative evaluations while feeling no shame. For instance, a son who fails to live up to the standards set by his parents can be afraid to disappoint them or to be punished by them, and at the same time experience no shame.

In agreement with a number of other authors (e.g., Deonna, Rodogno, & Teroni, 2012; Tangney & Tracy, 2012; Taylor, 1985), we suggest that shame (as well as guilt) implies a negative self-evaluation against one’s own standards. Although personal standards result from the internalization of social ones, they are not necessarily absorbed in the same form as they are socially conveyed. Internalization involves developing a personalized interpretation of social standards (e.g., Baumeister & Muraven, 1996; Lawrence & Heinze, 1997), consisting not only in the combination of existing social elements into new configurations, but also in the selective acceptance of some elements and rejection of others (e.g., Grusec & Goodnow, 1994).

In our view, if a negative evaluation comes from outside, one has to share it in order to feel ashamed (as well as guilty). In fact, others’ evaluation and one’s self-evaluation may diverge, either because one may not share the evaluative standards of one’s “judges” or because, while sharing their standards, one may believe that their evaluations are mistaken in that no actual fault has been shown according to those standards.

We suggest that in both the above cases the disapproved person will not experience shame (and certainly not guilt), but other possible feelings–fear of the consequences of the negative evaluation; disappointment and resentment for having received an “undeserved” evaluation; helplessness, elicited by the perceived inability to modify others’ judgment; or, most notably, embarrassment, which implies no necessary negative self-evaluation (e.g., Sabini & Silver, 1997), but mere discomfort at exposure (Miller, 1985; Nussbaum, 2004). Embarrassment is supposed to be more focused on one’s self-presentation (Klass, 1990), rather than on one’s self-evaluation. As shown by Tangney et al. (1996, p. 1260), whereas shame could be felt in private, “embarrassment was almost universally a public phenomenon”.

We also question that for feeling ashamed one should think that one’s fault can become public. One can even be certain that nobody will ever know about one’s own fault, and still experience shame. In the same vein, one does not need to imagine a judging audience. As claimed by Deonna et al. (2012), although a real or imagined audience is typical of shame, it does not need to be constitutive of the emotion. Of course, one learns socially what is “shameful”, but one also learns socially what is threatening, or disappointing, or saddening–which does not imply the necessary involvement of an audience in the experience of fear, disappointment, or sadness.

What we have said so far, however, by no means excludes that shame involves “to feel seen”. Even without any real or imagined audience, one can feel seen by one’s self in the role of self-evaluator, and experience shame. In Kaufman’s (1996, p. 6) words, “[o]nly the self need watch the self and only the self need shame the self”.

Proscriptive Versus Prescriptive

According to Sheikh and Janoff-Bulman (2010), proscriptive violations (doing something one should not do) would elicit shame, whereas prescriptive violations (not doing something one should do) would elicit guilt.

However, a proscriptive violation (e.g., lying) may elicit guilt, and a prescriptive violation (not reciprocating a favor) may elicit shame. As found by Keltner and Buswell (1996), the most frequent antecedents of shame were: poor performance, hurting others’ feelings, failing to meet either others’ or one’s own expectations, and showing a role-inappropriate behavior. The most frequent antecedents of guilt were: failures at duties, lying, neglecting a dear one, breaking a diet, and cheating. Both proscriptive and prescriptive violations seem capable of eliciting either shame or guilt.

Moral Faults Versus Both Moral and Nonmoral Faults

According to some authors (e.g., Sabini & Silver, 1997; Smith et al., 2002), guilt is elicited by moral transgressions, implying those faults one is held responsible for, whereas shame also includes nonmoral faults, that is, those attributed to flaws of character, incompetence or physical inadequacies for which the person is not held responsible. (For a discussion of perceived responsibility and guilt, see further on, “Kinds of Negative Evaluation”, and “Is Perceived Responsibility Necessary for Feeling Guilty?”) But, when does a moral fault elicit shame rather than guilt?

Smith et al. (2002) suggest that guilt is associated with private moral faults, whereas shame is more closely linked to public ones. However the public-versus-private distinction is not decisive in that shame can be felt even privately. Sabini and Silver (1997) suggest that guilt pertains to the domain of moral evaluation, which is grounded in responsibility. However, they claim that, as long as a moral fault involves a connection with the self by indicating a flaw in one’s character, it also involves shame. They view shameless guilt as an “anemic” feeling. They even cast doubt on whether guilt is a distinct feeling, and suggest that it is “an umbrella that collects under itself a broad range of feelings having to do with transgressions” (p. 3), including shame. Shame can be also elicited by nonmoral faults because it is “a fundamentally aesthetic response to our judgments of our character” (p. 12), that is, to evaluations of ourselves as ugly, repulsive, or inferior, even though we feel unable to be otherwise. In fact, self-worth includes both the moral and nonmoral (or aesthetic) domain: we can be ashamed of our wrongdoings as well as of flaws that are not our fault.

Thus, in Sabini and Silver’s (1997) view, shame takes the lion’s share, while (shameless) guilt is an “anemic” feeling. We will go back to this point when we discuss our own distinguishing criteria. (See “Can Perceived Responsibility Concern the Self Rather Than Specific Behaviors?”, and “Is Perceived Responsibility a Sufficient Cognitive Component of Guilt?”)

Kinds of Action Tendencies

Guilt has been found to lead to repair action tendencies, such as apologizing, amending, and undoing, whereas shame appears to favor withdrawal and escape behaviors, as well as hostile and self-defensive reactions (e.g., Tangney & Dearing, 2002). On the ground of such findings, shame has been stigmatized as an ugly and antisocial emotion, whereas guilt has been viewed as a moral and prosocial emotion (e.g., Tangney & Stuewig, 2004; Tangney et al., 2007).

However, the relationship between emotions and action tendencies is not so straightforward as one might expect. As shown by Schwarz and Clore (2007), emotions present a tenuous causal link with specific action tendencies, whereas their immediate effects are more mental than behavioral. Action tendencies depend on contextual demands more than on specific emotion categories (e.g., Barrett, 2006).

No doubt, guilty people are likely to wish that they had not committed the wrongdoing, and to feel the need to make amends (e.g., Gino & Pierce, 2009; Iyer, Leach, & Pedersen, 2004), but these motivations emerge on condition that people consciously recognize their responsibility. Self-defensive maneuvers are not monopoly of shame. People also defend themselves from guilt (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 1998) by denying the intentionality of the misdeed (e.g., Baumeister & Wotman, 1992), downplaying its negative consequences (Stillwell & Baumeister, 1997), and derogating their victims (Zechmeister & Romero, 2002) so as to represent the wrongdoing as “deserved” by them.

When responsibility is consciously acknowledged, guilt does not necessarily elicit prosocial reparative actions. Acts of self-punishment have been found to be quite common (Inbar, Pizarro, Gilovich, & Ariely, 2013; Nelissen & Zeelenberg, 2009), and to be associated with non-prosocial and destructive tendencies (Fedewa, Burns, & Gomez, 2005).

Turning to shame, although withdrawal is among the action tendencies it elicits, some aspects of withdrawal might be viewed in a prosocial light, by communicating surrender and appeasement (e.g., Barrett, 1995; Castelfranchi & Poggi, 1990; Fessler, 2007; Izard, 1977; Keltner & Harker, 1998). Displays of shame show similarities with the submissive and appeasement behavior of nonhuman animals (Gruenwald, Dickerson, & Kemeny, 2007), and favor reconciliation (Keltner & Harker, 1998) and others’ empathy and forgiveness (Keltner, Young, Heerey, Oemig, & Monarch, 1998).

Shame has been attributed the function to promote social cohesion through the individual’s compliance with social values and expectations (e.g., Barrett, 1995; Deonna et al., 2012; Fessler, 1999; Izard, 1977). If shame were to motivate plain conformity (Gilbert, 2003) so as to avoid external sanctions, this function might be viewed in a negative light: shame would only favor a self-interested and unprincipled compliance. However, such charges lose their force if, when external sanctions are at stake, shame is experienced only if one shares the standards of one’s judges, and believes that their evaluations are correct. Shame is not caused, but (often) triggered by external sanctions (Deonna et al., 2012), thereby favoring one’s self-evaluation and sensitization to social values–provided one shares them.

Shame has been found to be associated not only with withdrawal, but also with an “undo” desire, which showed high scores for guilt as well (Frijda, Kuipers, & Ter Schure, 1989), with healthy behavior (Harris & Darby, 2009), inhibition of wrongdoings (Ferguson, Edmondson, & Gerity, 2000), prosocial behavior (de Hooge, Breugelmans, & Zeelenberg, 2008), and motivation for self-change (Lickel, Kushlev, Savalei, Matta, & Schmader, 2014). De Hooge, Zeelenberg, and Breugelmans (2010, 2011) found that shame activated both a motivation to restore one’s threatened self-image, and a protect motive to avoid further damage to one’s self-image. Both motives, when acting jointly, induced approach behaviors such as developing new skills or redoing one’s performance. However, when restoration of the threatened self was perceived as too difficult, the restore motive declined, and approach behaviors diminished accordingly, whereas the relative strength of the protect motive increased, leading to withdrawal behaviors Gausel, Vignoles, and Leach (2016) have addressed the “paradox” of shame, that is, the coexistence of selfdefensive and prosocial responses activated by perceived moral failure. They show that moral failure can cause two distinct appraisals: the appraisal of “specific self-defect”, that implies a concern for one’s own selfimage and leads to felt shame, which in turn predicts prosocial responses aimed at restoring the self-image; and the appraisal of “concern for social condemnation”, that focuses on the risk to one’s social image, and leads to feelings of rejection (rather than shame proper), which in turn predict self-defensive avoidance. By distinguishing social-image concerns from self-image concerns, and the effects of felt rejection from those of felt shame, these findings suggest that shame proper is unrelated to self-defensive action tendencies.

Therefore, based on the literature reviewed above, it seems unwarranted to conclude that shame is characterized by self-defensive action tendencies, and guilt by prosocial ones. Both emotions can elicit both prosocial and self-defensive behavior.

Self Versus Behavior

This distinction does not focus either on the motivational implications of shame versus guilt or on the different kinds of fault which would provoke these emotions. In fact, shame and guilt can be elicited by the same failure or transgression (e.g., a poor performance). According to the self-versus-behavior view, what matters is whether the fault is ascribed to the self or is circumscribed to one’s behavior: If it is ascribed to the self, which is supposed to imply a global negative self-evaluation (“I am a bad, inadequate person»), the emotional response will be of shame. If one’s own negative evaluation is circumscribed to one’s behavior (“I did a bad thing’), it will give rise to guilt (e.g., Lewis, 1971; Tangney & Dearing, 2002). Both shame and guilt imply internal attributions. However shame “is generated when people blame the stable, uncontrollable self for failure, whereas guilt occurs from blaming an unstable, controllable action taken by the self” (Tracy & Robins, 2006, p. 1349).

The self-versus-behavior view is presently considered the mainstream one (see e.g., Fontaine, Luyten, Estas, & Corveleyn, 2004; Gausel, 2012). However, we suggest that guilt is not necessarily circumscribed to one’s behavior–it may imply blaming one’s self, and shame does not necessarily imply a global negative self-view.

One may feel guilty for being a cowardly (or selfish, inconsiderate, lazy) person. Even when starting from a specific wrongdoing, one may generalize one’s negative evaluation to the self: “Because I did something bad, I am bad”. It has been suggested that the behavior-to-self generalization implies a “fusion” between guilt and shame (e.g., Tangney, Burggraf, & Wagner, 1995). However, as we will further discuss (see “Can Perceived Responsibility Concern the Self Rather Than Specific Behaviors?”), this “fusion” assumption is questionable.

Shame, in turn, does not necessarily imply a global negative self-view. It may be confined to a specific selfdefect (e.g., Gausel et al., 2016). The possibility of “state-specific feelings of shame” is admitted by Tangney and Tracy (2012, p. 454), who even observe that “the vast majority of people’s quotidian transgressions and errors do not warrant a shameful, global condemnation of the self”’. We ask: If shame may imply a negative selfevaluation which does not involve the whole self, why build a model of shame in terms of global self-blame?

Although the self-versus-behavior view has received wide empirical support (e.g., Tangney & Dearing, 2002; Tangney et al., 2007; Tracy & Robins, 2006), the Test of Self-Conscious Affect, or TOSCA (Tangney, Dearing, Wagner, & Gramzow, 2000; Tangney, Wagner, & Gramzow, 1989), which is used in many studies addressing shame-proneness versus guilt-proneness, relies on the self/behavior distinction. The TOSCA items designed to assess shame-proneness mainly refer to global negative evaluations of the self, and to the tendency to withdraw; whereas those designed to assess guilt-proneness focus on specific negative evaluations of one’s behavior, and the tendency to make amends. Moreover, the TOSCA shame scale has been found to correlate strongly with both chronic shame and chronic guilt, whereas the TOSCA guilt scale related to reparative action tendencies, but showed no (or weak) relation to guilt feelings (Fontaine, Luyten, De Boeck, & Corveleyn, 2001; Giner-Sorolla, Piazza, & Espinosa, 2011; Luyten, Fontaine, & Corveleyn, 2002). Thus, the self-versus-behavior view appears to be questionable.

Cognitive, Emotional, and Psychopathological Implications of Shame and Guilt

Shame, especially shame-proneness, is often associated with anger (e.g., Bear, Uribe-Zarain, Manning, & Shiomi, 2009; Tangney & Dearing, 2002). However, anger has been found to be associated with shame-related withdrawal action tendencies, but not with shame-related negative self-evaluations (Cohen, Wolf, Panter, & Insko, 2011). As shame does not necessarily induce withdrawal, its link with anger could be less robust than often assumed.

The relationship between shame and anger has been explained in terms of a self-defensive reaction: to defend from self-blame, one would try not to take responsibility for one’s own fault by externalizing it (e.g., Tangney & Tracy, 2012). The hostility that is initially directed inward would be redirected outward.

We are not persuaded by this explanation. We view shame-related anger as a more immediate and “primitive” reaction to frustration – namely, the frustration of one’s self-esteem – and its causal attribution to another agent, regardless of any responsibility issue. In contrast with the most common view (e.g., Averill, 1982; Weiner, 1985), we in fact suggest that an attribution of responsibility is not a necessary antecedent of an angry reaction.« In order to feel anger at somebody it is sufficient that one believes that the latter has caused the frustration of one’s own goals (Batson et al., 2007; Dubreuil, 2015). This causal attribution is different from an attribution of responsibility proper (see, e.g., Smith & Lazarus, 1993), which includes controllability and intentionality considerations.

Guilt has been found to be unrelated to anger, and negatively correlated with the externalization of blame (e.g., Tangney & Tracy, 2012). Actually, guilt implies viewing oneself as responsible for the fault. Therefore, an angry outward reaction is out of place (provided one does not try to defend against guilt).

Guilt is also associated with perspective-taking and empathic concerns, that in turn favor prosocial behavior (e.g., Batson, 1991), whereas shame seems to interfere with empathy, and to be associated with narcissistic concerns and personal distress responses (Gilligan, 2003; Tangney & Dearing, 2002). This difference between guilt and shame has been explained in terms of the self-versus-behavior focus: “[P]eople experiencing guilt are relatively free of the egocentric, self-involved process underlying shame. Instead, their focus on a specific behavior is likely to highlight the consequences of that behavior for distressed others, further facilitating an em- pathic response” (Tangney & Tracy, 2012, p. 450).

By contrast, we suggest that the reason why guilt is associated with perspective-taking and empathic concern lies in its focus on one’s responsibility for the fault. As long as guilt implies the conviction of having responsibly broken a norm (which is supposed to promote and defend the collective welfare) or having injured someone (Izard, 1977; Lazarus, 1991; Lewis, 1971; McGraw, 1987; Roseman & Evdokas, 2004; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985), it does not merely favor, but requires perspective-taking (e.g., Hoffman, 2000). For feeling guilty, one must feel responsible for one’s faults; and for feeling responsible one has to consider others’ needs and concerns, and see the consequences of one’s own behavior and attitudes through their eyes.

We also suggest that the reason why shame is not associated with perspective-taking and empathic concern does not lie in the focus on oneself as a bad person as opposed to one’s own behavior. As we will further discuss (see “Our Distinguishing Criteria”, and the subsection “Is Perceived Non-Responsibility a Necessary Cognitive Component of Shame?”), the crucial aspect is that responsibility is not an issue for shame.

Turning to the psychopathological symptoms associated with shame-proneness versus guilt-proneness, there is a wide consensus on the dysfunctional consequences of shame-proneness (depression, generalized anxiety disorder, low self-esteem), whereas there is less consensus on the psychopathological implications of guilt- proneness (e.g., Tangney & Tracy, 2012). However, it is unclear whether the findings on shame-proneness can be generalized to state-specific feelings of shame (e.g., de Hooge et al., 2008; Deonna et al., 2012). Moreover, even sticking to shame-proneness, some measures used to assess it may be unable to detect adaptive aspects of shame, such as appeasement behavior, compliance with shared social standards, and attempts at skill acquisition. This in particular applies to the TOSCA shame scale, focused as it is on global negative self-evaluations and withdrawal action tendencies. Conversely, TOSCA guilt, focused as it is on reparative action tendencies and negative evaluations of specific behaviors, may be unable to detect maladaptive aspects of guilt, such as obsessive rumination, self-punishment, and excessive self-criticism, which are related to depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and psychoticism (e.g., Harder, 1995; O’Connor, Berry, & Weiss, 1999). TOSCA suffers indeed from construct underrepresentation (Ferguson & Stegge, 1998; Luyten et al., 2002; O’Connor et al., 1999).

Therefore, it is unwarranted to conclude either that shame is an “ugly” and dysfunctional emotion or that guilt is constructive and adaptive. We suggest that many dysfunctional consequences that have been ascribed to shame depend on a global negative self-view, which may be associated with shame as well as guilt, when negative self-evaluations are generalized to the whole self.

Our Distinguishing Criteria

As discussed so far, shame and guilt do not seem to be distinguishable from each other according to such criteria as the kinds of fault that elicit these emotions, their action tendencies, and their adaptive versus maladaptive implications. We have also questioned that the self-versus-behavior criterion adequately distinguishes shame from guilt. We do not see why guilt should be only felt about one’s own behavior, and will argue that it can also be felt about who the person is; on the other hand, we contend that shame is not necessarily focused on the self as a whole.

We are going to suggest two criteria which in our view allow to better distinguish shame from guilt. The first criterion regards the different kinds of negative self-evaluation implied by these emotions: Whereas shame implies a self-evaluation of inadequacy, guilt implies a self-evaluation of harmfulness. This is a new criterion. Although a sense of personal inadequacy or powerlessness has been typically associated with shame (e.g., Tangney, 1999), and one’s own perceived harmfulness has been associated with guilt (e.g., Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1994), the kind of negative self-evaluation involved in shame versus guilt has, to our knowledge, never been raised to the dignity of a distinguishing criterion.

Our second criterion consists in the different focuses typical of these emotions: Whereas shame is concerned with the discrepancy between a negative self-evaluation and the positive, desired one, guilt is concerned with responsibility for one’s faults. This criterion is not new in itself. That shame is triggered by the perceived discrepancy between one’s actual self and one’s ideal self has been already suggested (e.g., Higgins, 1987; Lazarus, 1991). In the same vein, responsibility has already been considered to be constitutive of the appraisal for guilt (e.g., Lazarus, 1991; Roseman & Evdokas, 2004; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985). Attributional models of guilt (e.g., Tracy & Robins, 2006) also seem to acknowledge the crucial role played in guilt by perceived responsibility, by relating guilt to internal, unstable, and controllable attributions for negative outcomes.

However, the role of responsibility in shame has so far remained obscure. As pointed out by some authors (e.g., Sabini & Silver, 1997; Smith et al., 2002), shame can be elicited by either responsible or non-responsible faults. But how is it possible that a responsible fault elicits shame (rather than guilt)?

One might endorse the attributional view, which relates shame to internal, stable, and uncontrollable attributions (e.g., Tracy & Robins, 2006), and suggest that, independent of whether ashamed people are actually responsible for the fault, they perceive themselves as non-responsible, precisely because they trace back the fault to stable and uncontrollable causes. However, we are going to question the attributional account of shame (see next section), as well as the implication that the ashamed person should necessarily perceive themself as nonresponsible for the fault. (See “Is Perceived Non-Responsibility a Necessary Cognitive Component of Shame?”)

Kinds of Negative Self-Evaluation: Inadequacy Versus Harmfulness

Evaluations can be defined as beliefs about “what is good/bad for what” (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2000). They imply the assignment of a (positive or negative) value to an entity, event, or world state x in that the latter is viewed as a good or bad means for some (class of) goal(s). Evaluative beliefs can be either explicit (say, “This knife is good for slicing food”) or implicit (say, “This knife is sharp”). The positivity or negativity of the evaluation is contingent on the specific goal for which x is viewed as a means. For instance, a sharp knife is “good” for a cook’s goal of slicing food, whereas it is “bad” for a child’s goal of putting butter on the bread.

Negative (self-)evaluations can be of two kinds–harmfulness versus inadequacy^ (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2000). A knife can be evaluated as “bad” either because it is blunt, and unable to cut properly, or because it is too sharp, and able to hurt. When appraised as inadequate, x is regarded as possessing insufficient power (properties, skills, attitudes) with respect to some goal (in our example, the goal of cutting something); when appraised as harmful, x is regarded as possessing sufficient power to attain a negative goal, that is, to realize a world state not-p which is the opposite of someone’s goal p (in our example, the goal of physical safety).iv

Whenever the power to thwart someone’s goals is associated with the corresponding goal or, at least, with the power to prevent such harm, (self-)evaluations of harmfulness are strictly linked to responsibility issues. In fact, to regard oneself as responsible for something, one should believe that: (a) one caused it (causal responsibility); and (b) one had the goal to cause it (goal responsibility), or at least (c) one had the power to prevent it (avoidance responsibility), but omitted to do so (Miceli, 1992; Weiner, 1995).

Feeling guilty implies perceiving oneself as a wrongdoer, which entails a self-evaluation of responsible harmfulness, that is, perceiving oneself as responsible for one’s harmful behavior or attitude.v When self-evaluations concern a lack of power which is perceived to be beyond one’s own control, one cannot feel guilty. People cannot feel guilty for their ugliness or handicaps–unless they view themselves as capable of self-improvement, and therefore responsible for not trying to self-improve. By contrast, they can feel ashamed of their ugliness or handicaps, because a self-evaluation of mere inadequacy is sufficient (as well as necessary) for feeling shame.

So far, our distinguishing criteria seem to overlap with those suggested by attributional models of shame and guilt (e.g., Tracy & Robins, 2006). However, according to those models, guilt implies internal, unstable, and controllable attributions, whereas shame is qualified by internal, stable, and uncontrollable attributions.

While endorsing the attributional model of guilt, we view shame as less cognitively sophisticated, and suggest that the only necessary and sufficient attribution is the internal one. The self-attributed inadequacy is not necessarily perceived as stable and uncontrollable. It is sufficient that people focus on the discrepancy between a negative self-evaluation and the positive one they would like to have. Of course, a further attributional search can be performed: If one’s fault is traced back to uncontrollable and stable causes, shame will be associated with helplessness and hopelessness. Conversely, if one’s fault is attributed to unstable and controllable causes, guilty feelings can arise–which may account for the frequent coexistence of shame and guilt, or more plausibly, the shift from one emotion to the other. But all of those consequences are possible implications of a further attributional search.

The issue of perceived responsibility, however, needs to be better specified. We have to establish if it is actually necessary as well as if it is sufficient for experiencing guilt. We also need to explain how perceived responsibility can involve the self, without necessarily implying a fusion between guilt and shame. Finally, we should clarify why perceived responsibility is not involved in shame even when it concerns moral faults.

Is Perceived Responsibility Necessary for Feeling Guilty?

Some authors consider responsibility unnecessary for feeling guilty (e.g., Baumeister et al., 1994; Berndsen & Manstead, 2007). In various instances of guilt, responsibility indeed seems to play no or little role. However, before discussing these counterexamples, two clarifications are in order.

First, perceived responsibility does not necessarily coincide with actual responsibility–it may even be grounded on irrational beliefs (e.g., the thought that one may cause harm to others by simply wishing it). Unsurprisingly, innocent rape victims often feel co-responsible for the rape because they think they provoked it through their appearance or behavior, or did not do everything possible to prevent the attack (e.g., Janoff-Bulman, 1979; Meyer & Taylor, 1986). Second, we admit that an appraisal of personal responsibility proper – implying both causal and either goal or avoidance responsibility – is not a necessary antecedent of guilt (see, e.g., Berndsen & Manstead, 2007). For eliciting a first “pang” of guilt, it may suffice to assume one’s causal responsibility for a harm (e.g., Frijda, 1993). Developmentally speaking, perceiving oneself as a cause of another’s suffering is the core of guilt (e.g., Zahn-Waxler & Kochanska, 1990). We suggest that an assumption of responsibility proper is a necessary constituent of guilt as a full-blown emotion, which may result from further elaboration of an initial, cognitively “poorer” emotional experience. However, once this cognitive elaboration has taken place, an assumption of responsibility proper is a necessary ingredient of guilt. If people are able to rule out both their goal responsibility and their avoidance responsibility for a transgression, they can get rid of the feeling, even when their causal role remains undisputed. Unsurprisingly, therapeutic treatments aimed at removing feelings of guilt often focus on challenging the clients’ assumptions of responsibility (e.g., Lamb, 1986).

Let us now discuss a few cases of guilt “without responsibility”. People who are over-rewarded tend to feel guilty when their advantage causes another’s disadvantage (e.g., Hegtvedt & Killian, 1999). Even though they can view their advantage as undeserved, this condition seems insufficient to imply perceived responsibility for the inequity as long as they believe they neither did anything to cause it nor had the goal to cause it or the power to prevent it. However, they are now responsibly accepting an inequitable situation. They can feel responsible for not refusing the advantage, not trying to re-distribute what is undeserved, or not challenging the standards followed by the bestowers of rewards. Responsibility can regard not only acts of commission but also omissions.

Another classical example of guilt without responsibility is survivor guilt (e.g., Brockner, Davy, & Carter, 1985). In many such instances, people acknowledge that their guilty feelings are “illogical”, and still declare that they feel responsible. How can one feel responsible for not sharing others’ misfortunes?

To start with, after an event people tend to overestimate their preexisting predictive capabilities–showing the well-known hindsight bias (e.g., Fischhoff, 2003)–as well as their control over the situation. Therefore, they may start a chain of counterfactual thoughts about what they could and should have (not) done (for instance, “I scrambled over others to escape”; or “I thought only of myself, without trying to save others”).

Second, let us suppose that a survivor fails to find some far-fetched responsibility to have (not) done something, and reaches the conclusion that being alive is a matter of luck. Luck is often (irrationally) viewed in terms of a zero-sum game–to have good luck implies depriving another of it. Although the survivor is not responsible for this deprivation (the “responsible” one is Fate or God), (s)he is likely to feel happy that (s)he has escaped death, which somehow implies being happy that another died. The survivor can feel responsible for having experienced such a despicable feeling, which may be viewed as betraying a disposition to harm others as a means for pursuing one’s own interest. Or, even without self-ascribing the wretched feeling of schadenfreude, the survivor may feel guilty for being happy while others are grieving over their losses, and view one’s own happiness as a sign of self-centeredness and hard-heartedness (e.g., Jager & Bartsch, 2006).

Can Perceived Responsibility Concern the Self Rather Than Specific Behaviors?

The negative evaluation of one’s behavior can undergo generalization to the self and elicit guilt, without a necessary fusion with shame. Moreover, the mere reflection on one’s own “character”, independent of an actual wrongdoing, may elicit guilt. However, our emphasis on perceived responsibility seems to conflict with these claims. How can one perceive oneself as responsible for one’s own traits, rather than for specific wrongdoings? Isn’t character something one cannot choose and be responsible for (e.g., Sabini & Silver, 1997)?

Many traits can be viewed as liable to change through one’s own effort, rather than as stable and uncontrollable features of the self. Much depends on the perspective and implicit theories of the person. For instance, intelligence can be viewed either as a fixed entity or as a malleable quality (e.g., Dweck, 1999). Conversely, willingness (including effort and persistence) is not necessarily viewed as unstable and controllable. It may acquire an “ability” connotation–think of the notion of “weakness of will” (e.g., Davidson, 1980). Persistence can also be viewed as a stable disposition (e.g., Hancock & Szalma, 2008).

Therefore, we suggest that one can feel guilty for one’s negative traits, provided one feels responsible for them. And one feels responsible for them if one believes to be capable of modifying them – thereby preventing the (potential or actual) harm they engender – while omitting to do so. We acknowledge that guilt relates to the self as an agent, but this is different from assuming that guilt is exclusively concerned either with one’s behavior or with how one’s actual behavior reflects on the self. Guilt is rather concerned with one’s self as an actual or potential wrongdoer.

Is Perceived Responsibility a Sufficient Cognitive Component of Guilt?

The self-evaluation of responsible harmfulness is a twofold assumption–a self-evaluation of harmfulness plus a self-ascription of responsibility. Responsibility is in itself a neutral notion. Responsibility judgments assess whether one caused something, good or bad as it may be, and intended to cause it or at least could prevent it from occurring. Assignment of responsibility and assignment of guilt should be kept distinct (e.g., Shaver, 1985).

One can acknowledge responsibility for a behavior, personal attitude or attribute without evaluating the latter as harmful. Thus, perceived responsibility, albeit necessary, is an insufficient component of guilt. Another necessary requirement is the self-evaluation of (potential or actual) harmfulness.

As already pointed out, an evaluation of responsible harmfulness is a moral evaluation. Therefore guilt, being concerned with one’s self as an actual or potential wrongdoer, implies a blow to one’s moral self-image.

A blow to one’s moral image is insufficient for experiencing guilt. Although one’s moral standards are largely a sociocultural product, and “different moral orders favour different moralities… in their members” (Benson, 2001, p. 231), others’ evaluation and one’s own self-evaluation may diverge. We possess “’a moral compass’ which enables us to know when to turn towards our own feelings and when towards those of other people for guidance in the making of moral choices” (Benson, 2001, p. 131). Thus, one may even acknowledge to “deserve” others’ blame (according to their standards) without sharing in their negative judgment of harmfulness because one evaluates one’s own behavior or attitudes in terms of different standards. In these cases, one will suffer a blow to one’s own moral image, but not to one’s moral self-image.

According to Higgins (1987), different kinds of discrepancy between one’s self-concept and one’s self-guides qualify different kinds of unpleasant emotions. Following self-discrepancy theory, we suggest that guilt is elicited by a discrepancy between the actual and the ought self, which prescribes how one should be and behave according to one’s own moral standards. When one feels guilty, one’s moral self-image gets (more or less temporarily) worsened.

In other words, the negative self-evaluation implied in guilt involves the (moral) self, and is not confined to one’s specific behavior. In a sense, we agree with Sabini and Silver (1997) when they claim that a “strong” feeling of guilt should involve the self; otherwise guilt is an “anemic” feeling. What we disagree with is the equation of “involving the self” with “involving shame”.

Is Perceived Non-Responsibility a Necessary Cognitive Component of Shame?

Unlike guilt, shame can be experienced when one’s self-evaluation concerns a mere lack of power. But this doesn’t necessarily imply that one should view oneself as not responsible for one’s own faults. Many examples can be found of felt shame concerning a responsible wrongdoing. A child who consciously disobeys his parents, a student who neglects her homework, a soldier who cowardly tries to flee the battle may feel ashamed rather than guilty. But, how is it possible to experience shame in such instances, rather than a misnamed guilty feeling?

What makes the difference between shame and guilt is not the objective kind of fault, but how this fault is represented, and where one’s attention is focused. One can feel shame for a wrongdoing as long as one does not consider responsibility issues, and focuses on one’s own inadequacy with respect to one’s ideal self. That is, one compares one’s actual self with one’s ideal standard, and finds it is sub-standard.

Higgins (1987) also suggests that shame reflects an actual versus ideal self-discrepancy, independent of responsibility issues. However, he states that shame involves “feeling that one has been lowered in the esteem of others because one has disappointed their hopes and wishes for one” (p. 323). We view this condition as both insufficient for feeling ashamed (because a lowered self-esteem should also be involved) and unnecessary (because one may be certain that nobody will ever know about one’s fault, and still feel ashamed).

While acknowledging that the ideal self (as well as the ought self) is socially constructed (e.g., Argyle, 2017) and, developmentally speaking, others’ values and expectations play an important role in shame (e.g., Ferguson, Stegge, & Damhuis, 1991), we suggest that the internalization of social standards involves their possible transformation. Parental values, for instance, may be substantially modified, and even rejected (e.g., Grusec & Goodnow, 1994). In any case, for disappointment of others’ expectations to induce shame in an individual, (s)he should share those expectations. So, in any case, the ashamed one has disappointed one’s own expectations for oneself.

The domain of self-esteem involved in shame is a nonmoral one, even when a moral fault is at stake. No doubt, a soldier who cowardly tries to flee the battle can feel guilty for such a responsible misdeed, suffer a blow to her moral self-image, and blame herself for being “evil”. However it is also possible that she feels ashamed, if she remains focused on the discrepancy between her actual self and her ideal self-image of a “brave soldier”. Here, she suffers a blow to her nonmoral or “aesthetic” self-image (Sabini & Silver, 1998), viewing herself as “ugly”, defective with respect to her ideal self.

This view of shame offers the remarkable advantage of explaining how it is possible to feel ashamed both of a physical handicap (which involves no personal responsibility) and of a responsible misdeed. In both cases, one compares one’s actual self with one’s ideal self, and is disappointed by the discrepancy between the two. Shame is a kind of disappointment concerning the self.

This view of shame can also account for the frequent association of this emotion either with depressive reactions (e.g., Tangney & Tracy, 2012) or with guilt (e.g., Ferguson & Crowley, 1997; Harder, 1995), depending on the outcomes of a further causal search. In fact, as already mentioned, once the perceived fault is attributed to an internal inadequacy, one may trace back the latter to uncontrollable and stable causes, and in these cases depressive reactions, such as helplessness and hopelessness, are likely to ensue; if, conversely, the inadequacy is attributed to unstable and controllable causes, and responsibility implications come into focus, then shame will change into guilt, or “coexist” with guilt–which probably implies recurrent shifts from a mere disappointment in, and dislike of, oneself to guilty self-reproach, depending on where attention is focused.

Guilt and Shame Concern Different Domains of Self-Esteem

From Freud (1923/1961) on, a distinction has been proposed between the “superego”, or moral conscience or ought self, and the ideal self, concerning one’s wishes and aspirations about oneself (e.g., Higgins, 1987; Kohut, 1977; Piers & Singer, 1971). Self-esteemvi can as well be distinguished into “moral” and “nonmoral” or “aesthetic” (Sabini & Silver, 1998). The negative self-evaluations associated with guilt and shame both involve the self and imply a lowered self-esteem, but concern two distinct domains: the moral domain in guilt, and the aesthetic domain in shame. In a sense it is true that “shame and guilt are not equally ‘moral’ emotions” (Tangney et al., 2007, p. 349): guilt is moral whereas shame is not moral. However, this does not mean that shame is morally reprehensible. It is simply nonmoral or amoral, because it implies an aesthetic perspective, even with respect to moral faults. Whereas guilty people view themselves as “evil”, and reproach themselves, ashamed people view themselves as (physically, intellectually or morally) “ugly”, and dislike themselves.

A lowered self-esteem, either in the moral or in the aesthetic domain, doesn’t necessarily imply a global negative self-view. The latter, although often considered typical of shame, is not necessarily involved in it. For example, going back to our ashamed soldier, her ideal self may include not only the standard of a “brave soldier” but also those of a “considerate friend” or a “loving parent”, which may remain untouched (e.g., Deonna et al., 2012). Moreover, a lowered self-esteem doesn’t necessarily imply stable and uncontrollable self-attributions. Whereas the latter are incompatible with guilt, they are only compatible with shame, but not necessarily involved in it. Our ashamed soldier may believe that she is utterly unable to keep up with her ideal standard of a brave soldier because cowardice is something she can’t help, like blindness or palsy. At this point, many dysfunctional consequences that have been typically attributed to shame may ensue–such as depressive symptoms, escape and/or denial, as well as a stable low self-esteem. But she can also believe that something can be done, and commit herself to become the person she aspires to be.

Concluding Remarks

Shame and guilt are unpleasant emotions implying a negative self-evaluation against one’s own standards; both of them can be experienced either publicly or privately; both can be elicited by the same kind of fault; both can trigger either self-defensive or reparative action tendencies; both can have either adaptive or maladaptive implications; and both can involve the self. What are, then, the differences between these emotions?

Shame is an unpleasant emotion implying a self-evaluation of inadequacy to meet the standards of one’s ideal self. The self-attributed inadequacy may or may not imply a global negative self-view. Moreover, it may or may not be perceived as stable and uncontrollable. Only if it is perceived as uncontrollable and stable, shame will be associated with helplessness and hopelessness. Ashamed people may regard themselves as either responsible or non-responsible for a fault, but in any case, when experiencing pure shame, they are not considering responsibility issues. As long as one focuses on one’s own inadequacy with respect to the ideal self, one can feel shame (rather than guilt) for a wrongdoing. In fact, although a self-evaluation of inadequacy may concern moral attributes – that is, harmful attributes for which one may view oneself as responsible – ashamed people are only considering the disappointing discrepancy between their ideal (good) self and their actual (not so good) self. Of course this discrepancy implies a “good/bad” dichotomy, but the meaning of “good/bad” is not necessarily moral. “Good/bad” may mean not only virtuous/wicked, but also competent/incompetent, beautiful/ ugly, disappointing/satisfactory, and so on. Shame is a nonmoral emotion, meaning that it involves the nonmoral or “aesthetic” facet of one’s self-esteem, which is concerned with the self’s adequacy with respect to its own wishes or aspirations.

Guilt is an unpleasant emotion implying a negative self-evaluation against one’s moral standards, that is, the standards concerning those behaviors, goals, beliefs or traits for which one regards oneself as responsible. The evaluation is negative in that such behaviors, goals, etc. are viewed as harmful. Therefore, guilt implies a selfevaluation of responsible harmfulness, that is, wrongfulness. The wrongdoing can be either actual or potential, that is, a possible consequence of personal traits and dispositions–provided the person views such traits as modifiable through effort (thereby feeling responsible for not trying to modify them). Therefore the self is involved in guilt, in that the fault can be ascribed not only to one’s behavior but also to the self. When one feels guilty, one’s self-image gets (more or less temporarily) worsened. However, in guilt it is the moral facet of one’s self-esteem – the facet concerned with the responsible harmfulness or beneficialness of the self’s behavior, attitudes, and dispositions – that suffers a blow.

In our view, the distinguishing criteria we have suggested allow to account for both the similarities and the differences between shame and guilt, as well as to clarify the most problematic cases. They explain how a moral fault can elicit shame rather than guilt; or, conversely, how a flaw of character can elicit guilt rather than shame. We have also questioned the widespread view of shame as an ugly and maladaptive emotion, versus guilt as a prosocial and adaptive one. Either emotion (and probably any emotion) can be adaptive or maladaptive depending on contextual factors and the regulation strategies used (e.g., Barrett, 1995; Ferguson & Stegge, 1998). Dysfunctionality is not intrinsic to the emotion, but depends on the emotion regulation skills of the experiencing person (e.g., Gross, 1998; Gupta, Rosenthal, Mancini, Chaevens, & Lynch, 2008).


Can Shame Memories Become a Key to Identity? The Centrality of Shame Memories Predicts Psychopathology

Summary: This study investigates the premise that a shame memory can become a central component of personal identity, a turning point in the life story and a reference point for everyday inferences. We assessed shame, centrality of shame memory, depression, anxiety, stress and traumatic stress reactions in 811 participants from general population (481 undergraduate students and 330 subjects from normal population) to explore the interactions between these variables. Results show that early shame experiences do indeed reveal centrality of memory characteristics. Furthermore, the centrality of shame memories is associated with current feelings of internal and external shame in adulthood. Key to our findings is that the centrality of shame memories shows a unique and independent contribution to depression, anxiety and stress prediction, even when controlling for shame measures. In addition, our results show that the centrality of shame memories is highly and positively associated with traumatic stress reactions. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.



Shame is an emotion of outstanding social importance (Gilbert, 2003; Tangney & Dearing, 2002) and crucial implications to one’s self-identity (Gilbert, 1998; Kaufman, 1989; Nathanson, 1996). This rich and powerful human emotion has been associated to the internal experience of the self as undesirable, unattractive, defective, worthless and powerless (Gilbert, 1998; Lewis, 1992; Nathanson, 1996) within a social world, under pressure to limit possible damage to self-presentation, through flight or appeasement (Gilbert, 1998; Tangney & Fischer, 1995).

Although shame is often conceived as a self-focused and self-evaluative experience of being defective or inadequate in some way (Tangney & Dearing, 2002; Tracy & Robins, 2004), it is essentially an experience of the self related to how we think we exist in the minds of others (Gilbert & McGuire, 1998; Keltner & Harker, 1998). Gilbert (1998, 2002) argues that shame can be both an inner experience of the self that involves an involuntary affective-defensive response to the threat of, or an actual experience of, social rejection or devaluation because one is (or has become) unattractive as a social agent.

Thus, shame can be a painful social experience (also defined as external shame), linked to the perception that one is being judged and seen as inferior, defective or unattractive in the eyes of others, and that might result in rejection or some form of put-down (Gilbert, 2002; Kaufman, 1989). Shame can also be internalized, emerging as a private feeling (also designed as internal shame) related to our own negative personal judgements of our attributes, characteristics, feelings and fantasizes and linked to self-directed effects (e.g. disgust, anger, anxiety; Cook, 1996; Gilbert, 2003). Therefore, shame can guide our behaviour in social contexts, influence our feelings about ourselves, shape a sense of our self-identity and feelings about our social acceptability and desirability (Gilbert, 1998; Tangney & Dearing, 2002).

The self-conscious emotion of shame arises from our early interactions with significant others (Lewis, 1995; Tangney & Dearing, 2002) and develops later than primary emotions (e.g. fear, joy) as it depends on certain unfolding mental abilities, namely symbolic representation, theory of mind, self-awareness and meta-cognition, that only mature around 2 years of age (Gilbert, 2002, 2003; Tangney & Fischer, 1995; Schore, 1998).

During the past two decades, several empirical studies have systematically shown that shame is associated to a wide variety of psychopathological symptoms and disorders in clinical and non-clinical samples, particularly, depression (Andrews, 1995; Andrews & Hunter, 1997; Andrews, Qian, & Valentine, 2002; Cheung, Gilbert, & Irons, 2004; Thompson & Berenbaum, 2006); anxiety (Irons & Gilbert, 2005; Tangney, Wagner, & Gramzow, 1992); social anxiety (Gilbert, 2000; Grabhorn, Stenner, Stangier, & Kaufhold, 2006); post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Lee, Scragg, & Turner, 2001; Leskela, Dieperink, & Thuras, 2002); eating disorders (Skarderud, 2007; Troop, Allan, Serpell, & Treasure, 2008); personality disorders, specially borderline personality disorder (Rusch et al., 2007) and dissociation (Talbot, Talbot, & Tu, 2004).

Emotional and autobiographical memory

Proneness to feel shame is an innate capacity (Gilbert & McGuire, 1998); however, excessive shame-proneness is believed to emerge from internal negative self-representations of the self derived from previous experiences of being shamed (Lewis, 1992; Nathanson, 1994).

Moreover, empirical studies have shown that shame- proneness seems to have trauma-like origins in early negative rearing experiences, namely experiences of shaming, abandonment, rejection, emotional negligence or emotional control and several forms of abusive, critical and/or harsh parental styles (Andrews, 2002; Claesson & Sohlberg, 2002; Gilbert & Gerlsma, 1999; Gilbert & Perris, 2000; Schore, 2001; Stuewig & McCloskey, 2005; Webb, Heisler, Call, Chickering, & Colburn, 2007). These shaming and devaluing experiences seem to have major effects on brain psychobiological maturation and have been associated not only to proneness to shame but also to vulnerability to psychopathology (Schore, 1998,2001; Tangney, Burggraf, & Wagner, 1995).

Gilbert (2003) argues that these early (shaming) rearing experiences (where a child experiences the emotions of others being directed at himself) become the foundations for self-beliefs. They are recorded in autobiographical memory as emotionally textured experiences. These experiences can then become descriptors of the self, for example ‘having elicited withdrawal in others and being treated as undesir- able–therefore I am undesirable’ (p. 1222). Thus, vulnerability to shame-based problems is commonly rooted in feeling memories of being rejected, criticized and shamed (Gilbert, 1998, 2002; Tomkins, 1981) and/or abused (Andrews, 2002). The internalization of these experiences can result in seeing and evaluating the self in the same way others have, that it is flawed, inferior, rejectable and globally self-condemning (negative internal models of self and others; Gilbert, 1998, 2002; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005).

In fact, some authors have suggested that shame experiences may be recorded in autobiographical memory as conditioned emotional responses, with an impact in the formation of self-relevant beliefs, in attentional and emotional processing and with neurophysiologic correlates (Gilbert, 2002, 2003; Kaufman, 1989; Lewis, 1992, 2000; Tomkins, 1981). Moreover, the nature of shame experience suggests that this emotion is sufficiently important, significant and distressful (Gilbert, 1998, 2003; Kaufman, 1989, Lewis, 2000) to comprise the powerful characteristics of an autobiographical traumatic memory, central to one’s life story and personal identity (Berntsen & Rubin, 2002; Brewin, Reynolds, & Tata, 1999; Ehlers & Clark, 2000; Gilbert & Procter, 2006; Rubin, 2005; Rubin & Siegler, 2004). In a recent study, Matos and Pinto-Gouveia (2009) found that early shame experiences do indeed reveal traumatic memory characteristics, that not only affect shame in adulthood but also seem to moderate the impact of shame on depression.

Furthermore, since shame experiences comprise a primary threat to the (social) self (Gilbert, 1998, 2002), shame memories can be seen as threat memories, that tend to have more powerful emotional pull than non-threat memories. In line with this, Dickerson and Kemeny (2004) showed that threats to self, especially uncontrollable social-evaluative threats, are one of the most powerful activators of cortisol. As well, Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, and Vohs (2001), in a broad empirical and clinical review, explain that threat events are more powerful than positive ones in a wide range of psychological phenomena.

Centrality of event theory

Memories of emotional events are an important part of our life story and identity and some emotional events may continue to cause distress throughout our lives (Bluck & Habermas, 2000; McAdams, 2001; Pillemer, 1998; Singer & Salovey, 1993). Actually, these highly accessible and vivid personal memories structure and give meaning to our life narratives and help to anchor and stabilize our conceptions of ourselves (Baerger & McAdams, 1999; Pillemer, 1998, 2003; Robinson & Taylor, 1998; Shum, 1998). Berntsen, Willert, and Rubin (2003) argue that the consequences of these processes may be negative, if memories of negative or traumatic experiences become reference points for the organization of autobiographical knowledge with a continuous impact on the interpretation of less salient/non-traumatic experiences in a person’s life and expectations for the future.

Following this idea, Berntsen and Rubin (2006, 2007) presented the centrality of event theory, proposing that a memory of a trauma or a negative emotional event can become central to one’s life story and identity, and this may be related to increased levels of post-traumatic stress reactions, depression and anxiety. The authors advocate that there are three overlapping and mutually dependent functions in which a memory of a highly accessible emotional memory may be problematic, by becoming highly interconnected with other types of autobiographical information in the cognitive networks of a person. This includes an understanding of the memory as a reference point for everyday inferences and for generating expectations, as a turning point in the life story and as a central component of identity (Berntsen & Rubin, 2006, 2007).

First, if a traumatic memory becomes a central personal reference point that may influence the attribution of meaning to non-traumatic events and the generation of future expectations. So, the individual may perceive as threats and react strongly to non-traumatic events and perceive an unrealistically high risk for future traumas (Berntsen & Rubin, 2007). Second, perceiving the traumatic memory as a salient turning point in the life story may lead to oversimplification of the life narrative as well as to disagreements between the life story and cultural norms (Berntsen & Rubin, 2004; Thomsen & Berntsen, 2008). Third, having a highly negative emotional memory as central to personal identity may mean that the negative event is seen as emblematic for the person’s self and/or a symbol for persistent themes in the person’s life story. This may lead to global, internal and stable attributions regarding negative events in general (i.e. ‘people will always reject me, because Im flawed and unlovable’), which would be associated with increased negative effect (Berntsen & Rubin, 2006, 2007).

According to this theory, the re-experiencing symptoms typical of post-traumatic stress reactions are conceived as a result of the overintegration of the trauma memory, due to its extraordinary accessibility caused by a multitude of connections between this memory and other material in memory (Berntsen & Rubin, 2007). Thomsen and Berntsen (2008) point out that repeatedly re-experiencing the trauma may also contribute to overintegrating the memory into identity, because the repetitive re-experiencing makes the individual appraise the trauma memory as central to identity and connects the trauma memory to a range of other material. Some of the aspects of Berntsen and Rubin theory overlap Tomkins’s script theory (Kaufman, 1989; Tomkins, 1987a, b) and are related to the retrieval competition theory (Brewin,


Berntsen and Rubin (2006) developed the centrality of event scale (CES) to measure the extent to which a stressful experience becomes central to life story and identity. Support for this theory was found using CES with student and general community samples (Berntsen & Rubin, 2007,2008) and with individuals exposed to traumatic events (Thomsen & Berntsen, 2008). The findings suggest that traumatic memories seem to have an enhanced integration in selfschemas, emerging as cognitive reference points for the organization of other memories and for generating expectations for the future. Moreover, these studies have shown that the extent to which a negative emotional memory is central to one’s identity and life story is positively related to depression, anxiety and the severity of post-traumatic stress reactions.

Even though theoretical and empirical considerations may suggest that early shame experiences are recorded in the autobiographical memory system as powerful and distressful emotional memories, central to a person’s life story and identity and with a profound impact on shame in adulthood and on psychopathology, these connections have not been investigated.


This study sets out to explore the nature of shame as an autobiographical memory, central to our life narrative and personal identity. Specifically, we proposed to study the centrality of early shame experiences (from childhood and adolescence) and examine the relation between the centrality of shame memories and shame (external and internal) in adulthood. We should expect that memories of shame experiences appear as salient reference points in our life story and identity, and that those individuals whose shame memories are central in autobiographical memory reveal more current shame both externally and internally focused.

In addition, we sought to explore the linkages between the centrality of shame memories, external and internal shame and psychopathology, specifically depression, anxiety and stress. We hypothesize that those individuals, whose shame memories emerge as central for the organization of autobiographical knowledge, show more symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress, even when controlling the measures of external and internal shame.

Finally, we intended to investigate the association between the centrality of shame memories and traumatic stress reactions. We should expect that individuals whose shame memories reveal centrality characteristics display more characteristics of traumatic stress reactions concerning those particular emotional memories.



Eight hundred and eleven subjects from general population, with 481 undergraduate students recruited from the University of Coimbra, Portugal (59.3%) and 330 subjects recruited from the normal population (40.7%) participated in this study. 59.9% were females (N = 486), mean age 28.82 years (SD = 11.08) and 40.1% males (N = 325), mean age 26.35 years (SD = 10.61). Seventy four per cent of the subjects are single (N = 596). Fifty nine per cent were students (N = 481) and 19% of the normal population subjects have middle class professions (N = 153). The participants mean years of education is 14 (SD = 3.21). Both groups (the undergraduate students and the community sample) showed similar mean and standard deviation values on the research variables. Also, no significant differences were found so between males and females on the research variables (see Table 1). So, the data analysis considered only one group.


Table 1. Means and standard deviations for all subjects (n = 811) and t-test differences between males (n = 325) and females (n = 486)

  Total (n = 811) Males (n = 325) Females (n = 486)    
Variables Mean SD Mean SD Mean SD t P
DASS depression 7.65 7.75 8.08 7.37 7.36 7.99 1.297 .195
DASS anxiety 7.29 6.69 7.69 6.24 7.02 6.97 1.393 .164
DASS stress 12.38 8.12 11.95 7.59 12.67 8.45 -1.239 .216
Other as shamer (OAS) 19.76 9.32 20.02 8.69 19.59 9.72 .666 .506
Experience of shame scale (ESS) 48.94 13.41 48.25 13.22 49.40 13.55 -1.197 .232
Centrality of shame memories
Centrality of event scale (CES) 44.52 18.20 45.75 18.00 43.70 18.31 1.575 .116
Traumatic stress reactions
Impact of event scale–revised 3.76 2.57 3.70 2.47 3.79 2.64 -.527 .598
IES-R Total
IES-R intrusion 1.25 .90 1.22 .86 1.26 .92 -.670 .530
IES-R avoidance 1.41 .88 1.39 .86 1.45 .90 -.949 .343
IES-R hyperarousal 1.08 .96 1.09 .92 1.09 .99 -.086 .932

A battery of self-report questionnaires designed to measure external shame, internal shame, traumatic memory characteristics and psychopathology was provided to the participants. The questionnaires were administered by the author, Marcela Matos, with assistance of undergraduate students. In the student sample, the battery was completed by the volunteers at the end of a lecture, with previous knowledge and authorization of the professor in charge. In the general population, we used a convenience sample collected within the staff of institutions, namely schools and private corporations. Authorization from these institutions’ boards

was obtained and the self-report questionnaires were filled by volunteers in the presence of the researcher. In line with ethical requirements, it was emphasized that participants cooperation was voluntary and that their answers were confidential and only used for the purpose of the study.


All instruments used in this study were translated into Portuguese by a bilingual translator and the comparability of content was verified through stringent back-translation procedures.


Researchers have conceptualized and measured shame in different ways (Andrews, 1998; Gilbert, 1998; Tangney, 1996). In this study we were interested on two aspects of shame. One was external shame, as measured by the beliefs about what one thinks others think about the self (Allan, Gilbert, & Goss, 1994). The other was to assess internal shame, for which we used the Andrews et al. (2002) scale that, despite not being designed to measure internal shame, taps feelings of shame around three key domains of self: Character, behaviour and body.

Other As Shamer Scale (OAS) was developed by Allan et al. (1994) and Goss, Gilbert, and Allan (1994) and translated and adapted to Portuguese by Lopes, Pinto- Gouveia and Castilho (2005). The scale consists of 18 items measuring external shame (global judgements of how people think others view them). For example, respondents indicate the frequency on a 5-point scale (0-4) of their feelings and experiences to items such as ‘I feel other people see me as not quite good enough’ and ‘I think that other people look down on me’. Higher scores on this scale reveal high external shame. In their study, Goss et al. (1994) found this scale to have a Cronbach’s a of .92. In this study, the Cronbach’s a was .91.

Experience of Shame Scale (ESS) was derived from Andrews and Hunter’s (1997) interview measure of shame by Andrews et al. (2002) and translated and adapted to Portuguese by Lopes and Pinto-Gouveia (2005). It consists of 27 items measuring three areas of shame: Character (personal habits, manner with others, what sort of person you are and personal ability), behaviour (shame about doing something wrong, saying something stupid and failure in competitive situations) and body (feeling ashamed of one’s body or parts of it). Each item indicates the frequency of experiencing, thinking and avoiding any of the three areas of shame in the past year and rated on a 4-point scale (1-4). In their study, Andrews et al. (2002) found this scale to have a high internal consistency (Cronbach’s a = .92) with good test-retest reliability over 11 weeks (r = .83). In this study, we found the ESS total to have a Cronbach’s a of .94. In the present research, only the total of the ESS was used.


Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-42; Lovibond & Lovibond, 1995; translation and adaptation: Pais-Ribeiro, Honrado & Leal, 2004) is a self-report measure composed of 42 items and designed to assess three dimensions of psychopathological symptoms: Depression, anxiety and stress. The items indicate negative emotional symptoms and the respondents are asked to rate each item on a 4-point scale (0-3). In the original version, Lovibond and Lovibond (1995) found the subscales to have high internal consistency (depression subscale Cronbach’s a = .91; anxiety subscale Cronbach’s a = .84; stress subscale Cronbach’s a = .90). In the present study, the three subscales have also shown high internal consistency (depression subscale Cronbach’s a = .94; anxiety subscale Cronbach’s a = .90; stress subscale Cronbach’s a = .93).

Centrality of shame memories

Centrality of event scale (CES; Berntsen & Rubin, 2006; Translated and adapted to Portuguese by Matos & Pinto- Gouveia, 2008b) measures the extent to which a memory a stressful event forms a reference point for personal identity and for the attribution of meaning to other experiences in a person’s life. This self-report questionnaire consists of 20 items, rated on 5-point scales (1 = Totally disagree; 5 = Totally agree) that assess the three interdependent characteristics of highly negative emotional memories: Reference points for everyday inferences (‘This event has colored the way I think and feel about other’s experiences.), turning points in life stories (‘I feel that this event has become a central part of my life story’.) and components of personal identity (‘I feel that this event has become part of my identity’.). In its original study, CES reported a high internal consistency (Cronbach’s a = .94). In this study, we also found CES to have an excellent internal consistency (Cronbach’s a = .96).

Priming for a shame memory

In this study, we modified the instructions of the CES to prime participants with a shame memory and complete the scale with that memory as their focus. Participants were instructed to answer the questionnaire based on a significant and stressful shame experience they recalled from their childhood or adolescence. After a brief introduction about the concept of shame, it was instructed: ‘Now, try to recall a significant/stressful situation or experience in which you think you felt shame, during your childhood and/or adolescence. Please think back upon that significant shame event in your life and answer the following questions in an honest and sincere way, by circling a number from 1 to 5’.

We consider that this adjustment in the instructions does not seem to affect the validation of this scale, since the items’ content is well suited for both instructions. Also, Perri and Keefe (2008) in a study on persistent pain have successfully used this scale with a change in the topic.

Traumatic stress reactions

Impact of event scale-revised (IES-R; Weiss & Marmar, 1997; translated and adapted to Portuguese by Matos & Pinto-Gouveia, 2010). The IES-R is a self-report measure designed to assess current subjective distress for any specific life event, in our study specifically, a shame experience from childhood or adolescence. The IES-R has 22 items, seven items having being added to the original 15-item IES (Weiss & Marmar, 1997), each item is rated on a 5-point scale (0-4). This scale measures three aspects of traumatic stress reactions (corresponding to three theoretical subscales): Avoidance (‘I stayed away from reminders of it’), intrusion (‘Any reminder brought back feelings about it’) and hyperarousal (‘I was jumpy and easily startled’) that parallel the DSM-IV criteria for PTSD. Still, in our research, we were only interested on the IES-R total. In this study, participants were instructed to answer the questionnaire based on the impact throughout their lives that a significant shame experience from their childhood or adolescence had (the same memory primed for CES scale). In the original study, the Cronbach’s a of the subscales range from .87 to .92 for intrusion, .84 to .86 for avoidance and .79 to .90 for hyperarousal (Weiss & Marmar, 1997). In our research, we found the total of the IES-R and its subscales to have high internal consistency (IES-R total Cronbach’s a = .96; intrusion subscale Cronbach’s a = .94; avoidance subscale Cronbach’s a = .88; hyperarousal subscale Cronbach’s a = .91).


Study: Shame, centrality of shame memories and psychopathology


The means and standard deviations for this study are presented on Table 1.

The descriptive statistics for the variables studied are similar to previous studies (e.g. Andrews et al., 2002; Berntsen & Rubin, 2006, 2007; Goss et al., 1994; Weiss & Marmar, 1997). No gender, age or population (student and non-student) differences were found concerning the variables under consideration.

Shame and centrality of shame memories To explore the relationship between variables, Pearson product-moment correlations were conducted (Table 2). Concerning the linkage between shame and the centrality of shame memories, results show that the centrality of shame memories is moderately and positively associated to both external shame (r = .34; p < .01) and internal shame (r = .32; p < .01). That is, individuals whose shame memories from childhood and adolescence appear as a reference point to one’s life story and identity tend to show more external shame and internal shame in adulthood.


Table 3. Model summary of the three regression analyses using external shame (OAS) internal shame (ESS) and centrality of shame memory (CES; independent variables) to predict DASS depression, anxiety and stress (criterion variables; Standard method)

Criterion variables R R2 F p
DASS depression .50 .25 89.48 .000
DASS anxiety .46 .21 71.58 .000
DASS stress .43 .19 61.58 .000

Shame, centrality of shame memories and psychopathology The Pearson product-moment correlation coefficients (Table 2) showed that the centrality of shame memories is moderately and positively correlated with depression (r = .31; p < .01) and anxiety (r = .32; p < .01) and significantly correlated with stress (r = .23; p < .01). As found in previous studies (Andrews et al., 2002; Cheung et al., 2004; Gilbert, 2000; Gilbert, Allan & Goss, 1996; Gilbert & Gerlsma, 1999), external shame and internal shame were also found to be significantly correlated with depression, anxiety and stress.

We further explored these data in a multiple regression analysis in order to understand the linear relation between external shame, internal shame and the centrality of shame memories and the three criterion variables (Cohen, Cohen, West, & Aiken, 2003; Tabachnick & Fidell, 2007). We conducted three separate multiple regressions, with depression, anxiety and stress as the criterion variables (Tables 3 and 4). For each, external shame, internal shame and centrality of shame memory were entered simultaneously as predictors.


Regression analysis results revealed that the predictor variables produce a significant model (R2 = .25; F (3,807) = 89.48; p < .001), accounting for 25% of the variance in depression. Additionally, these results showed that external shame, internal shame and centrality of shame memory have a significant and independent contribution on the prediction of depression. Thus, considering the beta values and semi-partial correlations, external shame emerged as the best global predictor (b = .28; p < .001), followed by internal shame (b = .21; p < .001) and centrality of shame memory (b = .14; p < .001; Tables 3 and 4).



Table 2. Correlations (two-tailed Pearson’s r) between external shame, internal shame, centrality of shame memory and psychopathology (n = 811)

Variables OAS ESS DASS






OAS     .44* .38* .33*
ESS .52*   .40* .37* .40*
CES .34* .32* .31* .32* .23*

OAS, External shame; ESS, Internal shame; CES, Centrality of shame memory.

*p < .010.

Table 4. b values and semi-partial correlations for external shame (OAS) internal shame (ESS) and centrality of shame memory (CES) on the criterion variables (DASS depression, DASS anxiety and DASS stress)

Criterion variables

  DASS depression DASS anxiety DASS stress
b Sr b sr b sr
OAS .28** .23 .21** .17 .15** .13
ESS .21** .17 .21** .17 .29** .24
CES .14** .13 .18** .17 .09* .08

b = Standarized regression coefficient; sr = semi-partial correlation.

OAS, External shame; ESS, Internal shame; CES, Centrality of shame memory.

*p < .010; **p < .001.


External shame, internal shame and centrality of shame memory generate a significant model (R2 = .21; F (3, 807) = 71.58; p < .001), accounting for 21% of anxiety variance. It can be seen that internal shame and external shame are responsible for the highest b values but that the centrality of shame memories also makes a significantly independent contribution (b = .18; p < .001), higher than on depression prediction (Tables 3 and 4).


The shame and centrality memory variables produce a significant model (R2 = .19; F (3, 807) = 61.58; p < .001), accounting for 19% of the variance in stress. Moreover, internal shame appears as the best global predictor (b = .29; p < .001), followed by external shame (b = .15; p < .001) allowing for the b values and semi-partial correlations. In addition, the centrality of shame memory makes less expressive but still significantly independent contribution, although the effect size is rather small (b = .09; p < .010; Tables 3 and 4).

Centrality of shame memories and traumatic stress reactions

Lastly, with the purpose of exploring the relation between the centrality of shame memories and traumatic stress reactions, we used the IES-R to measure the extent to which an individual displayed traumatic stress symptoms in response to the shame memory from childhood and adolescence primed for CES. Results from the Pearson product-moment correlation coefficients showed that the centrality of shame memories is highly and positively correlated with traumatic stress reactions (r = .63; p < .01) and in particular with the intrusion (r = .63; p < .01), hyperarousal (r = .59; p < .01) and avoidance (r = .54; p < .01) subscales. Hence, individuals whose shame memories reveal centrality characteristics tend to show more traumatic stress reactions, namely intrusion, hyperarousal and avoidance, concerning those particular emotional memories.


There are empirical and clinical data implying that early shame experiences might be recorded in the autobiographical memory system as emotional distressful memories, functioning as central reference points to our identity and life story, with an effect on the vulnerability to psychopathology (Gilbert, 2003; Pillemer, 1998; Schore, 1998). The present study was aimed at investigating the centrality of shame memories and its connection to a variety of psychopathological symptoms.

Our first prediction was that memories of shame experiences could emerge as central in our life narratives and self-identity. In the current study, the evoked shame experiences from childhood and adolescence appear as central emotional memories, perceived as reference points for everyday inferences and for generating future expectations, as turning points in the life story and as central components of identity. These findings corroborate our hypothesis and empirically support what Berntsen and Rubin (2006, 2007) proposed on their centrality of event theory: That memories of highly negative emotional events can become central to one’s identity, life story and to everyday inferences and future expectations. These data on the centrality of shame memories also append to other authors’ reflections that highly accessible personal memories help to anchor and stabilize our conceptions of ourselves and provide turning points in the life story, structuring our life narratives. (Bluck & Habermas, 2000; McAdams, 2001; Pillemer, 2003).

In addition, our results show that the centrality of shame memories is positively and significantly associated to both external shame and internal shame. That is to say, individuals whose shame memories from childhood and adolescence are salient reference points for the organization of autobiographical knowledge tend to reveal more external shame and internal shame in adulthood. So, it seems that individuals whose shame memories function as turning points in the life story, as crucial components of their personal identity and as reference points to everyday inferences, tend to believe they exist in the minds of others as undesirable, inferior or defective and to feel and judge themselves as inferior, bad or inadequate.

This is in line with prior studies that have associated shame in adulthood to memories of negative early experiences of shaming, rejection, abandonment or emotional negligence and control (Andrews, 2002; Claesson & Sohlberg, 2002; Gilbert et al., 1996; Stuewig & McCloskey, 2005). Furthermore, our data sustain the theoretical suggestion that early shame experiences are recorded as emotionally textured memories in the autobiographical memory and can then become the foundations for negative self-relevant beliefs (in which one evaluates the self the same way others have: As flawed, inferior, rejectable) and increase shame-proneness (Gilbert, 2003; Lewis, 1992; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005). According to Berntsen and Rubin (2006, 2007), having a highly negative emotional (or traumatic) event as central to personal identity probably means that this event is seen as representative for the person’s self and a symbol for constant themes in the person’s life story. This might lead to internal global and stable attributions, with the trauma being seen as causally related to characteristics of the self that pertain across situations. Our results provide support for this view and led us to believe that when early shame experiences function as anchoring events for our sense of self-identity, as turning points in our life narratives and as cognitive reference points for the organization of other memories and for generating future expectations, they shape not only our negative perceptions of the way we exist in the minds of others (external shame) but also our own negative personal judgments of our characteristics, feelings or fantasies (internal shame).

In what concerns the relationship between the centrality of shame memories and psychopathology, we found expressive and positive correlations between the centrality of the recalled shame experiences to one’s identity and life story and depression, anxiety and stress. These results are consistent with our hypothesis and allow us to conclude that individuals whose shame memories emerge as central for the organization of autobiographical knowledge reveal more symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. These data are in accordance with previous studies that proposed adverse rearing experiences, such as shaming ones, can affect the maturation and functioning of psychobiological mechanisms (Schore, 1998, 2001) and influence vulnerability to psychopathology (Bifulco & Moran, 1998; Gilbert, Cheung, Grandfield, Campey, & Irons, 2003; Gilbert & Gerlsma, 1999; Rutter et al., 1997; Stuewig & McCloskey, 2005)    . Additionally, our results are in line with Berntsen and Rubin (2006, 2007), that reported the centrality of a negative emotional event to be moderately and positively associated with measures of depression and anxiety. Our findings also substantiate former studies that indicate autobiographical memories of traumatic or highly negative emotional events influence cognitive and emotional processing and are related to psychopathological symptoms such as depression and anxiety (Brewin et al., 1999; Greenberg, Rice, Cooper, Cabeza, Rubin & LaBar, 2005; Patel, Brewin, Wheatley, Wells, Fisher, & Myers, 2007; Reynolds & Brewin, 1999; Rubin, Schrauf & Greenberg, 2003).

Besides, in our study, moderate and significant correlations were found between external shame and internal shame and depression, anxiety and stress. These data support our prediction and is consistent with several prior studies that have highlighted the relation between shame and psychopathological symptoms such as depression (Andrews & Hunter, 1997; Cheung et al., 2004; Thompson & Berenbaum, 2006)       and anxiety (Irons & Gilbert, 2005; Tangney, Wagner & Gramzow, 1992).

Furthermore, we sought to explore the relation between shame, the centrality of shame memories and psychopathology. The multiple regressions analyses indicate that external shame, internal shame and the centrality of shame memories accounted for a significant proportion of the variance in depression, anxiety and stress. Our data show that all three were significant and independent predictors. Nevertheless, in depression, external shame emerged as best predictor, while in anxiety and stress internal shame was responsible for the highest b and semi-partial correlation values. In addition, it is notable that the centrality of shame memories showed a unique and independent contribution to depression, anxiety and stress, even when controlling for external and internal shame. These results emphasize that, when controlling for current external and internal shame, it is the extent to which a shame memory is central to one’s identity, life story and for everyday inferences that is linked to symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress.

The findings presented here add to previous knowledge concerning the relation between shame and psychopathology (Andrews et al., 2002; Tangney et al., 1995) by suggesting that, in individuals with external and internal shame, the fact that a shame experience becomes a personal reference point for the attribution of meaning to other events, a salient turning point in the life story and a central component of a person’s identity and self-understanding may increase the vulnerability to experience depressive, anxiety and stress symptoms. This idea can be viewed in light of the centrality of event theory, according to which when a highly negative emotional memory forms a cognitive reference point in a person’s self-schemata it becomes highly accessible and interconnected in the cognitive networks to other autobiographical information, leading to several problems such as traumatic stress reactions, anxiety and depression (Berntsen & Rubin, 2006, 2007).

Finally, pertaining to the association between the centrality of shame memories and traumatic stress reactions, we found that the centrality of shame memories was highly and positively correlated with traumatic stress reactions, particularly with symptoms of intrusion, hyperarousal and avoidance, concerning those specific emotional memories. Thus, it seems that individuals, whose shame memories appear as key components of personal identity, as turning points that help structure their life story and as reference points for everyday inferences, tend to show more traumatic stress reactions to those memories.

These findings corroborate our predictions and uphold Berntsen and Rubin’s view (2006, 2007) on the importance of the centrality of a highly emotionally negative event in the overall cognitive organization to the development and maintenance of PTSD symptoms. In fact, rather than being poorly integrated, as suggested by many PTSD theorists (Horowitz, 1986; for a review, see Dalgleish, 2004), these authors have shown that the emotionally negative (or traumatic) memory tends to form a cognitive reference point for the organization of autobiographical knowledge and for perception of the self and the world, appearing to be well integrated in a person’s cognitive networks instead (Berntsen & Rubin, 2006, 2007; Thomsen & Berntsen, 2008). In addition, our results are in accordance to Berntsen and Rubin’s (2007) remarks that traumatic stress symptoms may arise in response to stressful negative events involving a wide range of emotions (e.g. shame) as long as that particular emotionally negative memory has become sufficiently central for one’s self-understanding and view of the world, even if it does not fulfil the formal diagnostic criteria for a trauma according to the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). So, it seems that some characteristics of the stressful event, such as the emotional arousal (e.g. in our study, the emotional intensity of the shame experience), are likely to influence the subsequent centrality of the memory and that the relation between the CES and traumatic stress symptoms is neither determined by the severity or type of the traumatic/stressful event, nor it is limited to severe traumas.

In conclusion, taken together, these findings may suggest that the extent to which a shame memory becomes a key component to personal identity, a salient turning point in the life story and a reference point for meaning attribution to other events, may influence not only shame in adulthood but also may have an important and independent impact on psychopathology, increasing the vulnerability to symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress and to traumatic stress reactions to that particular shame experience.

Clinical implications

The current research may contribute to a better elucidation of shame origins and to an enhanced understanding of this emotional experience that seems to form a central reference point to one’s self-identity and understanding of the world and plays a crucial role in psychopathology vulnerability and maintenance.

Therapeutically, our results emphasize the importance of evaluating and dealing with shame and shame memories, as proposed by Gilbert (2006, 2007, 2009; Gilbert & Irons, 2005) on his Compassion Focused Therapy. In addition, our findings suggest the relevance of therapeutically reconstruct the autobiographical meaning associated with shame experiences so that its centrality to understanding one’s past, expected future and current self is adaptively reevaluated (Robinson, 1996; Robinson & Taylor, 1998).

Limitations and future research

The findings presented here should be considered taking into account some methodological limitations. One is the correlational design of our study, since no causal conclusions can be drawn from our findings, only theoretically sustained interpretations are drawn. In the future, prospective studies should be carried out to enhance the understanding on the causal relation between the variables.

Besides, our findings cannot be generalized to clinical populations given that we used a general community sample. At the moment, we are replicating this study using a clinical sample and future studies should replicate this investigation using diverse general population samples to enable more firm conclusions to be drawn.

In addition, the fact that participants were requested to evoke experiences from their childhood or adolescence in two self-report questionnaires might have brought along the limitations of this type of measures and the prospect of selective memories in their retrospective reports (for a review, Brewin, Andrews, & Gotlib, 1993). Future research might profit from the use of other non-self-report instruments (such as structured interviews) that also allow a more insightful, accurate and comprehensive exploration of shame experience memories. In an attempt to overcome these limitations, we are currently replicating this study using a semi-structured Shame Experiences Interview (Matos & Pinto-Gouveia, 2006, Unpublished manuscript), more appropriate for assessing specific childhood experiences and developed by us to profoundly evaluate the phenomenology of shame experiences.

At last, there are some reservations regarding the use of the ESS (Andrews et al., 2002) to assess internal shame, since it comprises a few items that might be related to external shame (e.g. ‘Have you worried about what other people think of the sort of person you are?’). In the future, studies should seek to replicate the present findings using other instruments to measure internal shame such as the internalized shame scale (Cook, 1996) or the social comparison scale (SCS; Allan & Gilbert, 1995).

Nonetheless, the current study adds to a recently growing body of research into the role of shame in the aetiology and course of psychopathology and presents novel perspectives on the nature of shame, empirically supporting the proposal that shame memories can become central to personal identity and life story, influencing shame in adulthood and vulnerability to psychopathology.


‘Disgust, disgust beyond description’ – shame cues to detect shame in disguise, in interviews with women who were sexually abused during childhood

‘Disgust, disgust beyond description’ – shame cues to detect shame in disguise, in interviews with women who were sexually abused during childhood

Shame is a recurrent theme in the context of sexually abused women. Sexual abuse is taboo and shameful, and so is shame. Shame affects the development of a person and relationships, and is mentally painful. It is often covert. One aim of the present study was to explore whether and how women exposed to sexual abuse during childhood verbally express unacknowledged overt and covert shame, when interviewed about their physical and mental health, relations and circumstances relating to the sexual abuse. Another aim was, if shame was present, to describe the quality of the shame expressed by the women. A mainly qualitative approach with semi-structured interviews was used. Ten women attending self-help groups for women who were sexually abused during childhood were recruited as informants. The interviews were analysed for verbal expressions of shame by identifying code words and phrases, which were first sorted into six shame indicator groups and then categorized into various aspects of shame. The frequency of the code words and phrases was also counted. The findings clearly reveal that the affect of shame is present and negatively influences the lives of the informants in this study. It was possible to sort the code words and phrases most often mentioned into the indicator groups ‘alienated’, ‘inadequate’ and ‘hurt’, in the order of their frequency. It is obvious that shame affects the lives of this study’s informants in negative ways. One important clinical implication for professionals in health care and psychiatric services is to acknowledge both sexual abuse and shame in order to make it possible for patients to work through it and thereby help them psychologically to improve their health.



Physical and sexual abuse of women and children is a serious health problem that affects physical health and undermines self-esteem (Widding-Hedin 2000; Heise et al. 2002). A recurrent theme in the context of sexually abused women is shame (Finkelhor & Brown 1985; Lewis 1987; Herman 1992; Andrews 1998). According to Tomkins (1987), guilt concerns what one has done, whereas shame concerns who one is. Scheff (1988) describes guilt as an internalized and individual emotion/affect, while shame incorporates ‘the other’ directly into the feeling. There are diverse emotional responses to sexual abuse. The present article focuses on the affect of shame.

Tomkins (1987) described nine human major affects, one of which is shame/humiliation. He further states that the affects are innate, with both bodily and psychological reactions, and that each affect can be activated by a variety of unlearned stimuli. Tomkins also describes that feelings of shame can be described on a continuum with a mild feeling of embarrassment at one end and humiliation at the other. If a person remains on the humiliation end of the continuum often or for a long time, there is a risk that chronic feelings of shame will develop, which may lead to pathologically low self-esteem, social phobia and tendencies towards isolation. Other researchers have exemplified how shame can be activated through criticism, rejection or fear of rejection, devaluation, discrimination, discredit, moral condemnation, inattentiveness and unrequited love (Lewis 1987; Jacoby 1994). Persons who ‘suffer’ from shame often compare their ‘self’ with others, where their own ‘self’ is always negatively evaluated. By attacking the ‘self’ in this way, shame becomes a very painful and extremely destructive affect (Lazare 1987; Retzinger 1989; Epstein 1994).

Lewis (1971) distinguishes between overt and covert shame. Overt shame exists when a person feels ashamed or becomes embarrassed. It gives rise to physical expressions such as blushing, sweating, palpitations and certain behaviours, e.g. breaking eye contact, putting one’s hands in front of one’s face and other hiding behaviours. She describes covert shame as more constant, ‘being in a state of shame’, which makes it more difficult to identify. Retzinger (1991) points out that, when overt shame is unacknowledged, the person still feels the mental pain of it, but does not identify the expression as shame. Instead, he or she describes it in such terms as ‘feeling bad’, ‘stupid’ or ‘insecure’. As regards covert shame, the person does not feel the mental pain of it any longer; it is covert for the person. However, it may be identified by others through gestures, body language and choice of words. Fundamental thought processes referring to covert shame are ‘how I look in others’ eyes’, ‘what ought to have been said’, ‘what could have been said’ or ‘what was actually said or done’ – scenes that are played over and over again in the mind. This means that shame, and specifically covert shame, can affect a person’s life in different ways, for example in social relations, as the person or others have difficulty in identifying the underlying cause of the problems perhaps being overt or covert shame.

Gottschalk & Gleser (1969) developed a content analysis scale for the identification and quantification of linguistic expressions of different psychological states, the purpose of which was to detect deeper layers of meaning in the content of the text. According to these authors, psychological states such as shame can be identified in language through verbal references including the direct use of code words or phrases that indicate shame. Further, shame can also be detected when a person refers to herself or himself in relation to others in which the ‘self’ is negatively evaluated. Gottschalk & Gleser (1969) listed words and phrases that occur frequently in relation to shame, but, according to them, the list can be extended to include words and phrases with similar meanings. This scale and analysis were further developed by Retzinger (1991), who found that most code words and phrases with similar meanings can be sorted into six groups describing different qualities of shame.

Being sexually abused during childhood is taboo and shameful, and so is the feeling of shame (Scheff 1990). This author states that the feeling of shame is repressed and denied because it threatens social bonds and is mentally painful.

According to Heise et al. (2002), sexual abuse may be an under-reported public health problem because the subject is taboo. In trying to understand the underlying causes of different health problems, health professionals thus need to be more alert to the possibility of sexual abuse. To help victims to recover, it is essential to set words to the taboos. This includes talking about the abuse as well as detecting underlying processes, shame for example, that prevent recovery. As shame is a recurrent theme in the context of abuse, it is important to explore whether and how unacknowledged overt and covert shame are expressed by women who have been sexually abused in childhood.

To our knowledge, no such study has yet been conducted.

Aim of the study

The aim of the present study was to explore whether and how women sexually abused during childhood verbally express unacknowledged overt and covert shame when interviewed about their physical and mental health, relationships with family and friends and circumstances relating to the sexual abuse. Another aim was, if shame was present, to describe the quality of the shame expressed by the informants. The findings may serve as an ‘eye-opener’ that can help health professionals to generate new strategies for understanding and treating sexually abused women.


Before the study started, two of the authors (G.B.R., B.R.) personally discussed the meaning of the concept of ‘shame’ and the indicator groups with Retzinger to guarantee that there would be no linguistic or conceptual misunderstandings.

A qualitative approach with semi-structured interviews was used in collecting data to ensure that unforeseen aspects might also be revealed, as the phenomenon under study is complex and involves many factors. Data were analysed from both a qualitative approach, by identifying the verbal expressions for shame and categorizing them into different aspects of shame, and a quantitative approach, by counting the frequency of code words and phrases indicating verbal expressions of shame.

Selection of informants

Ten women were recruited as informants from three autonomous self-help groups for women based on self-reported sexual abuse during childhood.

They had all contacted the women’s shelter, the organizer of the self-help groups, and asked to be included in a group. Before being admitted to a group, a psychotherapist interviewed the women to decide whether a self-help group was appropriate at that time. Exclusion criteria were: suffering from psychoses, being suicidal or having a problem with alcohol or drugs. On the same occasion, but after admission to the group, the psychotherapist informed the women about the present study and asked them whether they wished to participate in the study before joining the group. All the women agreed to participate. The exclusion criteria were the same for the present study as for the selfhelp groups. Only Swedish-born and Swedish-speaking subjects were included. For characteristics of the informants, see Table 1.

Data collection

The interviews, which took place before the groups started, were informal and conversational in style and lasted between 1.5 and 2 h. The informants chose the place for the interview; five were interviewed in their homes and five at the women’s shelter. The interviews focused on current physical and mental health, relationships with original and present family members, relationships with other relatives and friends, childhood and the circumstances under which the sexual abuse occurred. These topics were covered in all the interviews, but the informants were also free to introduce issues that concerned them. The first author (G.B.R.) carried out two of the interviews and the second author (B.R.) conducted eight.

Data analysis

The interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed verbatim. The analysis was made in five steps. (1) The transcribed interviews were read several times in order to obtain a grasp of the whole. (2) They were thereafter qualitatively analysed for verbal expressions of shame by marking code words and phrases for shame in the text. The Content Analysis of Verbal Behaviour was used as described by Gottschalk & Gleser (1969) and Retzinger (1991). (3) The code words and phrases with similar meanings were sorted into the suitable group of the six groups suggested and developed by Retzinger (1991) that describe different qualities of shame which we in this study have called ‘indicator groups’. (4) The code words and phrases in each ‘indicator group’ were then categorized into various aspects of shame. The ‘indicator groups’ are: ‘alienated’, ‘inadequate’, ‘hurt’, ‘confused’, ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘ridiculous’. The meaning of each ‘indicator group’ is explained under the respective group in the section that reports findings; see also Table 2. (5) In the fifth step of the analysis, all the code words and phrases identified were finally counted to form an idea of the frequency of different verbal expressions for shame in the interviews and how they were distributed among the different indicator groups; see Table 3.


Table 1

Characteristics of the informants (n = 10)

Median age 41 year (range
Unmarried/living alone 5 22-57)
Divorced/living alone 4  
Cohabitant 1  
Number and age of own children 5, <18 year, 10,
Abuse by a biological father 5 >18 year
Abuse by a biological brother 1  
Abuse by a relative, uncles, step-grandfather 4  
Abuse by a stepfather/mother’s partners 1  
Abuse by a friend of the family 2  
Duration of abuse: Occasional for 3 women    
Median for 7 women 5 year (range 2-20)

Four of the women were abused by more than one abuser.


The code words, phrases, aspects of shame and the classification into the indicator groups were continuously discussed by the first and third authors. To further test the intersubjective agreement, a methodology used within phenomenography (Lepp & Ringsberg 2002; Sjostrom & Dahlgren 2002) was applied; the indicator groups, their different aspects and the quotations were presented separately to an independent co-examiner, who assigned quotations from the interviews to the ‘correct group’. Agreement was almost unanimous between the researchers and the co-examiner. The quotations presented in this study are intended to facilitate the reader’s evaluation of the validity of the findings.

Table 2

Example of how the analysis was performed

Quotations   Identified code word   Shame indicator group Aspect of shame  
‘I am not afraid of the memory as such,   Hurts the soul so badly   Hurt     Being hypersensitive
but I am afraid of the feeling I experience, because it hurts my soul so badly.’                
‘C. this is not for you, you’re different —   You are different   Ridiculous     Feeling different  
I have always felt different – I have always   Desire to be anyone-normal          
wanted, all my life, to be anyone – normal, as I have put it. . . .’                
‘Yes, I am the pariah of the family because   Pariah   Alienation     Feeling like an outsider
I left home . . . I am a hysterical woman that is Hysterical   Inadequate     Feeling unworthy  
the family’s picture of me . . . and   No longer one of us   Alienation     Feeling like an outsider
she is no longer one of us.’                
Table 3                
Number of code words and phrases identified in the individual interviews (I) sorted into either of the six ndicator groups for shame  
Indicator group I:1* I:2 I:3 I:4 I:5 I:6 I:7 I:8 I:9 I:10 Total
Alienated 1 4 4 1 4 8 4 6 20 4 56
Inadequate 1 3 4 8 7 4 6 7 1 41
Hurt 1 3 2 2 2 3 7 1 21
Confused 2 3 1 2 3     3   14
Uncomfortable 1     2   2 1   6
Ridiculous 1   1 2       1 5

*I:1, I:2, I:3, etc., Interview No. I, No. 2, No. 3, etc.

The interviews and the analysis were carried out in Swedish. The manuscript was written in English, with the exception of the quotations. Two independent bilingual translators (born in England but living in Sweden), both familiar with scientific texts, checked the manuscript. To secure the validity of the translation of the quotations, they translated all the quotations to English and re-translated them to Swedish.

Ethical considerations

Before the study started, the women were again informed verbally and in writing about the purpose of the study, that participation was voluntary, that they had the right to withdraw at any time and that data would be handled confidentially. They were also told that the study had no connection with the self-help groups other than being a tool for selecting informants. The interviewers had no relationship with the women they interviewed. There was a preparedness to provide care to the informants if the interview raised questions of such a sensitive nature that the informants needed to discuss them further. This did not occur. The study was approved by the Research Ethics Committee at the Regional Hospital, Orebro University, Sweden.


The interviews were rich in verbal code words and phrases for unacknowledged overt and covert shame(Table 3). There was a variation in the frequency of the use of the code words and phrases between the interviews, which might indicate that some of the women expressed shame more clearly than others. However, it is also possible that some women suffered from shame more than others. It is notable that it was possible to sort the most frequently used code words and phrases under the indicator groups of ‘alienated’, followed by ‘inadequate’ and ‘hurt’.


Table 4

The indicator groups and their aspects of shame

Indicator group Aspects of shame
Alienated Feeling betrayed Feeling alone Feeling like an outsider
Inadequate Feeling powerless Feeling unworthy Feeling worthless
Hurt Being hypersensitive Being stigmatized
Confused Turning off
Uncomfortable Feeling awkward Feeling frightened
Ridiculous Feeling different


Table 4 shows the different aspects of shame described in the indicator groups. To facilitate the reader’s understanding of the code words and phrases, these are marked in italics in the quotations.


Alienation is a feeling of being rejected, isolated or withdrawn in different ways (Retzinger 1991). The code words and phrases identified in the analysis were sorted into three aspects – ‘feeling betrayed’, ‘feeling alone’ and ‘feeling like an outsider’.

Feeling betrayed

The informants shared the experience that they felt betrayed or deserted by persons they should have been able to trust, such as parents, grandparents, siblings, neighbours, teachers and social workers. Some of these persons knew that the child, i.e. the informant, was being abused, but did not intervene in order to stop it. One woman described how her mother had tried to stop the abuse once, but, when she failed, did not try again.

She (my mother) never defended me against my father . . . she did once, she told me a month or so ago when she was really drunk that. . . . I was perhaps two years old, she had thrown my father out for hitting me too much, but after a week she took him back and everything continued, so she never defended me and it’s only recently that I have started to understand this and I have. . . . And it’s difficult because, on the one hand, I love my mother and, on the other, I hate her. . . .

Feeling alone

Statements about loneliness, a feeling of not being understood or being looked upon as estranged from others, were common in the interviews. The informants described how they strongly felt that it is still taboo to talk about sexual abuse. They thus prefer to remain silent rather than to take the risk of being misunderstood and being blamed for the abuse. One informant stated that she did not expect understanding from anyone else.

In purely logical terms, I know that other people are abused, but it feels as though you are alone, so I won’t get any understanding   so there has been a lot of taboo and oh, how awful and how dreadful and the shame. . . .

The informants said that they wanted people around them to look upon them as happy, nice, capable people. However, when that image did not match reality, they withdrew or concealed the true picture of themselves. They explained that they did this in order to avoid further painful feelings such as being rejected or disliked.

. . . when I’m ill, I isolate myself . . . I’m not at all the kind of person who wants someone near me when I’m ill, because I’m not nice then. So I don’t want to subject people to that when I don’t feel good   I don’t want them to regard me as that person because that person isn’t me, how shall I put it? . . . I think it’s a burden and it takes over, so to speak. Some kind of guilt or whatever you want to call it. I can’t help being ill.

Feeling like an outsider

Descriptions were given of feeling as though they were not part of the community, either in the family or in society.

One informant who, after years of abuse, had moved away from home, described her feelings of not belonging, of being a ‘pariah’.

. . . . Yes I’m the pariah of the family, because I left home, I’m in therapy, I visit the shelter for women and I am on medication, yes I’m an hysterical woman, that’s the family’s picture of me . . . and she is no longer one of us, but, as long as I’m not one of them, I’m glad.

The informants explained that the abuse was often kept secret from the family even after disclosure of it to other people. They said that there is a greater risk of not being believed, of being rejected, losing family and friends and thereby being excluded from both families and friendships by telling people with whom they have a close relationship. But I did tell many other people before them, at school, for example . . . because I had no relationship with them, no close relationship          but then, when I wanted to tell people close to me – my friends, it took a year of therapy before I dared to do that . . . because they were too close to me. However, the people who were further away . . . that wasn’t a problem. . . . Because I could shut myself off . . . but when you came closer, that was difficult. . . .


Feeling inadequate means perceiving that one does not live up to one’s own or other people’s expectations of what one ought to be and/or that one is unable to cope with situations in a way that is expected. These feelings of inadequacy are easily triggered by attitudes or statements of others or by one’s own ideas about what other people think, regardless of the context (Retzinger 1991).

Three aspects were found in the analysis of the code words and phrases, namely, ‘feeling powerless’, ‘feeling unworthy’ and ‘feeling worthless’.

Feeling powerless

The informants said that, in their communication with other people, they often felt powerless. They described a hypersensitivity that caused rapid changes in perceptions, mostly negative, of themselves.

It takes so little to throw me completely . . . just a word can make me feel like the scum of the earth . . . like dirt on someone’s sole.

Another woman described her current feelings of powerlessness in her relationship with her father, who was also her abuser:

. . . and, yes, sometime he is so sadistic that . . . oh . . . he knows exactly what to say to make me fall to pieces completely, to destroy my self-esteem completely.

The same woman described how she rapidly regresses when she meets her father face to face.

It’s different, if I’m at home, face to face, I’m a little four-year-old girl again, I can’t say anything, I can’t even say no, when he still starts touching me, but, if I’m talking on the phone, I say anything, because I don’t have to see him, we are more equal and I can be really unkind to him, but the moment I see him I am still a frightened little four-year-old girl.

Other informants also described how they quickly felt powerless or shrank from being a grown-up woman to becoming a child when standing face to face with their earlier abusers. They also described similar feelings in other situations when they perceived a person as being superior.

Feeling unworthy

The informants gave many descriptions of their feelings of being unworthy, for example, being unworthy as a daughter and wife, not worthy of being loved, being dirty and disgusting. One informant expressed her feelings when she understood what had happened, several years after the assault, like this:

. . . . I could stand and stare at myself in the mirror and just want to be sick, I couldn’t make sense of it, I couldn’t understand that it was me it had happened to. And it was so bloody disgusting that I felt as though I was going to be sick . . . I stood in a bathroom and looked at myself in a mirror and tried to understand that it was me, it was so revolting, I think it ended with me sort of, I don’t know if I just switched off. I felt like the filthiest, most disgusting child in the world. It was really disgust, disgust beyond description.

Even having a disease can produce a feeling of being unworthy and of not ‘living up to standards’. In the following quotation, the shame is acknowledged and overt.

I want them to see me as a happy, nice person . . . I am a little ashamed then.

It’s as though this isn’t me. I don’t want to be like this, I have difficulty accepting the illness.

When shame is constantly present and unacknowledged, it can play an active role in life and influence many different situations. Even the present interview situation evoked feelings of shame in one woman. She explained how small and exposed she felt.

. . . . Yes, I feel as though, yes, I feel little in some way, I feel little in relation to you – sitting here and asking these questions. . . . With your approach. . . . and your professional attitude. But this is nothing strange for me. I suddenly feel how little I am.

Feeling worthless

Feelings of being worthless were described frequently in the interviews. The informants described themselves as failures, based upon how the self was perceived in the light of what they thought other people thought about them. One informant expressed it in the following way when she talked about her mother’s and siblings’ views of her.

I don’t know, it’s more a feeling that I perhaps think that they look down on me, they definitely think I’m a social welfare case and that I’m a total failure, now that both of them are in a relationship and have jobs and everything and I look pretty pathetic in comparison to them. Another woman said:

There never was anyone, neither my mother nor my father, who was accepting and supportive towards me. It’s been a bit like whatever you do is no good. That’s what I have felt a lot.


The indicator group ‘hurt’ is described with code words such as offended, wounded, sensitive and defeated (Retz- inger 1991). It is described by two aspects: ‘being hypersensitive’ and ‘being stigmatised’. The informants talked about a sensitivity that made them feel hurt in relationships with others and how it affects ongoing relationships in a negative way. It also sometimes prevents new relationships from being established.

Being hypersensitive

Being hypersensitive and often feeling offended were frequently described in the interviews. These feelings were often based on presumptions about the attitudes and thoughts of others. When it came to coping with the feeling of being offended and the mental pain that accompanies this feeling, a strategy that was mentioned by several was to see everything in black and white. By doing this, the informants gave themselves a chance to draw back from something that might be distressing. One informant indicated that this could be an explanation for why relationships were broken.

. . . . I have been really bad at dealing with conflict, I see many things in black and white . . . I have had female friends and I have felt close to them and then perhaps something has happened and it has affected me and I have brought things to a head, I thought we were friends and yet can question the entire relationship.

Another woman described the difficulty she has in forgiving, which also caused trouble in her relationships.

I knew that I was right, but I couldn’t, it gets like that, very cruel in some way. I can’t forgive people when I should, I find it very difficult, when I feel someone has done me wrong.

The informants talked about the difficulty they had in resolving misunderstandings or their endeavours to repair a disrupted relationship in terms of being afraid of being hurt again.

I don’t want to put myself in that position (being trampled on) again, because it hurts so much. I suppose that’s what it’s all about.

Another woman put it like this:

I’m not afraid of the memory as such, but I am afraid of the feeling I experience, because it hurts so much in my soul, so to speak.

Being stigmatized

Stigmatization is characterized by an activation of old mental wounds that create a feeling of being singled out as different or a feeling of being exposed in a negative way, of not being understood and respected.

It also involves the consistent devaluation of the individual person (Retzinger 1991).

One of the informants described situations in which she had told boyfriends about the abuse and felt bad about it afterwards:

I have told a few of the men I have had relationships with, but I don’t think telling them has been a positive experience, definitely not. I can feel that they have treated me less well afterwards, with less respect and less empathy. In some way, I have been ‘objectified’.

The following woman describes how she feels stigmatized, when she feels that she has been placed in a group that is not trustworthy, namely, women who talk about the abuse they have suffered.

She knows someone who has been abused and what she said then made me not, she said ‘I don’t believe everything she says’ . . . I didn’t really understand what she said. Then I became so incredibly angry, inside, you understand. Furious at her, I didn’t want, you feel that the atmosphere has changed. I just didn’t want to be there at all. And it’s very difficult to handle when you like someone so much and feel such anger.


This indicator group is described by code words and phrases that have to do with feelings of emptiness, being stunned, losing control in a way that makes you dazed and aloof (Retzinger 1991). The code words sorted into this indicator group are categorized under one aspect, namely, ‘turning off’.

Turning off

Several of the women described their feelings during and in relation to the abuse as though they turned them off.

. . . . I can remember a feeling of disgust, really, and at the same time a kind of paralysis      it was as though it happened outside everything else.

One woman described her longing to feel whole as follows:

I would like to be more whole, because I am not whole. That applies when it comes to sexual things and conflict and so on . . . I would like to be as whole as possible again and I have a kind of black hole inside me.


Being restless, tense, uneasy, anxious and jumpy are code words in this indicator group (Retzinger 1991). The feelings are described from two aspects: ‘feeling awkward’ and ‘feeling frightened’. The code words and phrases in this indicator group were not so frequently mentioned in the interviews.

Feeling awkward

The informants said that they often feel awkward in different social settings and that it is frequently experienced as bodily sensations. One informant said that, when she was once going to introduce herself in a group, she reacted as follows:

I felt how the anxiety started to crawl, so that I was suddenly, completely unexpectedly, unable to breathe and I thought ‘Come on, pull yourself together’ . . . I don’t understand why I experienced a panic reaction of that kind. So . . . finally I felt that, if I had opened my mouth or if someone had turned towards me, I wouldn’t have been able to speak. It felt as though the whole of my face would fall to pieces. It was absolutely dreadful. . . .

She resolved the situation by leaving the room for a while.

Feeling frightened

The informants explained that often, as children, they had been frightened of different things such as darkness or noises. They said that, as adults, they are still scared of the same things but also become frightened in social settings when people approach them too quickly. One informant talked about her father who physically abused her and her siblings on a daily basis. He also attacked the neighbour’s children when they had assaulted his children. The following quotation reflects her fear but also her thoughts about how shame is evident in two generations:

But I suppose it was his honour, I don’t know. You always had to be ashamed of him, wherever you went, ashamed and feel sympathy for other people and yet walk around being terrified.


The code words in this indicator group are collected in one aspect: ‘feeling different’. Examples of code words are funny, silly, odd and different (Retzinger 1991).

Feeling different

The informants described feelings of being different. These feelings made them believe that anyone could see, on the outside, that they had been sexually abused. One woman put into words how she tells herself that she is different, how it has limited her choices in life and how she longs to be normal:

C, this has nothing to do with you, you’re different – I have always felt different – I have always wanted, all my life, to be anyone – normal, as I have put it. . . .


Our data clearly show that the women in this study verbally expressed unacknowledged overt and covert shame. Code words and phrases were identified and it was possible to describe different aspects and qualities of the affect of shame.

The study further shows that the affect of shame is present and has influenced the lives of the informants in this study. Not only is their mental health negatively affected but, above all, their relationships to both themselves and others. They had all been sexually abused during childhood. A child who has been exposed to sexual victimization, maltreatment or lack of proper care receives continuous stimuli for the affect of shame, which exerts a considerable influence on the self-image of the child (Finkelhor & Brown 1985; Lewis 1987). This is evident in this study when the women describe themselves as dirty, scum, different, etc. Other authors (Herman 1992; Stone 1992; Bass & Davis 1994; Feiring et al. 1996) have also found that shame is regarded as a perpetual consequence in women who have been sexually victimized.

In the indicator group of ‘alienation’, the informants expressed feelings of alienation in terms of feeling betrayed, feeling alone and feeling like an outsider.

Finkelhor & Brown (1985) state that being manipulated, treated without respect and misused by an important person on whom you are dependent leads to an experience of betrayal. This might lead to depression over the loss of love and destroy a sense of basic trust and feeling of being loved (Bowlby 1988). Both depression and loss of love are connected to the affect of shame (Lewis 1987). The informants expressed how they have felt betrayed and had lacked the care of adults. Bowlby (1995) stresses that the self cannot develop in a positive way when the caregiver is insufficiently mature and the child has to meet the needs of the adult, which is evident in this study and in the case of sexual abuse. Some of the informants described how they had a wish to isolate themselves and reduce contact with others. A few had even tried to commit suicide. According to Nathanson (1994), withdrawal is one of the coping strategies most used in the context of shame.

In the indicator group of ‘inadequate’, the informants described their feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness, worthlessness and unworthiness, which are all examples of a negative way of looking upon the self and are significant signs of shame (Retzinger 1991). It may also be related to, as Bowlby (1995) pointed out, the self not having been able to develop in a positive way and that shame plays an active part in forming the self-image (Lewis 1987).

Both hypersensitivity and vulnerability to words and actions from others and a feeling of being defeated were described by the informants in the indicator group ‘hurt’. These feelings may originate from the abuse, but they may also indicate that shame per se awakes feelings of shame. This way of reacting had caused broken relationships and difficulty in resolving conflicts and had prevented the informants from establishing new relationships. Most of the informants did not have a close relationship with a partner (see Table 1). Both Retzinger (1991) and Nathanson (1994) write that covert shame has a strong influence on relationships and, when unacknowledged, can pose a threat to relationships. Retzinger (1991) further says that shame gives rise to a hypersensitivity to stimuli for shame, such as misconceptions about what others say or think about one, leading to a very negative spiral.

Another aspect of the indicator group ‘hurt’ that the informants described was stigmatization. They said that certain situations activated old wounds, which in turn activated the affect of shame. Finkelhor & Brown (1985) state that stigmatization is directly connected with shame. The process of stigmatization can start even if the person is not personally involved, for example, as in this study, when someone expresses a general view of not believing a story about abuse.

The women described in the indicator group ‘confused’, how they turned off during the abuse. It can be seen as a successful coping strategy in a very stressful situation. However, if this strategy remains and is used in other situations, it may cause feelings of emptiness, of not being normal or of not being a whole person. It could also cause a person to repress memories of the abuse, which several of the informants had done.

The informants described in the indicator group ‘uncomfortable’ that they felt awkward and frightened. The same feelings have been described by subjects suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a state in which shame plays an important role (Stone 1992).

The indicator group ‘ridiculous’ is described by one aspect, ‘feeling different’. Examples of code words are a feeling of being exposed and of being looked at with negative eyes. Lazare (1987) described this to be one of the cognitive aspects of shame. The informants explained that a reason for joining a self-help group was the feeling of experiencing oneself as curious, weird, bizarre or different. In joining a group their wish was to find out what other abused women are like, to share experiences and to be reflected.

World Health Organization establishes in its World Report on Violence and Health (Krug et al. 2002) that sexual violence has significant health consequences, such as suicide, PTSD and other mental illnesses. Heise et al. (2002) states that asking patients about violence and abuse is the first step towards helping the victims of gender-based violence. This is often not done, owing to help providers being unaware, indifferent or judgmental. Moreover, Lewis (1971) pointed out that shame is seldom dealt with during therapy. Acknowledging shame in therapy is one means for recovery and gives power and effectiveness to most therapeutic approaches (Stone 1992). The informants of this study expressed that it had been of therapeutic value for them to participate in the study, and they felt it important to tell about their experiences in order to increase knowledge about sexual abuse.

Strengths and weaknesses of the study

In order to detect whether and how shame can appear in abused women’s lives, bearing in mind that both abuse and shame are taboo, we found a mainly qualitative approach emanating from the women’s own life-world (Merleau- Ponty 1995/1945) most appropriate in collecting and analysing data. The informants were strategically selected in the sense that they had all independently contacted the women’s shelter to join a self-help group. We believe that it would have been difficult to reach women with the same experiences in any other way. As in the case of qualitative studies and owing to the strategic selection of the informants, the results cannot be generalized to a larger population. However, there is no reason to doubt that women in similar circumstances have experiences similar to those of the informants in this study. The findings may serve as an ‘eye-opener’ that can help to generate new strategies for ways to understand and treat sexually abused women. Interpretations are part of qualitative analysis and, in order to obtain trustworthiness, the results have been validated both with regard to linguistic aspects and contents of the shame aspects and with regard to indicator groups, as described in the Methods section.

Conclusions and implications

Sexual violence is a global violation of human rights and a public health problem and is therefore an important issue. It is a challenge to health professionals to dare to talk about sexual abuse and to recognize the hidden expressions of shame in treatment situations when listening to patients’ stories.

In this study, we have shown that the affect of shame, unacknowledged, overt and covert, can be present and expressed verbally in various guises. We hope that our study provides a way to understand some of the reactions that follow sexual abuse by verbally unmasking shame in the stories of sexually abused women.

In future research, it would be interesting to interview the women who participated in this study to find out whether their feelings of shame have been alleviated by participating in self-help groups where they have met and shared their experiences with other abused women.