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Published in:  J.Marques-Teixeira & Samuel Antunes (eds) Client-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapy.  Linda a Velha, Portugal: Vale and Vale (2000), pp. 33-54.


Empathising with Shame and Guilt





Abstract.  Accurate empathy requires among other things a clear understanding of the concepts in terms of which the empathic response is framed.  In this paper I explore the ‘conceptual geography’ of shame and guilt with the aim of facilitating empathy with these states.


Discussion of shame and guilt requires first some elucidation of the concept of emotion in general.  I suggest that emotion is not to be construed on the model of either bodily sensations or of cognitive belief, although both these things may often be involved.  To feel an emotion, is, rather, a matter of feeling bad or good at the idea of something being so.  Correspondingly, empathising with emotion involves the double aspect of ‘tuning in’ to the good or bad feelings, and appreciating the idea to which these feelings are directed.


With this background I reflect on what is involved in shame and guilt.  Guilt has received more attention in psychotherapy than shame, but there has been a recent surge of interest in shame, especially in psychoanalytic writings.  I suggest that client-centred therapy should have an equally strong interest in the notion of shame, since arguably it is shame, rather than guilt that is involved in the setting up of the ‘conditions of worth’ which figure so prominently in client-centred theory.


Among the issues I discuss are the differences between shame and guilt, the reasons for the comparative neglect of shame in therapy, the notion of ‘regard’ (‘being looked at’) and ‘positive regard’ in connection with shame, the question of the ‘appropriateness’ and ‘usefulness’ of these emotions, and some implications for client-centred practice.




This paper originated with my interest in guilt and our attitudes towards it, especially in circumstances where the guilt seems irrational or inappropriate.  Several years ago I had a client who had survived a wartime incident in which his ship had been torpedoed, and all his companions had died.  Struggling in the water himself, he had been unable to help them, and watched them drown.  In no way was he responsible for their deaths, yet the only way he could characterise his feelings was in terms of guilt.  Cases like this are often categorised as ‘survivor guilt’, but similar sorts of feelings are common enough with less dramatic episodes.  A student client might say, “I feel so guilty when I get better grades than my friend.  She works so much harder than me.  But it’s not my fault.  I shouldn’t feel guilty, should I?  I’m so silly.”  The commonplace nature of such feelings may make us hesitate to regard them as unreasonable or inappropriate.  Wouldn’t I feel like that if I were the student, or the sole survivor?  I feel I can empathise with these emotions, but it is still a bit odd:  the guilt feelings are not really appropriate, are they? How can someone feel guilty when they have not only done nothing wrong, but have not really done anything at all?

These were the questions I started with, but they lead me, through thinking and reading around the notion of guilt, to an encounter with another emotion:  that of shame.  Shame is an emotion which, I came to see, can be easily confused with guilt.  If we look up SHAME in the PsycLit CD-ROM database we encounter an intriguing entry which says that the term was not introduced until 1994, and that for earlier references the searcher could use GUILT to access SHAME.  This advice is probably more profound than the database complier intended:  Erikson (1963:252), one of the few earlier writers on shame, remarked: “Shame is an emotion insufficiently studied, because in our civilisation it is so clearly and easily absorbed by guilt”.  However, there has been a growing interest in the phenomenon of shame in the last ten years or so[1].  Looking through this literature, together with some reflection on my own and my clients’ experiences, has convinced me that shame is an enormously powerful factor in our emotional lives; it can be deeply destructive but also illuminating and cleansing.


I will be exploring several related areas in this paper.  First I look at the nature of emotion in general, in order to get a perspective on the particular emotions of guilt and shame.  Then I consider various ways in which the emotions in general can be ‘inappropriate’.  I initially use the emotion of fear as a fairly straightforward example to draw out the complexity of the issues involved.  Then I consider the ways in which guilt can be inappropriate.  Before moving on to shame I say something about the consequences of misidentifying one emotion for another, since guilt and shame are easily confused.  My discussion of the appropriateness of shame leads into reflection on how deeply distressing shame can be – the depths of shame, and their relation to early childhood experience.  I reflect also on how shame has a prominent though only implicitly recognised role in client-centred theory.  I then draw out the implications of the discussion for empathy:  empathising effectively with an emotion requires some appreciation of what emotions are.  Finally I return to my initial puzzlement over ‘survivor guilt’ in the hope that my discussion will throw some light on this.  However, I suspect that any value this paper may have lies more in what we encounter on the journey than in whether we reach any particular destination.


The nature of emotion


Consider, just as an example, the emotion of fear.  My feeling fear on a particular occasion may involve having bodily sensations of a familiar sort:  as the growling dog comes towards me I feel tension in my limbs, a tight feeling in my chest, and so on.  But these sensations do not always accompany fear; I may have different sensations when I am afraid of losing my job, for example.  And if I am observant of my bodily sensations I may note that the tightness sensations are sometimes there when I feel angry rather than afraid.  So while there are bodily sensations which are fairly characteristic of some emotions, having an emotion is not simply a matter of having certain bodily sensations.  The bodily sensations do not determine which emotion it is that I am feeling: if you have any doubts about this consider for example which bodily sensations distinguish jealousy from envy, or shame from embarrassment.  (Also:  we often know what emotion another person is experiencing without knowing what their bodily sensations are.  Fred is clearly feeling embarrassed at having spilled his coffee, but I really don’t know what bodily sensations he is experiencing).


Given that having an emotion is not simply a matter of having certain bodily sensations, we need a different account of what emotions are.  One popular view amongst philosophers and cognitive psychologists is that emotions are more like beliefs than sensations.  On this view, to say that I am afraid of the growling dog is to say that I believe this dog’s behaviour is a threat to me.  To be afraid, that is, would be to believe that danger looms; to be jealous would be to believe that someone else has been preferred to me; to be proud of an act would be to believe that this act was really good, and that I did it or was at least in some way involved in it.


Yet this account of the emotions seems clearly too intellectual.  To be afraid of the dog does not necessarily involve any belief that the dog is a threat.  I may have ‘an irrational fear of dogs’, a ‘dog phobia’.  I genuinely believe that this dog is no threat to me, but I still feel that it is.  ‘Feeling that it is’ may involve the bodily sensations typical of fear, but by themselves they are not enough to make it a case of fear, rather than of some other emotion, such as hate.  What is needed is more than sensations but less than belief.  It is perhaps best expressed by saying that in feeling afraid of the dog I have a feeling of discomfort at, or a feeling of unease about, the idea of a dog attacking me.  I may be quite certain in my mind that it will not attack me, for it is old and crippled and has no teeth; yet somehow I don’t feel sure about it; there is an uneasy feeling, bound up perhaps with images of being attacked and bitten.  I can’t rid myself of the idea of being attacked, and it is that idea which is the focus of my discomfort.


I think it likely that in anything that can properly be called an emotion there is a sense of feeling good/bad, or comfort/discomfort, at the idea of something being so.  Roughly worked out examples would be:


Envy: feeling bad at the idea that someone has something that I would like to have.

Jealousy: feeling bad at the idea that someone has preferred someone else to me.

Hope: feeling good at the idea that something desirable might happen.

Pleasurable anticipation: feeling good at the idea that something desirable will happen.

Dread: feeling bad at the idea that something inevitable will happen.

Embarrassment:  feeling bad at the idea of doing something socially inappropriate.

Love (one sort): feeling good at the idea of just being with someone.

Love (another sort): feeling good at the idea of someone’s happiness.


If we went through these examples and others I think we would see that with any emotion there is (1) a feeling aspect which may manifest in pleasant or unpleasant bodily sensations, and (2) an idea which is brought to mind, or kept in mind, by the feelings.  In feeling proud of what I have done, for example, there may be a comfortable, settled sort of bodily feeling which centres around the idea that something good has been done, and that I was the one who did it.  For it to be a case of pride, the feeling-good aspect must be there as well as the idea: it is possible simply to be aware that one has done a good deed without feeling proud of it; perhaps one feels it was the least one could do in the circumstances, so that there is no particular emotion involved. 


The ideas involved in an emotion may be simple or complex. The familiar, named, emotions such as pride and fear are far from being all the emotions there are.  I find it helpful to think of the ideas around which the feelings centre as stories.  Gendlin (1984) remarks that ‘emotions come in stories’; I am suggesting rather that stories come in the emotions: in fear the story is one of attack; in envy it involves two people and a thing which one has had and the other does not have; in jealousy we have a story about three people, one of whom shows a preference for the second over the third, and so on.  But these are just the simplest story outlines; the jealousy – if that is what it is – which Anna Karenin’s husband feels in connection with Vronsky is not the same emotion as the jealousy which Dolly feels in connection with her husband’s affair with the governess.  This is because Karenin’s marriage, and the way in which it is perturbed by Anna’s affair is different from Dolly’s marriage and the way it is perturbed.  The emotions here are different, but there are no words that catch the difference.  We have to listen to the stories[2].  On the other hand language has an enormous capacity to catch the central patterns of emotion.  We often know for sure what the emotion is without being able to explain why.  And where we don’t quite know what we are feeling it may be a great relief to have someone else find the right word – ‘Yes, that’s it, I was feeling resesntful’.


Appropriate and inappropriate emotions


Emotions, then, involve not just pleasant and unpleasant feelings, but the ideas or stories that are brought to mind, or held in mind, by these feelings.  Such ideas or stories do not always involve beliefs, but often they do.  So, quite often, being afraid of a dog involves unpleasant feelings centring around the belief that this dog is a threat to me.  Now if the dog is in fact no threat because it is old, crippled and toothless, then there is an obvious way in which my fear is inappropriate:  the belief around which my fear centres is a false belief.  Normally, once I realise that the dog is no threat my fear subsides.  Through a change in belief there comes a change in emotion.  In the same way, if I feel proud that my marrow has won first prize in the local garden show, this emotion is likely to subside if I am told (and believe) that a mistake has been made and that the marrow in question was not, alas, mine.


However, as we have seen, the ‘idea’ around which an emotion centres may not be as strong as believing something.  I may genuinely believe the dog is no threat to me, since after all it is old and toothless, but I still feel afraid.  (Or: I know it wasn’t my marrow that won, but I keep imagining it being mine and then I get that glow of pride again).  My feelings here don’t or won’t come into line with my beliefs.  In the dog example, in spite of what I believe, ideas and images of being attacked come into my mind in connection with this dog; and it is these ideas, around which my unpleasant feelings circle, which make the emotion a case of fear.  Is this fear ‘inappropriate’?  Well, it depends what sort of inappropriateness we have in mind.  If I have in the past been viciously attacked by similar-looking dogs it seems quite natural, or understandable, that I should feel afraid of this one.  Having inspected the dog more closely it would be inappropriate for me to believe it to be a threat, but I don’t believe this.  In another way, of course, my feelings are inappropriate:  they centre around an idea which it would be inappropriate (or rationally unjustified) to believe.


There is yet a third kind of case:  In spite of all the appearances this dog may turn out to be a threat after all.  It has no teeth, but it’s jaws are very hard and strong, and quite unexpectedly it has summoned up considerable energy for an attack!  So although on all the evidence it was unjustifiable to be afraid of it, my feelings were appropriate to the actual situation.  Perhaps this was just chance, or perhaps – being very tuned-in to dogs these days – I had picked up cues which I had not consciously registered.  The other way of expressing this case would be to say that here my feeling of trust turns out to be inappropriate.  It is not that my feelings are out of step with my beliefs, for I believe and trust that the situation is safe.  Nor is it that my beliefs are irrational; they just happen to be wrong.


So there are at least three kinds of emotional inappropriateness to be kept in mind:

(1)               where the inappropriateness comes from a mistaken belief;

(2)               where it comes from the ideas involved in the emotion not fitting one’s rational beliefs;

(3)               where it comes from the ideas involved in the emotion not fitting the current situation, even though they do fit one’s rational beliefs.


Let me just mention one more way in which an emotion may be inappropriate, though it is not of central importance to the discussion.  Sometimes it is inappropriate to be angry with someone in the sense that this would be detrimental either to oneself or to the other people involved.  My boss has treated me unfairly, and anger is therefore in one sense appropriate, but I know that if I get angry then it will make things worse for me and my colleagues.  Here it might be better to say that my anger is appropriate, but not helpful.  The converse case would be, for example, where a teacher gets very angry with a child as an effective means of controlling the class, but the anger is not appropriate to what the child has done.  I mention these cases just to get them out of the way;  we might say, I think, that they are not so much cases of the appropriateness of emotion as of the appropriateness of expressing an emotion.    


It is not my concern here to try to lay out all the possible ways in which emotions can be inappropriate;  rather, I just want to give some indication of the kind of subtleties and complexities which are likely to be found when we begin to look at emotions such as guilt and shame.  Many of the issues involved are issues to do with emotions in general, but others will be specific to the particular emotion we are looking at.


Appropriate and inappropriate guilt


It is worth noting that the original use of the term ‘guilt’ is not as an emotion word at all.  The fundamental idea is that a person is guilty if they have done something wrong.  If I have not kept a promise, yet I was able to, and there are no extenuating circumstances, then I am guilty of breaking my promise.  It is not a matter of what I feel but of the fact I have done something wrong.  The emotion of guilt is linked with such situations in the way that all emotions are linked with situations.  Just as fear is a matter of feeling bad at the idea that danger looms, so guilt (as an emotion) is a matter of feeling bad at the idea that I have done something wrong.  But guilt is not the only emotion that fits this general analysis;  there are also, for example, regret and remorse.  Of these, regret seems the most passive emotion.  We can regret things without having any thought that we are responsible;  for example I may regret the fact that I am getting older.  With regret there is acceptance of the situation;  I may regret having to move to another part of the country, while accepting that this is the best thing to do.  With remorse there is never acceptance of the situation.  With remorse I feel the need to make amends, to do something to put things right.  This factor is often present in guilt also, but what seems to pick guilt out from related emotions is that in guilt the ‘feeling bad’ is associated with the threat of retribution.  There is an element of fear in guilt which is not present in regret or remorse.  I think this is because the context of guilt is a context of shared expectations or rules.  In belonging to a community at all we share expectations about what is acceptable behaviour, so that if we do something which, without good reason, goes against those expectations, we may anticipate resentment and the expression of resentment.  Whether or not that expression of resentment is formalised as punishment it is undoubtedly something that is painful to us, and it is that which we fear when we break the rules.  So I would suggest as a rough analysis of emotional guilt; feeling bad at the idea that one has done something that renders one liable to justified resentment or punishment.


This feeling is fully appropriate where we correctly believe that we have rendered ourselves liable to justified resentment or punishment, but there are various kinds of inappropriate guilt-feelings.  First, there are several sorts of case where the guilt-feelings centre round a belief, but the belief is mistaken.


For example:  I feel guilty because I think I really hurt you by that remark.  Then I discover that you were not hurt at all, and my feeling of guilt for having hurt you evaporates.  If I intended to hurt you I may still feel guilty about that, but normally I will not continue to feel guilty about hurting you if I know that I have not actually done so.  In this sort of case I think I have done something which could be resented, but to my relief I find that I have not done what I thought I’d done.


Another sort if case is this:  where I discover not that I didn’t do what I thought I’d done, but that what I clearly did wasn’t wrong.  For example, I feel guilty about clapping at the end of a musical performance in a church, because it suddenly occurs to me that this might offend church-going people.  However, I discover later that the organisers had encouraged people to applaud, and that they are annoyed at the fact that so few people did.  I did something that I believed was wrong (open to being reasonably resented), but now realise that it was not wrong at all.


Another kind of inappropriateness arises in certain cases where the ‘idea’ involved in the guilt-feelings is not as strong as a belief;  it is merely an idea.  As with other emotions, it is too strong to say that guilt-feelings always involve the discomfort of believing we have done something wrong;  they require only discomfort at the idea that we have done something wrong.  One kind of example is this:  I have been brought up to believe that regular church-going is a good thing, and though I no longer place any value on this practice, I still feel a bit guilty as I walk past the church on Sundays, on my way to the pub.  Here I do not feel bad out of any belief that it is wrong to miss church;  but I still feel uneasy at the idea that it is wrong.  My guilt-feelings do not square with my beliefs, and so are in that sense ‘inappropriate’, but they are natural enough, given my background.  Nevertheless, I would presumably do well to try and eradicate these feelings.  They are a relic from the past and it is hard to see that they serve any function unless, in spite of what I say, I do have some residual belief that church-going is of value.  Looking at this from a slightly different angle, what is happening here is that the community with which I identify has changed.  I do not expect resentment for my behaviour on the part of my friends in the pub, and so in connection with them I have no guilt-feelings.  But I can’t help being affected by the fact I used to belong to a community of church-goers who would have resented my behaviour – ‘We are not the sort of people who do that sort of thing’.  So while I don’t believe that anyone now is going to resent what I do, I am still haunted by the idea of such resentment.  I don’t believe I am doing anything wrong, but I still feel guilty.


Another kind of example is:  Suppose that while driving carefully I unavoidably knock over a child who runs out into the road.  It is not my fault, but I feel guilty.  Why?  Well, I have done something wrong, that is, killed a child.  I didn’t intend to, I am not to be held responsible, but nevertheless I can’t rid myself of the idea that in some way I am responsible.  I find myself thinking, ‘If only I had left earlier, as I’d originally intended’, and so on.  As in the previous example we might say here that the feelings are natural enough, that they are what one would expect;  but in this case it is not quite so obvious that one would wish to eradicate them.  It is as if one would hardly be human if one did not have some guilt-feelings here.  Perhaps the reason for this is that in choosing to drive a car at all I know that I am risking some such an incident as this, so that as a participant in a car-driving community I do have some indirect responsibility.  (I will consider later a different explanation of what is going on this case).


Misidentifying emotions


Having said something about guilt and guilt-feelings, I want now to move on to a consideration of shame, but since one of my themes is that of how shame can easily be confused with guilt, it may be useful to say something generally about the misidentification of emotions.  Clearly we can misidentify what emotion another person is experiencing (these tears were tears of joy, not of sadness);  but more interestingly we can be mistaken about our own emotions, and this is a matter of some therapeutic importance.


Consider the following example.  Bruno feels jealous because his partner Mathilda is seeing a lot of Fritz these days.  When Bruno and Mathilda talk about the situation they find that they agree intellectually that people often need more than one close relationship in their lives.  In the light of this Bruno berates himself for his irrational jealousy, and Mathilda and Fritz agonise over whether they are acting out of intellectual view of the situation which does not do justice to the emotional facts.  Bruno now talks things over with a counsellor.  He is feeling really bad:  jealous, but also ashamed of his jealousy.  The counsellor encourages him to stay with the bad feelings and see what thoughts and images arise in connection with them.  What emerges is that he wouldn’t mind Mathilda seeing so much of Fritz if he (Bruno) had a similar relationship with someone else.  The counsellor remarks that the feeling here looks more like envy than jealousy, and Bruno feels a sense of release at this.  Yes, he envies Mathilda her relationship with Fritz.  That is what it is.  Having recognised this, he realises that his engagement with the situation has been confused.  Instead of wanting to stop Mathilda having her life and feeling ashamed of being the sort of person who wants this, he sees that he needs to expand his own life.  The emotion of envy has a function here as a stimulus to getting on with his own life;  but while it is misidentified as jealousy it cannot fulfil that function.


Here is another example3.  Emma comes to her adviser in connection with her academic work and it emerges that she is feeling over-pressured in her life.  She is thinking of easing this feeling of pressure by ending a relationship which has been taking a lot of her time and energy.  But it is the end of term, and the adviser feels that it is a bit odd to end the relationship now, just when she could reasonably devote more time to it.  She remarks upon this to Emma, who agrees that it does seem a strange time to do it;  nevertheless she really does feel afraid of the pressure which the relationship brings.  She is afraid of letting it continue.  The adviser suggests that Emma stays with this uncomfortable pressured feeling a bit, and encourages her to talk a little abut the ideas and thoughts that come to mind in connection with it.  It emerges that there have been several little incidents recently in which Emma felt rather insecure in the relationship, moments when she felt jealous, though quite irrationally.  She comes to acknowledge that the discomfort she feels involves anxiety about the man ending the relationship, leading to the feeling that she would rather do it first.  So while she was correct in identifying her feeling as some sort of anxiety, she has misidentified the nature of the anxiety.  It is the sort of anxiety that is involved in jealousy and fear of rejection, rather than the sort that is involved in not having enough time.  Having realised this, Emma goes off and talks with her boyfriend about the incidents which gave rise to the jealousy, and they work out ways in which similar misunderstandings can be avoided in future.  As a result the emotion which she had misidentified as ‘feeling pressured’ dissipates, and the relationship improves.


As in Bruno’s case misidentifying the emotion blocks the action to which the emotion naturally would move the person.  So long as Emma identifies her emotion as ‘feeling pressured’ she will make all the wrong moves in trying to alleviate her distress;  she will probably end the relationship, yet the ending of the relationship is not what she wants.


Shame and guilt


In discussing guilt I suggested that guilt-feelings are a matter of feeling bad at the idea of having done something which renders one liable to retribution.  The most obvious sort of retribution is punishment, but there is another sort of retribution which involves something more in the nature of withdrawal.  The difference is that between ‘Since you have done that, I will hit you’ and ‘Since you are that sort of person, I will go away’.  The corresponding fears are different; in one case there is the fear of pain or harm;  in the other there is the fear of abandonment, or being cast out.  This difference, I believe, gives rise to the distinct emotions of guilt and shame.  In guilt we are afraid of anger, harm, active punishment.  We have done something which is liable to draw this down upon us.  There are various ways of coping with the crisis:  apology, making reparation, asking forgiveness; in general there is the impulse to do something to put things right.


With shame it is different.  When we are ashamed the impulse is to hide.  This is because in shame it is we, not our actions, that are being dismissed as bad or inadequate.  Feelings of shame are often not tied to any actions at all:  we can be ashamed not only of our failings, but of our appearance, our family, our poverty, our good fortune; in fact there is little we may not be ashamed of.  But in shame there is no simple action we can take to put things right.  We are held in a gaze that finds us lacking, and unless we can become a different person the only escape seems to be to hide from the gaze.  Shame is very different from guilt in that it essentially involves the notion of being seen, being exposed.  Some of the most obvious examples of shame indeed involve little more than being seen in a way that is discomforting.  Consider for example Sartre’s (1966: 347-352) example of someone looking through a keyhole, his attention fixed on what he is seeing within the room.  Suddenly he becomes aware that someone else is watching him, and there is an immediate sense of shame.  Other obvious examples are the shame felt at the exposure of some aspect or part of ourselves which we feel should not be exposed.  Physical deformity characteristically gives rise to strong feelings of shame, but so may almost anything which is seen by others as diminishing.


I would roughly define shame in terms of feeling bad about being seen in a diminishing way.  This covers cases such as that of shame over a deformity, but also cases such as shame over being regarded as mean.  We may of course be ashamed of being mean, irrespective of how others see us, but the reference to how one is seen is still there.  If I am ashamed of my meanness I am subjecting myself to an inner gaze.  It is different from blaming myself for having performed a mean act;  but that would be guilt, and I might be able to take immediate steps to put things right.  But if I am ashamed of being a mean person I either have to hide this from myself or do something towards changing myself.  Just as external punishment gets internalised as self-reproach manifest in guilt-feelings.  From the external judge or critic there develops an internal judge:  the sense of guilt;  and from the external disparaging audience there develops an internal disparaging audience:  the sense of shame.


Shame and guilt are distinct emotions, but they are easily confused, and the confusion inevitably has undesirable consequences.  If we think we are feeling guilty when really we are feeling ashamed, we will act in a way that would be appropriate to guilt.  We may feel we somehow need to make up for whatever unknown bad things we have done.  We may go out of our way not to do any further bad things;  indeed we may feel that the less we do the better.  We may avoid conflict, because that is a potential source of hurting people, and certainly we must not risk hurting people.  Now for someone who really has done a lot of bad and hurtful things, this policy of being careful to avoid hurting people again would not be absurd;  the feelings of guilt would have a function.  But if the person is really feeling shame, to act as if they were feeling guilty about, but in this emotional chaos the original shame feelings just become more deeply buried.  What is needed, rather, is to identify the same feelings for what they are, and to reflect on their appropriateness.


Appropriate and inappropriate shame


Shame, like guilt, can have its appropriate and inappropriate forms.  An example from R.D. Laing (1961: 138-9) illustrates the difference very effectively:


A successful professional painter was very slick at life-like portraiture but could not bring herself to do abstracts.  She remembered she used to make black messy drawings when she was a young child.  Her mother, a painter herself of insistently sweet flower arrangements and such like, valued ‘free expression’.  She never told her daughter not to make messes, but always told her ‘No, that’s not you’.  She felt empty, ashamed and angry.  She subsequently learnt to paint and draw what she was told was ‘her’.  When she remembered the full force of her feelings about those early drawings which she had lost touch with without completely forgetting, she returned to her black messes after over thirty years.  Only when she did could she fully realise how empty and twisted all her life had been.  She felt what she called a ‘cleansing shame’ at betraying her own truest feelings.  She contrasted this clean shame, in the strongest terms, with the ‘shameful emptiness’ she had felt when she had been told that these messy drawings were not really her.


In this example we have all the central ingredients of the phenomenon of shame.  There is the sense of being looked at:  the mother looks at the girl’s paintings, and through them at her.  The mother does not criticise, blame or in any way punish her daughter for having painted these ‘black messes’, and the daughter does not feel any guilt.  Instead the mother subtly withdraws from the daughter, by remarking that the paintings ‘are not really her’.  The mother is not relating to the daughter as she is, but to some ideal the mother has in mind.  She looks at her daughter but doesn’t see her properly, or, we could say, she sees her but it is a disparaging rather than a validating gaze.  She in effect is saying ‘You won’t really exist unless you become someone different’.  Faced with this threat to her very being, it is unsurprising that the girl turns herself into someone she is not.  She comes to share her mother’s view, and looks disparagingly at her pictures and the self that painted them.  This uncomfortable looking at oneself with disparagement is precisely the emotion of shame; she has been shamed by her mother, and now feels shame herself.


What she later comes to realise is that the shame she feels is a false shame.  She has been seeing herself in a diminishing way that is rooted in the belief that painting like that (abstractly; the ‘black messes’) is both not good and not ‘her’.  But now she comes to see that this belief is false.  There may be a period during which her feelings do not come into line with her beliefs.  In such a period she may believe that abstract painting is both good and ‘her’;  but still be troubled by images of mother withdrawing, vague thoughts along the lines of ‘couldn’t you be wrong about this?’, ideas of going against what mother said was her true nature, and so on.  In this phase she is still feeling shame at her abstract-painting tendencies, but another emotion is surfacing:  shame at having betrayed her true self.  She is beginning to look at herself disparagingly for not having lived her own life.  This feeling is painful, as all feelings of shame are painful, but it is, as she puts it, ‘cleansing’.  This shame is rooted in a belief that is true, ie the belief that she has up to now disparaged her real self.  And this cleansing feeling of shame now acts as a motivating force to change her life for good, just as much as the old false shame acted as a force which almost destroyed her4. 


The depths of shame


One of the most striking things about shame is the depth of feeling which can be associated with what seem on the face of it to be trivial matters.  Childhood memories of minor shaming incidents can, as one of my clients put it “shine like beacons down the years”.  Our mind seems drawn back to those times when we mispronounced the word, used the wrong fort, or forgot the appointment.  I suspect that this is because the attitude of disparagement which is associated with shame tends to have an all-or-nothing nature.  This is, while guilt is guilt for a specific action, shame in connection with a specific action is the experience of being revealed as the sort of person who would do that sort of thing.  With guilt we expect some punishment for a transgression, and then the matter is finished;  but with shame we expect o be shunned or ostracised for being what we have been seen to be.  With shame we either have to hide or change the way we are.  As an illustration consider how Levin in Anna Karenina (Tolstoy, tr. Edmonds, 1978: 106) manages temporarily to overcome his shame at having been rejected by Kitty:


On the way back in the train he … felt depressed, just as he had in Moscow, by the confusion in his mind, dissatisfaction with himself, and a vague sense of shame …  But when he got out at this station, and saw his one-eyed coachman, Ignat, with the collar of his coat turned up;    when Ignat, when they were getting ready to start, began telling him the village news … then Levin felt that little by little his confusion was clearing up and his shame and self-dissatisfaction were melting away. … He felt himself, and did not want to be anyone else.


Here Levin has made an attempt to live a new life – to be a different sort of person;  he has failed, feels ashamed, and then reverts to his former life within which he is not required to be what he had tried to be.  It is questionable, of course, whether he really has decided to change himself back to how he was (so that Kitty’s rejection of him is just not shaming), or whether he is hiding from his shame.  But these seem the only two possibilities in his situation, and in shame situations generally:  once you accept the validity of the shaming view you must either hide or change.  In cases of false shame, of course, there is in addition the third and preferable option of recognising the falsity of the view, and rejecting it, as in the case of the painter discussed above.


The depth of shame feelings comes, I think, from the fact that it is not one’s actions but oneself that is under threat.  Children are especially exposed and vulnerable to the damaging effects of shame, and it may be useful to look at the roots of shame in childhood if we are to appreciate the full significance of the emotion.  Several writers have suggested that one of the young child’s basic needs is for a relationship with their mother (or carer) in which the mother mirrors the child’s behaviour and emotions, thereby giving the child a sense of its own existence in relation to another person.  It seems plausible that a sense of ‘self’ and a sense of ‘other’ develop together out of this initial relationship.  But there are various ways in which the ‘mirroring’ can be inadequate (Goldberg, 1991:34):  There are the obvious ways, where the mother does not feel really close to the child, or does not care enough to engage deeply in the mirroring process, but also she may herself be troubled and try to hide her anxieties from the child, or she may let the child into her depths, but overwhelm him with her fears.  In all these cases the child does not feel seen for what they are.  As adults we are more able to cope with this situation, although it remains deeply distressing.  As adults we may be able to keep away from people who do not see us for ourselves, or we may be able to risk getting angry with them, knowing that if we lose them there are others who do really see us.  But the young child does not have these options.  If the choice is between being seen falsely and not being see at all, the child has to opt for being seen falsely, for not being seen at all is a matter of annihilation.  And the rage which the child inevitably feels at this suppression of  themselves must itself be suppressed (Piers and Singer, 1971:32; Clark 1995).


The relevance of this to shame is that where the mother is unable to respond with ‘good enough’ mirroring, the child is in a sense shamed.  It is the infant analogue of the adult situation where I smile at you and you ignore me.  I feel angry, but also shamed because you have looked at me and have, it seems, felt that I was not worth engaging with.  Several writers have noted that something analogous to shame is characteristic of the child’s reaction to strangers at around the age of about 7 or 8 months, where the child characteristically turns away, hides its face or shyly lowers its eyes.  This so-called ‘stranger anxiety’ seems to have the basic form of shame: feeling bad at being looked at.   Goldberg (1991) suggested that it is the child analogue of the adult situation of greeting someone and then realising it is not someone one knows.  One feels ashamed because one has somehow exposed oneself, only to be ‘rejected’.


I have drawn attention to these aspects of early childhood mainly to emphasise how early, deep and pervasive the emotion of shame is likely to be.  The deep human need to communicate with others requires the risk of exposure; to communicate I must express myself, allow myself to be seen, but your response on seeing me may be rejecting.  I may then feel angry, but if it feels that anger would threaten the relationship, and the relationship is crucially important, then I continue to feel bad about how I am seen, I feel ashamed, and to relieve the shame have to either hide or change.





Shame and Client-Centred Theory


I remarked at the beginning how little attention, until very recently, has been given to shame in therapeutic writings.  There are probably several reasons for this.  First, there is the point that guilt brings with it the impulse to confess, so that guilt quite naturally tends to surface in the therapeutic situation, where punishment or criticism is unlikely.  But it is the nature of shame to want to hide, and the therapy situation is by nature one that is exposing, so that unless there is a really strong emphasis on unconditional positive regard, shame is likely to stay hidden.  As Broucek (1991: 81-98) and Goldberg (1991: 199-220) point out, there is also the matter of the therapist’s shame.  In normal human encounters self-revelation on the part of one person naturally leads to some similar self-revelation on the part of the other.  This is normally how trust is built.  If I reveal some intimate aspect of my life to you, and you do not respond in kind, then I naturally feel uncomfortable about having exposed myself: I feel shame.  But having realised that is is what you have done to me, you may well feel shame.  As therapists we are continually exposing our clients to potentially shaming situations, and we are surely deeply insensitive if we do not sometimes feel bad about being seen as the sort of person who does this.  Altogether then, client and therapist have powerful motives for keeping shame under wraps; making shame explicit can seem a threat to the whole therapeutic situation.


It is perhaps for this reason that shame has been so little discussed.  But given its importance it cannot be ignored, and the result is that it is often discussed implicitly.  In the case of Carl Rogers’ writings, in particular, I think the concept of shame, but not the word, is central Rogers (1959: 225) writes of the infant’s experience:


Love is very satisfying, but to know whether he is receiving it or not [the infant] must observe his mother’s face, gestures and other ambiguous signs.  He develops a total gestalt as to the way he is regarded by his mother and each new experience of love and rejection tends to alter the whole gestalt.  Consequently each behaviour on his mother’s part, such as specific disapproval of a specific behaviour, tends to be experienced as disapproval in general…Soon he learns to view himself in much the same way, liking or disliking himself as a total configuration.


Rogers goes on to emphasise the distinction between what the infant feels and the introjected conditions of worth, but another distinction gets lost here: the distinction between the sense of the mother being disapproving of the child’s behaviour and that of the mother being disapproving of the child.  These are different emotional attitutes: the first, often expressed in terms such “You are not to that!” develops into punishment for transgression, and the child feels guilty; the second, expressed in terms such as “You are a bad child!”, or more subtly as “That’s not you!”, develops into rejection for being bad, and the child feels shame.  Of these two it is clearly the second which Rogers has in mind, when he speaks of ‘the whole gestalt’ and ‘the total configuration’.  In effect then, Rogers’ view is that psychological disturbance arises from being shamed, from being regarded in a diminishing way.  By contrast, therapy involves the setting up of conditions where the client feels positively regarded.  This sort of regard, a respectful, understanding regard for the client is precisely the opposite of the look which engenders shame.  The word ‘regard’ catches exactly what is involved in shame and its therapy.  Same is essentially bound up with how we are regarded, by ourselves and others.  But while some kinds of regard, like Medusa’s gaze (Yariv, 1993), diminish or paralyse us, an unconditional positive regard frees us to be ourselves.  This not to say that unconditional positive regard may not sometimes be shaming.  In cases such as that of the artist discussed above, positive regard for someone’s true self could facilitate a cleansing shame at having lived for so long with a false self.  As will be obvious by now, I do not see either guilt or shame as essentially undesirable emotions; what is undesirable is their being inappropriate or misidentified.


Empathising with the emotions


The account I have given of the emotions has implications for what is required in empathy.  An emotion, I have said, has two main aspects to it:  there is a feeling bad (or good) which may be manifest in bodily sensations, and there is the idea around which the feeling centres.  This suggests that in empathising with emotion we need to be doing two distinct things.  One is to register the quality of the feeling, to tune in to the discomfort (or pleasure) which the client is feeling.  This can be aided by encouraging the client to express and give voice to the bodily sensations which are involved in the feeling.  Sometimes the therapist may be so attuned to the client that he or she will indeed experience the sensations which the client experiences (Mahrer, 1983: 102-103).  But this is just the first step.  Once we are in touch to some extent with the feelings, we need to explore with the client what the ideas are around which the feelings centre.  Starting with the feelings, we need to look with the client at what thoughts an ideas come to mind.  In part this is similar to Gendlin’s stage of ‘getting a handle on the feeling’, but as I see it there is an aspect of empathy here which Gendlin does not quite catch.  In his focusing technique the client works essentially on their own in determining what word or phrase fits the felt sense.  The counsellor simply facilitates this inner process.  What I have in mind is rather different.  In my second stage the therapist’s attention is not directed towards gaining a fuller experience of the client’s feeling, but a better delineation of what kind of feeling this is, what kind of situation it is appropriate to.  To do this we have to look at the ideas around which the feeling centres.  Are they ideas (thoughts, images, fantasies, dreams, memories, etc) which for instance involve one person having what another would like to have (sounds like there is envy around); are they ideas which involve people being punished (sounds like guilt); are they ideas which involve inevitable and awful consequences (sounds like dread).  In addition it may be helpful to look with the client at what ideas are around in connection with acting on the emotion.  ‘What does this feeling make you want to do?’  The client may feel like attacking someone (anger), or hiding from people (shame), or being wary of the situation (suspicion).  An such emotional themes, if they involve strong feelings, are likely of course to run through much of the client’s life.   Identifying these emotional themes with the client and then assessing their appropriateness in the client’s current life will then be helpful to the client in making changes, or understanding themselves better, or being more at home with themself.


A few final remarks on shame therapy in particular: the therapeutic situation is potentially shaming, but there are ways in which the shame can be defused.  Shame is often associated with being laughed at, but if the therapist can laugh with the client this is likely to reduce the sense of shame.  Retzinger (1987) suggests that laughter can also release the rage that is often held suppressed in shame.  More generally, if the therapist can strongly convey their unconditional positive regard to the client, the sense of shame may abate.  Shame is discomfort at being regarded, but if the regard is sufficiently positive and unconditional the client may come to experience ‘being looked at’ in a validating rather than in a diminishing way, and they may help in dissolving the shame.  I turn to a possible example of this in my concluding section.


‘Survivor guilt’


I would now like to come back to the question of ‘survivor guilt’, since that is where I started5.   The survivor cases are puzzling cases of guilt since in them the person who feels guilty was in no way responsible for the bad things that happened.  In that respect such cases are like the case of the blameless driver who runs over a child.  But they are more puzzling than that.  In the care accident case the driver did actually do something, ie run over the child, and he may quite rationally experience regret or even remorse over what he has done.  Perhaps it is these feelings that get misidentified as guilt?  But the survivor hasn’t done anything.  Like his companions who died, he is a victim of tragedy.  The total lack of activity on his part makes his situation more like those in which shame is felt.  I can be ashamed of all sorts of things which do not involve my having done anything; all that is needed for shame is that I should feel bad about being seen in a diminishing way, that I should take on a view of myself as diminished.  Or even less than that, I may only feel bad about the idea of being seen in a diminishing way; for I may not believe that that is how people see me.  This, perhaps, is the survivor’s situation.  He may rightly believe that no-one sees him as diminished through his survival, and if someone did see him that way he would probably, like any rational person, dismiss such a view as absurd.  Yet he may not be able to stop ideas of being-seen-as-inadequate from coming into his mind, and this is enough for his emotion to count as shame.  Such shame, like the guilt-feelings of the car driver, is in an obvious way inappropriate for the ideas around which the feeling circle do not correspond to the facts of the situation.  Yet, as with the car driver, there is something more to be said.  For it would also feel in some way inappropriate for the survivor to look back on the incident simply with feelings of relief that he survived, together with regret that the others drowned.  It feels inappropriate because he was after all one of them, and he has as it ere been singled out as ‘special’ when he knows he is not.  Perhaps through his feelings of shame he is able to feel that he is not so special; he suffers too, and who is to say whether it is worse to endure the suffering of this shame or the suffering of drowning?  Not to feel bad here, not to feel shame, could seem to amount to feeling that one was special, but let us assume that our survivor’s view of himself does not allow him to take that path.


What alternatives are there?  Well, he might have a religious world-view in which sufferings in this life are compensated for in some future life, and in that case he may be able to feel that although his companions have suffered more than him in this life, it will all balance out in the long run.  But if he lacks such a world-view, maybe the only way he can level things up with his companions is to endure the terrible feelings of shame.  So perhaps in this sense what the survivor feels is appropriate; in feeling what he feels he identifies with his companions, and the suffering of his life is not as meaningless as it might appear.  I say only that this is a possibility with which we could be called upon to empathise.




As a final variation on the theme, consider the case of Mr Tsukada in Shusaku Endo’s novel Deep River.  Tsukado was in the Japanese retreat from Burma in the Second World War.  In the terrible conditions of this retreat, where death and starvation were all around, Tsukado survived by eating the flesh of a dead soldier, Minamikawa, whom he had previously known.  Back in Japan after the war, Tsukado becomes an alcoholic, and several years later is in hospital, dying of livr disease.  He tells a friend from the Burma days how after his return to Japan he had visited the wife and child of the dead soldier, and how the child had looked at him with eyes just like those of the dead man: “I still can’t forget those eyes.  It’s as if Minamikawa will go on looking at me with those eyes for the rest of my life.  I can never get away from those eys unless I drink myself blind.”  The doctors and psychotherapists at the hospital are unable to help, but visiting the hospital is a young Western volunteer, Gaston.  Gaston is liked by the patients because he is kind and clumsy and never makes them feel small.  As he lies dying Tsukada asks to see Gaston, and tells him of the time he ate the dead man’s flesh.  Gaston, in his broken Japanese, tells him in return of a similar incident in the Andes, where after a plane crash those who were dying encouraged the others to eat their bodies once they had died.  And when, after two months, rescue came, it turned out that the families of the people who had been eaten were not angry.  Everyone was happy.  The wife of one of the dead men who had been eaten said “He did a good thing for the first time.  People from his town always say bad things about him, but they stop saying.  They believe he has gone to heaven.”  Tsukada’s friend cannot be sure, but it seems to him that as a result of Gaston’s intervention, Tsukada dies in peace.


What Tsukada experienced seems closer to shame than guilt – “I can never get away from those eyes”.  He tries to drown his shame in drink, but there is no real possibility of hiding from the eyes.  Even the ruin of his life seems not to bring him down to the level of the dead man.  What does help him is for the humble, clumsy Gaston to show him that after all the eyes do not condemn, but regard him with affection; that they unconditionally and positively regard him.





(1)        This interest has been shown mainly by psychodynamically-orientated therapists, and by philosophers.  For the psychodynamic therapists, see for example Broucek  (1991);  Goldberg (1991);  Lewis  (1987); and the earlier work of Piers (Piers and Singer, 1971).  The philosophical analyses on which I have drawn are mainly Taylor (1985)  (1985) and Greenspan (1988, 1995).


(2)        The conception of ‘the story in the emotion’ is perhaps relevant to that rather exotic procedure known as ‘past life therapy’.  See e.g. Woolger (1987).


(3)        This example is adapted from Greenspan (1988),:26-27.


(4)        For a fascinating discussion of shame in its positive as well as its negative aspects, see Schneider (1992).


(5)        My account here draws on Greenspan’s (1995) work on guilt.





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Yariv, G (1993).  Gazing into Medusa’s eyes: the fear of being seen and attacks on insight.  British Journal of Psychotherapy 10(2): 142-158.



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