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The feeling of shame is one of the affects that occur in all people . The ability to feel shame is considered innate. In interpersonal contact there is a differentiation (especially through learning on the model ). The reasons for a feeling of shame vary between socialization and culture-related, as well as according to the individual disposition and the current state of mind. The same applies to the intensity of the sensation, which can literally extend from “being embarrassed to be touched” to “sinking into the ground”.

Triggers for feelings of shame can be internal processes, such as the impression of embarrassment or embarrassment , but also exposure or shame by other people in the form of humiliation or insults . If they are accompanied by vegetative side effects, such as blushing , feelings of shame can also be perceived by outsiders.

Shame and shame are not only individual phenomena, but are also caused and suffered in more or less large social groups. The associated hurts in self-esteem generate a wide range of different ways of reacting and processing. A number of social , humanities and natural science disciplines are devoted to research and interpretation, and sometimes also to the treatment of feelings of shame .

Shame family Embarrassment


Due to the complexity and complexity of the feeling of shame, analyzes are often tied to binary distinctions in order to work out certain aspects. A distinction is made between moral and image-related shame, between internalized and externalized shame, between healthy and pathological shame, or between destructive and constructive shame. The opposite pole to shame can be viewed as the feeling of pride that accompanies situations that enhance self-esteem.

The social psychologist Jonas Rees defines shame as “an aversive emotion that is often associated with a feeling of inadequacy”. It is felt when a person's self-image does not match the image that other people have of him or that the person himself gains from himself due to certain circumstances. For Brené Brown , shame is the feeling of personal flawedness and has to do with fear of loss of belonging. In the extreme case, shame is "the feeling that nothing can be saved if the others find out about you."

Both individually and culturally, shame is often viewed in relation to guilt. Since it is also anchored in social norms , the feeling of guilt is related to the feeling of shame, says Michael Raub. “One loads guilt on oneself if one has violated a norm, but without having to feel that one's inner being devalued by exposure to others.” In patterns of shame culture, in the sense of such a distinction, “who one refrains from undesirable, forbidden behavior out of fear of deprivation of love or punishment, ”says Ulrich Greiner . A culture of guilt, on the other hand, is followed by those who are determined by their conscience to omit something. The interlocking of shame and guilt is expressed in the concept of shame of conscience . It is based on the basic need for integrity and signals violations of one's own moral and ethical values. According to Wurmser, shame is “the guardian of inner reality”. Feelings of guilt filled with shame result from conflicts of conscience. These are based on acquired and adopted moral concepts that can be modified or replaced in the course of life. The term flight shame, which emerged in the climate protection debate, can be seen as a form of conscience .

In connection with the functions of shame, Wolfgang Blankenburg deals with a "protective shame" using the example of artists who shy away from showing an image that does not seem mature or good enough to them, but which they may have high expectations: a Covering up out of fear of hasty criticism that fails to recognize the potential inherent in the work. In addition, Blankenburg reflects the shame of the cognizer who respects the need for protection of the counterpart: "There is a 'tact' that asks the person encountered how he / she / it would like to be understood, which approach would be appropriate for him."

Etymologically , the German word Scham derives from Old High German scama or Old Saxon skama , in Germanic skamo with the meaning "feeling of shame, shame, shame". The Indo-European root kam / kem can be translated as "cover, veil or conceal" and shows "how closely the feeling of shame is connected to the idea of ​​hiding". Most European languages ​​differentiate between a feeling of shame and being ashamed (e.g. 'Scham' and 'Schande' in German or honte and pudeur in French).


Eve after the Fall, Auguste Rodin

According to Léon Wurmser , shame is “complex and variable in its typical basic features, much more a range of closely related affects than a simple, clearly defined affect”.

Physical side effects

A typical side effect of the feeling of shame is the shame, a reaction of the autonomic nervous system that causes an increased blood supply in the face and makes it blush. As an internally perceptible and externally visible reaction, the awareness of having turned red can increase the feeling of shame. In general, children and teenagers seem to blush faster than adults, but not all people blush when they feel ashamed. A particularly wide grin or embarrassed laugh are also possible signs of shame. Further body reactions to acute feelings of shame can be stress reactions such as an increased pulse , sweating , dizziness and palpitations .

Is in the body language of eye contact is interrupted, the shame can signal. They can be accompanied by gestures such as lowering your head or hiding your eyes with your hands. In internet jargon , this gesture is known as facepalm and is used in memes and as an emoticon to express foreign shame. Posture tends to curl up and make the body appear smaller. Gestures and gait are often inhibited and, through turning, evasive movements, can be like sneaking away and wriggling away . The intensity with which the experience of shame begins can lead to a loss of presence of mind, causing speech to stall or stuttering .


Depending on age, gender, character and current life situation, feelings of shame are experienced and processed differently. So every person has a personal “shambiography”.

The philosopher Inga Claudia Römer describes shame as an affective experience of a lack "in which a three-part basic structure can be recognized: 'Someone (1) is ashamed of something (2) in front of someone (3)'". On the basis of this generally defined basic structure of shame, different manifestations can be described, which differ in their contexts, triggers, motives, reactions and evaluations:

Body shame

Eglon van der Neer : The wife of Kandaules discovers the hidden Gyges .

A typical example of body shame is the perceived nudity when the person falls below a minimum level of physical covering. The variance of this limit can range from a hip cord to cover the sexual organs to the complete concealment of the body in the case of a whole-body veil . For the ethnologist Hans Peter Duerr , the human body's shame does not seem to be culture-specific, but rather characteristic of the human way of life in general. So maintain primitive people who have little or no wear clothing like the Kwoma in Guinea , strict views taboo: "Men shall not look to the genital area or breasts women. When man and woman meet, for example on a path, they talk back to back. ”The different parts of the body trigger shame to an unequal degree. Significantly, terms such as pubic region or female pubic are used synonymously for the most shame-prone areas of the body, the bared genitals . The texture and appearance of your own body can also be a cause for shame. Conspicuous flaws, physical distortions, deviations from the norm or the feeling of not being attractive can sometimes trigger feelings of shame. Shaming other people on the basis of physical characteristics falls under the concept of bodyshaming .

Gender specific shame

“A man shouldn't cry, a woman shouldn't curse.” It has been shown that the manifestations and occasions of shame are not only subject to historical change, but are also gender-specific. Brené Brown attributes the feeling of shame to role clichés that one does not believe to satisfy: "Shame feels the same for men and women, but it is organized according to gender." While emotional shame is mostly attributed to the man for whom it is For a long time not sent to cry, blush or show fear in public, body shame was understood as a typically feminine quality. This notion of a woman's natural modesty is associated with her chastity and goes back to antiquity, where it found expression above all in the fine arts. Beginning with early Christianity, it was accompanied by an obsessive fear of female sexuality. Today the term slutshaming - the discriminatory designation as a slut - stands for the devaluation of mostly female people due to their sexual behavior with the aim of triggering feelings of shame.

Group-based shame

The social identity theory states that a part of the human self-concept with the groups, which feels a person belongs, is closely related and connected with the value and emotional significance, which they derived from this membership. This part is known as social identity . It is the basis for collective emotions, which can be experienced, for example, at sports or music events as a sense of community or group euphoria. The fact that feelings of guilt and shame can also show up at group level was discussed in connection with the emotional relationship between Germans and the crimes of the Nazi era, especially the Holocaust . The concept of collective shame was largely coined by Theodor Heuss , who in 1952 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp found clear words for a shame that had to go beyond the collective guilt of the Germans: “And this is our shame that such a thing occurs in the realm of folk history carried out, from which Lessing and Kant, Goethe and Schiller emerged into world consciousness. Nobody, nobody, takes this shame away from us. ”For the theologian Karl-Josef Kuschel , this speech pointed the way to the present day for the relationship of Germans to their past:“ Heuss demands a difficult path of self-purification, which we as Germans to go. If you are born into a people, [...] you love that people. This created the awareness that we were proud to be Germans. And that was the most hideous and terrible thing that National Socialism did to us, that it forced us to be ashamed of being Germans. "

Jonas Rees described two manifestations of collective shame: moral shame and image-related shame. He attributed this distinction to the fact that people usually demand that they be morally acting and respected individuals on the one hand. If one of these two claims were violated, this would give rise to feelings of shame of the corresponding degree. In a study based on this distinction on the relationship between group-based guilt, shame and xenophobia, he was able to show that the feeling of moral shame or image-related shame in relation to the Holocaust correlated with attitudes towards Turks in Germany. While moral shame was associated with positive, supportive attitudes, image-related shame overlapped with negative, hostile attitudes. Whether and in what way people feel shame on the basis of their social identity depends on their attitude towards strangers.

Foreign shame

Shame can also be triggered by misconduct or perceived inadequacy ( embarrassment ) of others who are closely related to one another. The neologism “fremdschämen” is used for this, which was included in the Duden dictionary in 2009 and named word of the year in Austria in 2010 . In the English language in the scientific literature since the 1980s, the designations vicarious embarrassment (Deputy embarrassment) or empathic embarrassment ( empathic embarrassment) related. Taking other people's feelings of shame into account and maintaining their dignity is called tact and describes a fundamental state of mind rather than situational behavior.

A relevant example from literature can be found in Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca (1938), in which the young narrator is tormented by the embarrassing behavior of her employer:

“Later her friends would come in for a drink, which I must mix for them, hating my task, shy and ill at-ease in my corner hemmed in by their parrot chatter, and I would be a whipping boy again, blushing for her when, excited by her little crowd, she must sit up in bed and talk too loudly, laugh too long, reach to the portable gramophone and start a record, shrugging her large shoulders to the tune. "

"Later, her friends come over for a drink that I have to mix for them, a job I hate, shy and uncomfortable cornered by their parrot babble, and again I'm a whipping boy who [Mrs. van Hopper] blushes when, stimulated by her small gathering, she sits up in bed and speaks too loudly, laughs too long, reaches for her portable gramophone and turns on a record, shrugging her shoulders to the tune. "

- Daphne du Maurier : Rebecca, p. 14

Classifications and patterns of interpretation

As a universal human disposition, feelings of shame, which can arise from a multitude of individually and culturally determined occasions and are experienced and conveyed in different degrees of intensity, have become a field of reflection and research for various specialist disciplines as well as fruitful for interdisciplinary research approaches. In addition to individual and social psychological manifestations, culture-specific aspects of the feeling of shame are considered, cultural-historical features are examined for comparison purposes, and works of art and philosophical views are used.


Since Sigmund Freud made an understanding of early childhood development, which is strongly determined by drive theory, the starting point and focus of the psychoanalysis he founded - with affects being regarded as drive descendants and thus as subordinate - he gave shame as affect little space in his theoretical thinking. In recent research on the emergence of feelings of shame, in which the infant's need for contact with the mother or the main contact person plays a central role, eye contact and the relationship between the faces are seen as decisive for the successful bonding of the infant and for possible engagement First feelings of shame: If the eagerly awaited, turned mother's face does not appear, but a strange one - or that of the mother without the usual loving look - the child's attention is suddenly interrupted, whereby the child's reaction shows all the characteristics of adult embarrassment.


It is only in the last few decades that psychoanalysis has increasingly turned to the topic in order to prove the importance of shame conflicts and traumatic shame experiences for the most severe pathologies ( dissocial personality , addiction , borderline personality disorder , schizophrenia ). The work of Léon Wurmser is particularly groundbreaking here . In the context of existential dependency, experiencing early rejection or emotional inaccessibility of the parents can cause a fundamental and absolute feeling of unworthiness in love , for which the psychoanalyst Léon Wurmser introduced the concept of primal shame , which is also referred to as preoedipal or elementary shame :

“After all, the most radical shame is to offer yourself to love and to feel rejected as unworthy of loving - to know that you are not worthy of love and thus the most essential respect. One is not seen, feels invisible in this individuality, robbed of respect. "

- Leon Wurmser

In his step model of psychosocial development, the Freud student Erik H. Erikson situates shame and doubt as the effects of a failed learning experience of “ autonomy ” in the two to three year old child in the “ anal phase ” (step II of his model). Here, shame contrasts with pride over mastered developmental steps . Erikson interprets shame as secondary anger directed against the ego : “The person filled with shame wants [...] to force the world not to look at him [...]. He would like to destroy everyone else's eyes. Instead, he has to desire his own invisibility. "

At a more mature stage of development, breaking skills experiences and failures can trigger skills shame - an experience that can be just as embarrassing for adults. Humiliation and violations of the boundaries of self and intimacy through abuse of any form also give rise to feelings of shame.

The psychiatry knows excessive shame u. a. as a symptom of certain forms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder .

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Authors such as Gilbert (1997, 1998) differentiate between internalized and externalized feelings of shame. While externalized shame is based on the assumption that other people may rate oneself as inferior, weak, or inadequate, internalized shame is associated with one's own devaluation of oneself. The distinction between justified and unjustified feelings of shame is important for therapy. One speaks of justified feelings of shame when disclosure of the relevant facts would actually lead to negative social consequences. If negative consequences were not to be expected, one would speak of unjustified feelings of shame. Since different cultures can have different norms, it is important to take into account which culture the patient comes from during therapy. In the case of migrants in particular, it could well be that feelings of shame towards some relatives of the patient are justified, while they are unjustified towards other groups of people. Accordingly, in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy it is suggested to show oneself in unjustified shame and - against one's own impulse - to act. In the case of justified shame, however, it is certainly appreciated that the shame here has a social protective function to protect the person concerned from losing their reputation in the group. While internalized shame can be dealt with through a Socratic dialogue , with externalized shame it makes sense to make sure in the behavioral experiment that the environment continues to treat you with appreciation after self-disclosure - provided that it is unjustified shame in relation to the group of people, to that one opens up. A special form of shame- reducing tests of courage are so-called shame-attacking exercises in the context of rational-emotional behavioral therapy , in which the patient actively exposes himself to situations that were previously subject to shame.

Social psychology

The psychology of shame was applied to National Socialism by the social scientist Stephan Marks . Marks distinguishes four sources of shame :

  1. Shame from disregard
  2. Shame as a result of violating boundaries ("intimacy shame"),
  3. Shame as a result of exclusion and
  4. Shame as a result of violating one's own values ​​(“shame of conscience”).

In addition, he describes shame defense mechanisms that serve to reject one's own feelings of shame: the projection onto others, the shame of others, cynicism and arrogance, aggressive behavior, bullying, perfectionism, addictive behavior and emotional freezing. He compares shame with a seismograph, "which reacts sensitively when the basic human need for recognition, protection, belonging or integrity has been violated."

Shame is often perceived as negative, as it inhibits people emotionally and prevents individuality and creativity. It can prevent the confession of a partner for whom true love is felt, as well as resistance to injustice or the choice of a suitable profession (which others perceive as improper). Still, shame can be of “benefit”. For example, Sznycer et al. in a comparative evolutionary study that shame represents an important evolutionary adaptation in that shame helps individuals avoid actions that devalue or even ostracize them within a community. In a social context, the feeling of shame means that distance from other people is maintained and intimacy is protected. It thus leads to an attitude of respect towards oneself and others: “On the one hand, it is an expression of a mode of adaptation to social values ​​- and thus a regulatory factor in socialization. On the other hand, it is to be understood as a guardian of boundaries and self-esteem. "

Cultural anthropology

Maria-Sibylla Lotter describes shame as objectifying self-confidence and points out that in many traditional societies, moral self- confidence is understood to be the capacity for shame : “Sanctions cannot reach a person any more than reasonable advice if they have not already developed a moral self-image that expresses itself as shame and gives the person reasons to recognize the authority of parents and the competence of counselors. "

Beyond the individual experience, shame and guilt can also be understood as cultural differences in social conflict processing. Ruth Benedict compared societies based on the cultural anthropology of Margaret Mead on the basis of the prevalent expression of shame and guilt culture . While the concept of guilt refers to an inner authority - conscience - the standard of shame-oriented culture is society, in which honor plays an important role. Within the social control mechanisms, a distinction can be made between internal and external sanctions. "Violations of the rules lead to an embarrassment of the individual and the community - and if the condition persists, to shame."

Sighard Neckel describes shame and guilt as "the person's psychological guards". To delimit them, he uses the concept of fear of conscience or moral fear for guilt and the concept of social fear for shame: “Guilt is the feeling of having taken responsibility for violating a norm through one's own actions; Ashamed of being damaged in its integrity. Guilt arises in the violation of prohibitions, shame in the failure of one's own ideals. ”Accordingly, guilt relates to an inner commandment that is violated or to what we recognize as“ evil ”in us. Guilt does not need to be discovered, it just depends on our moral feelings. For Ulrich Greiner, there is hardly any society “in which shame is so exclusively a guide to action that questions of conscience and guilt do not also play a role; just as, conversely, there is no society in which feelings of guilt are not accompanied by shame. ”Consequently, the terms shame culture and guilt culture could not be used to describe a development from a primitive to a more complex cultural level, but they can be used to describe“ the extensive one To analyze and structure the field of shame and guilt. "

Three women in the pillory, China, Anonymous, around 1875

In all communities , forms of humiliation , which are the deliberate elicitation of feelings of shame in other persons with educational or hostile intent, are a harsh social sanction . Until the 19th century, humiliation in the form of shame and punishment of honor was deliberately used as an instrument of state power. Condemned people were shackled in a pillory and exposed to the abuse of passers-by without protection. Today, the phrase " pillory" is used for public exposure on social media and in the press . Conversely, protecting other people from shame and embarrassment is considered a form of courtesy and is an expression of respect .

From a sociological point of view, all societies know  - in some cases very different - objects of shame and thus bear the characteristics of a culture of shame, while only a few can be understood as distinct “guilty societies”. Apparent correspondences in the general handling of guilt and shame can be seen in the universally widespread taboo behavior of human societies. In today's ethnology, the classification into cultures of shame and guilt is no longer tenable due to its one-sided theoretical perspective and problematic ethical-political implications.

Daniel Fessler also showed that feelings of shame are differently widespread depending on the cultural area and vary in their social relevance, when he presented two groups of test subjects from Indonesia and California with a list of 52 feelings that were supposed to sort them according to importance. Shame was in second place for Asians and 32nd for Americans. While people in Asian countries try hard never to lose face , Americans tend to be more relaxed about shame and find other emotions more meaningful.

In the traditional Korean culture shaped by Daoism , the feeling of shame is closely related to the conscience as the lifelong admonition to realize one's own nature. In addition to this inward-looking shame, there is the culture of preserving one's face as a reflex to possible shame from outside. The main concern here is the family's protection of face by its members, i.e. the children's respect for their parents or the woman's obedience to her husband. In the course of the modernization of Korean society, according to Zuk-Nae Lee, new values ​​such as freedom, equality and wealth have also changed the objects of shame, which now include ineptitude and poverty in particular. This has led Korean parents to do everything possible to provide their children with the best possible education.

In 1939, in On the Process of Civilization, Norbert Elias made the “advancement of the shame threshold” as an essential element of “ civilization ” a key sociological term since the Middle Ages, in that he saw shame as an essential criterion for the transformation of external compulsions into self-compulsions.

In the work The Myth of the Civilization Process , which turned against Elias, Hans Peter Duerr tried to demonstrate, especially in the first volume, Nudity and Shame , that a low shame threshold presupposes a very high level of civilization and is only possible in a strictly conventionalized framework. He saw a loss of meaning in shame.

Cultural history

Jean-Claude Bologne states that there has always been a feeling of shame, but that it has manifested itself in very different areas over the centuries. Each epoch has brought a certain aspect of shame to the fore. In addition, there is always a certain balance to be found between excessive freedom of movement and excessive prudery. In the Renaissance, for example, there was greater freedom of movement towards nudity in art, as opposed to exaggerated modesty in everyday life. Conversely, in the painting of the Middle Ages , nakedness was veiled, while in other areas "naked facts were thoroughly appreciated".

In Nudity and Prudery: A History of Shame, Jean-Claude Bologne points to a hierarchical component of historical shame: While one was embarrassed to be naked in the presence of respected people, one withdrew without servants in the presence of servants Shame off. From this perspective, modesty shows itself as a sign of inferiority in a power imbalance.

In the 18th century, shame was sometimes understood as a convention that women in particular were brought up to:

“It is clear that three quarters of the sense of shame are instilled. […] Modesty is the marvel of culture. With the wild and semi-barbarian peoples there is only love out of sensuality, and that of the coarsest kind. Only modesty joins love with fantasy and thereby awakens it to real life. "

- Stendhal : About love

As represented Honoré de Balzac and Stendhal the view that a hidden by the pubic desire would more powerful and the hurdle of shame would desire certainly inflame.

At the end of the 18th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher, in his essay Experiment on Shamefulness, pondered “that with shame it is important not to have certain ideas, namely those that relate to the mysteries of love, or at least not to communicate them , and thereby to excite in others ”. On the other hand, it is naturally and in a certain way allowed to have ideas that outlaw modesty. It is a matter of "finding the line between this and the forbidden". Schleiermacher sees this borderline realized in love, which is the opposite of "raw desire". If love is involved, the following applies: “The state of enjoyment and the prevailing sensuality also has its sacredness and demands respect at the same time, and it must also be shameless to forcibly interrupt it.” Thus, the laws of shame in love are one certain kind overridden.

In 2015, SWR2 Wissen dedicated itself to the subject of shame with a half-hour documentary by Patrick Batarilo under the title Schamrot! A cultural story of embarrassment . In the same year, the scientist Jennifer Jacquet spoke on the platform about the "difference between online and offline shame". She is particularly interested in the question of what influence shame has on cooperative behavior in groups and emphasizes how important it is in intercultural groups - including on the Internet - to be aware of the different norms in the different cultures.


Hesiod , for whom legal norms are the necessary corrective to human hubris , regards shame as the guardian of the inner sense of justice. "The internalized norm-consciousness that accompanies shame," says Martin F. Meyer, "now gains objective validity in the form of law. At the same time, shame and justice diverge. From then on, the sensation of shame forms the 'subjective' correlate to the 'objective' legal principles. "

Aristotle , who is mindful of moderation and middle , classifies the shamefulness between the above all reticent shyness and the shamelessness that is afraid of nothing. For him, shame stands for the fear of a loss of honor, which threatens as a result of cowardly, unjust or unrestrained behavior. According to Aristotle, such feelings of shame have a specific social target group or cause. They are based on value judgments about whom to give respect and importance to. As a result, you feel no or correspondingly less shame towards people to whom you hardly pay any respect.

David Hume is particularly concerned with the juxtaposition of shame and pride. Both are based on the human striving for recognition, for recognition by others, but also for being able to survive one's own moral self-assessment. According to Rudolf Lüthe , pride and shame are the most important human affects alongside love and hatred for Hume.

For Friedrich Nietzsche , liberation from self-shame is the seal of freedom that has been achieved . In doing so, he is directed against moral authorities who use conventions to set mechanisms of shame in motion.

Max Scheler sees a temporally extended scope for feelings of shame. They do not only appear as something related to the present, but can also be linked to what has happened in the past or be directed towards the future as “anticipation”. In the latter case, they serve to avert or avoid what could generate shame, and thus support self-precaution and self-esteem or individual identity and integrity . In the anthropological dimension, shame for Scheler is an expression of the split between sensual drives and spiritual striving and the struggle for a constantly endangered balance. “Shame is the perception of these fractures and wounds in our existence, the perceived brokenness, wounding and fragility of the self,” comments Eduard Zwierlein .

In the existentialist philosophy of the early Sartre ( L'être et le néant , 1943, dt. Das sein and Nothing ) , the “being-for-others” reveals itself in shame as self- alienation or reification , which the “for- “suffers in the conflictual encounter with the other; Shame is in particular recognition of the fact that I am who the other sees me.

Religious patterns and accents

Lucas Cranach the Elder Ä .: Adam and Eve

For Abrahamic religions ( Judaism , Christianity , Islam ) the awareness of having violated divine directives leads to shame. So felt Adam and Eve her nakedness suddenly as inappropriate: "Since both eyes were opened and they realized that they were naked. They pinned fig leaves together and made an apron. ”( Gen 3,7  EU ) Their first son Cain killed his brother Abel in emotion after he was ashamed by God who ignored his sacrifice:“ The Lord looked at Abel and his gift but he did not look at Cain and his gift. Cain felt very hot and his eyes fell. ”( Gen 4,4  EU ) And Noah cursed his youngest son Ham because he had seen him naked:“ When Noah woke up from his intoxicating wine and found out what his youngest son did to him he said: Cursed be Canaan . Let him be the slave of the slaves to his brothers! ”( Gen 9.24  EU ) Thus, three stories of shame stand at the beginning of the story of creation . Michael Klessmann criticizes that this aspect has hardly become effective in Christian anthropology. Instead, theology was primarily concerned with human guilt and interpreted sin as guilt. Shame was largely left out and led to an “anthropology that seeks to understand people one-sidedly in terms of the phenomena of sin and guilt - and thus in terms of their deeds.” In the Gospels, injured feelings of shame culminate in public dishonor and crucifixion Jesus mocked with the initials INRI as Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews . After the resurrection, Peter is ashamed of having denied Jesus three times.

Representation in the arts

For Ulrich Greiner, literature represents an “excellent archive”, “which collects and preserves the changes in the culture of feeling.” Guilt, shame and embarrassment were among the strongest driving forces behind literature: “as an expression of an insoluble conflict, as a retroactive overcoming of shame, as an attempt to explain of the incomprehensible, perhaps even inexplicable. ”The shame that an ego feels at the given moment is different from the one that is literary. The difference, however, does not lie in the truthfulness, but only in the fact that "we can communicate about the feeling of shame that has become language, perhaps learn from it," while the shame that is felt directly remains for itself.

Historical fabrics and motifs

Lucretia , the dagger in her right hand,
copper engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi around 1511
Jean-Léon Gérôme - Kandaules

The feeling of shame is dealt with many times in literature and the fine arts . Classic and frequently recorded motif especially in painting is the suicide of Lucretia out of shame.

At the forefront of the first book of his histories , Herodotus describes a case of consequential injuries to shame caused by secretly observed nudity: King Kandaules praised his confidante Gyges for the beauty of his wife and would like to have her confirmed her. He persuades the reluctant to secretly look at his wife naked. When she noticed Gyges as an observer in a bared state, her sense of shame leads her to urge Gyges to murder her husband, who was responsible for this shame. Friedrich Hebbel varies this material in his drama Gyges und seine Ring (1854), among other things the outcome of the story: After both men have agreed on a fair man-to-man fight, in which Kandaules is defeated, Gyges leads the woman called by Hebbel Rhodope to Wedding altar where she gives him her hand to make a vow - and kills herself.

A typical masculine sham motif appears in Homer's Iliad from antiquity , as Hector opposes the wishes of his wife Andromache , who tearfully implores him, especially because of their son, not to join the battle to defend Troy against the Greeks. Hector's paternal self-image demands always to be the first and others in Troy to be a role model in order to keep shame away from the family. “All of this annoys me, too, dearest, but I shy away from / Troy's men too much and the women dragging along the seams / If I avoid the meeting here like a coward. / My heart also refuses, because I learned to be brave / Always and to fight forwards with Troy's heroes, / Shielding both the father's sublime glory and mine! ”In the 22nd song of the Iliad, Hector affirms before the struggle for life and death with Achilles , from whom he could have escaped by fleeing behind the walls of Troy, this motive: "Woe to me, if I want to go in now through gate and wall, / Would Polydamas immediately burden me with insulting mockery / [...] but me far It would be more salutary / courageous either to sweep Achilles' murders with victory, / or to fall through him in the glorious battle in front of the wall. Ultimately, it is important to use your own life against the extermination of the city and the enslavement of women and children by the enemy. To what extent shame determines the willingness of the opponents to fight in the Homeric epic is shown for Martin F. Meyer in the fifth cant of the Iliad, where it says: “Friends! Be men and have a defensive heart! / And be ashamed of one another in strong battles! / Where men are ashamed, more will be saved than killed; / But those who flee will have neither fame nor salvation! "

Literature and art since the 19th century

In the art fairy tale The Emperor's New Clothes from the 19th century, Hans Christian Andersen tells of the power of shame in combination with vanity . Shame conflicts are also a regular motif in Arthur Schnitzler's narrative work ; In Lieutenant Gustl or Miss Else , a conflict of shame and honor between the main character is elaborated in internal monologues .

In 1891 Frank Wedekind thematized in his drama Spring Awakening . A child tragedy Feelings and consequences of shame in different facets. The awakening of youthful sexuality, masturbation, and homosexual tendencies are accompanied by conflicts of shame. Feelings of shame caused by failure at school lead to suicide . Language taboos prevent sexual education and result in an unwanted pregnancy that is not recognized as such. The pregnant woman dies in a secret abortion arranged by her mother to avert the shame of having an illegitimate grandchild.

Thomas Mann's example of the figure of Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain shows that individual feelings of shame and behavior based on it are not only culture-dependent and time-bound, but also changeable depending on the environment . According to Ulrich Greiner, the novel drafts a “bold foresight” model of a culture of embarrassment that has freed itself from “existentially threatening feelings of shame”: In order to cure a lung disease, Castorp changes for seven years from the middle-class, Hanseatic Hamburg milieu, which is characterized by distinguished restraint the very special aura of the Davos lung sanatorium, "whose thin high mountain air, so to speak, decomposes the composure ." Castorp's visitors from Hamburg are dismayed at how unabashedly he "spreads extremely undelicate medical details about fellow patients" and bursts out laughing inappropriately. Castorp registers with a certain irritation that he is gradually losing his manners, which is also connected with his turn to Clawdia Cauchat, who is conspicuous for her strange behavior. "The whole core of his feeling of shame is softened to such an extent that he can hardly be ashamed of himself, but at best for others."

In 2017, an art exhibition entitled The Inner Skin - Art and Shame in the Marta Herford Museum presented 100 works by 50 international artists. Contemporary installations, painting, video, performance and sculptures were on display, providing a “panopticon of shame in art”.

Changes and newer trends

Changes in social norms and conditions have repercussions on individual feelings and behavior. According to Ulrich Greiner , the rampant acceleration of all living conditions makes changes in the emotional culture more recognizable today than at times when living conditions and behavioral norms were often relatively stable over generations. Greiner sees a new culture of embarrassment taking the place of the old culture of guilt and the even older culture of shame, which causes a comparatively weaker feeling for generally minor reasons. For him , the embarrassment associated with social contexts includes terms such as tact , embarrassment and foreign shame.

Loosened and flowing ideas of what is “proper” and what needs to be avoided in the respective social environment result in both the “hip” and the “embarrassing” being arbitrary and insecure. Instead of generally binding rules, one has to follow the changing requirements of peer groups , fashions, professional habitus and other social surroundings. Traditional rules of propriety can only be applied depending on the situation. “In our complex, pluralistic society, which is becoming uniform around the world, we interact with one another in a wide variety of overlapping relationships, roles and situations and we can never know for sure who we are 'offending' with because we are the others, even if we are in address a single function, seldom know them so well that we can take into account all private, professional, class-specific, age, religious, political and other areas of life in which they are still staying when communicating. "

Trendsetters and trend boosters for what you do and wear are not least the mass media in contemporary society . Among other things, they have effectively contributed to a changed image of women and self-image in consumer societies , as Michael Raub shows. Women's magazines, which used to contain mainly practical tips for the household, now increasingly focus on questions of personal hygiene, aesthetics and erotic charisma. “According to today's conventions, the modern woman no longer needs to be ashamed if the apartment is untidy or if she spontaneously goes to bed with a new acquaintance, but it would be extremely embarrassing if the hairstyle wasn't perfect by evening, it would be Woman not dressed 'top' - including appropriate lingerie , which under no circumstances should be noted that they may have been worn for a few hours! - Body odor was noticeable if the body had not been epilated accordingly and more. ”The same applies to men, although the change is not so great here: Anyone who is not a youngster who is not“ horny ”or“ cool ”can quickly become an outsider. Parts “wear.

Shame in its function as guardian of intimacy and inner life is often put aside and ineffective on television, for example. “Mental health”, Micha Hilgers says, “consists not least in weighing up showing oneself and hiding, in appropriate self-disclosure and self-closure.” On television, however, those who suffer from wars, accidents, catastrophes and assassinations would be disregarded their intimacy on display. The protective function of shame, also as compassion for others in an embarrassing situation, is essential for Hilgers in order to maintain humanity . "A shameless society reveals the respect and dignity of its members."


Multidimensional approaches

  • A. Gerson: The shame. Contributions to the physiology, psychology and sociology of shame. Bonn 1919.
  • Rolf Kühn , Michael Raub, Michael Titze (eds.): Shame - a human feeling. Cultural, psychological and philosophical perspectives . Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen 1997, ISBN 3-531-12951-1 ( limited preview in Google Book Search [accessed November 19, 2019]).

Psychological perspective

  • Caroline Bohn: The social dimension of loneliness. With particular reference to shame . Kovac, Hamburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-8300-3475-9 .
  • Erik H. Erikson : Identity and the Life Cycle: Three Essays . Frankfurt am Main 2008 (new edition).
  • Sigmund Freud : Three essays on the theory of sex . 9th edition. Frankfurt am Main 2000.
  • Léon Wurmser : The Mask of Shame. The psychoanalysis of feelings of shame and conflicts of shame . 7th edition, Westarp Verlagsservicegesellschaft, Hohenwarsleben 2017, ISBN 978-3-86617-142-8 . Original title: The mask of shame translated by Ursula Dallmeyer.

Cultural-historical and cross-cultural perspective

  • Michaela Bauks, Martin F. Meyer (ed.): On the cultural history of shame . Meiner, Hamburg 2011, ISBN 978-3-7873-1979-4 .
  • Ruth Benedict : Chrysanthemum and Sword. Forms of Japanese culture . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main, ISBN 978-3-518-12014-9 .
  • Claudia Benthien : Tribunal of Views: cultural theories of shame and guilt and the tragedy around 1800 . Böhlau, Cologne 2011, ISBN 978-3-412-20684-0 .
  • Jean-Claude Bologne: Nudity and Prudery. A story of shame . Verlag Hermann Böhlaus successor, Weimar 2001, ISBN 978-3-7400-1138-3 .
  • Ulrich Greiner : Loss of shame. From the change in the culture of feeling . Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg 2014, ISBN 978-3-498-02524-3 .
  • Guido Rappe : Shame in a cultural comparison. Ancient concepts of moral shame in Greece and China. Project publisher, Bochum / Freiburg i.Br. 2009, ISBN 978-3-89733-201-0 .
  • Corinna Schöps: You can be ashamed of yourself . In: The Time Doctor . No. 2 , May 2020, p. 6–13 (brief overview of the importance of shame in cultural history, from the Old Testament to modern male violence).

Sociological and social science perspective

  • Wolfgang Hantel-Quitmann: Shameless! What we lose when everything is allowed. Herder, Freiburg 2009, ISBN 978-3-451-30262-6 . Downloadable book review with the author dated March 14, 2010
  • Anja Hesse, Hans-Joachim Behr a. a. (Ed.): TABU: About how society deals with disgust and shame . Berlin 2009 (= Braunschweig cultural studies studies. Publications of the Department of Culture of the City of Braunschweig. Volume 1).
  • Sighard Neckel : Status and Shame. For the symbolic reproduction of social inequality . Frankfurt am Main / New York 1991.
  • Publik-Forum (Ed.): Intimacy and Shame. The need for protected spaces . Oberursel 2012, ISBN 978-3-88095-224-9 .
  • Ariane Schorn: Shame and Public. Genesis and dynamics of shame and identity conflicts in cultural work . Roderer, Regensburg 1996, ISBN 3-89073-951-2 .

Communication science perspective

  • Julia Döring: Embarrassment - forms and functions of a communicatively constructed phenomenon . transcript, Bielefeld 2015, ISBN 978-3-8376-3145-6 .

Literary perspective

  • Joachim Küchenhoff et al. (Ed.): Scham. Freiburg literary psychological discussions, Volume 32. Koenigshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2012, ISBN 978-3-8260-5105-0 .

Political perspective

  • Jennifer Jacquet: Shame. The political power of an underrated feeling . S. Fischer, Frankfurt, M. 2015, ISBN 978-3-10-035902-5 (English: Is shame necessary? Translated by Jürgen Neubauer).
  • Jens Roselt: Human dignity can be touched - the creative handling of shame. In: Carl Hegemann (Ed.): Enjoy humiliation. Capitalism and depression. Vol. 3, Berlin 2001, pp. 47-59. ( Abridged version on [accessed on November 24, 2019])

Philosophical perspective

  • Friedrich Kirchner : Shame . In: Dictionary of basic philosophical terms . 5th edition. Dürr, Leipzig 1907.
  • Jeffrie G. Murphy: Shame. In: Encyclopedia of Philosophy . Vol. 9, pp. 4-5.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre : Being and Nothing . Rowohlt, Reinbek b. Hamburg 1993
  • Max Scheler : About shame and shame . (1913). In: Ders., Collected Works. Vol. 10, Francke, Bern 1957, pp. 67-154.
  • Friedrich Schleiermacher : Attempt on the modesty . In: Schleiermacher's familiar letters about Lucinde. Hamburg 1835, pp. 46-68.


  • Hans Peter Duerr : Nudity and Shame . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1988, ISBN 3-518-02292-X .
  • Eva-Maria Engelen: A Brief History of “Anger” and “Shame” . In: Archive for the history of concepts . 50 (2008).
  • Michael Lewis: Shame. Approaching a taboo . Translated from the American by R. Höner. Knaur, Munich 1995.
  • Stephan Marks: Shame, the taboo emotion . Patmos, Ostfildern 2007.
  • Jens León Tiedemann: Shame . Psychosozial Verlag, Giessen 2013, ISBN 978-3-8379-2229-5 .

Web links

Commons : Shame  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Shame  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Shame  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


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