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The Evolution of Shame

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Shame is a social and global emotion filtered through cognition with no single universal approach, differing in context depending on cultural nuance, geographic location, and time (Harris-Perry, 2011; Stearns, 2017). Shame is universal and interwoven with the human experience (Book, 2014; Harris-Perry, 2011). Shame moves us (a) at the individual level, experienced as a sense of inferiority; (b) vicariously, on behalf of others; or (c) collectively, as an intergenerational, transgenerational, or intercultural group or ancestral shame felt by the wider society (Fischer, 2018; Probyn, 2005; Stearns, 2017). Even still, not all have access to shame in the same way. As Sara Ahmed’s work suggests, while it is felt by all, how it has come to be represented discursively and socioculturally shapes who it accumulates on, making it difficult to track.

In Fear: A Cultural History, Joanna Bourke (2005) wrote: “Was what people in the 1970s called ‘fear’ the same thing as it was in the 1870s? Probably not. Or, more accurately, many historians feel that they have no way of knowing” (p. 6). The same can be said about shame. Because shame is an internal and subjective experience, it can take different forms and is felt and experienced differently from person to person, making it a “slippery” emotion when it comes to defining, identifying, and analyzing it, said Clara Fischer (2018, p. 371) in Gender and the Politics of Shame: A Twenty-First-Century Feminist Shame Theory. For Fischer, this means that different things shame people in different ways. How shame gets taken up culturally has much to do with the cultures and people making sense of shame at any given time. For example, shame has been documented to decrease in urban environments because it is easier to be anonymous there than in rural communities, which tend to be more cohesive, making shame more impactful (Stearns, 2017, p. 50). These situated and nuanced details shape how shame is articulated in the research.

The word shame has Germanic roots and comes from the Indo-European/Goth word scham, which means to cover or covering of the face (Ahmed, 2015; Probyn, 2010; Stearns, 2017), although, in fifteenth-century feudal Britain and Japan, shame was tied with dishonor and disgrace (Stearns, 2017; see also Kilday & Nash, 2016). Not surprisingly, shame moves us to cover and hide, silencing people and producing secrecy in order to avoid disgrace and dishonor (Ahmed, 2015; Brown, 2006; Deonna et al., 2011; Harris-Perry, 2011). Historical texts have highlighted the linkages between shame and nakedness. The biblical creation story has Adam and Eve aware of their nakedness for the first time after committing “original sin,” criminals were whipped naked in public or forced to walk around the marketplace naked, and women accused of adultery were paraded naked through the streets on the backs of donkeys (Stearns, 2017). Quite literally, shaming meant rendering people naked in public.

But shame also leaves us feeling naked in other ways too. As Brené Brown’s (2010, 2011) work highlights, exposure is tied to emotional vulnerability and the fear of it. Brown (2011) defines vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, and uncertainty. This description is at the crux of shame; it leaves us feeling emotionally exposed. This has to do with how we perceive the gaze of another as threatening. It is as if they are seeing us emotionally naked, which makes us feel vulnerable.


As historian Peter Stearns (2017) noted, men are more likely to wash their hands in public restrooms if others are there, and that people are more inclined to wear their seatbelts if others are in the car, highlighting our sensitivities to shame in the face of company.

No matter how mild the setting, to be seen as shameful or viewed as violating community standards in front of others is difficult. As Ahmed (2015) elaborates, “if we feel shame, we feel shame because we have failed to approximate ‘an ideal’ that has been given to us” (p. 106). In this way, shame surfaces in the failure to meet cultural expectations (Ahmed, 2015). Anytime we rely on community standards, are required to follow societal scripts, or are encouraged to engage in perfectionism to appease others, the intensity of shame will follow (Stearns, 2017), a vulnerable experience that intensifies shame.

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Until next time, in solidarity.

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