Existential Positive Psychology (PP2.0), Positive Living Newsletter

The Double Spell of Shame

Elisabeth Vanderheiden
Elisabeth Vanderheiden
Claude-Hélène Mayer
Claude-Hélène Mayer

Most people interpret shame as a negative thing: an extremely stressful experience, an instrument of individual or group oppression, or a humiliating experience of exclusion and exposure. Increasingly, however, understanding shame in different cultural contexts (Vanderheiden & Mayer, 2017; Mayer & Vanderheiden, 2019) and, especially, from the perspective of positive psychology, has shown that shame can be a resource. Research has shown that shame can stimulate self-reflection, which may lead to decisive personal growth, regulates relationships, and initiates social or collective processes of change.

In our extensive studies of shame, we found that what an individual, group, or society regards as shameful behavior is often related to the Zeitgeist of a particular era and its cultural, political, and economic conditions (Vanderheiden & Mayer, 2017). The Indian concept of lajja or shame, for example, interprets shame as a personal virtue to be cultivated (Bhawuk, 2017), not a social sanction to be avoided, which can lead to a noble life (Bhawuk, 2019).

Clarke and Takashiro (2019) described shame—called haji in Japanese—as having great significance in the Japanese culture. The Japanese seem to be highly sensitive to how shame affects their private as well as public selves, unlike Westerners who are more sensitive to public shame, which relates strongly to embarrassment. The Western perspective is rare in Japan because of the positive role of shame, which promotes group harmony. Yamazaki (2005) suggested that shame, for the Japanese, depends heavily on their intense consciousness of surrounding audiences and environments, which explains why shame is associated with saving face and avoiding shameful behaviors. Japanese people tend to avoid public confrontations, for instance, because their cultural norm is to maintain harmony with others (Clark & Takashiro, 2019).

Baharudin, Sumari, and Hamdani (2019) pointed out that shame can be an important resource in the Malay-Islamic context for substance use disorders, for example. Some studies in that context found that experiencing shame is a risk factor for relapse: Intoxication temporarily relieves negative feelings of shame, thus reinforcing drug use. Learning to cope with shame without relying on substances may improve recovery. In contrast, other studies have shown that shame may be helpful for developing reasons for abstinence and as a protective factor against relapse.

This double spell of shame, as both negative and positive, is a good example of how the perspective offered by PP 2.0 can contribute to a more holistic perception of shame. According to Wong (2017), PP 2.0 stresses the importance of accepting and integrating the intrapsychic and interpersonal dimensions of the dark side of human existence into one’s life. It is therefore a matter of looking at the potentially toxic dimension and implications of shame in its entirety, accepting them, then transforming them and perceiving and using the development possibilities and opportunities that can result from the “dark” and “light” side of shame as a basis for further development. In this sense, a more intensive study of shame from the perspective of PP 2.0 can contribute to “describe the dignity of shame as a source of happiness, knowledge and culture” (Briegleb, 2016).


Baharudin, D., Sumari, M., & Hamdani, S. (2019 in press). Shame transformation using an Islamic psycho-spiritual approach for Malay Muslims recovering from substance dependence. In C. Mayer & E. Vanderheiden (Eds.), The bright side of shame: Transforming and growing through practical applications in cultural contexts. Cham: Springer.

Bhawuk, D. (2017). lajjA in Indian psychology: Spiritual, social, and literary perspectives. In E. Vanderheiden & C. Mayer (Eds.), The value of shame: Exploring a health resource in cultural contexts (pp. 109–135). Cham: Springer.

Bhawuk, D. (2019 in press). lajjA: Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning. In C. Mayer & E. Vanderheiden, The Bright Side of Shame. Transforming and Growing Through Practical Applications in Cultural Contexts. Cham: Springer.