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Review of "Shame and Guilt"

By June Price Tangney and Ronda L. Dearing
Guilford Press, 2002
Review by Hilary Clark, Ph.D. on Aug 11th 2003
Shame and Guilt

There have been a number of attempts to define and distinguish the painful emotions of shame and guilt. One of the most influential distinctions is Helen Block Lewis's in Shame and Guilt in Neurosis (1971): "The experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, [however,] the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus" (qtd. in Tangney and Dearing 18). June Price Tangney and Ronda L. Dearing have considered Lewis's distinction in numerous empirical tests of shame and guilt. In their book they report on their findings: they confirm Lewis's distinction and draw out its implications, emphasizing the negative consequences of shame as against the positive value of guilt.

According to the authors, shame is a "primitive," self-centered emotion associated with anger, aggression, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, family violence and suicide. In its focus on the bad self, shame is an "extremely painful and ugly feeling" (3) that sufferers will usually do anything to defend against--hiding from others, for instance, or lashing out at them. On the other hand, guilt is the more "adaptive" emotion; indeed, the authors argue that it is the more moral emotion, as it is other-oriented and empathetic: "[M]odern morality centers on the ability to acknowledge one's wrongdoing, accept responsibility, and take reparative action" (127). While the authors could have done without the problematic distinction between "primitive" and "modern" morality, they nonetheless argue convincingly that a well-developed capacity for guilt leads not to neurosis (as Freudian theory would suggest), but to a morality of reparation and empathetic regard--clearly better for humankind than a shame morality of blame and vengeful anger that can lead to violence, feuding, and war.

Tangney and Dearing sum up their thesis quite bluntly: "The pattern is pretty clear-cut: guilt is good; shame is bad" (136). The authors come to this conclusion after surveying a great deal of empirical research on guilt and shame, research using a number of standardized measures. The data collected sometimes confirms and sometimes overturns previous conclusions on guilt and shame. While acknowledging the importance of previous theories, the authors see their own job as presenting "scientific knowledge"--interpreting the hard data that has been gathered on these emotions--and suggesting how this knowledge may be put to use for social benefit.

Two initial chapters lay the groundwork. The first does a quick survey of earlier accounts of shame and guilt, noting that these two emotions have often been confused and that empirical research is needed in order to straighten things out. The second chapter outlines the problems involved in such research, surveying measures that have been used and arguing for the greater efficacy of scenario-based tests. (Samples of such tests are included in Appendix B, along with Tables of Findings in Appendix A). From this base, Tangney and Dearing move outward in succeeding chapters, discussing in turn the divergent effects of shame and guilt on the self, on interpersonal relationships (at work, in intimate relations, and in the family), and on the social order as a whole. Throughout, the authors highlight the social adaptiveness of guilt, its orientation toward the other. On the other hand, in its self-absorption and potential for aggression, shame interferes with empathy. The shamed person may turn on others and hurt them, or worse: we know the stories of the humiliated worker returning home in fury to beat his wife and children, and the shamed student returning grimly to his classroom with a gun.

Sometimes the shamed one directs this aggression inward, and psychopathology can result. This tends to happen in women more than in men. That shame is strongly linked to depression was argued by Lewis in The Role of Shame in Symptom Formation (1987), and is confirmed by Tangney and Dearing, who note that the shame-prone and the depressed share a tendency to make "internal, stable, and global attributions" for negative events (117)--both groups seeing themselves as always to blame for everything.

The most interesting part of Shame and Guilt, for this reviewer at least, is the discussion, in Chapter Nine, of individual variations in proneness to shame and guilt come about. The authors look to environmental differences, particularly in the family context, for answers. Children learn "moral emotional styles" from their parents or caregivers: from a family-systems perspective, there are "intergenerational continuities" in shame-proneness vs. guilt-proneness, acquired through direct modeling and more general interactions between parent and child. The shame-prone parent is more likely to punish his or her child through ridicule and humiliation, emphasizing the defective self; in turn, the shamed child is learning to do the same. Intervention must center on educating parents in "disciplinary strategies that encourage an adaptive capacity for guilt versus maladaptive shame reactions" (156); that is, parents must be shown how they can discipline their children more humanely and effectively by targeting unacceptable actions, not defective selves.

As in the family, so in the therapist's office, the school and the court. In the final two chapters of Shame and Guilt, the authors discuss how shame can arise in the

therapeutic relationship (through both negative transference and negative counter-transference), putting successful outcomes at risk. When this happens, the authors suggest, therapists can remind their clients--and themselves--of the difference between shame and guilt. The school, of course, is the shame arena par excellence. Teachers need to avoid overtly shaming disciplinary practices such as exposing a child to ridicule, of course, but also (like parents) they should encourage guilt rather than shame "by focusing on the behavior, not the person" (188). Finally, the authors turn to the American criminal justice system, suggesting that reform is more likely when restorative justice is applied, inducing guilt in the offender and opening particular routes (such as community service) for making amends. In their view, given the links they point out between shaming, rage and violent aggression, judges are "woefully misguided" in giving shaming sentences to offenders.

At all these levels, then, from the individual self to the social institutions of family, school, and justice system, Tangney and Dearing emphasize that "there are good ways and bad ways to feel bad" about having transgressed (194). Guilt is the good, the more "moral and adaptive," way; shame is the bad way, the inner demon responsible for so much psychopathology and violence in society: "Our lives as individuals, as social beings, and as a society can be enhanced by transforming painful, problematic feelings of shame into more adaptive feelings of guilt. Recognizing the distinction between shame and guilt is an important first step in making ours a more moral society" (194).

Tangney and Dearing have a strong and uncompromising thesis in Shame and Guilt, and on the whole they support it convincingly in drawing together and presenting the research on just about every aspect of our experience of guilt and shame. As I am a humanist and not a social scientist, I am not qualified to comment upon the quality of the authors' research and the validity of their conclusions. However, there are a few issues that I would have liked to see addressed more. The first is gender. At points, the authors do consider gender differences: for instance, they report one study indicating that shamed men tend to direct their anger outward, in acts of aggression, while shamed women tend to turn this anger inward, and another study suggesting that in general women tend to experience greater shame and guilt than men do. On the whole, however, gender differences are not their interest, and most of the measures they have used or report on do not appear to differentiate on the basis of gender. Given their throwaway comment that women appear to experience both greater shame and greater guilt than men do, it would seem important to give more attention to this difference (which is no surprise to feminists). Further, class and cultural differences do not seem to have been a concern. Quite a few of the studies reported on seem to have been carried out on college students (always a handy group for university researchers), a group with particular sources of shame (for instance, failing in studies, failing to live up to self- and parental expectations) that must override, to some extent, differences in gender, class, and culture.

Despite these reservations, however, I will say that Shame and Guilt is an accessible, thought-provoking reevaluation of two emotions deeply involved in our social lives. The authors' warnings about shame and its dangers will prod readers to question what they think they know about this unsettling emotion.


2003 Hilary Clark


Hilary Clark is an Associate Professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. Her research interests include theories of shame, trauma, and depression; auto/pathography (particularly narratives of mental illness); and women's life writing. With Joseph Adamson she has co-edited Scenes of Shame: Psychoanalysis, Shame, and Writing (SUNY Press, 1998), contributing a chapter on shame and reparation in Anne Sexton's poetry. She has also published on Melanie Klein's unpublished life writing in "Autobiography, Mourning and Reparation: The Case of Melanie Klein," a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 15.2 (2000). Forthcoming work includes a personal essay on living with depression in the academy, and an article on rhetorical strategies in two women's narratives of psychiatric hospitalization.

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