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Other People's Shame

Updated: May 6, 2018

People have developed a fascination with shame- other people's shame. While human beings are curious about their own shame, at the same time, people do not want to feel the pain and vulnerability it causes. It is natural to want to hide shameful feelings due to the fear of being seen differently from how we want to be, and, to want to hide our feelings of failure from others; we even hide our shame from ourselves.

The potential for anonymity on the Internet and television provides a unique opportunity to be voyeurs of others' shameful experiences while, at the same time, offering a safe distance from our own.

Does exposure to shame in the media increase our curiosity about ourselves or do the powerful defenses that protect us from shame outweigh our curiosity?

In an article for The New Atlantis, Roger Scruton, who is an Oxford English professor, writes about the impact of the Internet on human relationships and concludes that our accountability to other people and the risk of being embarrassed ( which is the reaction caused by the fear of being judged by others as bad) has all but dissipated. We can come and go in relationships from behind a screen "without any embarrassment" but, avoiding risk means avoiding accountability. We need "risk, embarrassment, suffering, and love" (Scruton) and avoidance is not okay if we are to grow.

Scruton states:

"In human relations, risk avoidance means the avoidance of accountability, the refusal to stand judged in another's eyes, the refusal to come face to face with another person... and so to run the risk of rejection.

Scruton captures the core emotional aspects of shame-theory when he describes the human desire to escape shame brought on by criticism and the need to hold on to human connections at all costs. In therapy, “the corrective emotional experiences of the psychotherapeutic change process involves not just cathartic discharge but right brain interactive regulation of affect” (Schore, 2011, p.93). Daniel Hill, leading expert on the affect regulation model, captures Schore’s viewpoint: “Even when the shared affects are negatively toned, there is something positive about regulated attunement. Such viscerally experienced empathy offers a reassuring and vitalizing connectedness. One feels felt, known, and accepted-nurtured” (p.9). Therefore, it is by engaging in non-judgmental face-to-face relationships that we learn to safely regulate shameful emotions and not through watching others.

I have observed that we keep a safe distance from our own shame by watching television that demeans participants. Tom Alderman is a 30-year media veteran with a background in crisis communications. He writes in the Huffington Post about Shame TV. He believes:

Shame TV "uses humiliation as its core appeal."

Humiliation as appeal? How has this come to be? Alderman's answer is that we want to see people being humiliated to feel better about ourselves by reveling in others' adversity. While I agree, for me the answer goes deeper. We look to understand our own shame by being voyeurs to the shame of others.

Sandor Ferenczi (1933) is credited with formulating a defense mechanism called "identification with the aggressor." The concept offers an explanation for why people are drawn to seeing others being humiliated: it is a process whereby a child unconsciously copes with shame by adopting the perspective of the needed caretaker. Becoming like the person doing the shaming allows a child to defend against pain and remain connected to the caretaker. When this defense is carried into adulthood, it is employed to identify with persons doing the shaming rather than the person being shamed. For example, my client was bullied by his father as a child, causing him to feel deeply ashamed, yet he finds himself yelling at his child even though he does not want to yell to discipline.

Does this exposure to shame in media increase our curiosity about our own shame or do the powerful defenses that protect us outweigh our curiosity to face painful feelings? I address this question in my blog: Shame Hides.


Ferenci, S. (1949). Notes and Fragments [1930-32]. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 30:231-242.

Freud, A., (1937). Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. London: Hogarth.

Hill, D. (2015). Affect Regulation Theory. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Schore, A. N. (2011). The right brain implicit self lies at the core of Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Dialogues. 21(1): 75-100.


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