The evolution of shame: Origin, understanding, and healing

Presented by Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, Co-founder, CEO, and Chief Medical Officer, Within Health and Galen Hope

What is shame?

Shame is a feeling of humiliation or embarrassment caused by the feeling of having done something immoral, improper, or dishonorable.

It’s theorized that humans feel shame because it provided an evolutionary advantage over our early ancestors.2 For example, shame can promote a group's well-being by encouraging individuals to adhere to social norms and moral behaviors and prevent the adverse effects of social rejection.3

However, while the origins of shame play a role in the survival of our species, when shame becomes chronic, it can make a person feel flawed or unworthy. Shame can become extremely harmful when internalized and results in a harmful evaluation of oneself as a whole, e.g., “I am a bad person.”

The symptoms and behaviors of shame include:1,4

  • Feeling sensitive about what others think of you
  • Feeling rejected, inadequate, or that you can’t be your true self
  • Withdrawing or trying to avoid being the center of attention
  • Blushing cheeks
  • Downward eye gaze
  • Lowered corners of the lips
  • Holding the head down and slumping the shoulders
  • Covering the face or body
  • Avoidant or closed posture
  • General collapse of contraction of the body.

Etymology and the definition of shame

Shame originates from the Old English “scamu” or “sceomu” and has several meanings, including “a painful feeling of guilt or disgrace; confusion caused by shame; state of being in disgrace; and loss of esteem or reputation.”

The meaning of shame has evolved over time. In the 1300s, it meant “modesty, shyness, and regard for propriety or decency,” but by the 1580s, it became a “thing or person to be ashamed of.” By the time we enter the 20th century, “shame culture” is firmly established, one understanding of which is a culture in which a person’s primary emotional response to a transgression is a reduced sense of self-worth.5

Views of shame

The primary views of shame, according to “The Descent of Shame” by Heidi Maiborn, include:1

  • Agent-centered view: Theories that emphasize how commonly held values in a person’s community must be embraced by a person for them to be ashamed of not living up to them, e.g., in religious households.
  • Group-centered view: Theories that emphasize how a person thinks about oneself in terms of the perceptions of others, i.e., not your standing in your own eyes but in the eyes of the community. For example, what a person is is not something they determine themselves; instead, it is a function of their social position and standing.
  • Recalcitrant shame: Shame that an agent experiences despite their beliefs conflicting with them, e.g., not believing in a specific religious doctrine but still feeling shame when you don’t live up to the values of the religion.

Causes of shame

Shame is typically caused by a failure to live up to:1

  • Etiquette norms: Such as being polite or wearing appropriate attire
  • Moral norms: Such as not lying, not stealing, or not being deliberately hurtful
  • Personal standards/ideals: Such as being unflappable or being the best at something

The role of the audience

Not any audience can make someone feel ashamed; it must be a group of peers or respected others, or even simply the social group that person is part of.1 Importantly, the audience can be real or imagined.

Guilt and shame: Similar but different

People sometimes speak of guilt and shame as if they are the same thing, but they are not. Like shame, guilt occurs when we violate ethical, moral, social, or religious norms and criticize ourselves for it. 

The difference is when we feel shame, we see ourselves in a negative light, e.g., “I’m a bad person,” whereas when we feel guilt, we see a particular action as negative, e.g., “I did a bad thing.” We feel guilt because our actions affected someone else, and we feel responsible.2

Healthy and unhealthy shame

Healthy shame is a normal and adaptive emotion that can act as a moral compass, helping us to see when we have done something wrong, e.g., shame after telling a lie. Healthy shame has numerous purposes. It:6

  • Permits us to be human
  • Keeps us grounded
  • Signals to us that we are human, we make mistakes, and sometimes we need help
  • Allows us to know our limits and thus use our energy more effectively, i.e., we don’t waste ourselves on goals we can’t reach and things we can’t change

By contrast, unhealthy shame is when we allow ourselves to be defined by a perceived weakness or something we have no control over. Unhealthy shame is a state of being that comes about through experiences such as:6

  • Abandonment trauma (in physical presence or absence)
  • Abandonment through abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Emotional shame binds, which occur when a person becomes trapped in a cycle of self-criticism, self-loathing, and negative self-perception
  • Narcissistic deprivation
  • Fantasy bonds

Eating disorders and shame

People with eating disorders experience a myriad of conflicting and competing emotions, one of which is shame. Often, they feel ashamed of their disordered eating behaviors, their body shape and size, and even their wants and needs in life.7

A review of the research suggests that body shame and shame around eating are the types of shame most closely tied to eating disorder symptoms. This suggests that targeting these types of shame in interventions might be highly beneficial.8

Normative discontent

Normative discontent is a term used to describe the widespread weight dissatisfaction in today’s society. It is a feeling of constant unhappiness with our bodies, which leaves us in an endless state of self-sabotage and self-hate. 

The word “normative” suggests that body dissatisfaction and unhappiness with ourselves are normal. Feeling negative about our appearance becomes a way of life and becomes a very constrictive mindset.9

A large-scale study of 33,000 women found that 75% of participants considered themselves “fat,” only 25% were above the “normal” weight, and 30% were under the recommended weight.9

Weight stigma

Weight stigma (or weight bias) and shame are closely intertwined. Weight stigma is the discrimination or stereotyping of someone based on their weight, especially “large” or “thin” people. It reflects internalized attitudes towards body size that affect how those who are the targets are treated.

A stigmatized person can experience prejudice, discrimination, and oppression, which can lead to them developing a devalued social identity.

Weight stigma is on the rise and occurs in school, work, in the media, within interpersonal relationships, and even in health care settings.10 It’s incredibly pervasive and prevalent in our society, with recent studies showing:

  • 40-50% of US adults living in larger bodies have internalized weight bias, which has a strong, negative impact on mental health that may lead to disordered eating behaviors.11
  • More than 40% of US adults across a range of body sizes report experiencing weight stigma at some point in their life.10
  • More than 50% of adolescents reported increased exposure to weight-stigmatizing social media content during the pandemic.12
  • Among children, weight-based bullying is more common than bullying based on race, sexual orientation, or disability status.13

The impact of weight stigma

Experiencing weight stigma can have serious social, physical, and psychological effects. Regardless of size, weight stigma leads to a decrease in health-seeking behaviors and a weight increase over time. Furthermore, individuals of all body sizes who experience weight stigma are more likely to engage in disordered eating behaviors, such as binge eating.14

Weight stigma also increases the risk for psychological problems, including anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicidality, particularly when weight bias becomes internalized and a person begins to self-stigmatize.14

Shame resilience

Body shaming and weight stigma can lead to a shame cycle in eating disorders, where shame causes restriction, leading to bingeing or purging before the cycle begins again. However, there are several ways that a person can develop shame resilience. There are four elements of shame resilience:15

  1. Recognizing shame and understanding its triggers: Often hidden by other painful emotions, such as blame and fear, triggers can go unnoticed, causing us to react in ways that exacerbate shame. Recognizing the physical signs of shame and its triggers can help us navigate the emotion.
  2. Practicing critical awareness: The expectations driving shame are often unrealistic and unattainable. Practicing critical awareness allows us to understand why these expectations exist and what they impact.
  3. Reaching out: Connection is a vital element of shame resilience. It enables us not only to experience empathy but also allows us to feel valued, affirmed, and accepted.
  4. Speaking shame: When we feel shame, we must learn to ask what we need or risk entering a shame spiral. 

You can learn more about shame resilience through the pioneering work of research professor Brene Brown.

Final words

Regardless of size and shape, despite the burden of shame, we all deserve to enjoy food and our relationship with ourselves.


  1. Maibom, H. L. (2010). The descent of shame 1. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 80(3), 566-594.
  2. Kämmerer, A. (2019, October 9). The scientific underpinnings and impacts of shame. Scientific American. Accessed Nov 2023.
  3. Terrizzi Jr, J. A. (2013). On the origin of shame: Feelings of disgust toward the self. West Virginia University.
  4. Breggin, P. R. (2015). Guilt, shame, and anxiety: Understanding and overcoming negative emotions. Prometheus Books. 
  5. Shame (n.). (n.d.). Etymology. Accessed Nov 2023.
  6. Bradshaw, J. (2005). Healing the shame that binds you: Recovery classics edition. Health Communications, Inc.
  7. Scheel, J. (2019). Eating disorder symptoms and shame. Psychology Today. Accessed Dec 2023.
  8. Nechita, D. M., Bud, S., & David, D. (2021). Shame and eating disorders symptoms: A meta-analysis. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 54(11), 1899–1945. 
  9. Ward, F. (2022, June 11). “Normative discontent” is a feeling of constant unhappiness with our bodies, and so many of US experience it. Glamour UK. Accessed Dec 2023.
  10. Lee, K. M., Hunger, J. M., & Tomiyama, A. J. (2021). Weight stigma and health behaviors: evidence from the Eating in America Study. International Journal of Obesity, 45(7), 1499-1509.
  11. Brown, A., Flint, S. W., & Batterham, R. L. (2022). Pervasiveness, impact and implications of weight stigma. EClinicalMedicine, 47(101408).
  12. Lessard, L. M., Puhl, R. M. (2021). Adolescents’ Exposure to and Experiences of Weight Stigma During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 46(8), 950–959.
  13. Bucchianeri, M. M., Gower, A. L., McMorris, B. J., & Eisenberg, M. E. (2016). Youth experiences with multiple types of prejudice-based harassment. Journal of Adolescence, 51, 68-75.
  14. Abrams, Z. (2022). The burden of weight stigma. Monitor on Psychology. Accessed Dec 2023.
  15. Sutton, J. (2023, April 26). Shame resilience theory: Advice from Brené Brown. Accessed Dec 2023.