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The Psychology of Shame

What happens when we feel ashamed of ourselves in public.

“For in seeing the sufferer suffering—thereof was I ashamed on account of his shame; and in helping him, sorely did I wound his pride.”

These words are taken from the chapter "The Pitiful" of the philosophical book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche acutely talks about the psychology of shame. The brief text that opens this article contains a couple of interesting perspectives.

Once the sufferer is seen in their suffering, they are ashamed of themselves. Once the witness witnesses the sufferer’s shame, they feel ashamed as well.

Let us explore this.

Shame is defined as a self-critical emotion, according to which individuals display a negative consideration of themselves. They usually perceive themselves as defective. For instance, they can think they are ugly, incompetent, or stupid. In other words, the moment we feel ashamed, we perceive ourselves as irremediably and unequivocally different from an ideal image of ourselves we previously had. We do not feel ashamed because of the actions we have done, but because of who we are. For these reasons, as nicely recapitulated by Mary C. Lamia, shame is a matter of hiding ourselves: in social contexts, individuals avoid the emergence of shame in order not to feel their being valueless, inadequate, or deficient.

But what happens in the sufferer-witness scenario proposed by Nietzsche?

In a social situation, the sufferer cannot avoid for long to expose their sufferance. Anytime we are in physical pain and someone notices our condition, we always try to minimize it. The perfect ideal image of ourselves is represented by a healthy and strong figure. We, therefore, try to delay as much as we can the exposure of our sickness, but at some point, we have to give in. We feel ashamed.

The revelation of this sufferance triggers the witness’ pity. This is what Nietzsche defines as “being ashamed on account of [someone’s] shame.” In this context, pity is a feeling that sets a distance between the sufferer and the witness. In light of someone’s sufferance, the witness initially remains calm and unperturbed. They communicate verbally, using an unemotional and rational tone. In other words, they try to minimize what they are witnessing. They often tell the sufferer not to worry, because what is happening is nothing serious. Indeed, Professor Aaron Ben-Zeév tells us that pity is a “spectator-like” experience, according to which an individual can pity someone while establishing a safe emotional distance from them. In the sufferer-witness scenario, this is the witness’ attempt to cowardly reinforce their ideal image, which is now threatened.

But why does the witness feel threatened?

Physical sufferance displays unique features. When we are in pain, we are also authentic. The manifestation of physical sufferance wins over any psychological mask. When we are in pain, we can only communicate to others our condition and our desire to recover. Every word we speak, every behaviour we adopt, is to reach this goal. This inevitably means that we will only accept authentic relationships with others, relationships that will help us to feel better.

At this point, the witness is asked to reach out. Dealing with the authenticity of others means dealing with the chance of exposing our own authenticity. This is why the witness feels threatened. Once more, Nietzsche’s words are relevant here: “And in helping [the sufferer], sorely did I [the witness] wound his pride.”

In psychological terms, this is called projection: the witness is trying to convince themselves that they will do more harm than good if they intervene. Truth is, they fear that their "pride"—their ideal identity—may break into pieces if they help the sufferer. This is the reason why they desperately start to look for ways to prevent themselves from acting.

Coming back to our initial situation: once the sufferance is revealed, it is not rare to experience a social situation—even among friends—in which the sufferer is momentarily marginalized, at least emotionally, by the “crowd” of friends. This crowd is made of individuals that spy on each other, desperately trying to preserve the ideal image they have of themselves.

Shame is therefore a powerful social emotion because it allows the public emergence of true, genuine, aspects of individual identity. The sufferer is the existing, unraveled symbol of authenticity that needs spontaneous and empathetic contacts, relations, and help. The witness is inevitably invested by such revelation and is suddenly allowed to consciously break the chains of fiction and expose themselves in a genuine manner.

It only takes the courage to step aside from the crowds.


Nietzsche, F. (1883-1885). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None.

Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2018). Reconsidering the Differences Between Shame and Guilt. Europe's journal of psychology, 14(3), 710–733.

Redaelli, S. (2018, November 26). The emergence of infant identity. Culturico.