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Elisabeth Vanderheiden, Claude-Hélène Mayer (Hrsg.): The Value of Shame

Cover Elisabeth Vanderheiden, Claude-Hélène Mayer (Hrsg.): The Value of Shame. Exploring a Health Resource in Cultural Contexts. Springer International Publishing AG (Cham/Heidelberg/New York/Dordrecht/London) 2017. 302 Seiten. ISBN 978-3-319-53099-4. D: 117,69 EUR, A: 109,99 EUR, CH: 110,00 sFr.
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In their edited volume “The Value of Shame. Exploring a Health Resource in Cultural Contexts”, Elisabeth Vanderheiden and Claude-Hélène Mayer focus on the phenomenon of shame and propose a change of paradigm: research should move from studying shame within the context of a pathological paradigm to the broader paradigm of positive psychology. The positive psychology framework emphasizes the positive potential of shame, making it possible to view it as a health-related resource. Shame is defined by the editors as “a relevant emotion for the individual and the development of personal identity” and “if used and transformed constructively, shame […] can become a key ingredient in reinforcing socially acceptable behaviour by increasing an awareness of authenticity, integrity and congruence both within the individual and the collective…” (p. 33-34). In their introductory chapter, the editors set a frame for the discussion on shame, by offering information on the positive psychology framework, the developments which took place from a pathological to a health-related concept of shame, the differences between shame, embarrassment, and guilt, the formation and development of shame from childhood to adulthood, categories of shame as found in Western literature, and culture-specific insights and gender perspectives on this theme.


[1]Elisabeth Vanderheiden is a pedagogue, theologian, intercultural mediator, managing director of the Catholic Adult Education Rhineland-Palatinate, and the federal chairman of the Catholic Adult Education Germany. She has published articles in the context of vocational qualifications, in particular qualification of teachers and trainers, as well as current topics of general, vocational, and civic education, and intercultural opening processes.

Claude-Hélène Mayer is a Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology (University of Pretoria, South Africa), a Ph.D. in management (Rhodes University, South Africa), a doctorate (George-August University, Germany) in political sciences (sociocultural anthropology), and a habilitation (European University Viadrina, Germany) in psychology with focus on work, organizational, and cultural psychology. She has published several monographs, text collections, accredited journal articles, and special issues on transcultural mental health, sense of coherence and well-being, transcultural conflict management and mediation, women in leadership in culturally diverse work contexts, constellation work, coaching, and psychobiography.

Structure of the book

The book consists of three main parts: The first part contains three chapters which provide theoretical perspectives on shame and culture. The second part comprises six chapters which offer culture-specific perspectives on shame from South Africa, India, New Zeeland, Australia, Canada and the United States (US). The third part contains two chapters which tackle the application of shame and culture in therapeutic and counselling practices.

Part one

In her chapter “Shame! A System Psychodynamic Perspective” Michelle May explores shame by applying a system psychodynamic perspective. She builds mainly on Freud, Klein´s object relations theory, Bion´s work on groups, and Jaques´ work on the dynamics of social structure. Relying on a case study, which analysed the intergroup psychodynamics between students, lecturers and management at a black university in South Africa, May argues that systems psychodynamics can bring about a better understanding of the dynamics of shame and its relations to culture and race.

Markus van Alphen in his chapter “Shame as a Functional and Adaptive Emotion: A Biopsychosocial Perspective” considers shame to be “probably the least understood emotion and one which also has a huge impact on people´s functioning” (p. 61). The author employs a biopsychosocial perspective in his analysis, emphasizing the functional and adaptive role of emotions. According to van Alphen, shame too, though generally experienced as something negative, has a functional and adaptive side.

While Markus van Alphen discusses the biology of emotion, presenting information on the limbic system, amygdala, neuropeptides or basic emotional reflexes, Thomas Ryan in his chapter “The Positive Function of Shame: Moral and Spiritual Perspectives” focuses on the moral, educative and spiritual dimensions of shame. In order to illustrate these dimensions, the author brings up examples from L´Arche communities, as well as from Australia, and discusses notions such as private shame, shared shame and “national shame” (p. 99). Ryan build on virtue ethics, especially on Thomas Aquinas, for whom shame “is integral to healthy human functioning both personal and social” (p. 91). The author emphasizes, however, that “shame´s positive role in self-evaluation and self-transformation depends on shame being consciously acknowledged” (p. 91).

Part two

Dharm P.S. Bhawuk in his chapter “lajjA in Indian Psychology: Spiritual, Social, and Literary Perspectives” uses a multi-method approach in order to develop what he calls an “indigenous construct” of lajjA[2] or shame. Stating that “both scriptures and literature constitute archival data and are necessary parts of the symbolic structure of a culture” (p. 112), Bhawuk examines the concept of lajjA as present in two scriptural texts (the bhagavadgIta and drugAsaptazatI), in a literary text (kAmAyanI) as well as in contemporary usage of the word in proverbs and daily communication, aiming to show that the construct of lajjA is not obsolete. Bhawuk underlies the value of lajjA, as it is considered a virtue, “the internal governor that guides one not only in not doing what is inappropriate, but also in doing what is appropriate” (p. 129). He emphasizes the need to revisit some western social constructions such as “guilt and shame cultures” and offers some recommendations on how lajjA could be used in counselling and professional associations and organizations.

Claude-Hélène Mayer and Louise Tonelli in “`Dream on – There is no Salvation!´: Transforming Shame in the South African Workplace Through Personal and Organisational Strategies” present the findings of their research study on shame as experienced by individuals working in higher education institutions in South Africa. Employing an interpretative hermeneutical approach and qualitative research methods, Mayer and Tonelli seek to portray shame from an emic, in-depth perspective. According to the authors, the interviewees found it difficult to speak and reflect upon their experiences which lead to shame at work. At the same time, shame is considered important by the interviewees and aside from personal strategies for coping with shame, they also emphasized the need for organizations to develop procedures and to provide leaders who should address shame.

In the chapter “Canada/North America: Shame Between Indigenous Nature-Connectedness, Colonialism and Cultural Disconnection” Barbara Buch builds on Antonovsky´s continuum model of health and disease and presents the concept of shame as a continuum, whereas shame can have both “constructive” and “destructive” consequences. Before investigating the role played by shame in present-day Canada, Buch traces shame occurrences and its functions in precolonialist indigenous traditions, as well as the manifestations of racial shame as inflicted by the European Christian colonialists on aboriginals. The author rises attention on the perils of an “everything is possible” society, as she describes the present-day Canada, and criticizes the lack of a healthy, “traditional” shame which could act as a “behavioral regulative for the keeping of norms and values” (p. 171).

The chapter “Indigenous Australians: Shame and Respect” written by Sharon Louth is dedicated to shame and (the lack of) respect and their effects on the self-confidence, self-concept and self-efficacy of Australian Indigenous people. According to Louth, Australia´s Indigenous peoples suffered racial discrimination, oppression and marginalization over several generations, which conducted to low confidence, low self-esteem and low-efficacy of these peoples. Louth speaks about a “cycle of shame and failure” (p. 193) which starts already in schools, as Indigenous children try to avoid failure and implicitly shame (p. 194). Respect is considered key in overcoming shame “as only when the threat of disrespect and humiliation is fully eliminated can shame be overthrown and pride and respect take its place within Indigenous Australians´ individual and collective sense of self” (p. 198).

Samantha Brennan, Neville Robertson and Cate Curtis in their qualitative study “Shame and Resilience: A New Zeeland Based Exploration of Resilient Responses to Shame” focus on shame and resilience as experienced by Pākehā New Zealanders. While perceiving and describing shame as a negative, painful experience, the interviewees also suggested that by struggling with shame they become “more self-aware, more socially grounded in stable relations, and more resilient”. The authors divide the interviewees´ responses to shame into two main groups: natural responses, which “occur frequently and effortlessly in response to feelings of (or anticipation of) acute shame” (p. 206) such as avoidance, escape and succumbing to shame, and responses which help building resilience, or resilient responses, such as accepting to be vulnerable or acknowledging shame. In the light of their findings, the authors recommend “being aware of shame, naming it, and discussing its influence” as this could mean “relieving shame of its negative power” (p. 220).

In her chapter “From Shame to Guilt: The Remediation of Bullying Across Cultures and the US” Rebecca S. Merkin addresses the relationship between bullying, shame and guilt and shows that shame can lead to anti-social behavior, such as bullying. Moreover, the findings of the study indicate that bullies do not acknowledge guilt, they do not feel responsible for their behavior, and they display a lack of empathy and tend to blame others for their failures (p. 238). As the research was conducted using US participants, Merkin considers these results relevant for individualistic cultures. The author compares, however, her findings also with findings from collectivistic cultures and postulate that “addressing and remediating shame could have a positive effect on reducing bullying by establishing an ethical climate within bullying environments that encourages mutual respect, shared responsibility, and social inclusion” (p. 223).

Part three

Mrigaya Sinha in her chapter “Shame and Psychotherapy: Theory, Method and Practice” presents in a first step the construct of shame, its dimensions and the forms it can take (internal shame, external shame, acute shame, chronic shame or shame proneness). In a second step Sinha reviews a number of studies which have shown that shame and shame proneness are correlated with different psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety disorders, depression, alcohol dependence, eating disorders, etc. In a third step the author places shame within therapeutic work, introduces some specific therapies that target shame and similar to other authors in this book, Sinha emphasizes the differences in understanding and working with shame across cultures. Stating that “shame is forever within us and between us” and that “it would be hard to imagine a society with `no shame´”, Sinha argues that research should, however, move away from “a unilateral view of shame as pathological” (p. 270).

The last chapter of the book, entitled “Shame – `A Soul Feeding Emotion´: Archetypal Work and the Transformation of the Shadow of Shame in a Group Development Process”, is written by Claude-Hélène Mayer and it follows the therapeutic process of a single individual over a defined period. It builds on Jungian concepts such as personality, archetypes and shadow as well as on Caroline Myss´ therapeutical concepts, Myss developing the field of energy anatomy, according to Mayer. Tony, the person on whom the study was based, participated in a group development process which brought to surface shame as a fundamental emotion in her life. According to the author, through therapeutical work Tony‘s shame was transformed from a “soul eating” emotion to a “soul feeding” one (p. 277).


The volume “The Value of Shame. Exploring a Health Resource in Cultural Contexts” is an overall interesting collection of writings on the topic of shame, with some thought provoking chapters, such as Barbara Buch´s one, which challenges the reader to move beyond established beliefs and images, as well as some puzzling chapters, such as the one written by Claude-Hélène Mayer, which brings forward an unexpected combination of approaches (Carl Gustav Jung and Caroline Myss) in dealing with shame.

Though acknowledging the existence of a vast literature body dedicated to the phenomenon of shame, the editors hope, however, “to provide new insights and a more comprehensive cultural base for contemporary research and practice in the context of shame” (p. 2). By bringing together works on shame from specific cultural contexts, such as the Australian Indigenous people, the aboriginal Canadians, or the Indian philosophical tradition, the book contributes to a differentiated, context-related understanding of the shame phenomenon, stressing in the same time its positive side and its role as a health resource. Moreover, it is worth highlighting the constant effort of the book´s contributors in rising awareness on the existing dominant Western discourse on shame, which ought to be complemented with non-Western research perspectives and approaches.

While the book lacks a conclusion, lay readers may enrich their understanding of shame and are offered the possibility to look behind the curtain when it comes to therapeutic practice. Researchers and practitioners are provided with a sound bibliography on shame, and reasons for reflection on own methods and blind spots in tackling shame.


The edited volume “The Value of Shame. Exploring a Health Resource in Cultural Contexts” embarks upon a study of the shame phenomenon across cultures, within the positive psychology framework. Understanding shame as a culturally embedded concept and a health-related resource, the book presents the reader with theoretical perspectives and culture-specific perceptions of shame, and investigates the relevance of shame and culture in therapeutic and counselling practices.

[1] Information on the editors as presented in the book on page xiii.

[2] All non-English words of this part of review maintain the transliteration used by Dharm P.S. Bhawuk in his chapter.

Rezension von
Iuliana Ancuţa Ilie
Iuliana Ancuţa Ilie, Academic Assistant for International and Intercultural Management and Management Accounting at Pforzheim University
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Iuliana Ancuţa Ilie. Rezension vom 13.09.2017 zu: Elisabeth Vanderheiden, Claude-Hélène Mayer (Hrsg.): The Value of Shame. Exploring a Health Resource in Cultural Contexts. Springer International Publishing AG (Cham/Heidelberg/New York/Dordrecht/London) 2017. ISBN 978-3-319-53099-4. In: socialnet Rezensionen, ISSN 2190-9245,, Datum des Zugriffs 25.10.2021.

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