Feature Archive

Shame: Secret Ally of Illness

Experts tell WebMD how shame can have an impact on health.

By Daniel DeNoon
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Think positive. Eat good foods. Be healthy. It's good advice. Sadly, it has a dark side.

"You can be healthy!" shout the covers of magazines and health books. The promise is that all it takes for good health is good exercise, good diet, and good hygiene.

But what does it mean if we aren't like those good people on the covers of health magazines? What if we aren't slim or young or fit? What if we're at risk of illness -- or actually ill?

We all have an ideal self we feel we should live up to, says psychologist Lawrence Josephs, PhD, a professor at Adelphi University. And we feel ashamed when we don't live up to this ideal.

"Everybody believes they should be healthy and fit and youthful and live to a ripe old age," Josephs tells WebMD. "But people do get weak and vulnerable and depend on others and need help. So that ideal of being a strong, healthy person who can do everything on their own, that is shattered. And people get shamed and don't want to admit they are ill."

Shame: A Major Health Issue

In the experience of shame, one's whole being seems diminished or lessened. The expression of shame is not just the desire to hide, or to hide my face, but the desire to disappear, not to be there. It is not even the wish, as people say, to sink through the floor, but rather the wish that the space occupied by me should be instantaneously empty. -- Bernard Williams, British philosopher