The phenomenology of shame in the clinical encounter

Med Health Care Philos. 2015 Nov;18(4):567-76. doi: 10.1007/s11019-015-9654-5.


This article examines the phenomenology of body shame in the context of the clinical encounter, using the television program 'Embarrassing Bodies' as illustrative. I will expand on the insights of Aaron Lazare's 1987 article 'Shame and Humiliation in the Medical Encounter' where it is argued that patients often see their diseases and ailments as defects, inadequacies or personal shortcomings and that visits to doctors and medical professionals involve potentially humiliating physical and psychological exposure. I will start by outlining a phenomenology of shame in order to understand more clearly the effect shame about the body can have in terms of one's personal experience and, furthermore, one's interpersonal dynamics. I will then examine shame in the clinical encounter, linking body shame to the cultural stigma attached to illness, dysfunction and bodily frailty. I will furthermore explore how shame can be exacerbated or even incited by physicians through judgment and as a result of the power imbalance inherent to the physician-patient dynamic, compounded by the contemporary tendency to moralise about 'lifestyle' illnesses. Lastly, I will provide some reflections for how health care workers might approach patient shame in clinical practice.

Keywords: Body shame; Clinical encounter; Embarrassing Bodies; Shame; Stigma.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Physician's Role
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Shame*