Sentinel Emotional Events: The Nature, Triggers, and Effects of Shame Experiences in Medical Residents

Acad Med. 2019 Jan;94(1):85-93. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000002479.


Purpose: This study explores an under-investigated topic, how medical residents experience shame within clinical learning environments, by asking residents to reflect on (1) the nature of their shame experiences; (2) the events that triggered, and factors that contributed to, those shame experiences; and (3) the perceived effects of those shame experiences.

Method: In this hermeneutic phenomenology study, the authors recruited 12 (self-nominated) residents from an internal medicine residency at a large teaching hospital in the United States. Data collection from each participant in 2016-2017 included (1) a written reflection about an experience during medical training in which the participant felt "flawed, deficient, or unworthy," and (2) a semi-structured interview that explored the participant's shame experience(s) in depth. The data were analyzed according to hermeneutic traditions, producing rich descriptions about participants' shame experiences.

Results: Participants' shame experiences ranged from debilitating emotional and physical reactions to more insidious, fleeting reactions. Participants reported shame triggers relating to patient care, learning processes, and personal goals; numerous factors contributed to their shame experiences. The effects of shame reactions included social isolation, disengagement from learning, impaired wellness, unprofessional behavior, and impaired empathy. Positive effects of shame reactions included enhanced learning, increased willingness to reach out for help, and improved relationships.

Conclusions: Shame reactions can be sentinel emotional events with significant physical and/or psychological effects in medical learners. This study has implications for learners, educators, and patients, and it may pave the way toward open, honest conversations about the role shame plays in medical education.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Female
  • Health Personnel / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Internship and Residency*
  • Male
  • Shame*
  • Students, Medical / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States
  • Young Adult