Shame and Non-suicidal Self-injury: Conceptualization and Preliminary Test of a Novel Developmental Model among Emerging Adults

  • Shireen Mahtani
  • Penelope HaskingEmail author
  • Glenn A. Melvin
Empirical Research


Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is particularly prevalent during adolescence and emerging adulthood. The salience of shame during these developmental periods suggests that shame may be inherently linked to NSSI, and at least partially explain the high rates of NSSI observed among youth. In this article, a theoretical developmental model relating shame and NSSI is proposed, and results from a preliminary test of a sub-set of cross-sectional relationships in this model is presented. In the model tested, it was hypothesized that adverse caregiving experiences in prior development (i.e., childhood to late adolescence) like parental invalidation and child maltreatment, established predictors of NSSI, would be linked to proximal episodes of NSSI (i.e., past year) through current shame-proneness (i.e., experiencing shame in a trait-like manner) and internalizing shame-coping (i.e., responding to shame through attacking one’s self and withdrawing). It was also hypothesized that some key proximal predictors of NSSI during youth development, such as low body esteem, increased loneliness and heightened psychological distress, would be linked to proximal NSSI via shame-proneness and internalizing shame-coping. Using structural equation modelling, it was observed that data, obtained via self-reports completed by 573 emerging adults (age in years: M = 20.7, SD= 2.20, 69.1% female, NSSI history: n = 220, where most recent NSSI episode was within a year of study participation) recruited throughout Australia between June 2013 and June 2014, fit the hypothesized model well. Tests of indirect effects indicated that current shame-proneness and internalizing shame-coping significantly linked perceived parental invalidation and prior experiences of child maltreatment to proximal NSSI, though this relationship was, unexpectedly, an inverse one in relation to child maltreatment. Current shame-proneness was also linked to proximal NSSI via internalizing shame-coping, current loneliness, and current psychological distress, but not through current body esteem. Finally, proximal self-evaluations of body esteem, loneliness and increased psychological distress were linked to recent NSSI through internalizing shame-coping. The theory and findings presented in this article contribute to a deeper developmental understanding of NSSI among youth, highlight crucial pathways between adverse caregiving experiences and NSSI, and illuminate important shame-based mechanisms that potentially warrant clinical attention for at-risk individuals. Future research directions and clinical recommendations are discussed.


NSSI Shame Emerging adulthood Self-injury 



We would like to acknowledge Dr. John Taffe for his statistical support.

Authors’ Contributions

S.M. conceived of the study, participated in its design, coordination and interpretation of data, performed the measurement and statistical analysis, and drafted the manuscript; P.H. and G.M. contributed to the conception of the study, participated in the design and interpretation of the data, and helped to draft the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


This study was funded by Monash University, Australia, under a doctoral research fund.

Data Sharing and Declaration

The datasets generated and analysed during the current study are not publicly available but de-identified data are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Developmental Psychiatry & Psychology, Department of Psychiatry, School of Clinical SciencesMonash UniversityClaytonAustralia
  2. 2.School of PsychologyCurtin UniversityBentleyAustralia

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