I’ve come to believe that the feeling of shame underlies much of the anger and violence in the world.
But why, you may ask, would shame, “a painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace,” be a source of anger? Wouldn’t it be more likely to be a source of contrition, remorse, and the desire to make reparation and amends?
Yes, sometimes it is, in a person with a strong sense of self, who hasn’t been sensitized to find shame intolerable. But all too commonly, that is not the case.
The key is the word “painful” in the above definition. For vast numbers of people, shame is experienced as a narcissistic wound that is unacceptable and almost literally unbearable. In such cases, a person cannot stand feeling shame and is driven to great anger at the source of the shame and must remove it: either in actuality, by doing away with the person or a substitute; or by an intense explosion of rage expressed verbally.
I’m not ordinarily a reductionist, but this explanation (not excuse) for angry behavior keeps cropping up and seems remarkably applicable to a wide variety of differing circumstances.
The need to flee from shame lies at the root of much criminal behavior, as noted psychiatrist/criminologist James Gilligan indicates:
In the course of my psychotherapeutic work with violent criminals, I was surprised to discover that I kept getting the same answer when I asked one man after another why he had assaulted or even killed someone: “Because he disrespected me.” In fact, they used that phrase so often that they abbreviated it to, “He dis’ed me.” Whenever people use a word so often that they abbreviate it, you know how central it is in their moral and emotional vocabulary.
Gilligan has spent his life studying violent criminal behavior, and he believes the need to avoid the intolerable feeling of shame is at the heart of it.
…the basic psychological motive, or cause, of violent behavior is the wish to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation—a feeling that is painful, and can even be intolerable and overwhelming—and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride. I will use these two terms—shame and pride—as generic terms to refer to two whole families of feelings. Synonyms for pride include self-esteem, self-love, self-respect, feelings of self-worth, dignity, and the sense of having maintained one’s honor intact. But pride must be in much shorter supply than shame, because there are literally dozens of synonyms for shame, including feelings of being slighted, insulted, disrespected, dishonored, disgraced, disdained, slandered, treated with contempt, ridiculed, teased, taunted, mocked, rejected, defeated, subjected to indignity or ignominy; feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, incompetency; feelings of being weak, ugly, a failure, “losing face,” being treated as if you were insignificant, unimportant or worthless, or any of the numerous other forms of what psychoanalysts call “narcissistic injuries.” As Franz Alexander wrote in “Some Comments,” (1938), the psychology of narcissism is the psychology of shame and its equivalent, feelings of inferiority. Envy and jealousy are members of this same family of feelings: people feel inferior to those whom they envy, or of whom they are jealous. People become indignant (and may become violent) when they suffer an indignity; language itself reveals the link between shame and rage…
The consensus that has emerged from this work is that the most potent stimulus of aggression and violence, and the one that is most reliable in eliciting this response, is not frustration per se (as the “frustration-aggression” hypothesis had claimed), but rather, insult and humiliation. In other words, the most effective way, and often the only way, to provoke someone to become violent is to insult him. Feshbach, in “The Dynamics and Morality of Violence and Aggression” (1971), for example, after reviewing the literature on this subject, concluded that “violations to self-esteem through insult, humiliation or coercion are probably the most important source of anger and aggressive drive in humans.”
Not all anger is alike, of course. Any offense or injustice can (and will) provoke anger, and some of that anger is justified. But the anger of those who are driven by their need to obliterate their own feelings of shame will have a special quality of being disproportionate and out-of-synch with the seriousness of any offense or insult that may have sparked the feelings of shame. They also often seek a scapegoat to blame. This is the hallmark of the shame-avoidant response; its irrational, over-the-top quality, and/or its need to find substitute targets.
But this does not happen only on an individual level. When whole countries, cultures, and/or groups of people feel the need to run from feelings of shame–beware, beware! Then you are going to have trouble on a truly vast scale. A perception of having been shamed seems to have been a major motivation for German anger at the conclusion of WWI, a rage that found its perfect expression in the person of one Adolf Hitler. And from the recent riots in France to terrorist attacks around the world, redressing and undoing the feelings of shame resulting from the steady loss of Moslem power after the height of the Islamic empire seems to be a very large part of what Islamicist terrorist violence is about, as well as personal feelings of shame experienced in host countries.
For me, the shame explanation finally illuminated a mystery I’d always felt about the killings described in Truman Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood.
I read the book straight through many times over when I was seventeen, despite the nightmares–and the wide-awake anxieties–it gave me. I’d always been interested in human behavior, and the book’s detailed depiction of the minds of the two murderers (as seen, of course, through Capote’s eyes) brought me the closest I’d ever come up till that point (or since, if the truth be known) to understanding a single horrific act of irrational violence.
And yet there was something I didn’t understand in the least, an instant that came towards the end of the book, in what was the key scene: Perry Smith’s description of the moment in which he snapped and committed the first murder, that of Herb Clutter. Revisting Perry’s confession with the knowledge of the centrality of the need to obliterate shame, it’s possible for me to imagine that I understand much more of what drove the crime to its hideous conclusion.
I doubt whether author Capote himself was completely aware of the significance of shame in Smith’s narrative account of the actual moment of the first murder. Were the murders “a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act,” as Capote quotes police chief Dewey in the book? In a sense, yes, since the Clutters had done nothing to harm or to shame either Perry or Smith, and the crime was minor enough up to that point that the killers-to-be could have easily bailed. But psychologically, there was no turning back for Smith; the entire situation activated his intense and lifelong feelings of shame and resultant rage (some of it at his partner, Dick).
To set the scene: Perry and his accomplice Dick had gone to the Clutter household intending to execute a long-planned robbery/murder, having been told by a prison acquaintance who’d once worked on the Clutter farm that Mr. Clutter kept an enormous and enticing amount of cash on the premises, in a safe. But in fact, after entering the home through an unlocked door and tying up the family, they discovered there was almost no money there at all.
After living on grandiose dreams of making a big score at the Clutter farm, Perry instead found himself crawling on painful arthritic knees after a mere pittance:
Dick stood guard outside the bathroom door while I reconnoitered. I frisked the girl’s room, and I found a little purse–like a doll’s purse. Inside it was a silver dollar. I dropped it somehow, and it rolled across the floor. Rolled under a chair. I had to get down on my knees. And just then it was like I was outside myself. Watching myself in some nutty movie. It made me sick. I was just disgusted. Dick, with all his talk about a rich man’s safe, and here I am crawling on my belly to steal a child’s silver dollar. One dollar. And I’m crawling on my belly to get it…
After, see, after we’d taped them, Dick and I went off in a corner. To talk it over…I said, ‘Well, Dick, any qualms?’ He didn’t answer me. I said, ‘Leave them alive, and this won’t be any small rap. Ten years the very least.’ He still didn’t say anything. He was holding the knife. I asked him for it, and he gave it to me, and I said, ‘All right, Dick. Here goes.’ But I didn’t mean it. I meant to call his bluff, make him argue me out of it, make him admit he was a phony and a coward. See, it was something between me and Dick. I knelt down beside Mr. Clutter, and the pain of kneeling–I thought of that goddam dollar. Silver dollar. The shame. Disgust. And they’d told me never to come back to Kansas. But I didn’t realize what I’d done [cut Herb Clutter's throat] till I heard the sound. Like someone drowning.
It’s almost a textbook demonstration, isn’t it? The shame.
[ADDENDUM: I wanted to add a clarification in response to the following observation by greg g that appeared here in the comments section:
I'm having trouble adding this concept of shame leading to an extreme reaction against the cause of shame to my own model for viewing others' actions. In the examples listed...I don't see the various people as "shamed". Instead, I see them as feeling superior (arrogant) and insulted in the given situation. I think their feeling of superiority gives them the right to seek revenge and/or punish anyone who dares question their superiority and/or prove their superiority (or so they think).
Shame and a sense of superiority seem like opposites, I know. Sometimes they are. But far more often they are linked, although that seems counterintuitive and paradoxical.
I thought to explain that concept in the post, but I jettisoned the idea since it was growing long enough already. Maybe some day I'll write some more on it; in the meantime Dr. Sanity has some posts about narcissism, which is connected to this idea.
A very simple way to put it is that what appears to be a sense of superiority is in fact a false front, put on by an individual who actually feels very shaky about his/her true self-worth. For that reason, all threats to self-worth (experiences that induce a feeling of shame) must be fought against with extreme rigidity and bravado because of an inner sense of actually being inferior.]