A Matter of Self-Respect: Shame, Fear and Violence

We are discussing some of the reasons and causes why people become violent. My last posts referred to the work of James Gilligan and preventing violence. Today, I’ll look at Gilligan’s important finding of the link between shame, fear and violence.

Reducing violence: how we treat each other matters

There is a predictable link between shame, fear and violence

Gilligan asserts that one prominent indicator of violence is the degree of shame that a violent offender feels. He also discusses the fact that there is a predictable link between shame, fear and violence. He says:

“The degree to which a person experiences feelings of shame depends on two variables: the way other people are treating him (with admiration and respect, or with contempt and disdain), and the degree to which he himself already feels proud or ashamed.

The more a person is shamed by others, from childhood by parents or peers who ridicule or reject him, the more he is likely to feel chronically shamed, and hypersensitive to feelings and experiences of being shamed, sometimes to the point of feeling that others are treating him with contempt or disdain even when they are not. For such people, and they are the rule among the violent, even a minor sign of real or imagined disrespect can trigger a homicidal reaction.”

He further states:

“The purpose of violence is to force respect from other people. The less self-respect people feel, the more they are dependent on respect from others; for without a certain minimal amount of respect, from others of the self, the self begins to feel dead inside, numb and empty.

. . . When people lack self-respect, and feel they are incapable of eliciting respect from others in the form of admiration for their achievements or their personalities, they may see no way to get respect except in the form of fear, an ersatz, substitute for admiration; and violence does elicit fear, as it is intended to.”

No more blame and shame: an insult may do more harm than you think

My, what an insightful perception that anger is caused by insult and shame!

Fearful teen girl
Fear can elicit power which can become a destructive way for someone to regain self-respect.

If shame occurs chronically, a person reads most of life as shame, is hypersensitive and easily triggered into finding a way to deal with those feelings. And, as we know from bullying research and issues surrounding crimes that victimize others (including violent crimes), those violent acts give the perpetrator a sense of power. Since fear can elicit that kind of power, it can become a crooked and destructive way for the perpetrator to regain self-respect.

I usually say that when something senseless is going on, or when behavior is so obtuse that we cannot fathom it, there is often a significant reason. We need to determine the underlying reason why someone would resort to such behavior.

Rather than further blame and shame our at-risk students, our criminal offenders and, yes, even some of our parents and leaders, maybe we should take a lesson from James Gilligan and attempt to discover what those people have lost in life, how they have been disrespected. Then, we could find ways to help them become aware of the triggers that can elicit a need to create fear or act in a violent manner with those they encounter.

It is intriguing how this simple perspective could begin a prominent change in our homes, systems and our communities. Although dealing with shame and fear is not easy, it gives us potential for reducing violence and some interesting thoughts to ponder today.

Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Quote taken from the book Preventing Violence, James Gilligan, pp. 35-36.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *