The Link Between Violence and Shame

Some of the most profound research on the issue of violence has come from James Gilligan. In his book, Preventing Violence, Mr. Gilligan draws from his experience in the prisons and prison mental hospital in Massachusetts as former Director of Psychiatric Services. He was also on the faculty of Harvard Medical School for over 25 years. Mr. Gilligan studied the most violent criminals. (In a recent post, I cited that aggressive acts occur in only 10% of angry episodes.)

The intolerable feeling of shame

Feelings of shame and humiliation can be intolerable for some.

As a result of his research, Gilligan believes that the basic psychological motive or cause of violent behavior is the wish to ward off or eliminate the feelings of shame and humiliation, feelings so painful that they are overpowering and intolerable.

Gilligan notes literally dozens of synonyms for shame: feelings of being slighted, insulted, disrespected, dishonored, disgraced, disdained, slandered, treated with contempt, ridiculed, teased, taunted, mocked, rejected, defeated, subjected to indignity; or, experiencing feelings of being weak, ugly, inadequate, incompetent, a failure, losing face; and  being treated as if one were insignificant or worthless.

Based on his research and other expert opinions, Gilligan concludes that “the most potent stimulus of aggression and violence, and the one that is most reliable in eliciting this response is not the frustration per se, but rather, insult and humiliation (page 32).” In other words, the most effective, and often the only way, to provoke someone to become violent is to insult them.

It is not difficult to see that people who are shamed live in a horribly conflicting private world. They usually will hide their shame because admitting it will reveal the pain that they have something to be ashamed about. In fact, sometimes the shamed individual will brag or display bravado, putting up a huge defensive wall.

Does that sound like anyone you know?

Shame and a history of child abuse

child threatened with belt
Many violent offenders have a history of serious abuse as a child.

Gilligan also discovered that when he identified chronic self-contempt in some of the most violent men, he also found a history of child abuse that was so serious it was off the scale of typically-described abuse. He further states that, “violent criminals are not violent because they are dumb, out of touch with reality, or unable to recognize hypocrisy, dishonesty, and injustice when they see it. They are violent precisely because they are aware of the hypocrisy, dishonesty and injustices that surround them, and of which they have been the victims (p. 101).

Yet, we know that not everyone who has been severely abused becomes violent. I think the key lies in figuring out what deficits exist in some of us that may not exist in others.

One last quote is significant here.  Gilligan states that these violent individuals “do not perceive themselves as having non-violent means by which to maintain or restore their self esteem and self-respect (p.37).” So we see that for these individuals, violence was a way to force respect from the people around them. Self-esteem and respect were clearly deficits in these individuals.

Replace shame, restore individuals

Although we may not know every reason in this research of why someone becomes violent, I think Gilligan provides critical insight. Many people use violence as way to recoup what they feel they do not have the power to gain any other way: self-respect.

Prison cell
How do we restore self-esteem and replace shame?

There is so much valuable information here to unpack, but I do believe that we have some important principles and concepts to work with as we are attempting to prevent violence.

Whether we are parenting, building relationships at our workplace, working in schools or in our many systems of caring for those in need, we must allow people to replace feelings of shame and humiliation with a way to keep their honor intact. We must find ways to restore their self-esteem, dignity, respect, sense of self-worth and hope. If not, then we feed the intense frustration they feel of being trapped and unable to find a way to cope with their anger and indignities, and as a result, force respect through a violent act.

Stay tuned

In future posts, we will continue to discuss some implications of this research for those we touch everyday. These are very important issues for us all to be aware of as we influence others.

Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Some information taken from Preventing Violence through Anger Management, 2006, Diane Wagenhals.

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