Bulletin #4422, Violence Part 2: Shame and Humiliation

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Judith Graham Ph.D., Extension human development specialist, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

For information about UMaine Extension programs and resources, visit extension.umaine.edu.
Find more of our publications and books at extension.umaine.edu/publications/.

Table of Contents

sad boyViolence Part 1, Societal and Cultural Roots, bulletin #4421, focused on the societal and cultural roots of violence, especially from the perspective of Dr. James Garbarino. The lead article introduced the concept of “social toxicity”1 and explained how “our culture and relationships are the seedbeds of violence.”2 Throughout a child’s life, he or she draws an experiential “social map.” Such maps are more circular than linear: while they are at first the result of experience, they increasingly become the cause of experience. Social maps, in all their complexity and richness, become self-sustaining as the child moves into adolescence and adulthood.3 Some maps foster the “spark of divinity” in a child, others consign “the human spirit to darkness.”4

Garbarino’s assessment of the difference between life-supporting maps and life-taking maps is worth repeating: At the heart of the matter is whether a young child is connected rather than abandoned, accepted rather than rejected, and nurtured rather than neglected and abused.5 Connection and disconnection, suggest Garbarino and other researchers, provide the foundation to which many subsequent relationship dynamics can be traced and upon which all other relationships are built.6

Connection and disconnection are the nucleus—the core—of human relationships. Connection, and its twin disconnection, are where we can start if we want to intervene in the cycle of violence that is so deeply ingrained in our culture.

As I continued the reading that informs these bulletins, I came to understand that I needed to shift the planned focus of this issue from prevention programs and strategies to the topic that is increasingly being recognized as being at the center of violence: shame. James Gilligan states that “violence, like charity, begins at home . . . shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence, whether it is toward others or toward the self.”7 “The purpose of violence,” he continues, “is to diminish the intensity of shame and replace it as far as possible with its opposite, pride.”8 This issue will highlight and explore the research on shame from a variety of perspectives.

1 James Garbarino, Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1995), 5.
2 Judith A. Graham, “Violence – Part I: Societal and Cultural Roots,” Family Issues 8, no. 3 (Orono, ME: University of Maine Cooperative Extension, 2000), 2.
3 Garbarino, Raising Children, 23-24.
4 James Garbarino, Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them (NY: The Free Press, 1999), 34.
5 Gabarino, Lost Boys, 34.
6 Gabarino, Lost Boys, 34. See also J. B. Miller, Toward a New Psychology of Women. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976, 1986); J. B. Miller, “Connections, Disconnections and Violations,” Work in Progress #33 (Wellesley, MA: The Stone Center, Wellesley College, 1988); J. V. Jordon, “Relational Development: Therapeutic Implications of Empathy and Shame,” Work in Progress #39 (Wellesley, MA: The Stone Center, Wellesley College, 1989); J. V. Jordon, “Toward Connection and Competence,” Work in Progress #83 (Wellesley, MA: The Stone Center, Wellesley College, 1999); J. I. Clarke, Connections: The Threads That Strengthen Families (Center City, MN: Hazelton, 1999); L. M. Hartling, L. M. Rosen, M. Walker & J. V. Jordon, “Shame and Humiliation: From Isolation to Relational Transformation,” Work in Progress #88. (Wellesley, MA: The Stone Center, Wellesley College, 2000).
7 James Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (NY: Random House, 1996), 5, 110.
8 Gilligan, 111.

Shame and Pride


One particular aspect of violence that stands out in recent research is the role of shame as a precursor of and trigger for violent acts. Shame is only one aspect of the complicated and ambiguous issue of violence,1 but one that is seen as foundational in importance. Only recently has shame been brought into attempts to understand and address violence in our culture.

Shame is defined by Jean Illsley Clarke as “that debilitating feeling that we are bad. Not that we have done something bad, but that we are bad.”2 Shame makes us feel inadequate, incompetent, and inappropriate simply because we exist; we feel devalued, disempowered, or disgraced.3 Shame involves “one’s whole being in relationship.”4 The degree of shame can range from mild embarrassment to deep mortification.5 Regardless of intensity, any amount of shame makes us feel fundamentally flawed.6 For some of us, shame can be an overwhelming emotion, instinctive and nameless; for all of us, shame is the concealed driving force behind many of our daily interactions.7 Donald Nathanson emphasizes that shame is far more pervasive and powerful than most of us imagine. “Shame— our reaction to it and our avoidance of it”—is “a primary force in social and political evolution”; it is “the emotion of politics and conformity.”8

Shame frequently follows those moments of exposure, when something we want to keep hidden or secret about ourselves is revealed. While shame is more prevalent in hierarchical or dominant-subordinate relationships characterized by power imbalances (power-over relationships or cultures), it is part of life for all of us.9 James Gilligan describes shame as a “psychological pathogen” spread by “social, economic, and cultural vectors”; it is the “primary or ultimate cause of all violence.”10 “The purpose of violence,” he continues, “is to diminish the intensity of shame and replace it as far as possible with its opposite, pride.”11

Power-over cultures are likely to view shame and humiliation as pro-social. This view suggests that “after a series of ritual humiliations a person is somehow transformed and achieves fitness for membership and belonging. The unfortunate by-product of pro-social humiliation is that it instills a lasting sense of vulnerability (fear of censure and exclusion), as well as a penchant for imposing such humiliation onto others.”12 The culture we live in and the methods we use of socializing our children clearly fit the description of a power-over culture.


The word pride defines a family of positive emotions stemming from “the pleasure we achieve in a moment of competence.” Healthy pride is about personal efficacy, a meeting or surpassing of our standards, a “pleasant feeling of uniqueness and social distinction.”13 It is the part of our identity we want the world to see; it is our “public” face where shame is our “private” face. While shame causes us to isolate ourselves from others and disconnect from relationships, “pride moves from an individual experience, a solitary assessment of the self by the self, to a statement about the self-in-comparison-to-others. In the moment of pride I am willing to be—indeed, I want to be—seen and judged by my peers.”14

1 James Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (NY: Random House, 1996), 5.
2 Jean Illsley Clarke, Connections: The Threads That Strengthen Families (Center City, MN: Hazelton, 1999), 130.
3 Clarke, 5; L. M. Hartling, L. M. Rosen, M. Walker, & J. V. Jordon, “Shame and Humiliation: From Isolation to Relational Transformation,” Work in Progress #88, (Wellesley, MA: The Stone Center, Wellesley College), 1.
4 Hartling, et. al., 1.
5 Donald Nathanson, Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self (NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992), 19.
6 Nathanson, 30.
7 Clarke, 130; Nathanson, 21.
8 Nathanson, 16.
9 Hartling, et. al., 3.
10 Gilligan, 105, 110.
11 Gilligan, 111.
12 Hartling, 9.
13 Nathanson, 20, 84.
14 Nathanson, 84.

Shame and Violence

“Violence, like charity, begins at home,” states prison psychiatrist and author James Gilligan. Using violence to address contention is learned behavior. At a very young age, we adopt family methods of creating and solving problems. Thus these behaviors become instinctive, automatic responses, until we lose all awareness that human relations can be approached in any other way.1 Gilligan argues that we need to examine violence as tragedy, with all of the relational components of tragic drama; it is tragic for the victim and perpetrator alike.2 Violent behavior, Gilligan asserts, while complex and grievous, is essentially intended to impose justice. In fact, the single common cause of violence is the bestowal of the violent person’s idea of justice.3

Violence is first and foremost a male behavior, practiced by men upon other men. To comprehend violence, then, we need to under-stand the causes of male violence. And to comprehend male violence we must look at what it means to be socialized as a male or a female in our culture, and examine the ways in which male and female gender roles complement and intensify each other.4

Crime and Punishment

In our quest to understand the roots of violence, we would do well to consider the violence inherent in our systems of punishment. The punishments we mete out by legal decree use violence to achieve justice, just as crime uses violence to achieve justice. Crime and punishment, rather than opposing each other, reinforce each other through a ritual transfer of honor and shame. Punishment shifts the shame from the victim to the perpetrator, and returns honor to the victim. Both crime and punishment use the same means—violence—to accomplish the same goal—retribution.5

According to Elliott Currie, we have the knowledge to prevent violence, but not the inclination. In his book Confronting Crime: An American Challenge, Currie asserts that “we have the level of criminal violence we do because we have arranged our social and economic life in certain ways rather than others. The brutality and violence of American life are a signal . . . that there are profound social costs to maintaining those arrangements. But by the same token, altering them also has a price; and if we continue to tolerate the conditions that have made us the most violent of industrial societies, it is not because the problem is overwhelmingly mysterious or because we do not know what to do, but because we have decided that the benefits of changing those conditions aren’t worth the costs.”6

Violence as the Absence of Love

To the victim, violence overwhelmingly represents an absence of love. Children who are subjected to violence in the home make a clear connection between violence and rejection. However, the human soul is nurtured and sustained by love. As an absence of love, violence that does not destroy the body can still destroy the soul.

Where does the human soul find the love it requires? There are only two sources: other people, and the self. However, self-love cannot develop without first experiencing love from others. If a child fails to receive love from the people around her, she will not build any sense of self-love to help her endure. Sensing an absence of love, she will perceive herself as inferior and not worthy of self-love. Having no reserves of self-love and self-respect, she will have no protection from any future pain inflicted by a continued dearth of love from those around her. Such an unprotected self gradually numbs and dies.7

Gilligan defines shame as a lack of self-love, while pride is defined as self-love and self-esteem. He compares shame to cold, in that when it reaches an unbearable degree, the result is numbness and eventually death. Shame occurs when one is attacked, mocked, scorned, rejected or discarded. The soul that experiences too much shame ceases to exist.8

The violence that begets violence encompasses more than direct physical assault. Mental and emotional violence “can shame and reject, insult and humiliate, dishonor and disgrace, tear down self-esteem and murder the soul.”9 A person who has not been loved has no reserves of love to give to himself or others. The resulting lack of feeling leads to a lack of empathy for all human feelings. The real tragedy of violence is that it springs from an unquenchable thirst for love—unquenchable because the ability to give love to the self or others has been destroyed. The barren soul has instead filled up with hate.10

Fear of shame—fear that one’s inherent unlovability will become evident—is a fundamental motivation for violence. Violent people are preoccupied with a fear of scorn and shame.11 Gilligan observes that “the word ‘disrespect’ is so central in the vocabulary, moral value system, and psychodynamics of these chronically violent men that they have abbreviated it into the slang term, ‘he dis’ed me.’”12

Shame involves a wealth of emotional and cultural symbolism. Social statuses such as poverty, unemployment and homelessness are powerful sources of shame, and help to explain violence as a cultural phenomenon. Envy is another face of shame, as an expression of comparative inadequacy. A person who feels innately shameful, unworthy, becomes quick to take offense at perceived ridicule. A shame-obsessed person hears ridicule even when none was intended. A shame-obsessed person loses the ability to distinguish between their inner feelings of worthlessness and everyday happenings: they believe that they are ever objects of derision.13

Preconditions for violence

For shame to escalate into violence, Gilligan suggests that three preconditions need to be met:

  • Deep, chronic feelings of shame are elicited by highly trivial incidents, so that revealing the source of the shame is itself acutely shameful.
  • The shamed person perceives no nonviolent means of reducing his shameful feelings or increasing his feelings of self-worth.
  • The personal capacity to inhibit violent impulses is compromised or lacking. Feelings of love and guilt for others and fear for oneself are the most important inhibitors of violent behavior.14

Gender Socialization

Emotional and physical dependency are antithetic to our cultural image of a “sexually adequate male.” Feelings of dependency and the deep desire to be loved and cared for by others are a prominent cause of shame for many men; violent behavior is the antidote. Defensive masks of bravado, arrogance and “studied indifference” hide the dark secret of shameful feelings of dependency and the desire to be loved.15

Gilligan summarizes the destructive and collusive outcome of our cultural values concerning violence: “The male gender role generates violence by exposing men to shame if they are not violent, and rewarding them with honor when they are. The female gender role also stimulates male violence at the same time that it inhibits female violence. It does this by restricting women to the role of highly unfree sex objects, and honoring them to the degree that they submit to those roles or shaming them when they rebel . . . . Neither shame nor guilt, then, can solve the problem of violence; shame causes hate, which becomes violence (usually toward other people), and guilt merely redirects it (usually onto the self).”16

We minimize the role of shame in violence because we fail to recognize the accumulation of shaming incidents in their triviality, and remain unprepared for the magnitude of the violent outcome. Precipitating incidents and the resulting violent behavior are significantly out of proportion to each other. The causes of such shame are so trivial as to invoke irrational shame: the more trivial the cause, the more intense the shame. “As the shame-sensitive person knows…only an unimportant and slight person would be vulnerable to, and upset over, an unimportant slight.”17

1 James Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (NY: Random House, 1996), 5.
2 Gilligan, 6-7.
3 Gilligan, 11-12.
4 Gilligan, 229.
5 Gilligan, 139-144.
6 Elliott Currie, Confronting Crime: An American Challenge (NY: Pantheon, 1985), 19, quoted in Gilligan, 22.
7 Gilligan, 47.
8 Gilligan, 47-48.
9 Gilligan, 49.
10 Gilligan, 51, 53.
11 Gilligan, 64-66.
12 Gilligan, 105-106.
13 Gilligan, 66-76.
14 Gilligan, 111-113.
15 Gilligan, 116, 118.
16 Gilligan, 233, 236.
17 Gilligan, 133-135.

Shame as Affect and Social Shame

Shame is both an innate affect and an outcome of experiences (social shame). While the word affect describes the strictly biological portion of any emotion, social shame reflects our life histories. Comparing our human emotional system to a computer, Dr. Donald Nathanson describes three levels—hardware, firmware, and software—that “power” our biological systems:

  • The “hardware” is the central nervous system, including the biochemical environments, neurotransmitters, structural “wiring,” data handling capacity, information storage and retrieval, the endocrine and exocrine systems, and the striated muscles controlling the face, posture, and vocalization.
  • The “firmware” consists of the nine affects and drives that are part of our genetic heritage—the prewritten programs that organize our behavior to some extent.
  • Our “software” is all our learning, social conditioning, and experience.Social shame is part of our software system, as differentiated from the innate affect of “shame-humiliation,” which is part of our firmware system.1

The Affect System

“Shame-humiliation” is one of nine affects that are part of the firmware of our biological systems. Affects are extremely powerful. “Whatever is important to us is made so by affect. Affect is the engine that drives us,” states Nathanson. “Affect makes good things better and bad things worse.”2

The shame affect is triggered time and time again over the life span of every individual, and on every occasion this happens in the context of some situation or interaction. Quickly, and over time, each of us begins to accumulate experiences; these affects become intertwined with our experience memories. Together, these experiences and emotions become scripts or stories out of which we act and react.3

We all have the same built-in mechanisms: when triggered, the anger affect—whose most prominent stimulus is shame or humiliation—is identical in all of us. We differ as individuals, however, because of the unique way each of us understands or “remembers” our experiences and the attached feelings.4

Shame, Growth, and Development

During the course of life, we grow and develop. So, too, does our experience of shame shift and change as we develop. The family of emotions we call shame develops slowly and differently for each of us.

Growth and development center around eight different themes. These themes involve changes in

  • size and strength;
  • dexterity and physical skill;
  • dependence vs. independence;
  • cognitive ability;
  • communication;
  • the sense of self;
  • gender identity and sexuality; and
  • interpersonal skills.

We feel and attach pride to each accomplishment of normal growth and development, and we attach shame to any failures, real or perceived.5

Shame and the Self

The concept of self is an umbrella concept or overarching construct: everything about us fits into it. It is a system rather than an entity. A personality is also a construct of roles. Each role involves, in part, some specific pattern of affect display. All roles are shaped and limited by shame. Shame can also be a teacher: it is the emotion most likely to make us pay attention to our “selves” and think deeply about the self. Shame is the mechanism through which we know and remember our failures. “While it is clear,” writes Nathanson, “that shame affect is triggered by experiences that have nothing to do with competence, shame produces an awareness of an incompetent self.”6

Socialization of children is largely a process of learning affect or emotional control. Learning how affect can be displayed and expressed is much of what it means to fit into a family, a group, or a culture.7

Social Shame

Shame isolates and disconnects us. Shame can take us out of relationship with others and out of relationship with ourselves. When we feel shame, we hide both the feelings of shame and the parts of us that triggered the shame. Shame impedes our relational connections by increasing our feelings of incompetency and by triggering feelings of inadequacy. Shame can cause us to alter the self we bring into relationships by reducing the parts of ourselves we allow others to see, or even allow ourselves to know. We get so busy creating a facade that looks okay to other people that we are impeded in our ability to know our true selves.8 “When we cannot represent ourselves authentically in relationship, when our real experience is not heard or responded to by the other person, then we must falsify, detach from, or suppress our response.”9

Shame also makes us feel vulnerable. The shame accompanying past neglects, humiliations, and violations makes us fearful of engaging others. We simply do not feel protected or safe enough to be our full selves in relational encounters.10 These shame experiences—including experiences of being scorned, ridiculed, belittled, ostracized, or demeaned—can interfere with our ability to participate in the relationships that we need in order to grow.11

The concept of self can also be expanded to a broader perspective that includes our interactions and relationships with others. Thus, the self-reflective aspect of shame broadens to reflection on our self-in-relationship. Shame can make us relationally conscious, especially when shame serves as a precursor to disconnection or rejection.12 “Shaming, unlike the spontaneous arising of shame from some sense of inadequacy or failure in our being, is done to people by other people, usually to control or disempower them in some way. It plays a role in almost all socialization to greater or lesser degrees. Socialization toward independence and socialization toward gender role compliance are among the areas where the most stringent shaming typically occurs. It is used by parents and it is used by peers.”13

Responses to Shame

Shame, experienced both as affect and as social shame, involves judgment and blame. The person suffering with shame feels self-blame or turns the blame against others. One way of understanding our responses to shame and humiliation, as well as others’ responses, is to utilize a model based on a typology of personality types. In this section we will briefly examine a relational response to shame; in the next article we will examine in-depth Nathanson’s compass of shame as a second, more individual-self response model.

Relational responses to shame or humiliation can be grouped into three broad categories. “Some individuals may engage in a ‘moving away’ strategy, separating themselves from relationships (e.g., withdrawing, silencing themselves, or making themselves invisible). Many children shamed through neglect and abuse may adopt this strategy of survival. Other individuals may exhibit a ‘moving toward’ strategy by keeping important parts of their experience out of relationship in an attempt to appease or please the other to secure the relationship or just to survive in the relationship. This strategy may explain the logic underlying the behavior of some individuals coping with difficult, problematic, or even abusive relationships. Finally, still others may exhibit a ‘moving against’ strategy, directing anger, resentment, and rage against those whom they believe to be the source of their shame or humiliation.”14

Jean Illsley Clarke concisely describes shame as a “stopper.” Because shame has such a powerful impact, adults frequently use it to stop unwanted behavior in children. “It does that,” she says. “It stops them cold. Trouble is, it also leaves them cold. It does bring them to their knees, but it is very hard for children to get up again. Some never do. They go through life displacing their shame onto other people and persecuting them.”15

1 Donald Nathanson, Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self (NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992), 29, 205. Affects come in three types of categories— two affects that are basically pleasant or positive, one that is neutral, and six others that are basically unpleasant or negative. With only a couple of exceptions, each innate affect is given a two-word group name, the first indicating the mildest form in which it may be seen, the second representing its most intense presentation. The positive affects are interest-excitement and enjoyment-joy; the neutral affect is called surprise-startle; and the negative affects are fear-terror, distress-anguish, anger-rage, dissmell, disgust, and shame-humiliation. Each may be regarded as a pattern of expression, a specific package of information triggered in response to a particular type of stimulus. (59)
2 Nathanson, 59.
3 Nathanson, 48-50, 59.
4 Nathanson, 50, 150.
5 Nathanson, 157-160.
6 Nathanson, 203-211.
7 Nathanson, 70.
8 J. I. Clarke, Connections: The Threads That Strengthen Families (Center City: MN: Hazelton, 1999), 130.
9 J. V. Jordon, “Toward Connection and Competence;” Work in Progress #83 (Wellesley, MA: The Stone Center, Wellesley College, 1999), 1.
10 J. B. Miller & I. Stiver, “Relational Images and Their Meaning in Psychotherapy,” Work in Progress #74 (Wellesley, MA: The Stone Center, Wellesley College, 1995), 1.
11 L. M. Hartling, L. M. Rosen, M., Walker & J. V. Jordon, “Shame and Humiliation : From Isolation to Relational Transformation,” Work in Progress #88 (Wellesley, MA: The Stone Center, Wellesley College, 2000), 1.
12 Hartling, et. al., 2.
13 Hartling, et. al., 10.
14 Hartling, et. al., 4.
15 Clarke, 133.

The Compass of Shame

Responses to shame fall into two major groups—acceptance or defense. Acceptance means that I am willing to change as a result of feeling shame. Acceptance as a response is therefore rarer, as most of us want to mitigate the pain of shame but don’t want to alter ourselves. Dr. Donald Nathanson has broken the more common defensive response into four major patterns that together he identifies as the compass of shame. How we handle a moment of shame or humiliation, how we react and what we do next, is a major factor in the architecture of our character structure and our entire personality.1

Our scripts contain rules for how we handle these powerful affective experiences. Because of the additive nature of our scripts, however, when something occurs that fits into a script, it is experienced with an intensity far exceeding the expected response based on the situation.2

Almost any feeling is more comfortable than shame so we convert the experience of shame into something “less punishing.” We develop defensive scripts to try to diminish the painful feeling of shame. Defensive scripts come from the reactive phase of shame and draw upon “all the habits, defenses, tricks, strategies, tactics, excuses, protections, buffers, apologies, justifications, arguments, and rejoinders that we have devised, witnessed, or stored over our lifetime.”3

Nathanson describes the four types of defensive scripts that make up the compass of shame as withdrawal, avoidance, attack self, and attack other. We each favor a preferred pattern or system of defense. “Each pattern or category depicts a system of shame management and is a set of strategies by which we have learned to handle shame. Shame is experienced differently in each defensive script or pattern because the purpose of the strategy is to make it feel different.”4

Those who use withdrawal “are the most willing to experience all of the physiological manifestations of shame and all the thoughts that flood us during the cognitive phase.” For some, however, the experience of shame is so toxic, they must use avoidance and engage in strategies to reduce, minimize, shake off, or severely limit felt shame. Attack self is the pattern for people willing to experience shame as long as others understand they have “done so voluntarily and with the intention of fostering their relationship with us.” In contrast, the hallmark of those who move to attack other is that “someone must be made lower than I.” Every incidence of domestic violence, graffiti, public vandalism, schoolyard fighting, put-down, ridicule, contempt, and intentional public humiliation is an activity of the attack other reaction to shame.5


In our society, withdrawal is considered the “appropriate” response to shame; withdrawal is also a natural response. “Withdrawal allows us to ponder everything that has just flooded into consciousness, to contemplate it in the privacy of our inner world. Withdrawal allows us to be overwhelmed.” The withdrawal response discussed here is not the same use of withdrawal as in acceptance, where the information presented in a moment or incident of shame is used as a tool for changing some aspect of self and increasing one’s self-awareness. Rather, withdrawal can benefit the self in different ways. First, the period of isolation (regardless of how long it lasts) can give a person time to regroup and recover self-esteem. Secondly, isolation may prevent further shaming: “withdrawal can protect from injury as well as foster healing.”6 Withdrawal as a defensive script is likely to be accompanied by feelings of distress and fear.


Shame is by far the leading reason for disavowal of one’s experience. Disavowal is about refusing to comprehend unwanted information because it triggers unwanted shame. In a way, it is like lying to oneself. “The strategies through which we humans attempt to avoid, disguise, prevent, elude, or circumvent embarrassment and guilt form an assortment of scripts grouped at the avoidance pole of the compass of shame. Included here are all the ways one can say no to shame.” In this group of scripts are those that fool others, those that fool one’s self, and those that fool both.7

Avoidance is a common defense for those of us who grew up in a family that seemed unable to love. Few children can be “dispassionate” enough about the environment of an unloving home to develop any real understanding; most children put in this situation will use a variety of denial strategies in order to avoid such “knowledge.”8

Another method of avoidance is to identify with someone we admire, such as a sports figure, actor/actress, or teacher. When we are unable to demonstrate competence by our own efforts, thus giving ourselves a sense of healthy pride, we borrow pride and prestige through identification with others whose efficacy we admire.9 Avoidance is likely to be accompanied by feelings of excitement, fear, and enjoyment.

Attack Self

We have all had those moments when mild embarrassment helped to facilitate a relationship or made us feel more connected to others rather than less. When someone else can express freely what we wish to keep hidden, we may feel a certain kinship or affiliation. Used carefully, this response of shame can make people feel kindly toward us. This is one of the mechanisms behind attack self—one of the bargains arising from willingly, openly accepting shame.10 To this group of scripts, the injunction “Do unto yourself what you fear others may do to you” is most applicable. We put ourselves down, ridicule ourselves, or describe our own actions with distaste.11 Attack self is likely to be accompanied by feelings of self-disgust.

Attack Other

The attack other bundle of scripts is about “turning the tables” on the other person. For many people, it is when we feel most brittle about the adequacy of our “body ego”—matters of personal size, strength, ability, and skill—that the attack other scripts are favored. While many of us are reluctant to belittle, disparage, threaten, or actually injure people unless we reach some intensely private “point of no return,” more and more people are choosing to attempt to reduce painful shame experiences by attacking others in a variety of ways, both subtle and overt. The attack other defensive script usually involves feelings of anger or rage.

Thoughts that cause the most pain—displayed as anger and rage—are those of weakness, smallness, incompetence, clumsiness, and stupidity. Any strategy that attenuates these painful thoughts will be thought acceptable. “In a burst of rage we prove our power, competence, and size, even though the previously intimate other may be forced to reel away from us . . . . In short, rage cures one part of shame while it magnifies most of the problems associated with the remainder of it.”12

The decision to use attack other scripts and to escalate attack strategies against another depends at least partially on our assessment of the interpersonal relationship involved. Insults or belittlements from someone I consider inferior or less powerful are likely to be tolerated or sloughed off—not responded to with any significant energy. But should these same insults be from an “authentic rival,” I am more likely to respond with increased energy and anger, especially if I cannot afford any shift in the balance of power between us. In order to attack, I must have decided that the actions of the other alter our relationship to such an extent that different rules now exist. I now perceive the other person as dangerous, disloyal, unworthy of my trust, or for me, not operating in my best interests; therefore, they can and must be attacked. The purpose of the attack is to return this person to a more acceptable or “normal” position relative to me.13

To shift into the attack other mode of functioning, (1) the individual must feel endangered by the depths to which his or her self-esteem has been reduced; (2) this danger, regardless of the realm of the self in which it was initiated, must then be viewed as if it really derived from the body-ego (personal size, strength, ability, and skill); (3) the person must have grown up in a family system or some sort of environment that permits or encourages the use of attack as a way to handle danger; and finally (4) the value and the importance of whatever interpersonal relationship had existed previously must be critically reduced by the actions of the other.14

Examples of the attack other form of response surround us. We have only to turn on the television to see people in one show after another attacking each other in ways “marvelously subtle and terribly broad.” The message of such shows teaches “that we are not mature until we can attack others, until we are capable of increasing our own self-esteem at the expense of others.”15

“You may attack another person with an army, with a couple of hired thugs, with a gun, a baseball bat, your bare fists or fingernails, a slap in the face, a communicable illness, a curse, an insult, a contemptuous sneer, a barely raised eyebrow, by refusing to acknowledge a friendly greeting, by cutting that person from your social circle, or by requiring of one’s friends that they, too, snub or shun your enemy. Each of these gestures can be experienced as an attack. Words by which you might describe these attacks include, but are by no means limited to: Bully, blackmail, slander, put-down, ridicule, disdain, sarcasm, scorn, derision, mockery, satire, burlesque, haughtiness, criticism, censure, superciliousness, scoffing, sneering, slurs, vituperation, caustic, asperity, venom, virulence, viciousness, spite, petulance, cynicism, scathing, harsh, malevolent, malignant, hateful, insulting, excoriating, abusive, corroding, surly, and contemptuous. Each of these describes a process by which some aspect of another person is reduced, abraded, diminished, abased, abashed, destroyed, hurt, dashed, daunted, dispirited, lessened, depreciated, belittled, disparaged, discredited, defamed, weakened, blunted, devalued, blemished, tarnished, injured, punished, or inconvenienced. The study of the attack other mode is an exercise through which we come to appreciate the extraordinary range of human creativity.”

Donald Nathanson, Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self (NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992), 367.

1 Donald Nathanson, Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self (NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992), 309.
2 Nathanson, 311.
3 Nathanson, 309.
4 Nathanson, 312.
5 Nathanson, 313-314.
6 Nathanson, 318-322, 329. “Those who handle shame by acceptance are willing to admit into consciousness any and all of the thoughts listed in [Table 1]. No matter what is revealed by the moment of shame, no matter what defect or incompetence is detected, it will become the stimulus to some form of work on the self. Those who react by withdrawal have also chosen to accept the feeling of shame, but with no way of using it as a source of information for such a commitment.”
7 Nathanson, 337-339.
8 Nathanson, 340-341.
9 Nathanson, 353.
10 Nathanson, 328
11 Nathanson, 329.
12 Nathanson, 364.
13 Nathanson, 366.
14 Nathanson, 366.
15 Nathanson, 361, 367-368.

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© 2001

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