What the Sandra Bland Case Teaches us About the Power of Shame

shame artI saw key parts of the dashcam video from the Sandra Bland arrest and immediately noticed how the emotion of shame played a big role.

Early in the traffic stop Ms. Bland stated to state trooper Brian Encinia that she hadn’t signaled a lane change because he was coming up behind her quickly and she was trying to get out of his way. That was the turning point in the interaction.

The officer quickly became irritated, then angry, which led to the interaction escalating.  Sadly, Ms. Bland later ended up dead in a jail cell following her arrest and three-day detention.

The psychology is quite obvious. The officer did not like the fact that Ms. Bland had an explanation for her behavior that pointed, ever so slightly, at him having some accountability for her alleged traffic violation.

People who have difficulty tolerating shame have great difficulty handling any criticism. Even if that criticism is a fact.

These people, which I label “Dominators” in my book “Pack Leader Psychology,” have a hard time handling shame or blame they feel from others. They have high levels of self-loathing and this leads them to fear and protect against experiencing any additional shame. Most noticeable is the Dominator’s inability to be accountable for behaviors. These people are defensive, attack others, blame others, shame others, refuse to apologize and can never be wrong. All in service of protecting them from feelings of shame.

Anger is Shame’s Bodyguard

As the saying goes: “Anger is shame’s bodyguard.”

When Dominators are insulted or even perceive an insult they can be easily triggered into anger and even violence.

The police officer in the Bland case likely experienced feelings of shame when she alluded to his responsibility for her behaviors, then felt Ms. Bland was disrespecting him by smoking and later insulting him. It all fed his feelings of shame.

If he had insight, he would recognize that he was feeling and thinking something like this: “Your questioning of me and disrespecting me makes me feel ashamed and hurt. So I’m going to lash out in anger at you to avoid dealing with these feelings of shame. It’s too hard to feel shame and feel so unworthy as a person.”

The influence of shame may be subtle in this case, but it’s there. Shame is a powerful influence on human behavior and, sadly, is often masked over by anger. It is easy to notice the anger and miss the fact that a person’s shame is the real driver of the behavior.

We must begin screening police officers for their ability to tolerate shame. Those who can’t tolerate shame escalate to anger and cause situations like this.

What Type of Person Never Admits to Needing Therapy?

It is a truism in psychotherapy that those who actually should be attending therapy are the ones who rarely find their way into treatment.

In “Pack Leader Psychology” I categorized personalities into three types: Dominators, Submissives and Avoiders. Dominators are the types most likely to need therapy yet also least likely to seek treatment. However, the behavior of Dominators is also the most likely to send others into therapy.

Scratch the surface of anyone in therapy for common problems such as depression or anxiety or ADHD and you’ll usually find a Submissive or Avoider whose life has been made difficult by a Dominator.

This shows up in predictable ways such as:

  • a child with an intrusive, opinionated “helicopter parent” who develops behavioral problems or school attention problems due to the parent’s anxiety and over-control
  • a spouse who has been controlled, threatened or even abused by a partner and who is experiencing nervousness, anxiety and insomnia
  • a family member frustrated with a sibling who is attention-seeking, dramatic, and can never be wrong about anything
  • a spouse who believes she has to submit to her husband who argues about everything and cannot back down in a fight

Submissives and Avoiders come to therapy to find ways to cope with the Dominators in their lives. While I can certainly help these patients, especially by helping them be more assertive, my effectiveness is limited because the person who really needs therapy is not in the room.

I actually would love to require that everyone come to therapy WITH the person who is the source of their problems. That would really help the process along! All psychology is about human relationships, after all.

But getting Dominators to show up in therapy or stay in therapy for the long haul is the trick. Because of their strong reluctance to admit any faults, Dominators have great difficulty admitting that they might need therapy or might need to address any personal deficits.

Dominators can’t admit fault because they experience high levels of shame and, as a result, have great difficulty being accountable for their behavior. Challenge them on a mistake and they will lash out at others rather than take the blame.

Of course, if the Dominator were in therapy we could dig deeper and look at their insecure attachments to parents in their childhood to explain this self-protective behavior, but…

This leaves Submissives and Avoiders to seek help to address their own emotional problems that often developed as a result of the Dominator’s behavior. If the Dominator is “always right and never wrong” this sows chaos in the lives of those around them.

While Dominators are reluctant to accept blame, Submissives tend to be very self-blaming. These people-pleasers have learned to default to thoughts of self-criticism. Even if they have been treated terribly by a Dominator, perhaps abused physically or emotionally, Submissives may dismiss feelings of resentment or anger because they “shouldn’t feel that way.” The disconnect between the obvious reality of the Dominator’s inappropriate behavior and dismissal of the Submissive’s true emotions leads to confusion and a loss of authenticity or sense of self. Anyone would be anxious or depressed in that situation!

If you know someone who lacks accountability, does not like to be proven wrong, can’t apologize and hates criticism, you probably know a Dominator.

When I gently point out some behavior patterns in their lives, patients often come to the obvious conclusion themselves, saying: “Sounds like my wife/dad/sister is the one who should be in therapy.” Yep!

An Attack in the Woods Teaches About Bullying Dogs and Owners

Walking the dogs in the woods this morning I had a de ja vu experience. Around a corner came two large golden retrievers and their female owner that I wrote about in “Pack Leader Psychology”. For a fascinating synopsis of “Dominator” behavior, read this recap of today’s incident, with my interpretations of the human behavior in brackets.

When I encountered this group about four years ago the two dogs charged Reilly, rolled her and I ran to her rescue fending off the two large dogs with my legs. I barely touched the dogs, using only my energy, sharp tone of voice and fast action to signal my intention. The owner started yelling at me as if I was the offending party. She was a classic Dominator and bully just as her dogs were.

Well, no surprise, these three bully Dominators behaved in a predictable manner. This time the dogs charged Hope who was right next to me. Reilly was off hunting about 20 yards away.

I grabbed Hope’s collar and put her behind me to block the two dogs. Hope is very subordinate and gave no signs of dominance or attack to these dogs. Yet they pushed past me to get at Hope, a very aggressive move. Most dogs would have broken off the charge if an owner had stepped in the way, but not these two. [Their owner also has no boundaries or respect for others, as you will soon learn.] Hope broke away and the more dominant dog continued the chase and rolled her — into a mud puddle, no less.

From the moment the attack started the woman stood at a distance yelling:  “Don’t worry. My dogs are nice. They won’t hurt your dogs, etc.”  Yet their behavior was showing the complete opposite. [Dominators are very willing to ignore bad behavior and make “reality-altering statements” that they hope will mislead the easily mislead. As if saying her dogs were not attacking mine makes it not so.]

When I collared my dogs without saying a word she got angry and started spewing hostile comments. [Dominators are hypersensitive to criticism and she imagined I was criticizing her even though I wasn’t and had not said a word to her. ]

Then I very calmly said: “I am just trying to keep my dogs safe.” She really flipped out and began very aggressively calling me names. [Dominators often over-react to a situation far beyond what is normal, and that reaction is nearly always a “fight” response. In this case, wouldn’t a good dog owner collar their dogs, no matter what the situation was or whose fault it was? Yet this Dominator’s “reality” was that I was somehow the guilty party. She had made no attempt to call or collar her dogs, just as she failed to do four years ago. ]

Then she said: “My dogs are 10 and 12 and are no threat to anyone. They are very nice.” [Dominators make lots of excuses for bad behavior and refuse to acknowledge the actual facts of the behavior.]

At this point I had said one sentence (calmly) and she had said dozens in a very aggressive tone of voice. Despite my reaction, her next predictable behavior was to switch to attacking me: “You don’t know anything about dogs. You shouldn’t even own dogs.” [Dominators feel trapped in an emotional corner very easily, then lash out at others suddenly and with over-the-top comments, quickly becoming irrational in their statements. How did she know what I know about dogs? It’s a pretty strong statement to say that I shouldn’t own dogs. Especially when the evidence was that she was the one who was the irresponsible dog owner.]

At this point I had to say this: “Well, I do know YOUR dogs, because they did this exact thing four years ago. They rolled my dog and I had to fight them off of her.”

Most interestingly, after she made the comment about me being a bad dog owner, I had the de ja vu experience. I realized that this entire conversation was nearly word for word what it was four years ago. Given that her dogs have behaved exactly the same way twice with me, I’d guess they’ve done this many times to other dogs. She is used to a reaction from the owners and has a ready answer all rehearsed. [Dominators develop thought patterns that serve them and repeat them over and over. Repeated arguments with them will start to sound very familiar, as they dredge up past incidents and insults over and over again. They also have a strong instinct for what will be most hurtful to others. With dog owners, this woman knew that calling them bad owners or ignorant about dogs would be the most hurtful thing she could attack them with. So she did, because her sense of self-worth was so low she had to do anything she could to protect her fragile self-identity, including flinging random, over-the-top insults at a stranger for no reason.]

And just as in the past, she wandered off screaming to herself and to the woods about what a horrible person I was and how I was such a terrible dog owner.

Notice also that not once did this woman apologize for her dogs’ behavior or her lack of control or discipline with her dogs or, of course, her rude behavior. Everything was a predictable lineup of Dominator behavior: excuses about her dogs’ behavior, opinionated comments, aggressive tone of voice, critical attacks on me, entitled view of herself and a lack of accountability. She was so busy attacking me with her well-rehearsed speech, that she never did call her dogs or discipline them. [Dominators are very averse to admitting fault. Lack of accountability is their core character flaw. Heaven forbid she actually admit she has poorly trained dogs and actually discipline them.]

This lack of accountability severely limits a Dominator’s ability to learn, change and grow. Notice that after a dozen years of similar encounters with other dogs and dog owners this woman has not learned a thing. She has not learned how to discipline her dogs, to be accountable for anyone’s bad behavior, to apologize, or to notice a pattern — that ALL the other dog owners and dogs they encounter have the same reaction yet she somehow can convince herself THEY are ALL bad dogs and bad owners. [Dominators are very unlikely to change because of their lack of accountability. Their ability to fool themselves in order to protect their sense of self is very powerful.]

So this woman and other Dominators stumble through life offending others with no conscious clue of the reactions they are causing. Most likely she has few friends because of her offensive behavior.  And her lack of accountability prevents her from making key insights, keeping her trapped in an angry, hostile, bullying behavior pattern.

The good news is that I am not a Dominator and I have learned from my experiences. This incident was not a completely de ja vu experience, because my reaction was slightly different.  Four years ago I remember being quite angry about the incident, especially the woman’s name-calling and accusations. I said a few harsh things about her as we parted, calling her the bad dog owner. This time I was completely calm throughout the incident, did not raise my voice one decibel, said only two sentences and left feeling angry at her but only for a moment. I could recognize the Dominator behavior for what it was and I did not become emotionally upset at her comments. My self-worth is not dependent on the opinions of others, especially the opinions of someone as unstable as that woman. Her harsh comments rolled off my back quickly and easily and I moved on with my day with only a few minutes of emotional reaction.

One last lesson: I am fascinated that her dogs are aggressive bullies, just as she is. Like owner, like dog.

Dogs (and their owners) can teach us so much about human behavior if we know the Pack Leader Psychology elements to look for.

For Dominators, watch for:

  • inability to apologize or be wrong
  • a need to be right and opinionated
  • a sense of entitlement
  • a lack of personal accountability
  • verbal aggression that is over the top for the situation
  • lashing out, attacking and criticizing others (the “fight” response)
  • a lack of personal boundaries
  • an inability to recognize inappropriate behavior
  • low self-worth that underlies and causes all of the above behavior

For a free quiz to find out if you are a Dominator, Submissive, Avoider or Pack Leader, sign up for my e-newsletter on www.PackLeaderPsychology.com





Are You More Accountable Than Your Dog?


When a dog is scolded, she acknowledges immediately she has done wrong. In dogs, this is often signaled by a yawnyawningdogs, a release of anxiety that often follows being disciplined. But this ability to be accountable allows them to move past the shame of being disciplined, to learn and to change.

Unfortunately, too many people today have a great deal of difficulty being accountable in this way for their behaviors. They seem unable to apologize, accept blame, admit they were wrong or admit they don’t know something. Their response is almost always to lash out at others in blame, rather than be self-aware and appropriately self-critical.

As I write in “Pack Leader Psychology,” this is because they have low self-worth and self-acceptance. Any additional shame or blame feels unbearable to them, so their choice in self-protection is to attack others. “Dominators” have personal relationships based on manipulation and control. They seek to manage others to prevent the inflow of potentially shaming messages, so they intimidate and bully as a way to get others to back down and not criticize.

These “Dominators” are all around us today, even in our immediate families, and their behavior can wreak havoc on relationships.

Without the ability to be honest with ourselves about our behavior, we cannot hope to truly understand why we behave the way we do and see its effect on others.

It is interesting to me that even people who have read “Pack Leader Psychology,” where I explicitly and directly describe this behavior and its roots fail to recognize that they have these very traits. Of course, this is exactly the problem. They are almost psychologically unable to recognize their faults. It is this very inability to be self-aware that prevents these people from moving forward with positive personal change in their lives and relationships.

Sadly, this personality disorder could have been avoided if someone had called them out on this behavior earlier in their lives before it became an ingrained pattern of self-protection. Until we break this cycle by improving the quality of parenting, these behaviors will continue to flourish in each new generation. We need good, assertive Pack Leader Parenting to start right now!

Are YOU a Pack Leader? Take the quiz to find out!

Thoughts on Accountability by Lao Tzu

Personal accountability is one of the seven character traits of a Pack Leader, as I write in Pack Leader Psychology. As a psychotherapist, getting patients to recognize, admit and correct mistakes is central to my work. Those who cannot do so, usually because they have low self-worth and are “Dominator” personalities, have a difficult time with personal  change, growth and transformation. This saying summarizes the idea of accountability perfectly.

A great nation is like a great man.

When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.

Having realized it, he admits it.

Having admitted it, he corrects it.

He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers.

– Lao Tzu