The Connection Between Anger and Shame

shame artAnger and shame are strong emotions that we have all experienced, but there is actually a connection.  Because of my experience in an abusive relationship, I saw this connection play out firsthand. I also see it in therapy patients every day.

It’s clear that physically and emotionally abusive people lash out in anger, but many experts on domestic violence do not understand why these abusers do so. Treatment focuses on “anger management,” which is rarely successful. That is because treatment does not address the underlying emotion: shame.

To me, the connection between anger and shame is clearest in abusive people. Abusers lash out when they feel ashamed or perceive they are at risk of being criticized, rejected, excluded or humiliated. They are Dominator personalities that I describe in “Pack Leader Psychology,” and use anger as a way to intimidate others and manipulate relationships. They do this to defend against criticism, which to them feels especially shaming because they have low self-esteem.

Anger is an essential survival emotion and can be helpful if it is used as a self-protective response to legitimate boundary violations in relationships. If someone does something morally wrong, you should get angry. It is actually healthy for you, the other person, and the relationship.

However, anger is often used as a defensive response to feelings of shame. When people who have low self-worth feel emotionally threatened by perceived criticism, they have three primal responses:

1. lash out at others in anger (fight response),

2. lash in at themselves (flight response), or

3. avoid conflict (avoidance or freeze response).

These are three classic fear responses of all social animals, including humans. The root cause of the shame/fear connection is an intrinsic sense of low self-worth combined with a natural fear of exclusion or rejection by the social group. I discuss this three-way link extensively in “Pack Leader Psychology,” because I believe it is essential to understanding human behavior.

If you are getting angry, ask yourself honestly if you have a legitimate reason to get angry, such as someone has behaved in a morally inappropriate manner. Or are you getting angry because you are ashamed of your own behavior and just don’t like getting called out on it? Are you using anger to “fight” or “lash out” at others to get them to back down, so you can feel protected from feeling shame? For Submissives and Avoiders, anger may be a last-ditch effort to protect themselves when they have been pushed too far by someone else, often a Dominator. But they need to ask:  Did my lack of assertiveness give the other person the green light to take advantage of me until I felt backed into a corner?

Pack Leader Wisdom: Anger may be the visible behavior, but shame is often the hidden emotion. 

Hehir Murder Shows Domestic Violence Traits

Sadly, the news is reporting yet another domestic violence case that ended in a gruesome murder. In Pack Leader Psychology I write extensively about the Dominator personality based on not only my psychology training, but my experience as a domestic violence survivor.

Dominators are a personality type that is hypersensitive to shame. Any perceived or real criticism is felt as devastating. They then react with the “fight” response when they become fearful of being rejected or abandoned. They attack, lash out, criticize others and defend against criticism. They have learned that when they feel shame, it is unbearable to them, and they act out in anger.

In extreme cases like this, the abuser can become so enraged that all restraints are removed and a tragic ending such as this can occur.

However, I really hate it when news reports like this end with statements such as,  “Police are not saying what sparked the argument between Dhondt and Hehir.” As if something she did justified him strangling her, beating her head against the floor and then chopping her up. As if some meaningful thing could explain this meaningless, power-grabbing, hate-filled act.

I can guarantee based on my personal experience that she probably did nothing or something so inconsequential that it should not have even warranted a discussion. But his sense of self-worth was so low that he was on guard for any type of perceived criticism. And when she did something that shamed him, he acted out in rage. Period. His low self-worth and lack of ability to handle criticism were the cause not some “argument” or something she did or said.

When in a relationship with an extreme Dominator, the phrase “walking on eggshells” is true because you may never be sure what you do or say or don’t do or don’t say can trigger his rage and violence.

Reporters:  Stop putting throw away statement in these news reports about what argument triggered these incidents. Nothing triggered it except his emotional immaturity and lack of self-control.