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.

Anger: A Sign of Fear of Conflict

I had a patient describe her husband as someone who bites his tongue for days about an issue, then becomes angry at her out of the blue.

I said: “Oh, he is afraid of conflict,” and she looked at me quizzically.

“But he gets angry and we fight. He seems to like conflict.”

“Yes, it may look like that on the surface. But, first he tried hard to avoid a fight by biting his tongue and not saying things. Then he blew up, perhaps in an attempt to avoid future fights by teaching you to not confront him. Overall, this tells me he is very uncomfortable with conflict.”

Avoid or attack are two common communication and relationship strategies people use. But when I see this dichotomy it signals to me that this person is afraid of conflict. If he fears conflict he will do everything he can to avoid it — either by directly avoiding it or by attacking others to keep them from confronting him.

Someone who is comfortable with direct, assertive, forthright conversations can have those interactions without behaving in either extreme — avoidance or aggressive attacking.

Assertiveness is not a skill many people are comfortable with, perhaps because they did not learn it as a child from their parents. Many people learned and had modeled for them those unhealthy extremes of avoid and attack. Perhaps as children they were raised by parents who attacked them via criticism, judgment or lack of warmth and connection.

Assertiveness, however, can be very healthy for relationships. The assertive person gets to speak her mind and feel heard in a healthier way than automatic submission or dominance. The person hearing the truth may get a lesson in self-awareness that can lead to improved behaviors in the long run. The relationship itself is healthier because thoughts are expressed appropriately and promptly, not held in, leading to resentment, or vented in dysregulated anger.

Assertiveness may seem to go against our natural human instinct to avoid conflict. Getting along with others is a prosocial, adaptive skill that helped assure our survival in tribal days. But while social hierarchies can be greased in the short term with submission and dominance, in the long term it is a healthy boundary established with prompt assertiveness that is essential for healthy relationships.

Anger vs Indignation

Pardon a former writer’s semantic debate about two words: anger and indignation. As a psychologist now, I certainly deal with anger as an emotion in the therapy room. But I say we need to revive use of the word “indignation.” It has a depth of meaning that “anger” does not have.

Indignation is defined as “anger or annoyance at what is perceived to be unfair treatment.” Anger is defined as “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure or hostility.” Notice that the sense of injustice or unfairness is part of the definition of “indignation.” Anger can be just “hostility,” which communicates primary aggression, while “indignation” communicates a responsive defense to aggression.

I hear many Submissives state: “I get angry too easily,” or “He just triggers me.” But instead of automatically blaming oneself for poorly controlled anger, perhaps one should flip the lens.

I prefer to look at emotions as self-protective warning signs about the behavior of others. If we feel indignant about someone else’s actions, maybe that is a big red flag from our intuition that we are being disrespected or treated unjustly.

Sure, some people flash to anger far too easily and over insignificant issues. These can be Dominators who attack or use the “fight” response when they are fearful of criticism or shame. Their anger is effective at warning others to back down. Some Submissives can also eventually attack when they are backed into a corner and feel they have no others options. When one is overly pleasing and appeasing most of the time, it leads to others being disrespectful, which eventually leads to a feeling of indignation.

So next time you blame yourself for getting angry too easily, take another look and consider whether you should instead respect and heed that feeling of indignation.

Connecting Shame, the Fear Response and ADHD

In my last blog I wrote about shame being the true underlying emotion behind most angry outbursts and behaviors. People feel embarrassed so they lash out with anger, rather than admitting or expressing their real emotion of shame.

This connection is very clear in children labeled with “ADHD” and “Oppositional Defiant Disorder.” These children are considered to lack the ability to focus, pay attention and concentrate. They are impulsive, easily distracted and often hyperactive. Yet if you listen to what they say and understand the neuroscience of the fear response, you can easily see the emotional roots of shame to their reactions. As I’ve written before, these “disorders” are not mental illnesses, just the normal “fear response.”

Just yesterday in therapy one young man described the reasons he often leaves school or is truant. He reported that when he gets frustrated or fears failure on schoolwork, he doesn’t like that feeling. So to manage the shame (he didn’t label it as that) he daydreams, plays with his phone, or zones out. (This is the “avoidance” fear response.) Then if pushed by the teacher or under time pressure of a test, he bolts from the classroom or just doesn’t show up to school on that day (the “flight” fear response.)

His shame and embarrassment at potentially failing lead him to unthinkingly react with fear. Many kids with this “fear hijack” quickly react with the “fight” response by getting angry and being “oppositional.”

Of course, this young man has a mother who has been depressed and anxious all his life, he witnessed domestic violence, and has had other family instabilities. Childhood traumas slow or stunt the development of the cognitive areas of the brain, leaving the emotional or reactive parts of the brain in charge. He’s also had this fear response modeled by parents who became violent with each other. No surprise that when he feels threatened emotionally he is more likely to react with unthinking responses or impulsivity, rather than thoughtful problem-solving with an eye to the consequences.

Afterward he can state the consequences to his behaviors, as is usually the case with these impulsive kids. Yet in that survival mode of the fear hijack his cognitive abilities are narrowed and not in control.

Of course, his early traumas also make learning and memory development more difficult for his brain, leading to a label as “learning disabled.” So his family life has primed him for a life of misbehavior and academic failure that others will label as dysfunctional or maybe even criminal. All because his brain never had the chance to develop and to learn a thinking approach rather than an emotional response.

When you understand this connection, it becomes extremely obvious that what we need is not therapy and drugs (absolutely not!) for these children, but parenting classes and therapy for their parents years prior. It was their parents’ inability to manage shame in emotionally mature ways that started this whole mess.

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.