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.



Hire a Speaker: Harper West, author of “Pack Leader Psychology”

November 25, 2012

When developing the concepts in my book “Pack Leader Psychology,” I quickly realized that these ideas could help anyone in any type of relationship, not just those like me who had experienced an abusive relationship. Parents, bosses, friends, spouses — we all can improve our emotional health and improve our relationships.

If you belong to a group that would like a dynamic and informative speaker to educate and entertain, send me an email to harperwest  at

Everyone’s relationships can benefit from learning pack leader skills. Topics can be customized especially for women, entrepreneurs and managers, parents, married couples/relationships, and domestic violence survivors, as well as psychologists, social workers and counselors.

Some suggested topics are:

– Are You a Human Pack Leader?

– Be a Pack Leader at Work

– Dominance and Submission:  Unhealthy Relationship Patterns You Can Break Now

– Reinventing Yourself at Midlife: Why Am I Stuck?

– How to Raise a Child Who is Lazy, Irresponsible, Entitled and Insecure. (Or NOT!)

– Improve Your Self-Respect and Eliminate Anxiety, Depression, or Aggression

– Approval Seeking:  Natural Inclination or Unhealthy Neediness?

– Is Low Self-Esteem Making You Prey to the Predators in Your Life?

– Fight or Flight: Which do You Choose?

– Pack Leader Parenting: Is Your Parenting Causing Your Child’s ADHD?

– Assertiveness 101: Ending Disrespect, Manipulation, Control and Abuse

– Spotting Controllers and Abusers:  Easy Ways to Predict Manipulative Behaviors

– Can You Handle the Truth?:  How Conflict Avoidance May Be Damaging Your Relationships and Career

– What Would a Pack Leader Do?

– Honest Relationships are Respectful Relationships

– Find Yourself: The Power of Self-Respect and Self-Acceptance

– Stop Helping Your Clients!: Pack Leader Skills for Psychologists, Social Workers and Counselors

I’d love to speak to your group!


The Dog That Taught Me About Leadership


Reilly, the Muse for “Pack Leader Psychology”

As I say in “Pack Leader Psychology,” a growl instantly moved me from pack member to pack leader with my dog, Reilly. But if I hadn’t had a dog that understood how to be a pack member, I might never have learned this lesson. And I might never have made the connection that being a pack leader to people might also be a good thing for my interpersonal relationships as well.

The story begins when I got Reilly as an eight-month-old dog. She had grown up in an outdoor kennel with her birth pack and several adult dogs. Living for so long with this normal dog pack taught Reilly how to recognize and honor the pack leader or leaders — probably her mother and father.

Continue reading

Welcome to the inaugural Pack Leader Psychology blog post!

I’m very excited to begin this new adventure that has been about six years in the making. I have written a non-fiction self-help book called “Pack Leader Psychology,” and this blog is the first step in introducing the ideas in that book to the public. A full website will follow soon and the book is now available as an e-book on Amazon (Kindle fans!). Print and e-versions on B&N and other sites will be due shortly.

So what is the book about?  Tough to shorten 230 pages down into a few paragraphs, but here goes:

“Pack Leader Psychology” recounts the lessons I learned while becoming a pack leader to my dog, Reilly, that helped transform me from a submissive, abused wife into a calm, confident, independent and assertive human pack leader. Read More