The Shame-Anger Cycle and Domestic Violence

Shame and guilt are often confused. When we do something wrong most of us will feel guilty. That is appropriate. Shame is the feeling that we ARE something wrong. It goes to the very core of our being, our sense of self.

For humans, shame is one of the most uncomfortable feelings there is. Consequently, we go to great lengths to avoid it. For example, we repress it, defend against it, deny it and for our discussion of Domestic Violence, we transform it.

Not all shame is toxic, especially when it’s temporary. We can also be motivated in a positive way by shame. Toxic shame, however, is perceived as a threat that makes us feel helpless, embarrassed, humiliated and defeated.

Ron Potter-Efron, whom I have quoted in earlier blog posts, has written many books and articles about rage and it’s connection to shame. “An excess of shame is particularly likely to contribute to acts of domestic aggression.” Rich Pfeiffer, author and teacher of Anger Management and President/Founder of the National Anger Management Association (NAMA), states that we can never successfully PUSH AWAY feelings of shame but must go through them. He emphasizes how important it is for us to develop an awareness of what triggers our feelings of shame so that they don’t become toxic to ourselves and those around us.

In my experience as it relates to Domestic Violence, shame is the feeling that lurks beneath the surface of every client’s behavior. It’s often hard to get to because no one likes to own up to it. But like many things hidden in darkness, when exposed to the light, it loses power. When coupled with work that emphasizes strengths and goals, it can shrink to manageable size.

One of the saddest things I observe is when a client who is filled with shame and is not able to metabolize it resorts to violence, he/she invariably feels not only guilty but ashamed. This shame ends up getting added to the already existing stockpile, making him/her vulnerable to resorting to violence.

That is what we as clinicians treating offenders must work towards changing.