ArticlePDF Available


The psychiatrist James Gilligan (1997) contended that shame is a key but completely hidden cause of violence, based on his long experience as a prison psychiatrist. He made it a practice of questioning those prisoners who had committed murder. When he asked them why they killed, their answers were often very similar: "He dissed (disrespected) me. What did you expect me to do?" On the basis of these responses, Gilligan proposed that not only murder, but all violence was caused by what he called "secret shame:"
International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, Vol. 17, No.4, pp. 709, ISSN 1522-4821
IJEMHHR • Vol. 17, No. 4 • 2015 709
The psychiatrist James Gilligan (1997) contended that shame
is a key but completely hidden cause of violence, based on his
long experience as a prison psychiatrist. He made it a practice of
questioning those prisoners who had committed murder. When he
asked them why they killed, their answers were often very similar:
"He dissed (disrespected) me. What did you expect me to do?" On the
basis of these responses, Gilligan proposed that not only murder, but
all violence was caused by what he called "secret shame:"
“The emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all
Gilligan is referring not to shame in general, but to a specic kind:
"Shame is probably the most carefully guarded secret held by
violent men…
Gilligan states that secret shame is the cause of violence. Secrecy
implies that one is ashamed of being ashamed. Gilligan goes on to
describe how secret shame can cause extremes of pain:
The degree of shame that a man needs to be experiencing in order
to become homicidal is so intense and so painful that it threatens to
overwhelm him and bring about the death of the self, cause him to
lose his mind, his soul, or his sacred honor.”
Some theories of the causes of violence have proposed that in
modern societies, shame is not dealt with directly because it is felt to
be shameful. It is difcult to fully convey the distaste the public has
for shame: it might be said that most people abhor shame, not just the
emotion itself, but thinking or talking about it, especially the word
itself. The intensity of this abhorrence was conveyed clearly long ago
by Rousseau (1789): "I dreaded shame: I dreaded it more than death
... more than all the world." In earlier writing, I proposed that this
dread turns shame into a cause of violence, including war (Scheff
1994; 2011). The idea of honor and revenge, if repeated thoughtlessly
and endlessly, seem to be one of many ways of hiding shame rather
than dealing with it directly.
The awesome destructive power of secret shame might be
explained as a feedback chain. Being ashamed of being ashamed
is the rst step. Such loops can go further, being ashamed, being
ashamed of that, and ashamed of that, and so on. Or shame in a loop
with anger: angry that one is ashamed, ashamed that one is angry,
and round and round. The idea of an unending cybernetic loop seems
to explain how shame, fear, or other emotions might become too
powerful to bear and/or control.
An Alternative Route
Recall that when Gilligan asked about the killers' motives, a
typical response was "He dissed (disrespected) me. What did you
expect me to do?" A different expectation would be negotiation¬,
talking rst rather than violence rst. An answer like this might work:
"Before we get real mad, let's try talking about it." Talk might be the
road to getting an apology for an insult, which could be the road for
reducing shame, or at lease ceasing to hide it completely.
It is clear that before most wars, even vast ones, there was little or
no negotiation. As a nation, France felt humiliated by the loss of the
Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and the terms of settlement the Germans
imposed. However, during the forty-three years before World War
I, they made no attempt to meet with the German government to
negotiate about the terms. One of Hitler's greatest appeals to the
German people was that he would see that the settlement of WWI
would be destroyed, which was taken as humiliating. There was
virtually no attempt to change the terms during the twenty-one years
before the outbreak of WWII. These nations fought rst, rather than
It should be pointed out that negotiations between nations or other
groups might be most effective if they involve actual meetings, rather
than letters or online. Meeting could be more effective in many ways.
One that might not receive mention is that actual meetings allow for
emphasizing respect between the representatives of the contending
groups they represent. This direct kind of communication could be
more effective toward dealing directly with anger and shame. Even
small details, such as the sumptuousness of meals, might help develop
It seems that if we are going to reduce the amount of violence
and war, we will have to teach ourselves, our children, and our
governments to talk rst, ght last, and even more difcult, deal with
shame rather than hide it. Where to begin? One approach would be to
talk about your shame, if not to the one who shamed you, to a friend
or even to yourself. Repeat a mantra such as:
I am not ashamed, I am proud of myself.
Repeat a mantra until you come face to face with the bodily shame
itself, not just the thought about it. Repeat the bodily shame sensation
until it no longer feels so deadly serious, so that you can even nd
some humor in it. That might not solve the problem completely, but
can be a rst step.
Gilligan, J. (1997). Violence reections on a national epidemic.
New York: Vintage Books.
Rousseau, J.J. (1789). Confessions. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press (1987).
Scheff, T. (1994). Bloody Revenge: Emotions, Nationalism, and War.
Boulder, Colorado: Westview
Scheff, T. (2011). A Theory of Multiple Killing . Aggression and
Violent Behavior, 16(6), 453-460.
*Correspondence regarding this article should be directed to:
Hidden Shame as a Cause of Violence
omas Sche
Professor Emeritus, University of California, SantaBarbara, USA
... , Scheff och Retzinger (1997), hävdar att det finns stöd för påstående att skam alltid föregår ilska och att ilska är resultatet av att skam inte erkänts av parterna. Scheff och Retzinger (2001) menar att detta kan utgör grund för en teori om våld som i korthet bygger på att endast icke erkänd skam resulterar i ilska och våld och att ilska och våld kan undvikas om skam solidariskt kan erkännas av parterna (Scheff, 2015). Följaktligen bildar erkänd skam grunden för ömsesidig förståelse, funktionell kommunikation och samarbete samt stabila, säkra och icke-våldsamma sociala band. ...
... Terapeuter måste kunna identifiera skam och de skamgenererande situationer som ligger till grund för parternas definition av situationen (Blumer & Morrione, 2004;Scheff, , 2015. Behandling som producerar skam hos klienten -på grund av bristande respekt och förståelse hos terapeuten -kan leda till att negativa barndomsupplevelser återupplevs och att en redan negativ självbild bekräftas. ...
... Dessa mönster överensstämmer väl med tidigare beskrivningar av hur skamkänslor omvandlas till ilska som skydd mot smärtsam skam ("bypassed shame") hos , Brown (2004a), , Jones (2014), Marshall m.fl. (2009), Scheff (2015), Scheff och Retzinger (1997, Tangney m.fl. (1995). ...
Full-text available
An explorative investigation of the relationship between men’s childhood experiences, masculinities, emotions and their violence and therapeutic interventions against violence. The overarching purpose of the study is to explore the potential for an integrated research perspective on male violence and to exemplify how such research could be conducted. The specific objective is to increase awareness about how childhood experiences, socialization, constructions of masculinity and emotions among violent men relate to their violence against other men, women and themselves, as well as how to analyze and further develop therapeutic interventions aimed at violence in light of such knowledge. Using theoretical scientific points of departure taken from critical realism and ecological methodology, this study compares research from various schools of thought: a) psychological: childhood experiences and socialization, b) social psychological: emotions and interactions and c) sociological: social class, gender power structures and hegemonic masculinity. This approach will provide access to knowledge about the interaction between various factors associated with male violence. Studies I and II explore the potential to examine the social bonds between therapist/therapy and clients within therapeutic treatment of violence. Study I operationalizes indicators of emotions such as pride and shame, while study II tests these on therapists in a CBT-oriented therapy setting. Study III examines men in different masculinity positions, where one group is selected from the population of men sentenced to therapy for violence and abuse, and the other from the population of men who are organized and actively working for gender equality and against violence toward women. The study compares the attitudes of the two groups toward factors that earlier research has related to violence and to violence against women. Study IV examines the pathways taken by men convicted for violence up to the point of their current standing as violent criminals, in order to gain knowledge concerning the interactions between factors that in various situations lead to such violence against other men, women and themselves. All empirical studies use qualitative methods for data collection and analysis. Study IV uses individual interviews and biographical analysis, while studies II and III use group interviews as well as deductive content analysis. Prior sociological and social psychological theory formation serve as the empirical basis of the theoretical review article explored in study I. The thesis shows both the advantages and disadvantages of an overarching perspective compared with perspectives primarily based on a psychological, relational or structural level. Studies that transcend levels are complicated by more complex methodology that must address interactions between factors at different levels. However, the results show that an integrative perspective can reduce the risk of ecological fallacies, while augmenting understanding of the complex interaction between factors underlying male violence, thereby promoting further understanding of violence therapies. The theoretical review article (study I) exemplifies how theoretically and methodologically driven research on social bonds can be translated into pragmatic application that can be used by therapists for treatment of male violence. The applied study of CBT (study II) exemplifies how operationalized indicators of pride and shame can be used in practice to determine the quality of the social bond between therapist and client. As expected, the CBT that was examined encompasses elements that generate both shame and pride, providing examples of the type of data that the method produces in its present form. The comparison between men from diametrically opposed masculinity positions (study III) shows that both the group that works against violence toward women and the men who were sentenced to treatment for committing violent acts harbor ambivalent attitudes toward violence and violence against women. The comparison also shows that the constructions of masculinity and attitudes of these groups toward violence correspond to differences in access to socioeconomic, social, political and cultural resources. The biographically focused qualitative study of men under treatment for violence (study IV) explores their pathways to criminal violence and the symbiotic interactions between childhood experiences, socialization, masculinity and emotions among individual perpetrators of violence. The results show that men who relate they have been subjected to serious violence in childhood are more prone to feeling shame and when violated tend to unconsciously, and without preceding feelings of shame, react more directly with aggression toward both sexes. While other men are still prone to feeling shame, they describe their violent reaction as more controlled. Two men who were brutally bullied in childhood show greater control over violence, which is assumed to be associated with learning to control their emotions in order to avoid further bullying. The personal problems of parents, along with their inadequate social conduct and parenting skills, are assumed to be related to some of the problems experienced by this group of men in school, and those men’s socializing with deviant personalities and later difficulties supporting themselves through conventional means.
... [A dissociated rage state in reaction to a shame state is one where some commit violent acts or murder (Gilligan, 2003;Gruber et al., 2014;Poulson, 2001;and Scheff, 2015). Given Isaac's ego strength and the strength of his secure attachments within himself and between himself and others, including me, his therapist, his wife and close friends, I had no concern he would hurt anyone. ...
Sexual molestation of a child invariably leads to traumatic shame states that, without appropriate adult intervention, can last for years during childhood and well into adulthood. Physical immobilization during sexual molestation, feeling trapped and helpless, can also contribute directly to the development of a chronic, traumatic shame state and immobilization impacting body, emotion, and thought/belief/meaning. This two-part article describes five psychotherapy sessions with an adult, male survivor of childhood sexual molestation. Part 1 offers a close study of two psychotherapy sessions, Sessions 1 and 2, that took place 16 months apart, exploring several traumatic effects of the survivor being held down by his abuser. Part 1 demonstrates how, with the benefit of an integrative approach to psychotherapy that pays close attention to the embodied, lived experience of sexual molestation and specifically immobilization, a survivor can move more freely in mind and body from a traumatic shame state to one of triumphant, pro-being pride. Part 2 carries forward this examination of three sessions immediately following Session 2. With a stronger, more integrated self that is pro-being pride, the patient is now able to observe his dissociative, retaliatory rage and access adaptive anger (Session 3), deepen his pro-being pride, and facilitate his movement toward an integrated, core self (Sessions 4 and 5). Both Parts 1 and 2 close highlighting those therapeutic factors contributing to the patient’s transformation.
The Vatsonga/Machangana constitute an ethnic group in South Africa, located in the southern part of the African continent. The majority of them continue living according to their Xitsonga culture that has influenced boys' and girls' self-expression of emotions when faced with social disturbances where emotions such as hidden gendered anger are involved. This has negatively influenced their adult life in marriage relationships. With the Modified applied psychoanalytic concepts as a frame of reference, this paper explores the negative effects of anger suppression displayed by both genders in their married life through cultural demands. In a case study of two Xitsonga drama texts Ririmi i Madlayisani by HA Mangwane (1978), and Ndlandlalati ya Malenga by AD Mahatlane (1986), this paper finds that cultural demands based on the suppression of anger impact negatively on the positive expression of anger when social disturbances arise between married couples. This is because societies shy away from speaking about negative emotions fearing shame and embarrassment. Societies have to adapt for the realization of cultural dynamism. Literary texts are available as sources of information and of lessons that members of the society can learn.
Full-text available
Los castigos avergonzantes han sido muy habituales en la historia penal. Esta práctica se fue abandonando paulatinamente en favor de otros castigos más humanos y respetuosos con los derechos humanos. Sin embargo, en las últimas décadas cierto tipo de penas públicas parecen estar renaciendo en algunos países occidentales. Aunque la vergüenza se considera una emoción moral, la psicología y la criminología han observado su relación con mayores índices de reincidencia. Parece que la vergüenza estigmatizante se asocia a la reincidencia, mientras que la vergüenza reintegradora reduce el crimen. En el presente artículo se revisará la vergüenza en su concepción cultural y penal, así como las principales consecuencias psicológicas y criminológicas que tiene la vergüenza estigmatizante, y su aplicación a los castigos avergonzantes. También se revisa la propuesta de la justicia restaurativa y la vergüenza reintegrativa como alternativa para evitar los daños que produce implementar penas basadas en la vergüenza estigmatizante. Shaming penalties have been very common in criminal history. This practice was gradually abandoned in favor of other punishments, those being more humane and respectful towards human rights. However, in the last decades, certain types of public punishments seem to be reborning in some Western countries. Although shame is considered a moral emotion, is has been associated to recidivism by psychology and criminology. It seems that the stigmatizing shame is associated with reincidence, while the one related to crime reduction is reintegrative. In this article, the concept of shame in its cultural and criminal conception will be reviewed, as well as the main psychological and criminological consequences of stigmatizing shame, and its application to shameful punishments. Furthermore, the proposal of restorative justice and reintegrative shame as an alternative to avoid the damage that comes from implementing penalties based on stigmatizing shame will also be reviewed.
Thomas Scheff argues that the roots of protracted conflict lie in unacknowledged feelings of shame and rage. Scheff builds from the assumption that the social bond is a real and palpable phenomenon and that in every type of human contact the bond is either built, maintained, repaired, or damaged. He then demonstrates how damaged bonds are the basic cause of conflict. When one side or the other in a dispute is humiliated or threatened in such a way as to disturb fundamental bonds, the feelings that follow are often not acknowledged. Threats to the social bond give rise to violent emotions, shame, and rage. Unless these feelings are resolved, the stage is then set for cycles of insult, humiliation, and bloody revenge. According to Scheff, it is by recognizing the emotional source of conflict and repairing the broken social bond that both sides achieve cognitive and emotional understanding, allowing them to trust and cooperate, and perceive themselves as "all in the same boat." Thus, secure social bonds ensure clear boundaries—even during competition or conflict—that help keep wars limited and make disagreements productive. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Confessions. Cambridge
  • J J Rousseau
Rousseau, J.J. (1789). Confessions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1987).
A Theory of Multiple Killing
  • T Scheff
Scheff, T. (2011). A Theory of Multiple Killing. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 16(6), 453-460.