Since we live and interact with others, all of us risk experiencing shame. How we deal with shame when we experience it, and the ways in which we respond to others who experience shame in relation to us, is critical to our ability to interact socially and intimately. In everyday life shame can be triggered in instances as mundane as when a partner, friend, or parent appears disinterested or distracted and your anticipation of interest or enjoyment are blocked.  

Early in life, shame becomes linked with the idea of an incompetent self—issues of personal identity that are associated with our physical and mental equipment define us in relation to others on the basis of size strength, ability, and skill (Nathanson, 1992). As noted in my previous Psychology Today blog (What Makes You Driven?), responses to shame include avoidance, withdrawal, attacking the self, and attacking the other. Withdrawal in response to shame is accompanied by feelings of depression. In contrast, an avoidance response implies a self-centered protectiveness. Another response to shame, attacking oneself in a psychologically or physically self-injurious way, is an acquiescent response to a person to whom you wish to remain attached. But perhaps the most primitive and destructive shame response is one of attack other

The trigger that leads one person into an attack other mode of functioning is something that makes one feel like a child in danger who cannot expect protection from a loving other—one who must mount a solitary defense against peril, and, in a burst of rage, proves his power, competence, and size (Nathanson, 1992). When some private point of no return has been passed, some humans lose their reluctance to threaten and injure others, and those who accept a sense of personal isolation and reduction are the ones most likely to explode when the pressure of shame they contain within themselves becomes too great for them to control (Nathanson, 2008).

Donald Nathanson (1992) points out that the attack other mode of functioning in response to shame occurs when: 1) the individual feels endangered because of the depths to which his self esteem has been reduced; 2) the danger is viewed as linked to an incompetent self; 3) the family system in which the person has grown up permitted or encouraged the use of attack to handle danger; and, 4) the interpersonal relationship that existed previously has been critically reduced in value and importance due to the actions of the other.

As a psychologist I cannot comment upon the motives of a person I have not evaluated. However, when it comes to violence against others, I have firm conviction that the affect of shame is present, and that the experience of shame has been mismanaged in the most maladaptive of the four ways.


Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.

Nathanson, D. (2008). Managing Shame, Preventing Violence. Video presented by The Silvan S. Tomkins Institute. 

For information about my current book for young adults, Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings (American Psychological Association Magination Press, August 2012), see my website:

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