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Generating Fear: Words Become Weapons

Shaming attacks create crippling fear when we need confidence and courage.

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At a recent workshop that addressed communication, one guideline stuck out: “It’s okay to disagree; not okay to blame, shame or attack (others).”

In our current political arena, we are subjected to seeing and hearing many negative, perhaps outrageous, examples of how we talk to one another and about one another. Recent disagreements or actions taken have incited a huge negative reaction that led to intensely humiliating and shaming others for their behavior. What causes this type of “hateful” response? It’s often deeply held shame that, without being addressed, can make the “attacking” reaction unlikely to change. However, this type of reaction can lose its power if recipients are able to remain true to their own beliefs and stay strong.

Anger Is Not the Problem—It’s Shame

When a person cannot tolerate being confronted and experiences even mild slights or disagreements as personal attacks, they often react out of anger and even rage. Anger, in this context, is defensive and it’s usually a defense against deeply felt shame.

When a person feels shamed by the words or behavior of others, and is compelled to discredit or demolish the messenger, they are responding to something old. The shame in this context comes out of an unhealed hurt often during childhood that gets deeply triggered at current moments of perceived “attacks.” The powerful unresolved influence from the past is what fuels the intense angry overreaction. In essence, the person is reacting from a past injurious attack and often not the current situation. The revealing sign is that the behavior appears way over the top and out of the context in which it’s taking place.

Recipients of Angry Defensive Reactions

When we experience angry shaming attacks to our behavior or character, we can feel the impact. When the circumstance is one where we are or we observe others repeatedly subjected to being shamed and humiliated, in time, our sense of wellbeing is affected. What often results is a state of fear taking hold that can lead to compliant behavior in an attempt to avoid future attacks. When this occurs, the targeted person gradually loses agency.

The shaming/blaming reaction we see in the political realm mirrors hurtful coercive tactics common to domestic abuse. The agenda of one partner is to achieve power and control over the other often with degrading and humiliating putdowns. The specific accusations are often projections of the attacker’s own behaviors. In time, the targeted person usually becomes intimidated and fearful and comes to believe that the best way to survive is to appease their partner in order to avoid more pain.

Protecting Yourself

Reading about this might evoke a time when you experienced a type of affront and can recall the discomfort you felt. When we hear personal devaluing attacks, a knee jerk reaction might be to defend our self. However, it’s generally better not to go the defensive route because it can reinforce the attacker’s stance. Instead, address the process and speak to the behavior—what is happening.

For example, tell the person, “If you keep putting me down, I’ll need to end the conversation.” Or, if you wish to address the specifics of what the person is accusing you of, you might say, “Just because you say I’m stupid doesn’t make stupid.” Or, “Just because you say I’m evil, doesn’t make me evil.” Even saying this to yourself can help to keep a protective boundary between you and the other person.

Taking steps to protect ourselves is something within our power, and when we do it respectfully, we benefit as well as others.


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