Shame and Medicine Exeter
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VIOLENT SHAME – the bigger picture

I worked for many years in health and social care settings, specialising in advocacy, mental health, trauma, and then with an increasing focus on behaviour, conflict, aggression and violence. I regularly heard phrases like “he won’t learn if he gets away with it”, “we mustn’t reward bad behaviour” or “there have to be consequences”. Our society focuses on punishment, blaming and shaming, as responses to violent behaviour. Yet the incidents I observed nearly always involved someone who had been backed into a corner, physically or metaphorically, and who at that moment had limited alternative options available to them as a response.

My background has informed my approach to my PhD research – I’m much more interested in finding preventative ways of working than fire-fighting. I began to research factors which make people more likely to engage in violence. On an individual level, research cites adverse childhood experiences, developmental trauma and insecure attachments as leading to increased violence. From a therapeutic perspective, all of these experiences are shame-inducing, and I began to get curious about the role of shame. Shame has a well-documented relationship to violence.

On a larger scale, it is recognised that higher levels of violence emerge in communities that are experiencing poverty, relative inequality and marginalisation. Yet somehow the impacts of these experiences are missing from the picture. We hear much talk now about intergenerational trauma. What about intergenerational shame? To explore these questions, I am currently working with 18-35 year old men in the West Midlands to understand their experience of engaging in, and abstaining from, physical violence. It is such a privilege to hear their stories.

Shame, often referred to as a social emotion, is believed to originate from a threat to the social bond. From an evolutionary perspective, those social bonds are essential to our survival. We are a social species, relying on cooperation to survive and to thrive, and social bonds are essential to that process. I suggest that, especially as our communities have grown and become more interdependent, the experience of marginalisation is shame-inducing, and the experience of shame is cumulative.

In Western society, shame is often described as “I am a bad person”, linked with depression and mental health problems. But there are different kinds of shame, and different responses to it. If we are emotionally secure enough at the time, we may experience shame as “I don’t want to be the kind of person who does things like this”, and respond by building bridges to repair social bonds. Without that level of resilience and self-assurance, shame becomes very painful. Our options to manage the pain are to withdraw and isolate, distract ourselves (often using unhealthy mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol), aggress against ourselves, or aggress against others (as described in the Compass of Shame).

I suspect that multiple layers of marginalisation create intergenerational shame, and they also make it more likely that young people will experience insecure attachments, trauma and adverse childhood experiences. The more layers of shame, the more painful it is, and the more likely it is that you would need to deny, repress or bypass the shame and find other ways (such as violence) to try to restore your status and create essential social bonds. As one of my participants commented, “…maybe other lads if they know that you’ve had a fight with somebody and there was a certain outcome achieved or that you’re willing to get into a fight, I think there is a certain amount of unspoken respect. It’s very split down the middle between there was a bit of unspoken respect for fighting, and there’s also judgement for fighting”. Torn between these two competing perspectives, he had chosen the path which would gain him the most immediate status and impact positively on social bonds in his everyday environment.

Another participant reflected on a time when he had abstained from violence; “Like you know, those … emotions or whatever like. You know stuff going through your head, but like because you didn’t engage, it’s all on you still” He had felt the absence of support and his lack of social status keenly, and felt that choosing not to engage in violence just left all the pressure and problems for him alone to tackle, with no alternative solution.

I am continuing to recruit and engage with participants, and am very much looking forward to learning more of their lives and experiences, and reflecting on these questions. From my work so far, it seems that violence prevention strategies may need to consider the role of emotion. Thinking of the World Health Organisation’s preventative approach to violence as a public health issue, as a society we may need to consider targetting shame-inducing experiences at a structural level in order to have sustainable impact in building more peaceful and cohesive communities.


Anna Gillions is a Post-Graduate Researcher at the Centre for Trust Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. She holds an MSc in Development Management and an MSc in Mindfulness & Compassion.


3rd July 2023


Photo by Kasper Rasmussen on Unsplash

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