The shamed person has nowhere to go

More from Mistakes Were Made.

Chapter 6 is on self-justification in marriage, but it applies to other kinds of relationships too. One particularly striking observation is on page 171.

Social psychologist June Tangney has found that being criticized for who you are rather than for what you did evokes a deep sense of shame and helplessness: it makes a person want to hide, disappear. Because the shamed person has nowhere to go to escape the desolate feeling of humiliation, Tangney found, shamed spouses tend to strike back in anger.

One which ends with “you must be reprehensible to humiliate me this way.”

Well yes. Shaming and humiliation prompt especially strong anger.

By the time a couple’s style of argument has escalated into shaming and blaming each other, the very purpose of their quarrels has shifted. It is no longer and effort to solve a problem or even to get the other person to modify his or her behavior; it’s just to wound, to insult, to score. That is why shaming leads to fierce, renewed efforts at self-justification, a refusal to compromise, and the most destructive emotion a relationship can evoke: contempt.

And contempt spells doom.

It’s interesting, isn’t it. It’s ammunition for Dan Fincke’s civility pledge and all that, because it argues that the move from criticism of behavior (or ideas) to criticism of who the person is will do nothing but inflame, and inflaming leads only to doom.


  1. says

    Yeah, that’s very much a part of Dan’s civility pledge, and a path I’m doing my best to steer towards more often. I think anyone who is trying to work with positive parenting techniques will recognize the phenomenon. Imagine how your kids might react to attacks on their person rather than criticism of their behavior.

  2. Pen says

    It’s ammunition for Dan Fincke’s civility pledge and all that, because it argues that the move from criticism of behavior (or ideas) to criticism of who the person is will do nothing but inflame, and inflaming leads only to doom.

    I strongly agreed with him. I’ve hardly ever seen anyone take an insult lying down, especially when, more often than not, they will only come to believe their behaviour or ideas are deserving of criticism by significantly changing their minds.

  3. Gretchen Robinson says

    learning about shame dynamics can be revealing and bring new understandings. What is politics but the Reps and the Dems trying to shame and blame the other party. Religions, too, argue theirs is the one true faith. I’ll never forget my young sister weeping because a Catholic girl told her Protestants don’t go to heaven. My sister had been humiliated and shamed into tears.
    Those from slimepit with their foul postings aim to similarly humilate and shame women who dare to enter what they see as a male domain of thought and reason. That we had WiS1+2 and apparently (to them) we are not going away, leads to stronger language and worsening crudeness.

    One book on shame dynamics I like is The Culture of Shame by Andrew P. Morrison who starts out with his own shame scenes.

  4. Robert B. says

    Interestingly, a similar precept holds true for praise. Praising students for things they did (“Good work!”) gives them an obvious strategy to get more positive reinforcement – keep working hard. Praising students for what they are (“You’re smart!”) either makes them try to avoid mistakes, so they avoid challenges, or assume they don’t need to work, so they crash and fall behind again.

    Between this and the fundamental attribution error, I suspect there’s something very interesting going on with the way the brain handles properties vs. actions vs. circumstances when dealing with people (or maybe in general).

  5. Francisco Bacopa says

    First rule of getting along is never say “you are” or “that is”. Instead say “when you…, I feel….” or “did you mean….?, because I would think….”. And say it fast! Right when it happens! People don’t remember shit right anyway and negative reenforcement only works when you apply it very close in time to the offending action.

    Storing up anger and blowing up later just makes you into the bad guy. Let it out quickly and give it subjective qualifications. Always “you did something wrong” rather than “you are wrong”.

    But all this is for people you actually give a shit about. Everyone else? Blast them! That CFI guy who should been fired and not even allowed to give his not-pology. Fuck him. The FBI agents that arrested Deric Lostutter from Knight Sec and Occupy Steubenville? Dox them! Dox them hard. They arrest a dude who fought against rape culture? Dox them. Publish their home addresses. Make them pay. But please, no rape threats. That’s always inappropriate and especially wrong given what Lostutter was fighting against.

  6. Martha says

    I think another dynamic that can make conversations about privilege hard is that it’s all too easy for both sides to take things personally. There are certainly time’s I’ve thought, hey, wait, I’m one of the decent people, don’t piss me off, too!” While I agree that the burden shouldn’t be on those who lack privilege to always consider the feelings of the privileged person who has offended, keeping the focus on the behavior rather than the person certainly can’t hurt. And occasionally, it helps a lot.

    I read some of Ron’s initial response as, “hey, wait, quit lashing out at me– I’m one of the good guys!” Followed by frustration at our response and an immediate conviction that we must be unreasonable if we’re as upset by something he’s said as we are by some of the behavior of the Pitters and their allies. That’s when the privileged person needs to remember that we all expect more of our allies than we do of our opponents. So our strong response doesn’t mean, “hey, Ron, you’re as bad as the Pitters.” It means something closer to, “We don’t expect anything at all from the MRAs. We’re this mad at you in no small part because we expected so much more from you. “

  7. says

    I don’t know why this is news. It’s what I got from every book I ever read, every seminar I ever heard, on parenting and on “How To Get Along With Your Work-mates”. Don’t say: “You’re $BAD_THING”, rather: “You did $WRONG_THING”. And that was, for me, 25+ years ago.

    The distinction between “You’re being racist” (to use just one example) and “That thing you did is racist” may be logically non-existent, but it’s psychologically real. The latter tells me I should say Sorry, and watch myself so I don’t do it again. The former means…what, exactly?

  8. says

    I know, it’s not that it’s news…I too am familiar with the “criticize actions or words, not the person” advice. But the frame of cognitive dissonance and self-justification presents it in that particular way, so it makes it that much more convincing, and also suggests contexts where it might otherwise have been missed.

  9. Pen says

    @6 Francisco Bacopa, Errr… this phrase just did something to me. Maybe applying ‘negative reenforcement’ is for, you know, training animals and discussing our issues and explaining ourselves is for human beings?

  10. dustbunny says

    Here’s my issue with this: what about when you do clearly criticize an idea someone holds but they hear it as an attack on who they are? Some people get defensive immediately, even if I am very careful with how I phrase things. My (limited) training in psychology tells me that maybe the shame they might feel has nothing to do with what I just said, but more with underlying older issues.

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