The Anatomy of Violence : Part 1 – Shame

The Anatomy of Violence : Part 1 – Shame

In this article we will look in depth at the root cause of violence. In it we present why it is shame that we find at the root of it, and then present ways in which professional therapists, specialised in violent behaviour, have come to recognise and address the problem.

In future articles we might look further at:

    • Male vrs Female Gender Weaponry
    • Domestic Violence Dynamics & Cycles of Behaviour.

Violence is not a Gender issue

Common narrative suggests that men are the main perpetrators of violence, but it is important to recognise that violence is not a gendered issue.

At first glance, statistics suggest this view of males being the main protagonists seems accurate, but statistics do not look at the cause of violence, what drives it, or even who throws the first punch, statistics only measure the end result. Violence perpetuated by males alone, is then being touted as the truth, but this is false conclusion and very misleading. Certainly Hospital A&E departments and the majority of prisoners incarcerated for violent action are males, but this in fact just speak volumes on how much we currently miss the true cause, the triggers, and instead we target the end result, i.e. the symptom, every time. Regardless of which gender is* better* at violence, what are the causes involved in an escalating dynamic that goes from upset, to anger, to rage, to violence? And in observing those causes, can we find ways to interrupt the patterns that lead to violence?

This article is not going to focus on balancing the gender equation by pointing to female violence, nor to emotional terrorism by a mother to a child, nor to the use of the system to manipulate custody battles, or false sexual accusations aimed to gaslight males in the way #MeToo seems to have become a convenient tool to achieve such ends. All of these nefarious behaviours might also be classified as forms of aggression, but using female weaponry to achieve results. We will look at this in a separate article.

Much more important than arguing which gender is the most to blame, is to understand what is at work to cause violence to occur in the dynamics between two or more people. (We could include violence against the one person, which is essentially the act of suicide.) Whenever violence occurs, two or more people are involved. That makes it a dance of sorts, and so there will be symbiotic influences at work that we must look at, in order to understand what is truly happening.

There is a simple equation to all this, and it requires looking at violence not as the cause, but as a symptom of something else.

Shame is the root of all violence

Shame exists in all of us, in such a way that it is actually something of an epidemic, and one that every person alive is effected by. It is that big. When we start to consider the true power of shame upon the human psyche, it begins to reveal what we have failed to understand about violence and its true cause. There is documented and tested proof that shame is at the root\ of violence, and not just* some* violence, but almost all of it. The proof for this comes from two distinct places.

The first is Jonathan Asser who explains in the article below a method he came to call SVI (Shame Violence Intervention), which he ran at Wandsworth prison as a therapy workshop with 100% success. He used a clinical approach to address shame as the root cause of violence, and with it, interrupt the triggers that escalate to violence. This was not done in a conventional way, but in a way one might at first find quite terrifying and hard to believe were effective, and yet they clearly worked.

Conversations with violent prisoners who did the SVI program

And then James Gilligan. An American psychologist who was asked to do a study on high-security prisoners, those who could not be cured of their violence and were considered too difficult even for the guards to manage. His findings led him to understand the root of aggressive behaviour and what leads to escalation not only in violent offenders, but in all of us, when we are shamed by another person, sometimes even indirectly.

An Interview with James Gilligan

There are others, but I have focused on both these men’s work primarily because of what they have achieved on the extreme end of the violence spectrum. They have both dealt with the most violent offenders known to society, the beyond hope criminal, and they have both had near to 100% success rate with many of them. In the field of violence, both these men have come to the same, singular conclusion. That shame is the root cause of violence.

Conscious Violence

Are there examples of violence that do not have shame as the root cause? Maybe.

Conscious Violence might be considered the act of violence used to contain, manage or control already violent behaviour. An example of this would be trained personal acting under orders, the Army or Police, for instance. In such cases, the violence is part of a deliberate strategy and controlled method of escalation. The act of violence in this case is not one of shame driven reaction, but rather calculated and rational response to achieve a particular end result, normally the cessation of other violence, i.e fighting fire with fire.

Violence triggered by Shame

If we look at the complete anatomy of violence, in many cases the original antagonist is not the person who ultimately resorts to the act of violence. It is important to acknowledge that the issue also lies with the triggers, and therefore the shame that leads to it escalating to the point where violence is perpetrated. If these triggers could be interrupted, then violence would not occur. Equally we must recognise that in the anatomy of the process, this then makes* shaming* a complicit act in causing violence, and the perpetration of shame must therefore be considered in part responsible for any escalation. Though this would immediately draw questions of victim blaming.

But, there are many people that this truth will resonate with, myself included, and we are currently told that the opposite is true, that it is all our fault when we respond violently to a situation, i.e. when we lose control of our rational thought processes and react violently. I am not attempting to exonerate perpetrators from responsibility, only attempting to understand the root cause that leads to violent reaction in order that we might address it correctly. Yes, it is our responsibility alone to address any potential for violence in our being, or anger in our nature, of course it is, there is never an excuse for violence in word, nor deed. What I am suggesting is that we have been looking in the wrong places for a solution, and we often seem to forget that each of us are also effected by shame ourselves, and we can see it in our interactions, every day. Violence and aggression is not something only other people do. Normally sane folk will lose their minds too, if you shame them enough. Normally placid people attack each other like wild animals when pushed beyond their limits, often exerting it upon the very people that they also profess to love, on other less traumatic days. Look at the News for proof of this in action.

Everyone can think of that time when they lost their cool with someone they loved deeply. Maybe it was your kid, or your partner, or someone you knew or did not know, and you went that little bit too far and lashed out at them. It was not your normal character, right? Consider that as we expand further on this concept.

Understanding Shame Dynamics

Without the correct knowledge, without the correct learned behaviour, without awareness of shame dynamics at work in the anatomy of violence, then we have only two choices when we become powerfully shamed – Fight or Flight.

Jonathan Asser has proved this can be addressed with 100% effectiveness through his Shame Violence Intervention Workshops. The following is an hour long documentary straight from HMP Wandsworth, with the inmates themselves explaining the process they went through which changed their behaviour. Men who previously would react violently to their sense of shame, now recognising choice in the heat of the moment, and thus undoing the dynamic that was causing them to behave violently in response to a shaming experience. It is well worth the time required to watch this as it covers the fundamental concepts we are expanding on in this article.


SVI Shame Violence Intervention – Documentary (1 hour)

There are two key things involved in the process of understanding how shame dynamics lead to violence and how to interrupt the pattern of behaviour that causes it to escalate.

First is providing a group who know the process, understand shame dynamics in this context, and therefore can support the person learning it themselves in the midst of a shaming experience.
Secondly that same group also consciously provides the all important Need To Belong that becomes intrinsically threatened during a shaming event, The Need to Belong being met, is a key imperative in de-escalation of violence when it threatens to occur.

These two essential aspects are absolute requirements to understanding any process that will lead to an interruption in violent escalation. They are explained in more detail in this download-able PDF detailing the therapeutic aspect of Jonathan’s work.

PDF of The Shame_Violence_Intervention Method by Jonathan_Asser (Originally submitted to the BACP Criminal Justice Forum)

The High Status Option : The Last Moment of Choice

The last moment of choice that we find in the midst of an escalating episode of shame that is headed towards violence, Jonathan Asser refers to as the High Status Option.

It involves keeping your power, not giving it away by running, nor getting it back by beating it out of the other person. This really comes down to our perception of events as they transpire, and it has some supporting factors to take into account.

Current thinking and the general narrative in our culture, is that violence can only be stopped using force and punishment. This is a mistaken approach, and it is failing because we are trying to fix the symptom, and not the cause. What we need to look at in violence, is to teach the perpetrator how to tolerate the shame they are experiencing, so we can then interrupt that escalation before it reaches tipping point. This is the Last Moment of Choice and where we find the High Status Option.

The method applied in SVI workshops with 100% effectiveness, at first seems like absolute madness because it allows the situation to unfold, it does not step in, nor use force or threat of punishment to establish dominance over the potential perpetrator. It lets them make their own choice and they can choose violence. This freedom is an essential aspect in allowing a person to re-claim their power, and it will not work to impose it upon them. This presents a very risky moment, but that is the nature of the method. It is real-time, and raw.
The method works by encouraging the perpetrator to stay with the shame they are experiencing, until it passes. It presents reasons why they will benefit by not reacting to it, nor will anyone present try to manage it, suppress it, or lessen it either. What they then learn is a reason to stick with shame, let themselves feel the shame, and why it is in their best interest to choose the High Status Option from within it, instead of violence. Therein lies that last moment of choice.

This is also why it is essential when learning the process to be surrounded by a group of peers who already understand this process, it then transfers knowledge through direct experience and example, and not coercion, dictate, or threat of punishment.

The 2 minute clip of a Group session example below, is taken from Jonathan Assers film “Starred Up” which is a movie about the SVI process being applied in a prison. While watching this very interesting clip much can be learnt of the method by analysing what occurs.

“Group Therapy” scene from Starred Up – the Movie. (2 mins)
(Contains bad language & violence, so be advised.)


“Kicking Off” An example of SVI therapy session on the edge. 

Analysing the “Kicking Off” video clip

  • Notice the body language of the key individuals, as well as the power of the group to present a High Status Option by example, they are NOT reacting violently at first, and the boy at the centre of the groups focus, is trying to live up to the standard being shown by his peers. The Need to Belong to the group is being engaged. This is powerful stuff.
  • Notice also the body language of the men when reaction occurs, everyone is feeling it, but key members jump to support men in key roles that might be triggered themselves if they did not feel supported. This is to help stop them reacting in violence, but not to do so with coercion as would normally be applied in a prison setting by the guards and the stick.
  • The Group Therapist can be seen to maintain a submissive role, he drops eye contact, which is very important, he also does not let his body go front-on to a potential perpetrator as this would trigger confrontation. Other places where men have done this, it only happens because they are trusted by the man in front of them. To put your body front-on to an aggressor is asking for a fight, as is showing your throat, making prolonged eye contact and a variety of other body language signals that are well worth learning about.
  • Everything in the above short clip is directed to perfection in showing us just what is needed, and the knife-edge of realism upon which the entire process hinges. Put a step wrong, and it could all explode. Conversely if you dis-empower the men involved before the session, you will not have success. One of them is even armed, this shows that the individuals in the group must be permitted autonomous decision making, independence to be themselves and to make their own choices, and not be “mothered” or aggressed by a “system” into a dictated behaviour, as that will only make them feel dominated forcefully and they will respond accordingly.
  • This is what makes it such a challenging area for anyone to work in with success, but Jonathan Asser has proved here that it can be done, once it is understood. This may be a clip from a directed movie, but if you watch the documentary on SVI you will realise that it was taken from real life subjects.
  • The end result, no violence, the men stand down of their own choice, and the group bond becomes stronger in this method of non-violent High Status Option. This is how you deal with violence, not by threat of punishment.

The Trouble with Theory versus Real Life

This all remains theory until it can be seen or experienced in practice and then applied in a real setting. Though the theory is essential for us to know what is going on within the anatomy of violence, it also important to realise that it may be difficult to apply any process without personal experience of managing oneself in the midst of escalating violence. This puts it outside the domain of most therapists and this is a problem.

Violence and shame escalation is like a fever and will effect everyone present to react in Fight or Flight mode when a situation begins to escalate within a group setting. The “Kicking Off” scene in the previous clip is a perfect example, and I am sure anyone watching it is drawn into the experience somewhat, the heart begins to race, and the mind begins to react, we feel tension and fear and it is often these things that end up causing further escalation.

An example of the problems faced in applying theory to real life situations, can be seen in the excellent documentary about life in a part of Chicago plagued by gang violence.


The Interrupters, 2011. Trailer for the Documentary. 

What is Shame Exactly? A Survival Instinct

Shame is the sense of a disappearing self that occurs when someone consciously, or often unconsciously, starts to dis-empower us. Shame is really about Powerlessness, and so conversely violence is really just about subsequent Empowerment.

The saying that Nature abhors a vacuum, appears to hold true. When a living being begins to feel powerless, a vacuum of sorts begins to be created within them, into this will jump violence in order to re-establish a sense of self, i.e. empower the self again.

Shame does not only happen to individuals, there is also group shame, there is also cultural shame, and there is also the shame an entire country can experience, and may then react from. Shame is literally of epidemic proportions in the world when we consider it in this light, and hitherto it has gone under the radar in considerations as to why humans behave violently, and how to address that.

Shame is not guilt. Guilt may be an after-effect resulting from a shame reaction especially if we resort to violence, but they are very different beasts. Shame is something that happens in the here and now. It is a live event that comes and then passes. When we feel it, it envelops us, right there and then. We become awash with shame, and we all know that feeling. That is the sense of self shrinking, it is the experience of powerlessness and a power vacuum being created within us, which will then demand a response. Our natural response is no different to the basic survival reaction of an animal. We will lash out, attack, or do anything we can to stop our sense of self shrinking further. This is deeply ingrained in us at an instinctive level, and this is why it is almost impossible for the rational mind to manage it when a person becomes shamed for an extended period of time. The smaller* ‘I’* get, the more* powerless* I feel, then the more reactive I am likely to become to balance the dis-empowering effect of what is happening to me. I react to protect my sense of self from* *disappearing completely. It is a survival instinct.

If the shaming continues, we will eventually hit a tilt point and then boom! we will react irrationally, which invariably means we revert to our animal self and become aggressive. When this occurs, we enter what is often referred to as the Reptilian part of our brain.

The Reptilian brain, is the oldest part of our brain. It knows how to react, but not how to question why. When we are in it, we respond like a wild animal would, because once we were exactly that. Then we go into a fight or flight mode, and very intensely when it is driven by excruciating shame that someone else is delivering upon us because our  sense of self is cornered down there. We discuss the physiological aspect more, a little further on.

The Basic Human Need to Belong

Another essential factor and key to resolution in a deeper, long-term sense, is based on the fact that shame challenges our basic human Need To Belong. When we become shamed, we also likely start to feel isolated and abandoned, alone and separated from our sense of security. As such the Need To Belong is crucial in re-establishing a sense of balance when shame is happening to us. If we feel the group around us is supporting us, if we feel that we belong, then we are far less inclined to react violently.

This is also the challenge in understanding how to address Domestic Violence situations, as more often than not the person who resorts to violence does so because their sense of belonging is being threatened. In such a case, the alleged victim may well be targeting the alleged perpetrator by shaming them and alluding to their exclusion from the place they feel they belong. Understanding the power of this to impact a human negatively is an essential pre-requisite to understanding Domestic Violence dynamics but we will look at this in a further article.

Our Western culture can be an antagonising element driving more violence to occur. Most people no longer feel a sense of true community that we once had in more tribal settings. Most of us no longer live in close village dynamics, instead we live in tower blocks or houses, and generally remain quite segregated. Given this lack of support from our community at large, is there any wonder that violence is on the increase in our cultures and cities? Given the context of what we are discussing, it is then apparent that the basic human* Need To Belong* is not being met by the communities that surround us. As such our sense of belonging is constantly being challenged by modern life itself. This in turn can lead to expressions of violence within the community.

The kind of people who commit mass murder often speak of this sense of isolation from their community in the aftermath of an attack, and often target their community quite deliberately which tallies with what we are suggesting here. They are often detached individuals, who could find no connection to their community and so eventually took it out on their community, often completely missed at the time because the community was not even aware of them being in their midst. A chicken and egg scenario.

So the Need to Belong is clearly a key part of how shame escalates into violence, but also equally important in addressing the underlying issue of that escalation, and interrupting it successfully as well as creating a longer term solution.

The Karpman Drama Triangle

The Karpman Drama Triangle plays an important role in the sequence of events leading up to a violent action, and it also plays a part in its aftermath. This is a whole other subject to consider, and we have looked into ways to evolve through the dynamic in our b