Shame-Violence Intervention Method

Shame-Violence Intervention Method

Jonathan Asser ran therapy sessions for violent offenders in HM Prison Wandsworth, UK. His method was unheard of before, and it had 100% success rate, also something not thought possible. He detailed his method (link at the bottom of this article), and it involved understanding that shame is at the root of ALL violence. Knowing this, offers a way out of violent reaction.

I wrote an extended article on this subject, and a variety of other aspects around violence, and that can be found here “The Anatomy of Violence – Part 1 Shame”

In the below article I wanted to focus specifically on looking at his method, and then from it consider ways to adapt it, and apply it in our own lives, or even introduce it into Men’s Groups for men who are being challenged in their lives to maintain control. E.g. being psychologically bullied at work, at home, by the Law, or in their community.


Shame is at the root of ALL violence

I had my doubts at first, but as I shared in the main article above, there is a lot of documented proof that shame is at the root of all violence. Just knowing this, opens up a world of opportunity in approaching dealing with violence, or even any kind of anger, when it escalates.

The steps Jonathan Asser took were as follows (videos showing examples of the therapy sessions are at the end of this article) :

Shame Awareness

First, become aware that your anger is rising because of shame. Acknowledge it. Do not try to stop the shaming itself. All the symptoms will be there and obvious, and the object causing the shame should be pretty clear too.

Shame Tolerance

Hold equanimity while you experience the intensifying manifestation of shame. Not something easy without support, but it is possible with it.

This is the moment when anger erupts and becomes reactive turning into violence. It will manifest as violence either towards the self, or towards an object, or worse, towards a person.

The fundamental desire of the individual being shamed, will be for the shaming to stop. They will be escalating and this should be observed, acknowledged, and held by the person experiencing the shame.

In DV situations or in street fights, it is this moment when the person doing the shaming will taste the closeness of their win, and likely want to ramp up the shame. Boom! Violence erupts in the intended victim.

Tolerance is required to not react during this period, and supporting aspects must be in place to talk the shamee through the experience, while not restraining or curtailing their option for violence in the process. They must make the choice themselves.

As James Gilligan, the eminent American prison psychologist realised, when asking any man in prison what drove him to be violent, the response will invariably be the same – “I wanted to be shown some respect, and I wanted the shaming to stop”.

What this tells us is that most people (mental health issues excluded) would rather the shame stopped than it went to violence, but they invariably lost control as it went on too long, and then later regretted that act. This is important to understand – people do not want to be violent necessarily, they want an alternative way out, but are pushed to it by continued shaming.

This shaming may not be conscious on the part of the perpetrator doing the shaming, but it will be experienced as shame by the one escalating towards violence. This is also important to understand, and why the blame, per se, is irrelevant, while the shame dynamic itself is what is key to understand the problem, and from it engage a solution.

Shame Resilience

Through his therapy groups, and by providing the support for the violent offender to become Shame Aware and then engage in Shame Tolerance, Jonathan Asser ultimately created the setting for the violent offender to pause long enough to take an alternative option. He offered a way out. That way out, is Shame Resilience.

Basically, it is seeing the value of not reacting violently, but in standing strong, in the middle of the shaming experience, to let it rise up, intensify, and continue as long as it must, until ultimately the shame starts to diminish again of itself. All the while holding in the midst of the shame, experiencing it fully, but not reacting. Observing it.

The important point to note in this, is that the violent offender will be using Shame Resilience to buy time to find his way out of the Shame experience. This is something that has to be learned, and experienced, but by all accounts according to Jonathan Asser’s work, it rarely took more than one or two goes for the previously violent offender to acknowledge the value of that choice over the consequences of his previous method of violent reaction. In this way he took the higher road option.

The Need to Belong

None of the above will work without the all important Need to Belong being met.

In the case of violent offenders, they were already members of a gang in the prison, this was necessary for survival, but all those gangs would be working to Alpha methods and use Fear, Violence, Shame and the psychology of Victimisation, in order to maintain a hierarchy of dominance.

Existence in a gang is not a pleasant experience, it is deliberately brutal and there is a pecking order of violence. Those at the bottom will be mercilessly victimised constantly, and those at the top will be forever on the lookout against contenders, and that inevitable fatal  stab in the back and take-over. This is how gangs function – in a condition of high stress and fear.

Replace the old gang with a “super gang”

J Asser’s approach was relatively simple – offer the violent offender entry into a new gang that did not use the Fear, Violence, Shame, Victimisation, method, but instead offered self-esteem and a voluntary sense of  inclusion and belonging.

It would have to meet the qualities of the gang they were leaving, otherwise they would not feel drawn to switch, but given it included other respected gang members and violent men, that would be an enticement, if it could be shown that they were experiencing a better life for it.

The Sense of Belonging was one such reward system to encourage the switch.

All men need to feel that they belong, it is written into our pysche at such a deep level that it cannot be altered or nullified. Cults, Gangs, Even Society itself works to this phenomena, and it needs to be a part of the solution when encouraging violent men to take the higher road of Shame Awareness to avoid future violent reactions. They need to be in a gang of some sort.

Other Considerations

Our assumption is that when dealing with aggression in males, we should remove the ability to be aggressive and disarm the male. This is wrong.

A male needs to be permitted to make the choice himself, he needs to choose to stand down from a violent response without pressure or bribery to do so. As such he has to be permitted to function as a potentially violent man, armed, if that is his normal method, and allowed to make the choice.

The danger of this approach is obvious, and in part why J Asser felt it would be difficult to run these sessions just anywhere. If the man turns to violence it will destroy faith in the process for everyone. But, without this approach there will be no authenticity in the process. It will not work.

This needs to be understood. The violent man must not be neutralised, he must be allowed to choose, and the moment he chooses the higher value option, he is changing his own psychological pathways of choice, and as a result changing and choosing his own fate. If someone else does it for him, if the prison-system uses force against him or offers incentives to behave well, he will only continue to fight, or just play the game to get through the rat-trap of the system.

This method done correctly will wake a man up to the failings of his previous approach, and he will likely want to escape the cycle of violence anyway. though he might have assumed it would never be possible.

When someone is being bullied we should stop the Shaming. This is wrong.

The only way to learn Shame Resilience and to take the higher value option of non-violent reaction, is to face into the Shame experience, but we must have a strategy in place to achieve it.

Shame Awareness & providing the Sense of Belonging, is that strategy. It will give a violent man the choice he needs between returning to his violent response (which he already knows is not in his best interests), and taking the higher value option towards Shame Awareness and as a result, and in reward of that, being met by his peers in the super gang, he will then feel he belongs.

This method will not work for all violent offenders

J Asser picked and selected the men for the group, it was not an open invitation. He knew the profile type of men that might be able to accept the method and work with it. Without doubt current drug users, people with mental health issues, and other psychological impacts would make this method unsuitable and prone to failure and therefore actually dangerous to employ.


Video examples in action

Below are clips of therapy sessions from the film Starred Up. The script for the film was written by Jonathan Asser and is an example of his therapy sessions and how they went.

This first clip is an example of Shame Awarness being applied in a therapy setting. The boy is allowed to express his reason for anger, he shares it, another man then responds harshly shaming him, he then escalates it, shames the boy further, but the therapist and the rest of the gang hold fast, aware, and offering their superior knowledge and support as an invite to the boy NOT to react in violence, but to start to develop Shame Tolerance as a choice. It is tense, it is on the brink of exploding, but they manage it because Shame Awareness is understood by the rest of the group, and the boy is being introduced to it through his peers. The video is about 2 mins long.

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

The second clip (below) is a fight scene that shows the body language, and the method of dealing with violent escalation, and also the gang response and part they all play in the incident as it is escalating between the members, which was fine, and allowed, and permitted, because they also knew how to de-escalate themselves, and this is important to understand. Men need to be allowed to make their own choices, what we need to achieve, is the ability to make the right choice every time.

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

The above clip is about 3 minutes long and is an brilliantly staged and executed example of how violence escalates in men, and then shifts and changes like wild-fire through the group as Shame rises intensely and rapidly, it effects everyone involved. This is so close to kicking-off, but they manage to use Shame Awareness to provide an option to whoever is dominating the situation and is in shame reaction, but more importantly, they use gang inclusion and pecking order to encourage it to stand down.

The body language is key to notice in the above video and worth studying, if the body language had been wrong, or confronting, then it would have kicked-off. We are like animals in this respect at these times. Body language is the key to de-escalation or escalation.

Also important is the ability to keep the fear down, or rather, to allow it to burn through you, to not let Shame turn into violent expression out of fear in reaction to the Shaming coming back from the men as they are one by one affected by it.

Also important to note is that no man backs down, no man becomes a victim of domination or threat, these are strong men, each of them would kill and probably have, and it is an amazing outcome to achieve 100% success rate in. This video clip, above all others, I find fascinating and most accurate in the dynamic of violence and how it manifests in real life.

The SVI Documentary

At about 50 minutes in length, this documentary is about Jonathan Asser’s work and is interviews with the inmates that he had the therapy sessions with.


Further Reading

Further reading can be found here – The Shame Violence Intervention Documentation written by J Asser and submitted to BCAP Criminal Justice forum as a therapeutic method to rehabilitate violent offenders.
Article download here in PDF form – “Shame Violence Intervention Therapy”

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