Male Emotions/Relationships and Violence: A Theory of Humiliated Fury

Thomas J. Scheff

Abstract: Following a brief review of the literature on male violence, a theory of its emotional/relational origins is outlined. Drawing on the work of Helen Lewis and others, the article suggests that three conditions lead to rage and violence: 1. Lack of affectional attachments. 2. Virtually complete repression of shame. 3. Obsessive preoccupation. Although women in whom these three conditions were present would be as likely as men to commit violent acts, the three conditions are present in men much more frequently than in women. The theory is illustrated by applying it to Hitler’s biography. Finally, a method that would provide a preliminary test of the theory is suggested.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that most violence is committed by men. Indeed, this evidence is daily reaffirmed in the mass media. There is also a smaller but substantial literature that suggests that men manage emotions and relationships differently then women. This article proposes that the emotional/relational development of males is one cause of male violence. Although there may be other causes as well, this paper focuses on a theory that links the emotional/relational life of men to a propensity to violence.

There is a substantial literature showing that violent behavior is predominantly a male domain (Archer 1994). But little headway has been made in demonstrating why this is the case. There was a flurry of hope for a genetic explanation when the XYY chromosome in males was discovered, but subsequent research has shown that it is only marginally related to violence, at best (Karli 1997). More promising is the work on the relationship between depression, gender, and aggression (Feshback et al 1997). These studies have as yet been able to provide a causal explanation of the relationship between the three variables. The theory offered in the present article may be relevant to this problem, as will be explained below.

The causal explanations that are best documented propose that many different kinds of factors contribute to the causation of violence. One such statement is by Gilbert (1994), who documents genetic, economic, cultural, and emotional causes of male violence. One of his theses, the way in which shame/anger sequences lead to aggression, is similar to the main argument of the present article. Without denying any of the other variables that contribute to violence, the purpose of this article will to focus on an explanation of role of emotions and relationships in causing violence, and to take this argument somewhat further than Gilbert and its other proponents do.

One last reference to the literature on violence will be necessary before beginning my own argument. Hinde (1997) suggests that we must decouple individual aggression from the causes of war. He argues that aggressive tendencies in soldiers are somewhat irrelevant, because they are, for the most part, only fulfilling social obligations. War, he proposes, is a social institution, so that in order to understand its causes, we need in the first instance to examine social structures, rather than focus on aggressiveness.

I think that Hinde’s proposal is valid, in that it adds one more line of study to the many offered by Gilbert (1994), as explained before. But I think Hinde overlooks one important way in which individual aggressiveness contributes, on a mass scale, to violence: the way in which the aggressiveness of the leaders of nations is reciprocally linked to the aggressiveness of the publics the leaders serve. I will return to this issue below in my analysis of Hitler’s biographies.

Emotional/relational Contributions to Violence

In the 80’s in the U.S. and Europe, psychotherapists became aware that many of their patients had as their main complaint numbness, blankness, and lack of feeling (Krystal 1988; Taylor 1997). This condition has been named alexithymia. It is not clear whether these were new symptoms or that they were noticed more. Although neither Krystal nor Taylor discuss gender, at least three out of four of the cases they mention are men. Especially in Western culture, men are socialized to be alexithymic in varying degrees.

Men all over the world have been socialized to be strong, brave and competent, which usually has meant suppressing vulnerable emotions, especially fear, grief, and shame. In most male adults, these emotions are hidden, disguised or suppressed so consistently that early in childhood being aware of them becomes problematic.

There is also a substantial literature that men are socialized to pay less attention to attachments to others than women do. To achieve success or at least survival, men are trained to be less interested in affectional bonds than women (Lewis 1976). Suppression of emotion and detachment from others are closely interrelated. The more one suppresses one’s emotions, the more difficulty others have relating to you. And the more isolated from others, the easier it is to suppress emotions. On one’s own, without having to attend to others, one can try to organize one’s life in a way that avoids emotion.

By suppressing emotions and relationships, men become mobile to seek accomplishments and jobs. But such mobility comes at a high price: isolation from self and others, and, as I will argue, a propensity for aggression and violence. Men are socialized to deal with the outer world, but also to mostly ignore the emotional/relational (e/r) world. How does isolation from the e/r world translate into violence?

There are several studies that suggest a somewhat counter-intuitive answer to this question. These studies propose that the management of one particular emotion, shame, is crucial. They propose that men are particularly socialized to suppress this emotion: the sense of being weak, inadequate, powerless, helpless, impotent, or incompetent. Rather than experience these painful feelings or let others see them undergoing them, men usually become blank or angry. Shame itself is harmless, indeed, necessary. Shame is a prime component of conscience, modesty, and morality. It becomes a problem only if covered over. That is, one ingredient of violence, its incredible energy, is produced by masking shame with blankness or anger. The rest of this article will explain how this might happen, especially when it occurs in conjunction with isolation from others.

Shame and Anger Studies

In a clinical study of rage, Gaylin (1984) has suggested that rage usually has its source in two other emotions, fear and shame, especially shame in the form of humiliation. However, it seems obvious that fear and shame could not alone cause violent reactions because these emotions are so widespread. Like Gaylin, Gilbert (1994) doesn’t deal with his issue in his proposal that shame is an underlying cause of violence. What other conditions are necessary, in addition?

Gilligan (1996) considers this question. On the basis of his contacts as a prison psychiatrist with men convicted of crimes of violence, he suggests three conditions under which shame results in violence: 1. The shame must be a secret ("often hidden behind a defensive mask of bravado, arrogance…. or indifference" p. 111). 2. The offender perceives no other alternative than violence. And 3. The offender lacks the inhibiting feelings of love, guilt or fear.

This formulation by Gilligan is a good beginning, because it brings the issue of conditions out in the open. All three of the conditions may turn out to be very important. However, there are several ambiguities, one being what Gilligan means when he states that the shame must be a secret. Although not stated explicitly, Gilligan seems to imply that although violent men keep their shame a secret from others, they themselves are aware of it.

There are other studies, however, that suggest that the kind of shame that leads to violence is a secret not only to others, but also to self. The perpetrator’s lack of awareness of his own shame is shown in studies of family violence by Lansky. His cases suggest that in order to lead to blind rage, the shame component in the emotions that are aroused must be outside of awareness.

Lansky has published three papers on family violence. The first paper (l984) describes six cases, the second (l987), four. The third (Lansky l989) analyzes one session with a married couple. In most of the cases, he reports similar emotional dynamics: violence resulted from insults. Although some insults were overt, in the form of cursing, contempt and disgust, most were covert, in the form of innuendo or double messages.

Underhanded disrespect gives rise to unacknowledged shame. It is difficult for the participants to respond to innuendo and to double messages; these forms of communication confuse them. Instead of admitting their upset and puzzlement, they answer in kind. The cycle involves disrespect, humiliation, revenge, counter-revenge, and so on, ending in violence.

The way in which both spouses seem to be unaware of the intense shame that their behavior generates is illustrated in one of the cases (Lansky, l984, 34-35):

A thirty-two year old man and his forty-six-year-old wife were seen in emergency conjoint consultation after he struck her. Both spouses were horrified, and the husband agreed that hospitalization might be the best way to start the lengthy treatment that he wanted. As he attempted to explain his view of his difficult marriage, his wife disorganized him with repeated humiliating comments about his inability to hold a job. These comments came at a time when he was talking about matters other than the job. When he did talk about work, she interrupted to say how immature he was compared to her previous husbands, then how strong and manly he was. The combination of building up and undercutting his sense of manliness was brought into focus. As the therapist commented on the process, the husband became calm. ... After the fourth session, he left his marriage and the hospital for another state and phoned the therapist for an appropriate referral for individual therapy. On follow-up some months later, he had followed through with treatment.

The disguising of the wife’s humiliation of the husband in this case is not through innuendo, since her disparagement is overt. Her shaming tactics, rather are disguised by her technique of alternately praising her husband, by stating how "strong and manly" he was, then cutting him down. Perhaps she confused herself with this tactic as much as she did her husband.

Lack of awareness of shaming and shame can be seen in Lansky‘s report of a conjoint session with a violent man and his wife (l989). In this session, Lansky indicates that the wife was dressed in a sexually provocative way, and that her bearing and manner was overtly seductive toward the interviewer. Yet neither spouse acknowledged her activity, even when the interviewer asked them whether the wife was ever seductive toward other men. Although both answered affirmatively, their answers concerned only past events. The lack of comment on what was occurring in the interview is astounding. It would seem that blind rage requires not only shaming and shame, but also blindness toward these two elements.

Unacknowledged Shame

Hidden shame as the main source of anger is a key theme in the work of Helen Lewis. It is one of the central themes of her study of differences in emotional development of men and women (1976). However, she first discovered the link between hidden shame and anger in her earlier study (1971) of psychotherapy sessions. She used a systematic technique to locate shame episodes in several hundred transcripts, then analyzed each episode, second by second, in the context in which it occurred.

Unlike most other shame researchers, Lewis made relationship issues equal to emotional ones. Her analysis of emotions is also considerably more detailed and documented than other studies. For these reasons, it provides one of the main sources for the present paper.

Lewis was both a research psychologist and a practicing psychoanalyst at the time of her first study of shame (1971). One of her major contributions is the idea that shame is inherently a social emotion. Her formulation was bio-social: human beings are social by biological inheritance. That is, she saw shame as an instinct that has the function of signaling threats to the social bond. Just as the instinctual emotion of fear signals danger to life and limb, shame also signals a potential threat to survival, especially for an infant, threat to a social bond. In this same vein, Kaufman (1989) proposed that shame dynamics form the interpersonal bridge that connects individuals who would otherwise be isolated.

In Lewis’s empirical study of shame (1971) she encountered shame because she used a systematic method for identifying emotions in verbal transcripts, the Gottschalk-Gleser method (1969; 1995). This method involves long lists of key words that are correlated with specific emotions, such as anger, grief, fear, anxiety, and shame.

Counting keywords, Lewis found that anger, fear, grief, and anxiety cues showed up from time to time in the transcripts. But she was unprepared for was the massive frequency of shame cues. Her methodology was complex, in that once a shame episode was located by Gottschalk’s method, Lewis also applied a qualitative method, analyzing each episode word by word.

Lewis’s findings:

1. Prevalence: Lewis found a high frequency of shame markers in all sessions, far outranking markers of the other emotions combined. This finding suggests that shame was a dominant force in the sessions she analyzed.

2. Lack of reference: Lewis noted that although shame markers were very frequent, patient or therapist almost never used the word shame or it’s near cognates. Even the relatively mild word embarrassment was seldom used. In analyzing the context in which shame markers occurred, Lewis identified situations in which the patient recounted a shameful memory, or seemed to feel distant from, criticized, or exposed by the therapist. These two contexts generated a cloud of shame markers. Both contexts fit the proposition that shame arises from seeing one’s self negatively from the point of view of the other (Darwin 1872; Cooley 1922).

However, patients had two different, seemingly opposite responses in the shame context. In one, the patient seemed to be suffering psychological pain, but failed to identify it as shame. Lewis called this form overt, undifferentiated shame. A patient would usually refer to an emotion or feeling, but the reference misidentified the shame feeling ("This is an awkward moment for me.")

In a second type of response, the patient seemed not to be in pain, revealing an emotional response only by rapid, obsessional speech on topics that seemed slightly removed from the dialogue. Lewis called this second response bypassed shame. Identifying or calling shame by its right name seems to be an important aspect of understanding and managing it.

3. Finally, Lewis noted that there was an affinity between shame and anger. She found that anger markers in the patient’s speech were always preceded by shame markers. Apparently one way of hiding shame is to become angry. This link is the key to the explanation of rage and violence offered in this article.

In her study of differences in the way men and women manage emotions (1976), Lewis cites studies suggesting that the overt, undifferentiated form of unacknowledged shame is more characteristic of women than of men, and the bypassed form more characteristic of men than of women. She uses this difference in the management of shame to explain the higher rates of depression in women than in men, and the higher level of aggression in men. This difference, I think, can help explain the causal links between gender, depression, and aggression in boys and girls that have been reported by Feshback et al (1997).

However, before continuing on the main theme, it will be necessary to elaborate on Lewis’s idea that most shame is hidden. Since her 1971 study was based entirely on transcripts of sessions that she had not herself witnessed, she was a bit coy in naming hidden shame. She called it unacknowledged shame. That is, she noted that the word shame or its near relatives (embarrassment, humiliation) was almost never used by either the patient or the therapist in reference to shame episodes. By calling such shame unacknowledged, she reserved judgment on the issue of whether the patient was conscious of shame, but not mentioning it.

After completing the study, in her clinical work she realized that patients seldom acknowledged shame because they were usually unaware of it. They were in a state of shame, as Lewis put it, but did not feel ashamed. Lewis’s interpretation of the cues to unacknowledged shame is complex enough to require reference to her graphic representation of dimensions of the relationship between self and other (Table 1).

Table 1 Self/Other Relationship in Shame

Self (unable) Other

1. Object of scorn, contempt, ridicule; 1. The source of scorn contempt,

reduced, little. ridicule

2. Paralyzed; helpless; passive 2. Laughing, ridiculing; powerful; active

3. Assailed by noxious stimuli: rage; 3. Appears intact

tears; blushing; fluster; blank

4. Feels childish 4. Appears adult; going away;


5. Focal in awareness; being looked at; split 5. Also focal in awareness; looking at

6. Functions poorly as an agent or perceiver; 6. Appears intact

divided between imaging self and the other;

boundaries are permeable; vicarious

experience of self and other.

Although Lewis doesn’t refer to Table 1 in her analysis of excerpts, to highlight her method I have inserted the number corresponding to each category in the chart. Lewis refers to the following episode as an instance of "bypassed shame and retaliatory hostility" by the patient she refers to as FI 2, a male.

Lewis says "In this excerpt… a by-passed shame reaction is experienced entirely without shame affect. …the patient experiences hostile feeling; he is "repelled" by his imagined hostile watchers [5]. Thus he experiences his own retaliatory hostility, devaluing the scornful viewers [1]. There is no shame affect, only shame imagery and ideation. …this patient connected the occurrence of chest pains [3] with the ideation of being watched or looked at by others [5], sometimes in the wake of a failure to live up to his ego-ideal.

P: Well sometimes it may sound silly, but sometimes on the train when I'm riding a train or something I just ... if I'm doing ... if I'm sitting down or something (laugh) you know you may think that some people may be staring at you [5] or you just sort of wonder what type of well ... why they're staring at you [5] (slight laugh). I don't know, I just you know, If, if you're sitting down and somebody keeps staring at you looking [5] ...

T: What do you think when that happens? What passes through your mind?

P: Well just that maybe I don't know if I may be looking awkward [1] or something. I don't know. I can't think of what [6 (blankness)].

T: Anything else cross your mind?

P: You mean concerning what people think about me? Well, most cases, I mean people in most cases, I think people, you know people I dealt with who might [have] any bad things, have any bad feelings -or ill will toward me, like [1], you know other people whom you don't really know too well, I mean you might have various little acquaintances dealing with them, and they don't understand you too well, you know..And I feel very repelled by them [3] (slight laugh)." (1971, pp. 248-249).

Unlike any other emotion, shame arousal depends entirely on the specifics of the social relationship. Grief is also a social emotion, but a much simpler one; it registers loss of a loved one. Although fear may be generated by another person, it is not always social. It is an instinctive reaction to danger to life and limb, regardless of source. Similarly, anger is usually, but not always socially generated. Its origin is frustration, of whatever kind. Unlike any other emotion, shame is relationship specific.

Because social relationships are so complex, shame, the affect generated by them, is much more complex than grief, fear and anger. For this reason, Table 1 is needed to identify contexts that generate shame. Interpretation of this brief excerpt touches on four of the six dimensions of self-other positioning. The two that are not needed (2 and 4) are more often found in episodes of overt, undifferentiated shame.

The Theory is Incomplete

Although it may be true that unacknowledged shame is one of the causes of violence, perhaps even the main cause, it would also seem that there must be other ingredients as well. It is clear that unacknowledged shame, particularly in men, is not unusual. Indeed, it may be that for most men, shame goes unacknowledged for most of their lives.

An earlier paper (Scheff 2001) makes this point by a secondary analysis of two classic texts: Willis’s (1977) study of working class boys in an English high school, and Sennett and Cobb’s (1972) study of working class men. Sennett and Cobb, since they stay with the words of their informants, don’t say that the hidden injury suffered by these men is chronic shame, but the informants’ words imply it. Similarly, Willis does not use the language of shame and anger to explain the "pranks" and "laffs" that the lads have at their teacher’s expense, but their words and behavior imply it.

The hidden injuries that Sennett and Cobb discovered might be paraphrased in this way: their subjects felt that first, because of their class and occupational position, they were not accorded the respect that they should have gotten, particularly from teachers, bosses, and their own children. Secondly, a more subtle injury: these men also felt, in some ways, that their low class and occupational position was at least partly their own fault. Sennett and Cobb imply that social class is responsible for both injuries. They believe that these working men did not get the respect they deserved because of their social class, and that the second injury, lack of self-respect, is also the fault of class, rather than the men’s own fault, as most of them thought.

The question that interests Willis is the reproduction of social class: why do a huge majority of these lads wind up taking working class, rather than middle class jobs? Willis is somewhat surprised by the answer that his findings suggest. Although he acknowledges that these boys tend to be routed into working class jobs by their teachers, he finds that the boys themselves play a large part in the process. They perceive their teachers to be middle class, and perceive them to be rejecting. Because of the feeling of rejection, the boys are defiant toward the teachers, and, more generally, toward education itself. The boys vehemently reject the teachers and their values, and in doing so, sabotage their own education. The rejection of education, Willis finds, plays a major role in the job futures of the lads.

There is a parallel in studies of the US prison system in the 1950’s and 60’s. They investigated the different kinds of pain that imprisonment causes. One of the most intense pains, they argued, was the loss of status (degradation). They go on to suggest that prisoners react to their loss of status by forging a prisoner culture that attempts to restore at least some of their damaged status. These studies propose that since prisoners feel rejected by their keepers and by their society, they unite in a culture which "rejects the rejecters" (McCorkle and Korn 1954). Hostility from the guards and from society is met by counter-hostility from the prisoners:

"Observation suggests that the major problems with which the inmate social system attempts to cope center about the theme of social rejection. In many ways, the inmate social system may be viewed as providing a way of life which enables the inmate to avoid the devastating psychological effects of internalizing and converting social rejection into self-rejection. In effect, it permits the inmate to reject his rejecters.’’ [McCorkle and Korn 1958] (Cloward, et al, 1960).

Although shame is not explicitly mentioned in these studies, they imply a shame/anger dynamic. Rather than acknowledge the shame of rejection, the prisoners mask it with anger and hostility, much like the "lads" in Willis’s study react to their teachers. Class analysis is not an explicit feature of the prison studies, but they assume that almost all of the prisoners are working class rather than middle class. To the extent that is the case, there is a second parallel with Willis’s study of working class boys.

If high school boys, working class men, offenders in prisons and patients in a mental hospital repress shame, then there must be something more to the creation of violence, as Gilligan suggests. There is clear evidence of the repression of shame in these men, but only a few of them perpetrate violent acts.

Elaborating the Conditions for Violence

It seems to me that Gilligan’s second and third condition need to be considered further, as I have already done with his first condition, secrecy. His second condition, that one has run out of alternatives to violence, is called entrapment in the literature on the conditions for conflict (E.g., Brockner and Rubin 1985). It may be based, at least in part, on reality, as is the case with those who occupy low status in ghettoes. Or it may be mostly illusory, as it sometimes is with upper class perpetrators.

One issue that needs further exploration is the possibility that both Gilligan’s second and third conditions are so closely related to unacknowledged shame that they are facets rather than independent dimensions. Fluster and disruption of perception and thought is a key feature of shame and embarrassment states, whether acknowledged or not. The feeling of entrapment, in some cases, might be entirely due to shame states.

Similarly, the absence of feelings of love, guilt, or fear might also be traced to the shame process. As already indicated, most men are socialized to be ashamed of feeling, especially fear, but also feelings of tenderness, love and affection. The third emotion mentioned by Gilligan, guilt, is itself a shame derivative, compounded of shame and anger, with the anger directed inward. As indicated above, many men experience grief, fear and shame as blankness or obsession rather than emotions. Like feelings of entrapment, the absence of love, guilt and fear might be facets of the complete repression of shame.

If that is the case, then the question of further conditions for the development of violence out of shame states might be an issue of the degree to which shame states are completely inaccessible. Perhaps violence is generated out of unacknowledged shame only in the most extreme cases of repression.

One indicator of such extreme cases would be a total lack of humor and laughter, since laughter directed at self, especially, provides relief or even release from shame. Although there are recorded instances of laughter by Stalin, they were not directed at self, but at his victims. Knowledge of the lives of terrorists like Timothy McVeigh and Osana Ben Laden are much less complete, but so far I have not come across any instances of humor or laughter in their histories.

The Mechanism of Humiliated Fury

Although the studies of shame and anger by Lewis, Lansky, and Gilligan are basic resources for an understanding of male emotions and violence, they are lacking in one respect. These earlier studies do not provide a basis for explaining the incredible energy of states of humiliated fury. These states seem to have an intense intensity that is usually absent in normal behavior, and, even more unusual, they can last a lifetime. To explain this phenomenon, an explicit theory of process, second by second, would be necessary: how an isolated male progresses from stimuli to shame, to a shame response, to rage, and finally to aggression and/or violence.

Lewis’s moment by moment analysis of shame/anger episodes in discourse (1971) suggests a shame mechanism that I have called spiraling (Scheff 1987; 1994). It seems to me that shame/anger spirals explain the emotional basis for the high energy level of humiliated fury. Lewis herself has provided a cognitive explanation that complements the emotional one. According to Lewis (1971), the predominant cognitive feature of bypassed shame is what she calls obsessive preoccupation, the narrowing of focus onto a single issue. When an individual has a propensity to isolation from others, these two processes serve to further isolate him or her. They also can help explain a lifetime of anger, aggression and violence.

In this framework, there are three conditions for long term aggression and violence. One is emotional: virtually complete repression of shame in the form of shame/anger spirals. The second is cognitive: obsessive preoccupation. The second and third conditions are straightforward, isolation and obsession. Since the first condition, repression of shame in the form of a shame/rage spiral, is not widely known, I will describe it further.

Most emotional responses are very brief. These responses, since they usually serve as signals to pay attention, may last only a second or two. Then how can emotions such as fear or rage last for hours? Silvan Tomkins (1963) suggested that the basis for long lasting emotions was what he called emotion "binds": one emotion being bound by another, particularly by shame. Helen Lewis (1971) made a similar suggestion. She used the term "feeling traps." Again, her specific example involved shame: she thought that shame could be masked by anger, but then heightened by shame about being angry, and so on.

Although not stated explicitly by Tomkins or Lewis, both seem to imply that emotions can form closed loops, a self-perpetuating emotional episode that refuses to subside. A familiar example are people who are "blushers." They are so self-conscious about their blushing that they are ashamed of it. But their shame about blushing increases the blush, and so on. This particular example suggests a loop that is not mentioned by either Tomkins or Lewis: shame/shame. But it is this loop, I believe, that gives rise to the most prevalent form of shame spirals, those that lead to blankness and withdrawal, as in the case of Sennett and Cobb’s working class men.

The two kinds of shame spirals give rise to two different paths: withdrawal and silence (shame/shame) and anger, aggression and violence (shame/anger). The emotional/relational theory of violence outlined here would seem to be particularly applicable to instances involving long term violence on a massive scale. Hitler’s life history will be used to illustrate the major aspects of this theory. His history is particularly useful because there are many detailed glimpses of him both as a child and as a man.

We know that terrorists are usually isolated men like Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaycinski, and Osana Ben Laden. Often, as is the case with Ben Laden, their rhetoric makes many references to shame and humiliation. But little is known about their life histories. In comparison with Hitler, their biographies are largely unknown. To what extent did Hitler’s biographies suggest the three conditions for violence suggested by the theory outlined here: virtually complete repression of shame, isolation from others, and obsessional preoccupation?

Repression of Shame

The Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller (l983) has called attention to what may be the key origin of Hitler's psychopathology, the conjunction of the father's physical and emotional violence and his mother's complicity in it. Miller argues that the rage and shame caused by his father's treatment might have been completely repressed because of his mother's complicity. Although she pampered Hitler and professed to love him, she didn't protect him from his father's wrath, or allow Adolf to express his feelings about it. Klara, as much as Adolf, was tyrannized by her husband, but offered only obedience and respect in return. Because of his mother's "love" for him, as a young child Adolf was required not only to suffer humiliation by his father in silence, but also to respect him for it, a basic context for repression.

In later years Hitler (l927) was to gloss over his treatment by his parents, which is congruent with repression. He described his father as stern but respected, his childhood as that of a "mother's darling living in a soft downy bed" (Bromberg and Small, l983, 40). However, Alois's son, Alois Jr, left home at l4 because of his father's harshness. His son, William Patrick, reported that Alois, Sr. beat Alois, Jr. with a whip. Alois Jr.'s first wife, Brigid, reported that Alois Sr. frequently beat the children, and on occasion, his wife Klara (Bromberg and Small, l983, 32-33).

It would appear that Hitler's early childhood constituted an external feeling trap from which there was no escape. This external trap is the analogue to the internal trap proposed by Lewis (l971): when shame is evoked but goes unacknowledged, it generates intense symptoms of mental illness and/or violence towards self or others. Under the conditions of complete repression that seem to have obtained, Hitler's personality was grossly distorted. His biographies suggest that he was constantly in a state of anger bound by shame.

One indication of Hitler's continual shame/rage were his temper tantrums. Although in later life some of them may have been staged, there is no question that in most of his tantrums he was actually out of control. His older stepbrother reported that even before he was seven, (Gilbert, l950, l8):

"Hitler was imperious and quick to anger…If he didn’t get his way he got very angry. He would fly into a rage over any triviality."

In his teens, Hitler's rages were frequent and intense, evoking such expressions as "red with rage", "exceedingly violent and high-strung", and "like a volcano erupting" (Kubizek l955).

Hitler's early shame-proneness is suggested by the slightness of the provocation that triggered rage. Kubizek's memoir provides two examples: one occasion on learning that he had failed to win a lottery, another when he saw "Stephanie" with other men. Stephanie was a girl who Hitler longed to meet, but never did so. He was infatuated with her, but never introduced himself (Bromberg and Small, l983, 55-56).

The most obvious manifestations of Hitler's shame-proneness occurred after he became Chancellor. Although easily the most powerful and admired man in Germany, he was constantly apprehensive (Bromberg and Small, l983, l83):

His anxieties lest he appear ridiculous, weak, vulnerable, incompetent, or in any way inferior are indications of his endless battle with shame.

Further manifestations of chronic shame states occurred in his relationships with women. In attempting to interest a woman in himself (Bromberg and Small, l983, l83):

even the presence of other persons would not prevent him from repulsive groveling. [He would} tell a lady that he was unworthy to sit near her or kiss her hand but hoped she would look on him with favor... one woman reported that after all kinds of self-accusations he said that he was unworthy of being in the same room with her.

These latter descriptions of Hitler's shame states suggest overt, undifferentiated shame, emotionally painful states involving feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. How then is one to understand the other side of Hitler's personality, his arrogance, boldness, and extreme self-confidence? How could a man so shame-prone also be so shameless?

Lewis's conception of the bimodal nature of unacknowledged shame may provide the answer to this puzzle. In addition to the overt shame states discussed above, Hitler also had a long history of bypassed shame. Many aspects of his behavior suggest bypassed shame, but I will review only three: his temper tantrums, his "piercing stare" (Bromberg and Small, l983, 309) and his obsessiveness.

As already indicated, shame theory suggests that protracted and destructive anger is generated by unacknowledged shame. Normal anger, when not intermixed with shame, is usually brief, moderate, and can even be constructive, serving to call notice to adjustments needed in a relationship (Retzinger, l991). Long chains of shame and anger alternating are experienced as blind rage, hatred or resentment if the shame component is completely repressed. In this case, the expression of anger serves as a disguise for the hidden shame, projecting onto the outside world the feelings that go unacknowledged within. According to Helen Lewis, persons in whom shame is deeply repressed "would rather turn the world upside down than turn themselves inside out." This idea exactly captures the psychology of Hitler's life-long history of intense rage states, and his projection of his inner conflict on to scapegoats.

The second indicator of bypassed shame is Hitler's demeanor, especially the nature of his gaze. As early as l6, it was described as "blank" or "cruel" (Bromberg and Small, l983, 51). On the other hand, there are descriptions at a later time (21) in which he was said to have " an evasive manner", of being "shy" and "never looking a person in the eye", except when he was talking politics (ibid., 70). These descriptions suggest that Hitler may have been in a virtually permanent state of shame, manifested as either bypassed shame (the stare) or overt shame (avoiding eye contact). As his power increased, the bypassed mode was more and more in evidence, in the form of arrogance, extreme self-confidence, isolation, and obsession.

2. Isolation from Others.

The biographies and psychological studies emphasize Hitler's isolation as a child and adult (Bromberg and Small, l983 Bullock, l964 Davidson, l977 Miller, l983, Stierlin, l976, l976). As an infant and youth, he was pampered by his mother. But even as young as three, the relationship with his father was charged with violence, ridicule, and contempt. By the age of 6, he apparently was walled off from everyone, including his mother (Bromberg and Small, l983, Miller, l983, Stierlin, l976).

The three most likely candidates for a close relationship after the age of 6 are August Kubizek, Eva Braun, and Albert Speer. Hitler and Kubizek were companions for three years, beginning when they were both sixteen. Kubizek's memoir of Hitler (l955) shows that his relationship to Hitler was not that of friend but adoring admirer. Kubizek describes Hitler as a compulsive talker, brooking no interruptions, let alone any disagreement. Lacking any other listeners at this age, Hitler used Kubizek as a sounding board.

Speer, an architect-engineer, was closest to Hitler among his officials during the last years of WWII. In an interview after the war, Speer revealed that although he spent countless hours with Hitler, there was no personal relationship between them (Bromberg and Small, l983, ll2): "If Hitler had friends, I would have been his friend."

Her diary (Bromberg and Small, l983, pp. l07-l08) shows that Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, came no closer than Kubizek or Speer. For most of the fifteen-year relationship, he attempted to keep it hidden, confining her to her rooms during meetings with others. A few entries suggest the tone of the whole diary. In l935, when she was 23 and Hitler 46, she complained that she felt imprisoned, that she got nothing from their sexual relationship, and that she felt desperately insecure: "He is only using me for definite purposes." (March ll). Most of the women with whom Hitler had sexual relations either attempted or committed suicide (Small and Bromberg count seven such relationships, with three of them attempting, and three completing suicide l983, p. l25). Eva Braun made two such attempts.

In l942, Hitler inadvertently suggested his isolation from Eva. Hearing of the death of one of his officials, Fritz Todt, chief of armaments, he said that he was now deprived of "the only two human beings among all those around me to whom I have been truly and inwardly attached: Dr. Todt is dead and Hess has flown away from me!" (Toland, l976, p. 666.) As Bromberg and Small (l983) note, this statement leaves Eva out entirely, mentioning instead "a remote man who could rarely be induced to sit at Hitler’s table and a man he could not bear to converse with, denounced as crazy, and wished dead" (p. l50).

Neither as a soldier nor as a politician did Hitler have close attachments. His experience as an enlisted man in the Army during WWI is illustrative. Although he was a dedicated soldier who demonstrated courage in battle, he was a "loner" he had no intimates. This may be one of the reasons that although he was decorated for bravery, he was little promoted after four years, he left the army at the rank of lance corporal, the equivalent of a private first class. In his evaluations, he was described as lacking in leadership.

After becoming the leader of the Nazi party, he moved no closer to human relationships. A description of his campaign the year before gaining power is representative (Small and Bromberg, l983, l08):

[In the campaign, Hitler] had almost no real contact with people, not even with his associates, who felt they were touring with a performer… He remained a lone wolf, now….more distant from his senior associates, and contemptuous of them.

Although the adored leader of millions of people, Hitler apparently had no secure bond with anyone after the age of six.

3. Obsession: According to Lewis, the rapidity of speech and behavior that is the prime outer indicator of bypassed shame is usually accompanied by a primary inner manifestation, obsessiveness. Persons in a state of chronic shame may avoid and deny emotional pain by obsessive preoccupation. Hitler's principle obsession, "the Jewish problem," is particularly indicative of unacknowledged shame. At the center of Hitler's belief system was the concept of racial superiority, i.e. that the Aryan race was the superior race, the Jewish "race", inferior. His many obsessions with superiority-inferiority, racial purity, pollution and contamination can be interpreted as operations for bypassing shame.

One can also make the case that Hitler was obsessed with shame itself. The most frequent sequence in his writings is the progression from shame to pride. Here is one example, in his discussion of "scientific education" (Hitler 1927, p. 427):

There is ground for pride in our people only if we no longer need be ashamed of any class. But a people, half of which is wretched and careworn, or even depraved, offers so sorry a picture that no one should feel any pride in it. Only when a nation is healthy in all its members, in body and soul, can every man's joy in belonging to it rightfully be magnified to that high sentiment which we designate as national pride. And this highest pride will only be felt by the man who knows the greatness of his nation.

There is a reference to pride in each of the four sentences is this passage, but only one to shame (the word "ashamed" in the first sentence). This pattern is characteristic: an initial reference to shame followed by repetitive references to pride. One intimation seems to be that although now ashamed, in the future we will be proud, but only if the Nazi program is carried out. This pattern also tends toward denial of shame, which is mentioned only once, compared to the repeated references to pride, a more "respectable", i.e. less shameful emotion.

The meaning of the passage is also of interest, because it may imply proneness to shame. The phrase "any pride" at the end of the second sentence suggests that if a group has any reason for shame, then all pride is lost. A more normal response would be that we always have reason for both pride and shame; that is the human condition. I return to further suggestions of Hitler's shame-proneness below.

In the passage just quoted, the references to pride and shame were explicit. In the following passage, which has the same structure, the references are indirect (pp. 4ll):

Particularly our German people which today lies broken and defenseless, exposed to the kicks of all the world, needs that suggestive force that lies in self-confidence. This self-confidence must be inculcated in the young national comrade from childhood on. His whole education and training must be so ordered as to give him the conviction that he is absolutely superior to others. Through his physical strength and dexterity, he must recover his faith in invincibility of his whole people. For what formerly led the German army to victory was the sum of the confidence which each individual had in himself and all together in their leadership. What will raise the German people up again is confidence.

Again there is a progression from shame to pride, with a single reference to shame followed by repeated references to pride, but this time both feelings are evoked obliquely. In the first sentence, there is an image of the German people "exposed to the kicks of all the world". Although the word shame is not used, the image is clearly one of gross humiliation, of being subject to a humiliating assault by anyone and everyone.

As in the first example, the statement moves very quickly from shame to many references to pride. This time, however, like the reference to shame, those to pride are indirect, using the cognates "self-confidence" and "confidence" rather than the word pride itself. This passage, in addition to containing three more references to confidence, also contain two additional pride cognates, a conviction of "superiority to others" and "faith in invincibility." This pattern, like that in the first passage, is suggestive of the denial of shame, since reference to it is quickly negated by many references to pride. The entire passage, and many others, is suggestive of the denial of emotions, since shame and pride are referred to only indirectly.

Although there are direct references to pride throughout the book, there are many more indirect references. In addition to those already mentioned, self-confidence, honor, superiority, and faith in one's invincibility, Hitler also frequently invokes "dignity" (and being "worthy") as valued characteristics (p. 431):

[The task of the "folk-state"] is not to preserve the decisive influence of an existing social class, but to pick the most capable kinds from the sum of all the national comrades and bring them to office and dignity.

This passage contains both of the key elements in Hitler's appeal, community and pride. It negates social class in the interest of community, and promises prideful office to the most capable, regardless of background.

Most of the manifestations of pride and shame are disguised, requiring reading between the lines. The emotional content of the following passage (Hitler, l927, 390) would be invisible unless one realized that the basic shame context is seeing one's self negatively in the eyes of the Other (Sartre, l956; Lewis, l971):

"How terrible is the damage indirectly done to our Germanism today by the fact that, due to the ignorance of many Americans, the German-jabbering Jews, when they set foot on American soil, are booked to our German account. Surely no one will call the purely external fact that most of this lice-ridden migration from the East speaks German a proof of their German origin and nationality."

In this passage, Hitler seems to be seeing himself (and the German people) negatively in the eyes of the Other, the American people. Because the shameful (lice-ridden) Jewish migrants speak German, the Americans denigrate Germans and Germany. In the second sentence, he goes on to protest the injustice of the situation produced by his imagination. There is a gratuitous element to this passage that is difficult to define, but it captures the kind of emotional aura that is characteristic of Hitler's prose; it is shame-haunted.

In Mein Kampf, there are many manifestations of shame, but they are virtually always hidden in encoded terms. Hitler repeatedly refers to disgrace, lack of self-confidence, inferiority, and phrases like "bowing and scraping" (p. 625) in describing the German people or their representatives. Frequently, shame manifestations are even more indirect, as in the passage quoted above about the "German-jabbering Jews". One of Hitler's frequent themes is the lack of respect for Germany by other nations (621):

Will any [nation ally itself with] a state ... whose characteristic way of life consists only in cringing submissiveness without and disgraceful oppression of national virtues within; ...with governments which can boast of no respect whatsoever on the part of their citizens, so that foreign countries cannot possibly harbor any greater admiration for them? No, a power which itself wants to be respected ... will not ally itself to present-day Germany...

Not only Hitler's statement but his actions were haunted by the specter of shame. Bromberg and Small (l983, l19) note in passing Hitler's obsession with giantism, of building bigger than anyone. He explained to the workers on one of his building projects (Speer, l970, 69, l07):

Why always the biggest? I do this to restore to each individual German his self-respect... I want to say to the individual: We are not inferior; on the contrary, we are the complete equals of every other nation.

Because the references to pride and shame are in code language, Bromberg and Small miss their significance. A substantial part of his nation's resources, even during wartime, were devoted to the attempt to make Hitler and his followers feel large (proud) rather than small (ashamed).

The primary manifestation of shame in Hitler's behavior was not in construction, however, but in destruction. As Lewis's treatment of shame predicts, an individual in a state of chronic shame is very likely to perceive the source of this feeling as an attack by another, generating rage toward that other.

The sequence [unacknowledged shame -- rage -- aggression] can be traced in particular passages in Mein Kampf, as well as in the thrust of the book as a whole. The following passage is representative. In one of many attacks on the Treaty of Versailles, after describing it as an instrument of "abject humiliation", he states (632)"

"How could every single one of these points have been burned into the brain and emotion of this people, until finally in sixty million heads, in men and women, a common sense of shame and a common hatred would have become a single fiery sea of flame, from whose heat a will as hard as steel would have risen and a cry burst forth: Give us arms again!" (p. 632).

In this excerpt, the text moves from humiliation to fury to aggression, the latter step in the form of re-armament for the battle that Hitler prescribes as the destiny of Germany.

What is the battle for which Hitler wants Germany to prepare? It is a battle against the external and the internal enemy. At first sight it appears that France is the external enemy, since he refers many times to the "eternal conflict" between the two countries (e.g., 674). He also repeatedly refers to the French motive for destroying Germany, the "thirst for vengeance" (e.g., p. 624), with great indignation, quite oblivious of his own vengefulness. Hitler does not aver revenge as his own motive, but is quick to detect it in others e.g. he ascribes to another "hereditary enemy," Negroes, "the perverted sadistic thirst for vengeance" ( 624).

As becomes apparent quite quickly, however, the ultimate enemy that Hitler sees everywhere is the Jewish people, or as he puts it, the "International Jew." Hitler had a classical idee fix, a fanatical and unswerving belief. Behind every enemy nation, race, occupation or class, the source of every disaster, is the Jewish conspiracy, whose aim is world conquest. Hitler's rage is directed against Jews, who he confabulates with all other enemies. In Hitler's discourse, capitalists, traitors, revolutionaries and Marxists are either Jews themselves or in the pay of Jews.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler's solution to what he calls the Jewish problem is only slightly disguised. Hitler repeatedly alludes to "the settling of accounts" and a "day of reckoning." In the middle of the last chapter, which has the ominous title "The Right of Emergency Defense," Hitler gave a foretaste of what he had in mind (679):

If at the beginning of the War and during the War twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas, as happened to hundred of thousands of our very best German workers in the field, the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain. On the contrary: twelve thousand scoundrels eliminated in time might have saved the lives of a million real Germans, valuable for the future.

The cycle of shame and rage is focused on a mythical enemy, the Jewish conspiracy and those Hitler believed in its pay, but his destructive aggression killed millions of real people. The appeal of Hitler to the German people also suggests the way that the psychology of shame and anger, en masse, mobilizes the energies of an entire people for war, in a way overlooked by Hinde’s (1994) proposal that warfare is mostly independent of individual tendencies toward aggression.

Hitler's appeal to the German people is otherwise a puzzle. In his person, he was singularly unprepossessing, to say the least. From a logical point of view, his speeches were disasters; he rambled incoherently, with little order and less substance. His political program was no better; it was disorganized, vague, and silent on key issues.

Beneath the surface, matters were still worse. From the testimony of his intimates, Hitler’s personality was bizarre to the point of madness. His delusions, phobias, sadism, sexual aberrations and utter isolation are well documented. All of the biographies clearly show manifold symptoms of severe mental illness.

The puzzle is that this extraordinarily unattractive madman had charismatic appeal not only to the masses but also to a large coterie of devoted followers. These individuals knew most or all of the unsavory details, yet were fanatically loyal. The theory of shame dynamics offered here suggests a solution: Hitler’s obsession with restoring his lost pride and that of his nation was the key to his vast appeal to his public and his followers, because they were suffering from exactly shame as he was, in the aftermath of their defeat in WWI and their ensuing humiliations.


The causal explanation offered here is hypothetical; it needs to be tested in a wide variety of circumstances. How would one go about such testing? One direction would be to employ a method similar to the one used by Helen Lewis in her study of emotional episodes in psychotherapy sessions (1971). As already indicated, she used the Gottschalk/Glaser method to locate emotion episodes in transcripts of the sessions, than analyzed the episodes, word by word, in the verbal context in which they occurred.

Since the time of that study, Gottschalk has further developed his method, to the point that it is now based on a computer software program (available from Louis Gottschalk, Psychiatry, UCI). This method has by now been validated in 26 different languages (Gottschalk 1995). It could be used to find shame and anger indicators in verbatim transcriptions of discourse, the first condition of the theory. To test the second and third conditions, the quality and size of the individual’s interpersonal network could be assessed, and the degree and type of obsessive preoccupation.

Gottschalk and his associates have found that a five-minute speech sample yields sufficient information to allow the measurement of cues to emotion and other indicators (many studies are summarized in Gottschalk 1995). To test the theory proposed here, a first step would be record brief life histories from violent and non-violent men and women convicted of crimes. For the violent group, emphasis might be placed on the recounting of the circumstances of the aggressive or violent act that led to their imprisonment. For the non-violent group, for sake of comparison, emphasis could be place on the recounting of their most aggressive or violent act, even though it was not the cause of imprisonment.

Such a study might disentangle the correlation between violence and gender. According to the argument of this article, we would expect to find the men much more isolated from affectional attachments than the women (Condition 1). Also hypothesized is an equally high level of shame cues in the discourse of the men and women, but much higher anger cues in men. That is, it is hypothesized than when men fail to acknowledge shame, they are more likely than women to take the path of shame, anger and aggression (Condition 2). Since the anger response serves to bypass shame, we would expect more obsessive preoccupation in men than women (3). Women, on the other hand, are more likely than men to take the path of overt, undifferentiated shame, silence, and withdrawal, and therefore less likely to respond with obsession, anger and aggression.


Goethe had the protagonist of his play (Tasso) say that he thanked God that he had given him the ability to speak his suffering, when other men would be struck dumb with it. As men discover their emotional/relational world, they will no longer have to face the choice between blankness or violence.


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