Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Dangerous Connection Between Humiliation and Violence

Whether in childhood, our family of origin, our marriage, the schoolyard, the community or workplace, most of us have suffered humiliation. As such, most of us have felt the pain, shame and anger of being made to feel smaller, disrespected, undesirable. How we react is central to the dangerous connection between humiliation and violence.

The official definition of humiliation is to be reduced to a lower position in one’s own eyes or another’s eyes, i.e. to be made to feel ashamed or embarrassed. While humiliation may cause shame, it is actually somewhat different. Whereas, we can feel shame and feel less than for something we have done or failed to do without anyone knowing, with humiliation there is always a perpetrator.

Underscoring this, psychologist and expert, Dr. Clark McCauley, describes humiliation as always including a perpetrator, a victim, an unjust lowering, and unequal power. With humiliation there are often many perpetrators, and whether that translates to a schoolyard of bullies, a racist culture or a workplace that belittles on the basis of gender, the presence of many perpetrators exacerbates the experience of being humiliated.

What is the Connection Between Humiliation and Violence?

 According to Clark McCauley, humiliation is a combination of anger and shame. Feeling rage and shame, the victim needs to reduce shame by resetting dignity through retaliation. The connection between humiliation and violence is the intense desire for revenge

Thinking About Revenge

In their book Revenge, On the Dynamics of a Frightening Urge and its Taming, Bohn and Kaplan suggest that thoughts of revenge are common. Most of us have had revenge fantasies. In a way, they serve a regulatory function that helps us reset our sense of self, our sense of integrity.

  • I hope his business falls apart so he will know what it feels like to be embarrassed in front of the other employees.
  • I would love to see her face if I go public with what I know about her.
  • Why should he live when he has taken the meaning out of my life?

 Whereas most people have fantasies, there is a big difference between thoughts of revenge and actual revenge.

  • Actual revenge is more likely when there is not only violation but also vulnerability.
  • Chronic humiliation whatever the cause is like any prolonged emotional trauma. For some, the result is an inability to re-regulate, to come out of fight/flight mode, to broaden perspective beyond a hopeless one. As such normal judgment is impaired.
  • Revenge can feel like the only option when there is little or connection with others, no emotional support to buffer and reframe humiliation, limited positive definitions of self and reduced capacity to recognize a further loss of self by identifying with and becoming the perpetrator.


In a study of assassins and school attackers in the US, by McCauley and Moskalenko (2014), the four common characteristics that were identified for both groups included: a grievance, social disconnection, history of mental disorder, especially depression and experience with weapons outside the military.

In his article entitled “Are Mass Murderers Insane, Usually Not, Researchers Say” Ben Carey reports the findings of Dr. Michael Stone, forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University, who maintains a data base of 350 mass killers and finds that only one in five are likely psychotic or delusional. The rest, according to Stone are disgruntled and aggrieved and eventually become violent “in the wake of some humiliation.”

Peter Langman, the foremost expert on School Shooters, says there are many myths about school shooters. Of the factors that contribute to committing violence it is often a series of failure, rejections and setbacks for someone.

Cultural Implications of Acting on Revenge

In many cultures, there is an expectation of retaliation to assuage the shame of humiliation. Be it to carry out a family legacy or a cultural mandate, the failure to retaliate increases the shame caused by the humiliation.

  • According to Jackson Katz, author of the Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How all Men Can Help, a culture of honor requires aggression in response to disrespect. He suggests that retaliation is a part of the male culture in this country – a male gender norm. According to him being shamed is intolerable to some men. Retaliation becomes an acceptable norm.
  • He invites men to recognize and change the theme of men and boys lashing out when they feel they’ve been disrespected as men. He suggests that this retaliatory violence cuts across race and class the same way higher-profile mass shootings do, with the one constant being that violent crime is disproportionately committed by men.
  • Underscoring this perspective is the known reality in terms of Domestic Violence that it is shame far more than anger that triggers violence.

Can we interrupt the dangerous personal and cultural connection between humiliation and violence?

  •  One effort to reduce violence by interrupting the cultural connection between violence and retaliation has been made by Dr. Gary Slutkin, founder of Cure Violence. As an epidemiologist who reversed contagious diseases like TB and Cholera in Somalia and the AIDS epidemic in over 25 countries in central and East Africa and Uganda, Gary Slutkin conceptualizes and addresses violence as a contagious disease that follows the same exposure, susceptibility, mutation and transmission patterns of a contagious disease.
  • Dr. Slutkin suggests that a history of having experienced or witnessed violence as part of the day to day culture, results in a transmission and susceptibility to violence – i.e. a likelihood of following the violent norms of retaliation that perpetuate crime and gun violence. His Cure Violence Method uses the methods and strategies associated with disease control – detecting and interrupting conflicts, identifying and treating the highest risk individuals, and changing social norms of retaliation with a new culture of interruption, connection and resetting dignity in a different way.
  • For example, in a neighborhood with a high rate of gun violence, incarceration, drugs, crime etc., he trains key figures in the community, many who have been violent and have even been in prison, to be part of a large group of trained interrupters and support team members. This trained staff understands very well the impetus to retaliatory violence to offset humiliation. After an incident that would spark retaliation they intervene with friends of those involved in the incident and the family of victims in the hospital to offer alternatives to retaliation. Given their experience and knowledge of the community, they are credible when saying, “Responding with retaliation gives you two final outcomes – jail or death.” Simplified here, the Violence Cures Method offers support, reduces humiliation, and makes stepping away from violence a respected position.

The level of violence in this country and worldwide is frightening and tragic. The causes are complex and must be addressed. Too often underlying the fear, hate, historical oppression and justifications for assault weapons and nuclear missiles are feelings of humiliation.

If in our own lives we are aware of the connection of humiliation to personal shame and retaliatory violence, then a conscious respect for each other becomes a step to end the seeds of violence.