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The Unhealthy Shame-Anger Cycle

Danica Joan June 16, 2022

Shame is an emotion that feels so awful that many people try to avoid it at all costs. It’s driven by the flooding of a neurochemical arousal. Here’s how it works. We have a self identity (ego) and an ideal of how we want to present ourselves to the world. Shame is a message about our self-identity that hits in the pit of the stomach. It is saying that we are not being perceived as we want. It says, you are bad. You are unacceptable. It happens when you feel threatened to the very core of who you are. Shame rears its ugly head when there is a threat and you feel helpless, humiliated or embarrassed. If you lose control when you are angry, you have learned to substitute the emotion of anger to take yourself out of the bad feelings of being unacceptable or small.

When you are very angry (above 5 on the anger scale) your primitive brain releases both adrenaline and cortisol to prepare you to defend against feeling “small”. Your body heats up and your sense of self expands. However you are not in control of your vehicle. A nasty autopilot has the pedal to the metal and ugly things are coming out of your mouth which you will likely feel bad about later. You have been hijacked! You have lost yourself because anger has taking you over when you feel a threat to your self-identity.

According to anger management expert Ron Potter-Efron, author of Rage: A Step-by-Step Guide to Overcoming Explosive Anger, four different threats produce four different kinds of neurochemically-driven anger (rage) which come from different types of shame. It is important to remember that the shame-anger cycle is primarily unconscious until we make it conscious:

Survivor Anger – When you are physically attacked and your body might be injured.

Impotent Anger – When you feel threatened and feel utterly helpless and unable to deal with the situation so you become angry instead.

Attachment Anger – When you feel threatened because you might be abandoned or rejected by someone you care about. This type may have developed if you had a rejecting sort of parent who uses withdrawal and threats to discipline you.

Shame Anger – When you feel humiliated, embarrassed, or ridiculed and your self esteem plunges and you become angry in order to cut off the bad feelings. This type typically develops if you’ve had a critical, abusing parent, or partner, or were bullied as a child.

Here are three more shame-anger types specific to certain situations where you feel unacceptable.

I’m Not Garbage Shame-Anger – IF your family was poor, or lived in a run down place, or your parents were dysfunctional alcoholics or different in some undesirable way, you were probably embarrassed by them as a child. As an adult, you get angry when you are reminded of how you are different from others.

Loss of Performance Shame-Anger – loss of your identity as a person because you are less of a functioning person than you used to be. You may have lost stamina, memory, or are disabled and can’t work.

Guilt Induced Shame-Anger – you feel ashamed of yourself because you have not lived up to your values or moral principles and have become someone you don’t respect. When someone is critical of your behavior, you become angry to get the other person to back off.