Mollie TIbbetts, a 20-year-old student at the University of Iowa, was allegedly murdered by Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a 24-year-old Mexican man.  Many of the media narratives are about Rivera’s immigrant status or about women being treated as sexual objects and prey by men. While these issues are important, I would guarantee that this a murder caused by shame — an emotion that many people do not like to address, yet underlies most human psychological distress, including violent acts such as many murders. 

Rivera has been charged with TIbbetts’ murder after he confessed to following her on her run. In an arrest affidavit, Rivera said he remembered getting mad at her; what happened afterward was “blocked” from his memory.

I am certain what happened was that Tibbetts, innocently out for a run, was approached by Rivera. When she rejected him — a wise move when a young woman is accosted by a strange man — Rivera felt ashamed. His fragile psyche could not handle this rejection and he became enraged. 

Shame is considered a primary emotion, while rage and anger are often secondary emotions. In other words, people experience a brief flash of shame, but then trigger into anger, often lashing out at the person who shamed them. 

Shame, guilt, embarrassment, humiliation, and other similar experiences are pro-social emotions that ideally help prevent or control inappropriate behavior and encourage moral conduct. By feeling guilty when we do something wrong, we should be primed to apologize and choose different behavior in the future, helping to ensure that we are accepted by our tribe. The feeling of guilt is often expressed socially with submissive or obedient behaviors.

As I write in my book Self-Acceptance Psychology, “During the shaming experience of submission, fear is also triggered. Shame signals the adrenal gland to release cortisol, the primary stress hormone, leading to increased heart rate and the flooding of major muscles with glucose — all physiological reactions to threat.” When Rivera was “shamed” by TIbbetts’ rejection, he became so enraged he blacked out, a common element of rage. 

For those who have not learned healthy shame tolerance, a shaming or rejecting experience can overwhelm their emotional regulation systems. They have deep feelings of unworthiness from childhood experiences with their parents, called insecure attachment patterns, and any additional shaming can trigger them to anger. 

So certainly, we should discuss whether women should be treated as objects or whether criminals should be allowed into the United States. But for too long we have ignored the real takeaway that could actually be helpful in guiding psychological treatment for many people. Which is that learning healthy self-acceptance reduces feelings of unworthiness and helps us gain healthy shame tolerance. With that we can hear rejection or criticism without engaging in blame-shifting behaviors, which I categorize in Self-Acceptance Psychology as Other-blaming, Self-blaming and Blame Avoiding.

And to those who focus on Rivera’s immigrant status:  Shame affects all humans the same, whether they are Mexican or French or Chinese. Millions of Americans are Other-blamers, including Donald J. Trump, who exhibits some of the most extreme Other-blaming and narcissistic behaviors of anyone I’ve ever seen. Those with Other-blaming behaviors are not all murderers, and it is possible that Rivera did not have any previous violent or abusive behaviors. But the root cause of both Trump’s and Rivera’s behaviors is the same emotion: shame.

I believe it is essential that the psychology profession stop ignoring the emotion of shame and the experience of unworthiness. We must speak plainly and educate more specifically about these feelings so that this type of brutal attack happens less often. If we help people like Rivera feel better self-worth when a normal experience of being rejected by a young woman occurs, they won’t react in uncontrollable rage and violence. 

Instead, the psychiatry profession clings to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) with its very false and misleading “disease model” of “mental illness,” which is completely unsupported by any science or research. 

The sooner we get rid of this myth of “imbalanced brain chemicals” and address the emotions that drive human behavior, the more helpful the mental health professions can be to all people. 

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