With each mass shooting, the media struggles to explain the reasons for these attacks: Why does a Devin P. Kelley in Texas shoot up a church? Why does Stephen Paddock shoot hundreds at a concert in Las Vegas? Why did James Holmes, a neuroscience grad student, shoot up a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012?
The pundits jabber and many say, “We can’t ever know what makes these shooters do it.”
While it is impossible to parse out all the causes, as a clinical psychologist and expert in domestic violence I can point to one very clear explanation for nearly all mass killings: poor shame tolerance and blame-shifting.
Much of this is also explained in my chapter in the current New York Times bestselling book, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” where I compare Trump’s character traits to those of an abusive parter.
Don’t be distracted by the details of how a shooting occurs or if the person was young or old, rich or poor, white or black. The focus should be on the personality type — it is always someone who has low self-worth, which leads to poor shame tolerance and blame-shifting. In extreme cases, blame-shifting becomes an violent rage. In contrast, an emotionally healthy person can tolerate the feeling of inadequacy and failure and has an ability to own their problems in a responsible way.
Note that in all three of the cases mentioned above and thousands of others, the shooter experienced an incident that provoked a feeling of shame or failure prior to the shooting.
The real reason these aggrieved people, usually men, became violent is they lack an ability to tolerate shame in healthy ways. They have learned that shame is painful to their sense of self, so they try to off-load this emotional experience by lashing out at others, perhaps in completely random ways. For example, the church members in Texas may have had no relationship with the shooter, but he may have come to believe that the church was what came between him and his wife, so he shifted blamed to the church for his marital troubles, rather than blame himself.
The shooter’s feelings of inadequacy may be masked by narcissistic traits of self-aggrandizement and dominance. However, when these individuals feel embarrassed by failures or rejections, they lack the emotional skills to tolerate this shaming experience.
Domestic abusers and mass killers are extreme examples of a personality type I have labeled as: “Other-Blamer.” In extreme cases, Other-Blamers can become so ashamed and enraged that tragedies can occur.
Q: You believe we actually spot potential mass killers?
A: While we cannot predict behaviors or timing with certainty, there are personality and behavioral characteristics that are consistent enough to help identify those who may be likely to commit violence. Family members and friends can watch for a range of behaviors that indicate poor shame tolerance and blame-shifting. The most important behavior to watch for is difficulty handling criticism. This leads to a lack of accountability and an inability to admit fault, what I call blame-shifting.
What triggers a specific violent episode is often an abrupt experience of shame, such as a relationship breakup, getting fired from a job, a divorce being finalized, a bankruptcy, an arrest, or child custody being ended. These experiences of failure or loss will not be tolerated by the “Other-Blamer.” James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado, man who shot up a movie theater in 2012 had recently failed a key oral exam in his doctoral program days before he became violent. He purchased an assault weapon hours after he failed that exam. He felt rejected, shamed and criticized, but rather than accept personal responsibility for his failure, he lashed out at others. It later came out that he had suffered a relationship breakup as well.
Clearly, a history of domestic violence, emotional abuse, or impulsive anger will indicate a person who is more likely to use violence to assuage his shame. Watch for an inability to hold steady employment or manage finances in a responsible manner, a history of volatile relationships, isolation from normal human relationships, or an overall tendency to inappropriately blame others for problems.
Q: Some writers blame poor anger management skills for these mass killings. How are shame and anger linked?
A: On a surface level, certainly we can understand that a person’s inability to regulate their emotions causes them to become angry and act out. But anger is what is known in psychology as a secondary or “surface” emotion. Almost certainly the primary or deeper emotion the person is experiencing is shame, embarrassment, humiliation or unworthiness. There is an aphorism: “Anger is shame’s bodyguard,” which speaks to the tendency to be defensively angry to avoid feeling shame.
In essentially all domestic violence cases, the anger is the visible behavior, but shame is the emotional fuel.
Q: Many mass killers are described as “angry loners.” Why?
A: If a person fears being made to feel inadequate and unworthy, they will attempt to protect themselves from human relationships in various ways, often by isolating themselves. They are angry because they perceive others to be a potential source of shame or criticism, which feels emotionally threatening. This can make them behave in fearful ways, exhibiting paranoia, delusions, and odd or erratic behavior. They are essentially “on guard” against being criticized at all times. This type of person distrusts others, likely due to early childhood trauma and inappropriate parenting, and wants to avoid vulnerability or closeness in relationships.
Q: What is the link between domestic abuse and mass killings?
A: Increasingly, we are able to see the link between past domestic violence incidents and subsequent mass killings, such as in the Texas incident. Thousands of people die each year, mostly women, in murders by their domestic partner, usually a man. Sometimes these turn into murder/suicides, because the abuser kills his partner and others. These are all linked to the killer’s inability to handle shame and criticism. Some domestic abusers have essentially no ability to hear even minor or constructive comments, and may even be so hypersensitive to criticism that they perceive fault-finding when none is present. This is the person who blows up in rage over dinner being late or a wife sighing in frustration. They experience these as devastating blows to their sense of self and they over-react. There is research now that shows that mass killers that we label as religious terrorists often have a history of domestic violence. They blame their wife, another religion, a country, or just about anything to avoid being accountable themselves for their own failings.