Shame, Mass Murder, and Healing

Full moon shining from behind clouds - hope of healing our shame and violence

Reeling from Another Mass Murder

Again, sorrow grips our country as another gunman kills and wounds. His senseless violence leads to terror, deaths, broken bodies, broken hearts. This kind of aggression has existed from the time when Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal co-existed, and then didn’t, because our species drove to extinction a people so like us. Now we seem to be trying to extinguish one another. Have there not been enough shootings? No place is safe, anymore: not schools, shopping malls, churches, bars, or outdoor concerts. We are so violent, and so vulnerable.

How do we make sense of our rage and pain?

Full moon shining from behind clouds - hope of healing our shame and violence

Why Do We Kill?

Tonight the moon glows full and white, spreading a silent and peaceful sheen across the yard, blanketing the kiwi vine, the withered cucumbers, the kale, the bowed raspberry canes. Life is brilliant and serene, and so incredibly ferocious. Animals rend and tear for food, fire sweeps through forests, the earth quakes and shatters all that we erect. We think we can be safe in houses or behind steel, yet one way or another, death finds us all. Everything must kill to eat, even if it is only vegetables, insects, or bacteria. Nothing is exempt from destroying, and nothing is exempt from being destroyed.

But that is not the same as causing death and horror with guns and bombs, or whips and stones and beatings. Nor does it excuse the scorn, name-calling, and shaming that shreds our hearts to strips. We bleed, outside or inside. We bleed.

Why do we do this to one another?

We don’t really know.

Evolutionary Psychology

Theories abound, of course. In The Spiral Notebook, Stephen and Joyce Singular discuss the culture of violence in our country, noting that we “constantly” promote violence as “the best, if not the only, solution” to our problems. [1] I’ve written before about our unfortunate belief in the “myth of redemptive violence.” [2] Clearly our attitudes toward the rightness and righteousness of anger make a difference, as do the disconnected families the authors point to, the overwhelming and confusing media messages, our increased isolation, and a generation of young people beset by hopelessness. 

Evolutionary psychologists such as Joseph Vandello and Jennifer Bosson came up with the term “precarious manhood” to describe a dilemma specific to men who must prove themselves to be real men. They argue that this dynamic is part of being human, and that because more aggressive and brutal men tend to have the most offspring, we have become genetically predisposed to violence. [3]

Although not a feature of every human culture [4], this dynamic certainly exists in the United States. At least in some males.

On the other hand, while all of us grow up learning that “might makes right” and revenge is the best response to injury, few of us commit atrocities such as mass murder. How, then, can we understand what’s going on? And how do we respond? For instance, we can limit our access to weapons. This would doubtless be a good thing, but it would do nothing to soothe the pain or mend the brokenness of someone who thinks that destroying lives will make him feel better.

Is there no answer?

If a pattern exists, it seems to be that those who most feel the need to seek revenge, to attack others, are those who have the least social standing. They are the outcasts, the ignored, the disrespected. “It’s no mystery why the media will often describe mass shooters and terrorists as misfits or loners,” McAndrew writes. “In many cases, they are.” [5]

A Core of Shame

Core to most “misfits” and “loners” is shame.

When friends or lovers reject us, we feel hurt. When we are rejected over and over, we become humiliated, our ego shattered. We isolate, lost in our unworthiness, and we nurse fantasies of revenge and destruction. James L. Knoll, in “The ‘Pseudocommando’ Mass Murderer: Part I, the Psychology of Revenge and Obliteration,” explains that those who commit mass murders experience a “severe narcissistic rage” that allows them to preserve some semblance of self-acceptance in the face of intolerable “shame, rejection, and aversive self-awareness.” [6] Through their fantasies at getting back at those who injured them, the “pseudocommando” defends himself against his “feelings of shame, loss, and powerlessness.” [7] Trapped in his unbalanced story line, the killer makes himself feel strong and virile. 

As a woman, I surely have a poor understanding of this male desire for dominance, though it seems this desire is not strong in every man I meet. Quite the opposite. What does seem true to me is that when anyone, male or not, craves power and control to such an extent that he’s willing to commit homicide, there’s some deep shame going on.

How Shame Affects Us

The legacy of shame reveals itself in two main ways. Either we feel burdened with a sense of unworthiness or we become shame-less, acting out with little or no regard for social norms or propriety. Burdened by the messages that told us, and continue to tell us, that we are inherently wrong, we prove everyone right by losing ourselves in addiction, depravity, and depression. Without internal limits or healthy boundaries, we feel out of control, and the shame burns so bright, we can only cope by pretending it doesn’t exist. We turn our shame inward, becoming lonely and depressed, or we turn it outward and become angry and reactive.

All society sees is the outer manifestation. In the case of the mass murderer, we see the reactive anger. At least, we see it once the deed is done. Before that, no one notices, or if they do, they don’t say anything.

Jane Middelton-Moz, in her book Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise, talks about the shame and anger cycle that will control our lives if we let it. When our parents or teachers or peers shame us, we feel unworthy, less than, and powerless. Shame brings up our fear of abandonment, although our response to shame is not to reach out for comfort. Why would we seek comfort from one who has wounded us so harshly?

Instead, we hide, and in our isolation, we nurse our grievances. We grow angry, even enraged. Whether or not we direct that anger inward or outward depends on so many factors, such as our genetic makeup, our family system, what we learned at school, how our peers treat us. Regardless of what we do with these emotions, Middelton-Moz tells us, our experience of this kind of shame and anger does not go away just because we wish it would. [8]

Nursing Anger in the Face of Shame

In fact, some people, unaware of the depth of their shame and unworthiness, nurse their anger for years, seething behind a mask of normality for years. Shame drives us to fight back against imagined slights, obsess over fairness, and strike out at loved ones. Sometimes we erupt frequently. At other times, we seek revenge through years of careful planning, enjoying the anticipation, like an addict who feels as much pleasure in buying and preparing her drug as she does in using it. Indeed, one way we cope with a shame we don’t even recognize is with addiction.

The mind of a mass murderer seems pretty incomprehensible to most of us, yet I suspect shame lies at his core. If you have ever been humiliated, perhaps you will recognize, at least a little bit, the sense of rage and helplessness that can drive some of us to destroy anyone who breaks away from our control or who seems to be happy and content.

Healing Shame

We need shame. A healthy shame protects us from lashing out and plotting revenge. When we think of hurting someone else, of paying them back or punishing them, a healthy sense of shame gives us a twinge of discomfort. We’ll realize that if we follow through on our fantasies of payback, we will feel even worse than we do now. Additionally, a healthy shame encourages us to reach out to repair the relationship that was broken by the shaming act. If that is not possible, we’ll set healthy boundaries, demand the respect and kindness we deserve, and limit our interactions with those who do not respect the integrity of our being.

Even if we did not grow up learning that we are whole and worthy, even if we did not grow up learning to respect the beauty and dignity of all people, and even if a debilitating shame lies at our core, we can heal.

John Bradshaw has made a career of teaching people about the corrosive nature of shame and the ways we can learn to love ourselves, regardless. He talks about familial and societal shame. He talks about the secrets that fuel our misery. Then he offers a solution. Come out of hiding, he tells us. Reach out to others, be honest, share your stories, heal your trauma, grieve the losses inherent in a painful childhood, re-parent your inner child, and integrate the “disowned” parts of yourself. [9]

Helping One Another Heal

Could such a process help the young man who took so many lives in Las Vegas? Perhaps. Our mental health system is broken. Instead of providing healing and hope, we offer numbing medication and a few sessions of cognitive training.

Yet how do you help someone who cannot face his wounds, who cannot acknowledge kindness because the pain would be too great? If we could figure out what interventions would work, when should we offer them? How do we pay attention so we will find the men, and women, so in need? Will more and better mental health services make the difference? Or should we focus our attention on the next generation, on parenting classes and teaching meditation and offering hope in a future?

On this day, a hint of blue pokes through the steel-colored clouds. Spits of rain fall on the leaves of the rose bush, withered blooms still stuck to some of the stems. Fall grips us. In this season of damp and chill, the weather invites us inside, to a place of reflection and meditation. We all experience some level of shame. We also all have the capacity to heal. Then, out of our own healing, we can being to touch and soothe others whose wounded souls keep them withdrawn, angry, and ashamed. May we reach out in such a way, now and always.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Singular, Stephen, and Joyce Singular, The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth, Berkely, CA: Counterpoint, 2015, 160.
  2. See also my column, “The Influence of Fathers” and Walter Wink’s writing, such as Jesus and Empire and “Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence,” Ekklesia, November 15, 2015,
  3. McAndrew, Frank T., “The Evolutionary Psychology Behind Mass Shootings,” CNN, July8, 216, accessed 10/7/17,
  4. See “Peaceful Societies: Alternatives to Violence and War,” Center for Global Nonkilling, University of Alabama at Birmingham, November 24, 2011, accessed 10/7/17, and Nonkilling Societies, ed. Joám Evans Pim, Honolulu: Center for Global Nonkilling, 2010.
  5. McAndrew.
  6. Knoll, James L., “The ‘Pseudocommando’ Mass Murderer: Part I, the Psychology of Revenge and Obliteration,” J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 38:87–94, 2010,, accessed 10/7/17, 90.
  7. Ibid 90.
  8. Middelton-Moz, Jan, Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise, Deerfield Beach: FL, Health Communications, 1990, p. 61.
  9. See, for example, Healing the Shame that Binds You and Family Secrets: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You.

Photo by Linda Xu on Unsplash