In terms of attachment patterns, is there a cognitive vs. affective difference in how people perceive, respond to, and use shame and humiliation? The Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation (DMM) teases out two fundamentally different approaches to how people respond to danger. DMM self-protective strategies describe many aspects which have opposing facets. Four facets of attachment are self vs. other-blame, other vs. self-focus, vulnerability-avoided vs. invulnerability oscillated with total vulnerability, and positive-preference vs negative-preference. (CSI’s Conflict Model and Conflict Model Circumplex, both based on the DMM, identify other facets.)
If shame and humiliation capture two facets of the cognitive (A-strategies) vs. affective (C-strategies) divide, then what is the common aspect underlying them? Is it embarrassment, a core emotional sensitivity, an evolutionarily developed response to the danger of being banished from the tribe for a relationship violation, or something else? Does it relate to rejection, denigration, or something else? And, what does it mean to practitioners?
(Please note, attachment theory and science generally use a variety of terms to describe two of the main patterns of how people protect themselves from danger. The letter A to describe one set of self-protective strategies, and is defined in one word by the DMM as cognitive. Other attachment models describe A-patterns with words such as avoidant, dismissing, anxious avoidant, or fearful avoidant. Attachment uses the letter C to describe the other primary, and oppositely functioning self-protective strategy, defined in one word by the DMM as affective. A and C, cognitive and affective are used interchangeably here. Other models use words such as resistant, ambivalent, preoccupied, and anxious. In this article, the two patterns are generally referred to as self-protective strategies using A or C patterns, or A-strategies and C-strategies.)
Defining shame and humiliation
To understand the question, shame and humiliation must first be defined independent of each other. Most definitions confusingly include both words even though they seem to describe different emotions and experiences.
Shame has an intrapersonal quality, while humiliation has an interpersonal quality.
Shame seems to involve common attachment A-strategies of perceptions of failing to meet an external (and often too high) standard (“not good enough”), judgment by others, self-blame, and perhaps an over-assumption of responsibility.
Humiliation seems to involve common attachment C-strategies of sensitivity to rejection or decrease in social status, a feeling of being victimized by others, other-blame, and perhaps responsibility avoidance. Some world leaders offer good examples of an extreme sensitivity and reaction to perceived humiliation while at the same time demonstrating no apparent shame.
DMM’s use of attachment science to tease out cognitive-related shame
The DMM clearly identifies shame as an emotion important to a cognitive (A) orientation. It has done so in the context of attachment science measures such as the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), which analyzes the discourse patterns of people under stress.
Assessing Adult Attachment: A Dynamic-Maturational Approach to Discourse Analysis, Crittenden and Landini (2011) is the official DMM coding manual for the DMM-AAI. (Available at any bookseller.) In it, shame is referenced in five ways, and is always associated with cognitive (A) strategies. People using A-strategies:
- Can see themselves as shameful (p. 92),
- May omit most of their own feelings from information processing, but not shame (p. 140),
- May experience an inner sense of shame as a consequence of the use of certain other self-protective strategies (p. 142),
- May utilize strategies to keep shame private (p. 164, 356), and
- Have a feeling of shame during intrusions of negative affect (ina, where normal strategies to keep unwanted negative affect fail). (p. 177).
Raising Parents: Attachment, representation, and treatment, Crittenden (2016, 2d ed), is another DMM book and offers several examples of the connection between shame and use of A-strategies.
Humiliation, however, is not a term that appears with the same frequency as shame in Assessing Adult Attachment. Betrayal is a term DMM science associates with affectively-oriented attachment C-strategies, which can lead to “unpredictable and destructive behavior.” (Assessing Adult Attachment, p. 195-196) . Whether betrayal is real or imagined, it can lead to a strong motivating force in people using C-strategies. Is betrayal related to humiliation? A clue might be revealed by self-protective responses of world leaders who are sensitive to humiliation. Are they are also highly reactive to real or imagined betrayal?
Is shame and humiliation expressed as fairness vs. injustice in legal cases?
Additionally, a clue may be in the DMM’s description of injustice as an important concept for people using self-protective C-strategies. Feelings of injustice involve the subjective (and possibly incorrect) perception that the person is a victim, and their affective response (their feeling of injustice converted into an observable expression of feeling) is transformed semantically into a theme of injustice. (Assessing Adult Attachment, p. 199, describing the C3 pattern.)
Anecdotally, some legal clients who seem to be using affective (C) strategies tend to talk in terms injustice and being victimized, “I’m a victim of Fraud!!!” They tend to convey information with images and richly connotative language, and their narratives tend to be blurred and rambling and often missing or devoid of critical facts, which are all common in affectively-oriented narrative styles. They often overtly seek or demand retribution for the wrongs they have suffered, as if they were betrayed, even when the law clearly provides no remedy to their perceived wrongs. In Affectively-oriented clients, humiliation (and often retiribution) seems to be a pervasive issue.
Clients who seem to be using cognitive (A) strategies tend to talk in terms of fairness or unfairness, of how somebody “should have” done something, and that “everyone needs to follow the rules.” They tend to convey information with semantic conclusions and prescriptive statements (“Musn’t do that,” “It seems straightforward to me, we should be able to settle,” “It’s simple, if X, then Y.”). Their narratives tend to be brief, leave no room for consideration of alternate contexts or additional facts which are relevant, be short on details, and use denotative language. In cognitive-oriented clients, shame seems to be a pervasive issue.
A common domestic violence example
The distinction seems important and prevalent in many (but certainly not all) domestic violence (or coercive control) cases.
A stereotypical case involves a person who has been victimized by another using intense methods of coercive control (physical, emotional, financial, etc.). The clearly controlling person uses a predictable variety of affectively-organized C-strategies such as aggression oscillated with charm/disarming behaviors, blaming the other, avoiding responsibility (and not recognizing one’s own contribution to their behavior), using (often false) rule-sets to coerce compliance when they don’t follow the rule-sets themselves, and weaponizing shame. “Now see what you made me do! You should not have banged those pots so loud.!! It’s all your fault!!!”
At the same time, the controlling person tends to react with increased aggression when humiliated, yet seems unaware or uncaring of their own shameful behavior. They demonstrate a brief period of apology or disarming behavior, which is quickly abandoned. (This is described by the DMM as an oscillation between aggression and disarming behavior, a hallmark of attachment C-patterns.) The victim often never feels good enough, feels like they should just try harder, and blames themselves. The victim may avoid reporting the controller’s behavior because of their own sense of intrapersonal shame. Questions such as “How can you stay in relationship with that person? Why didn’t you leave?” and “How can you treat them that way?” do not evoke much motivation to change for either person.
The controller is without shame and the victim tolerates humiliation.
If the distinction is correct, attachment science should provide conflict science with several implications especially for lawyers and others working with people facing danger and experiencing interpersonal conflict.
For people using cognitive-oriented (A) strategies, humiliation might be a counter-motivator to change and interfere with optimal decision making. The possibility or presence of shame may drive even more intense distortion of information and poorer decision making. It may drive more extreme use of self-protective strategies such as efforts to negate the self (with increased tolerance for pain and reduced expectations), and invoke rigid application of rule-sets, even if the consequence of adhering to the rules causes problems for them or their children.
Solutions may include avoiding or minimizing direct discussions about shame-invoking events, and providing additional comfort measures, such as validation, kindness, and focusing on strengths. These might minimize the self-negation stemming from a feeling of shame just enough to lead to functional decision-making and tolerance to stand up for oneself long enough to improve the outcome.
For people using affective-oriented (C) strategies, shaming may be irrelevant as a true motivator for behavior change. Humiliation might be a counter-motivator to self-reflection and reduced information distortion (although, in CSI trainings, an important exception to this is discussed). Humiliation may provoke aggression, more intense efforts to punish, coerce, and obtain retribution for perceived victimization. Humiliation may increase the retributive quantity (length of time) and negative quality (intensity of punishment).
Solutions may include avoiding or minimizing humiliations and interpersonal rejections, and if they happen, providing comfort and staying in some form of relationship afterwards. Rejection Begets Aggression may be a good rule to keep in mind. Helping clients keep an eye on the ball, not playing into feelings of injustice and desire for retribution may negate just enough aggression to lead to functional decision-making and an over-all better outcome.
The DMM can be both simple and complex. It can be a powerful tool to help professionals understand what is truly driving conflict and how to target responsive approaches based on an individuals primary patterns of self-protective strategies.
If you have thoughts about the shame vs humiliation hypothesis, please contact us and share them.
Mark Baumann is a lawyer practicing family law in Washington State, USA, and is the director the Conflict Science Institute. He has completed DMM attachment science training from Dr. Patricia Crittenden and the Family Relations Institute in the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), Transition to Adulthood Attachment Interview (TAAI), Preschool Assessment of Attachment (PAA), and Toddler Care Index (TCI). He applies DMM science and theory to his client counseling, negotiation, and litigation work. He also works to convert conflict science, such as from the DMM and IPNB, into the Integrative Client-Centered Model, a comprehensive model of client counseling, and the Conflict Model, a science-based model to understand why people do things in the context of conflict which are sometimes hard to understand.
I would like to thank Emma Jane Watson, M.Ed., MSW for help with thinking about this concept, and feedback from Andrea Landini, Franco Baldoni, and participants in the DMM Coffee House.
This article was formerly titled: Shame vs humiliation: Do these emotions express differentially in DMM cognitive and affective danger-orientations?
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