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Shame and Anger: The Criticism Connection

Brock Hansen, L.C.S.W.
"Whether or not we think we can benefit from criticism, we are all going to get plenty of it and we might as well learn how to handle it effectively. Shame and anger will inevitably be involved and those powerful emotional responses so confuse and overwhelm our experience of criticism that we will have difficulty responding objectively and effectively." (p. 21)

Shame and anger are powerful, basic emotions that often haunt and torture us. Brock Hansen expertly explores these two emotions in this poignant and highly-readable book. Hanson, a psychotherapist and NLP practitioner who works with "shame-based disorders," writes that shame and anger are responses to criticism and that sensitivity to criticism is ubiquitous in our culture. His book teaches us how to understand these two emotions and how to improve our ability to give and receive criticism.

Who hasn't felt the sting of criticism? While we often welcome and request recommendations for improvement, it is the unsolicited criticism that catches us off guard; that feels so much like a judgment that it evokes shame, or so much like an attack that it evokes anger. While criticism serves to maintain social order, we are not generally taught how to accept criticism gracefully or to give criticism in a helpful, tactful way. Hansen's book fills the gap in the socialization process.

In Shame and Anger we learn that emotions serve the evolutionary purpose of survival of the species. Anger motivates us to attack or defend against an enemy. Shame is a signal of surrender that allows survival when the odds against us are too great to risk aggression. If the one who surrenders is lucky, he will live, perhaps to procreate; perhaps to fight another day. However, to remain in a state of surrender puts one at risk for further attack, a lower place in the social hierarchy, and limited opportunities for mating. Therefore, Hanson reasons, "…shame is always followed by a surge of aggression that helps the survivor reestablish a sense of power and position." (p. 40).

The same dynamic can happen between parents and children. Children often rebel against parental dictates. However, when a parent scolds a child, the child's shame can often be reversed by reconciliation and the parent's assurance of continuing love and affection. If this reconciliation does not occur, Hansen predicts the child will develop behavioral and emotional problems.

Healthful shame instills conscience. Toxic shame, on the other hand, sets up a complex cycle of anger, self-loathing, fear and distrust, and accompanying negative behaviors that draw social censure and still more shame. Toxic shame is often caused by abuse, neglect, dysfunctional family relationships, or trauma. Many who experience toxic shame strive for an impossible level of perfection in an effort to eradicate feelings of unworthiness. The most common symptom of toxic shame is depression, often triggered by perceived loss of status or perceived emotional abandonment. Chapter seven in Shame and Anger provides an astute analysis of the biochemical and emotional components of depression, showing that the body often reflects one's emotional and social environment.

While Part I of this book discusses the author's theoretical approach to shame and anger, Part II gives practical solutions and healthful strategies for managing these emotions. Hansen states: "If we hope to make the best use of criticism we would want the process of interpreting the criticism to be generally calm, balanced, and objective. Instead, for most of us, interpreting criticism is a highly and subjective experience." (p. 81).

Hansen points out that few of us handle criticism in a manner we would like. If fear and shame are the predominant response, the tendency is to exaggerate the "truth" of the criticism ("I must be an idiot!"). If anger is the predominant response, the tendency is to disregard the criticism (He is an idiot!). Neither response is entirely healthy.

The first step is to calm the emotional arousal. Hanson recommends approaches from domestic violence intervention, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, and relaxation response training, as well as yoga, meditation, and neuro-feedback. Then he goes on to tell us how to respond to criticism resourcefully.

"…in every generation of humankind, confident individuals have exhibited a response to criticism that minimizes shame and anger and gives them the best chance of learning from the critical feedback of others. A very few seem to be able to react patiently even when attacked with malicious and unjustified scorn. They appear to have learned that their own internal responses are potentially more damaging than the words of the critic. By calming their internal responses, they maintain their balance in the situation and can judge for themselves the truth or value of the criticism." (p. 101)

Hansen advocates values clarification and cognitive therapy as worthwhile processes for finding one's "internal compass" and for overcoming negative thinking. He also teaches the NLP model for responding to criticism, which helps one to a) perceive criticism objectively, as information based on another's values, and b) evaluate the validity of the criticism. Hansen does an excellent job of explaining this NLP process. I would recommend an additional step: c) visualize and mentally rehearse the new verbal and behavioral responses that result from changed perceptions and emotions.

Hanse on also provides a succinct strategy for delivering criticism without shaming. He summarizes Liz Lerman's peer criticism model for group evaluation of creative work, and presents his adaptation as a one-on-one process. The steps are: 1) State your feelings. 2) Describe the desired behavior. 3) Ask for what you want. 4) Say thank you. Hansen describes the steps in detail, with attention to the timing and structure of effective criticism. He includes specific implications for parents of small children.

The book concludes with Hanson's observations on shame and anger in the human condition. He discusses how shame and anger accompany loss, crisis or disaster, disability, addiction, divorce, aging and the prospect of one's own death. He examines shame in the social context, with regard to ostracism, censure, belonging, violence, crime and punishment, public criticism of celebrities and leaders, and the polarizing effects of political debate.

The final chapter is a worthwhile and thought-provoking discussion of shame and spirituality. Hansen writes that spiritual practices, such as surrendering to that which we cannot control and staying mindful of the present, can help us to release shame and anger. This chapter also examines the concepts of good and evil, forgiveness and vengeance, and the effects of power, control, and judgment.

Shame and Anger is highly relevant is today's political and social climate. Hansen is an astute mental health professional who treats this subject with knowledge and sensitivity. I commend him for his scholarly approach, his articulate treatment of concepts, theories, and methods, and his clarity and organization. I recommend this book to anyone who directly guides the lives of others: therapists, parents, teachers, physicians, nurses, clergy, managers and leaders. I also recommend it for those who have not fully mastered the process of responding to or giving criticism effectively and appropriately.

For More Information

Hansen maintains a blog for people who wish to discuss this book or anonymously share experiences of shame and anger in the face of criticism. The URL is http://shameandanger.blogspot.com. You can learn more about Brock Hansen's work and read his articles on shame, eating disorders and emotional intelligence for children at his web site: www.ei4rkids.com http://www.ei4rkids.com

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