Where Does the Violence Really Come From?

Glaring businessman

A man going to court with his family in Texas opens fire outside the courthouse, killing one and wounding three.

On the same day…a man armed with three knives stabs four people in Columbus, Ohio, before being shot by police.

Three days earlier…an American soldier kills 16 civilians in Afghanistan.

Stabbings. Shootings. So much violence. It’s sad. Painful. Scary. Most of us point to those who commit the violence and judge them. Sometimes as crazy. Sometimes as bad.

But . . . where does the violence really come from?

Violence comes from our not having had the help to build our capacity to feel. This leads to our feeling like we can’t bear what we feel. And this, in turn, leads to our finding ways to escape from the feelings. Sometimes we use ways like going numb, withdrawing, getting sick, breaking our commitments. Sometimes, drinking, drugs, eating, sex, pornography, working. Many of us use bullying. And often running away from our problems or going crazy. But the most violent ways of all to escape from our feelings are hurting or killing ourselves or others.

These are all escape hatches. What is an escape hatch? A way to escape from the feelings we have, instead of building the capacity to feel our feelings, process our feelings, express and resolve them safely, and discern which feelings are right to act on in the here and now and which are feelings from the past that have been triggered and need to be followed for healing.

Our escape hatches develop in childhood. As children, when we are in pain or trauma, we instinctively protect ourselves. We do whatever we can to get away from the pain. Among other things, we numb ourselves, deaden ourselves, strike out aimlessly. We do this even before we have mental concepts or words to speak them. At some point, our thoughts and words become available, and these responses have words that go with them—decisions we make about ourselves, others, and life, and decisions we make about how to get away from the pain. For example:

I won’t feel it.

I’m getting out of here.

I’ll run away.

I wish I were dead.

I wish you were dead.

I’ll go crazy!

Perhaps as children, these escape hatches saved our sanity or even our lives. But as we grow, what may have once been vital self-protection for a little child becomes a destructive defense for a grown adult. Now, as grown-ups, we can carry out the decision of the child within us with the mind and body of a big person. Let’s say as a little boy, your mother neglected and deprived you. Let’s say you grow up and marry a woman you love, and there are times she doesn’t give you what you want. Each time that happens triggers you back to the experience of being deprived by your mom, without your realizing what’s happening. Finally one day the trigger is so strong, so intense, so unconscious, so painful, that you rage at your wife uncontrollably, like a 2-year-old having a temper tantrum . . . but in your adult body, with your adult strength. No one has helped you build your capacity to feel the pain of that deprivation. You’re trying to escape from the pain, but you are not aware of that.

Or let’s imagine as a little girl, your father abused you. He yelled at you, threatened you, and battered you physically. Imagine you grow up and have a male boss. He’s a big man, 6 feet 3 inches tall and 250 pounds. You’re intimidated by his very size, feeling like a little girl with her big father and aren’t conscious that his size is a trigger all by itself. But one day you see him in his office with one of the other people he manages, arguing and looking angry. He calls you into the office to take care of something, and you don’t even realize how scared you feel. You go in, he hasn’t cooled down yet so his voice is still raised when he talks to you. It triggers all the many times your giant of a father yelled at you and then smacked you. You feel you can’t stand it one more time, so take some of the contracts you’re holding and rip them in half, throwing the rest of the papers at him, shrieking “I’m done. I’m gone. I quit this #$%&*# job,” and running out of the office. Because you haven’t been helped to feel the pain from your childhood, or to tease apart what is today’s pain and what is pain from long ago . . . without even realizing it, you’re trying to escape from the pain you felt with your father that’s still alive inside you, but acting it out with your boss.

Whatever else we may say it is, violence is definitely an escape hatch … a lashing out to avoid the feelings—both here-and-now feelings and and also feelings from long ago in our childhood that can be triggered by current life events.

Having an escape hatch open, keeping an escape hatch open—like hurting or killing someone—gives us a dangerous opening to run away from learning how to feel the feelings and what to do with them constructively.

What part does each of us play in violence?

Whether we know it or not . . . whether we want to know it or not, in addition to the gentleness and peacefulness we have within us, we all have the seeds of violence within us, too. It comes as part of our reaction to our early pain, trauma, or even torture. It’s an involuntary, perhaps even preverbal, precognitive response to feelings we experience as unbearable.

If we haven’t had the help to build our own capacity to feel—to feel even the unbearable—we can’t help others, including our children, our students, our patients, build their capacity to feel. And we also become intolerant of others peoples’ feelings. And if we haven’t had the help to build our individual capacity to feel, we will add our individual violent escape hatches to the collective unconscious, as well. Now the violent results can occur on a communal, national, even global scale. Look at war and torture on an international level.

What part does each of us need to play in the healing of violence in our world?

We each need to take responsibility for the violence within us. We may act it out in our lives subtly or even overtly. It may be only in the form of memories from our past. It may be that we only think it, feel it, fantasize it, or dream it when we’re asleep. But we need to realize that left unconscious it contributes to the violence in our world.

We each need to commit to finding the violence that is the escape hatch, to close the escape hatch, and to allow our closing it to help us find the pain from long ago that the escape hatch helped us get away from.

We each need to find the help to grow our capacity to feel . . . so that we can bear our feelings—even the ones we thought we couldn’t bear.

We each need to grow our understanding of which feelings are to be expressed to others and acted on and which are to be followed to the root for healing.

We each need to find a way to feel those feelings at the root—purposely, consciously, and safely—for healing.

We each need to realize how rampant the defense against feelings is in our world today and how many people and institutions are colluding with that defense, with the consequent acting out of the escape hatches growing.

We each need to comprehend the damaging, destructive impact this has on our children.

We each need to do a much better job of teaching our children about feelings, helping them build their capacity to feel, and helping them discern which feelings need to be healed and which to be acted upon.

And we each need to support others in our life and in our world to do the same.

Without taking these steps—for starters—the violence will not end. Only by building our capacity to feel and act wisely on our feelings will we be able to end the violence and create safety in our world.

What will you do to help in this healing?

Related articles:
Using Our Power to Make Our World Safe from the Inside Out
Power Abuse – Exploring the Roots of a Shocking Example

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Judith Barr, MS, LMHC, therapist in Brookfield, Connecticut

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 6 comments
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  • Josie

    Josie

    March 26th, 2012 at 2:48 PM

    Thank you so much for this article. I have been giving this very issue a lot of thought over the past few weeks, as everywhere you go all you seem to hear is about the bad and never the good. But I kind of feel at a loss because I am battling those old feelings of how I, one person, can make any kind of significant change as I am but one drop in the huge sea of humanity.

  • Ron

    Ron

    March 26th, 2012 at 4:36 PM

    The crazy thing is that this is all such a cycle that we know how impossible it can be to break that chain. If no one ever taught you how to deal with your emotions in a healthy way and to process those feelings in a rational manner, then how are you supposed to be able to offer that to your own children? I mean, in an ideal world that would never be an issue but it is and there has to be a strong person who can break free of that past damage. I don’t know where all of the violence comes from, whether it is from abuse, neglect, anger, frustration, all of the above, but for everyone who has ever felt that kind of rage to act out in that way there is something there beneath the surface that has to be addressed, but the hardest part is figuring out what is going to make that difference in that behavior.

  • Mekai

    Mekai

    March 27th, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    If this is something that you have been around since the word go, then you don’t know any different. That’s where it comes from- within, because you don’t know any other way to act or to react to any given situation.

  • Remy Diederich

    Remy Diederich

    March 27th, 2012 at 5:47 PM

    Thanks. Well said. I know you were purposely focusing on violence but the same can be said of things that lead up to violence; complaining, blaming,etc. They all short circuit what is meant to be…facing our dark side and bringing resolution. I like your “escape hatch” image.

  • Jill

    Jill

    March 27th, 2012 at 9:38 PM

    Very nice article. Not only have you explained why this happens but have also given an idea about how to prevent the same.

    We hear of such violent acts so often now. Most of us just curse that person and think how horrible a person he is. But that is not solving the problem or helping anybody. This kind of an introspection is what is required for such a problem.

    And teaching our kids about how to deal with feelings and such is the right way to try to end such things. There is not a lot that can be done to a person who has already accumulated such feelings within himself but teaching our kids can go a long way because handling our feeling and dealing with them is very important and violence can then be avoided from being used as an escape hatch.

  • Judith Barr

    Judith Barr

    March 31st, 2012 at 12:35 PM

    Thank you all for allowing my article to touch you, and for letting me know how it has. That means alot to me.

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