We bloggers for Psychology Today were asked to write a something in the wake of the Ft. Hood shootings, perhaps in hopes our individual offerings might add a small piece to the puzzle of understanding the profound complexity of social violence. I can't answer the riddle about concerted social violence like war ("when is it rght to do wrong and when is it wrong to do right?")  but thinking about individual acts of violence, here is what came to my mind.

I believe that most human violence is committed with a purpose in mind, for example:
To get what is wanted,
To make a statement,
To make a change,
To cause suffering,
To end suffering,
Or some combination of the above.

At the time, in the moment, violence makes emotional sense to the perpetrator because it feels "right." It also feels "free" because social restraints are suspended. And it feels satisfying to let angry impulse rule, anger the most common justification for violence. Why is that?

Anger is an emotion, and like all emotions it functions as part of an early awareness system that alerts and directs a person's attention to something significant going on in his or her felt world of experience. Emotion also mobilizes the person's energy to respond to whatever is going on.

Each emotion arises in response to a different kind of human experience. For example, fear warns of actual or imagined danger. Grief signifies that there has been some significant loss. Frustration shows that some want is being denied or some purpose is being blocked. And anger identifies some violation of one's wellbeing.

The awareness of anger is usually identified by such thoughts as, "this is wrong," "this isn't what I like or want," "this isn't fair," "this shouldn't be going on," "This must be stopped." So the function of anger is to patrol a person's wellbeing, identify possible violations, and energize some expressive, protective, corrective, or aggressive action in response.

Although emotions can be very good informants, they tend to be very bad advisors when people let feelings do their thinking for them. Feelings can prompt poor decisions that only make a hard situation worse. For example, fear can advise running away, which can intensify anxiety. Grief can advise preoccupying with loss, which can bring on depression. Frustration can advise forcing the issue, which can cause an overreaction. And anger can advise revenge, attacking back which can generate more violation and retaliation in the process.  Or in a moment of rage the person can commit savage violence. Mental sets stir emotional responses that can have physical consequences.

Individuals who commit violence are often anger prone. That is, they have certain mental characteristics that encourage resort to anger.

They have a high need for control and get angry when control is lost or when using anger to get control.

They are highly judgmental, feeling easily offended when others don't meet their standards or don't do things their way.

They take personally what is not personally meant, assuming accidental slights or offenses were deliberate when that was not the case.

They are unforgetting and unforgiving of past injuries, storing grievances as resentments that can intensify current anger.

Mental sets are chosen, not genetic, and with help and practice they can be modified. In counseling and therapy people can learn to step back from the precipice of angry violence by revising their mental sets. For example they can practice being less controlling, being less judgmental, being less ready to take affronts and irritations personally, and being more willing to let old injuries and grievances go.

The silent partner in much social violence is isolation that condemns a troubled person to the solitary confinement of their own thinking, without recourse to the opinions and understanding of others that might keep distorted perspectives and desperate intentions in check.

To outsiders, acts of social violence seem inexplicable because we cannot get inside the perpetrator's head to understand the "sense" these horrific actions make to him or her at the angry time. We can only relate to the victims because it is with them we readily identify, and with the families grieving sudden loss.

May we hold them all in our hearts in their time of need.

The best help I have to offer is a book about nonviolent approaches to managing family conflict, "Stop the Screaming." Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: How NOT to punish the adolescent..

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