Preventing Tragedies: Time to Look Inward as Well as Outward

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As we look for ways to prevent violent tragedies such as school shootings, it is not enough only to look outwardly for solutions. We also need to look within ourselves, and take personal responsibility for developing the inner resources and skills necessary for coping with life’s stresses.

The recent mass shootings at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, which followed a spate of similar incidents of murder-suicide in 2012, have prompted public officials and mental health experts to search for possible ways to prevent such tragedies. Some have been advocating tougher control over access to guns, especially when it comes to the those commonly referred to as “assault weapons.” But others have been looking into the role that mental illness plays in such scenarios — particularly what some experts term “angry depression,” which is often accompanied by suicidal and homicidal thoughts and urges. And special attention is being given to the adequacy and availability of mental health care in the hope that improving both the access to and quality of such services might help the country to better address such problems, and possibly prevent the kind of tragedies that are sometimes associated with them.

By now, many have become familiar with what appears to be a common profile: a socially awkward, isolated, or rejected individual, angry with and at the world, and down on him/herself reaches a kind of breaking point, and decides to take out their wrath on as many as possible before going down in a perverted blaze of glory. At least people will know they were here and that they were hurting. And at least someone finally paid a dear price for all the pain they had to endure. And by ensuring their own demise as well, at least they won’t be around to be subjected to the negative consequences they would be sure to face. Aware of this pattern, investigators have been looking for ways we can better recognize the signs that someone fits the profile of a potentially dangerous “angry depressive” and get them help before it’s too late.

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There’s still a lot of debate about the validity of the “angry depressive” construct. It’s long been a tenet of classical psychology paradigms that depression is “anger turned inward.” And in my clinical training, I learned not only about this conceptualization, but also about other conceptualizations of depression, including the once revolutionary but now commonly accepted “learned helplessness” model. Several excellent articles have been posted on this blog that discuss this concept, including one by Gordon Shippey: “Right Responsibility” and another by Cindi Jett: “5 Ways to Teach Your Kids to Be Proactive”; I’ve also written a couple of articles on the subject (see, for example: “Empowerment Tools: Invest Your Energy Where You Have Power”). And of course, with the major push in the ’80s and ’90s for all mental health conditions, most especially depression, to be viewed purely as issues of biochemistry resolvable by prescription drugs, there is the “medical model” of depression. But, as a clinician who has always tried to adopt as holistic an approach as possible to understanding and treating human illness, I’ve found it difficult at times to put all the different perspectives into the proper balance.

It just so happens that after several years working with individuals struggling with various types and levels of depression, I observed a typical pattern: they desperately wanted something they didn’t have power over. And, looking back over the course of their illness, it appears that their condition developed over some common and fairly predictable stages: first, they became (or already were) heavily emotionally invested in something in their “outer world” (i.e. someone or something in their environment); second, whatever or whomever they craved proved either inaccessible or uncooperative; third, instead of retreating and changing course, they dug in their heels and invested even more, only to feel even more frustrated, and eventually to become quite angry; fourth, they directed a lot of anger outward, taking it out on people, places, and things in some of the most unseemly ways; and, finally, when directing their anger outward proved fruitless or ultimately unsatisfying, they turned their anger on themselves (no longer seeing anything or anyone external as the “enemy” but rather redefining the enemy as their own powerlessness or “helplessness”). For me, this gave new meaning to the traditional “psychodynamic” model of depression, to the mounds of research on loss and grief, to K├╝bler-Ross’s research on death and dying, and to Seligman’s groundbreaking work on learned helplessness. All the pieces suddenly fit in a new and intriguing way. That’s when it occurred to me: fighting a lost cause is a behavioral “formula” for depression, and I included this observation in my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), as well as its follow-up, Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?).

About the same time I was coming to some insights about depression, my more character-impaired patients were teaching me a lot about anger, aggression and violence. I became most acutely aware of just how much fighting most people do in their lives, and how undisciplined many had become about it. And even though it became clear early on that aggression is not synonymous with violence, it seemed self-evident that folks who’d never seriously “owned” or disciplined their aggressive impulses in the small matters of life were at much higher risk for behaving violently when stresses mounted. So, the solution became clear: look inward, focus on your own aggressive instincts, “own” and be the master of them, and take heed to fight only when necessary, for a noble purpose, and with care not to needlessly hurt others or trample their rights.

Many modern cultures foster a mindset to look outward much more often than inward. We’re almost always looking for things (or even people) that will bring joy into our lives or rid us of discomfort. From early on, we’re not trained to look inside ourselves — to that place where we have the most power. Even when it comes to solving some of our major societal problems, we look outward. In the debate raging right now about senseless gun violence, we almost reflexively begin looking at the weapons themselves, the adequacy of existing laws, and the kinds of clinical conditions that can “cause” a person to engage in heinous acts. And we want to be sure that dysfunctional individuals get the professional “help” they need. But we seem to have forgotten that our world is by nature an unpredictable and potentially dangerous and stressful place. This is definitely not heaven. And to function adaptively and responsibly in our world, all of us have to develop internally-based skills and controls. For some, especially those laboring under handicaps of one type or another, or raised under adverse circumstances, developing such skills and controls is a considerable challenge. Nonetheless, all of the combined efforts we might make to better structure our environment are no match for sound internal resources that can guide us in face of the inevitable stresses of life. If this were not true, it would be impossible to explain those admittedly rare, but nevertheless well-documented instances of individuals who have endured unimaginable adversity, yet somehow overcome them and become the most decent of folks.

So, it is my fervent hope that as we search for answers about how to prevent the senseless tragedies that have become all too common of late, we remember that ultimately, a society’s greatest challenge is to ensure that each and every one of its constituents is equipped with the knowledge, skills, control, and other internal resources to responsibly contribute and pose no threat. And rather than settling for merely higher quality mental health services for the impaired and greater access to such care, I also hope that we remember the following: there’s simply no substitute for focusing early on in a child’s development not so much on what they need from the external world, but rather, on how well they are doing at becoming intimately aware of themselves and their natural inclinations, and how well they are mastering the skills and controls necessary to function in a healthy, disciplined, and responsible way.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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