Wars – Terrorist Attacks – Anxiety and Depression – Mass Shootings – Domestic Violence – Relationship Breakdowns
Are We Missing The Point And Making Things Worse?
In the latter part of this article, I describe two very simple exercises, well known to many psychotherapists, that could transform the way we relate and communicate. And in my article on “Dealing With Your Emotions”, I explain why I believe these methods are not more widely used .
As a teacher of Native American Philosophy once said : “To change is easy. To realise that it’s easy to change is hard and takes a lot of work!”
Every time a mass shooting happens, it sparks off another heated debate about the gun laws in the United States.
And every time this happens, both sides dig their heels in and get even more deeply entrenched in their position.
Those in favour of gun control blame the shootings on the lax gun laws and try to get laws that make it more difficult for people to own guns, as they believe that this will create a safer society.
The pro-gun lobbyists, on the other hand, believe that if everyone owned a gun, they would be able to defend themselves against a possible shooter and less people would be killed.
They also argue that if everyone is armed, this would act as a deterrent to someone contemplating a shooting.
We confuse means with ends
So each time a shooting happens, we seem to forget that the real issue is not about guns, but about safety, and that whilst we may disagree about how to go about achieving this, we all want the same outcome, which is to feel safe and secure.
So why do we get caught up in our disagreements when in fact we all want the same results? What stops us from working together to achieve our aims?
Terrorist attacks and wars
Every time there is a terrorist attack our fears are re-enforced, and all our efforts focus on increasing security measures and on taking more aggressive action with the intention of destroying the terrorist organisations responsible.
Whilst it is essential for us to do whatever it takes to protect ourselves, violent reactions increase the emotional charge on both sides, and make it even more difficult for us to really listen to each other. We get caught up in an ever-increasing cycle of fear.
We are not really listening
We are listening, however we listen with the purpose of proving ourselves right and those who disagree with us wrong. We do not listen in order to genuinely understand the others’ point of view.
We do not really listen because we are afraid
This realization holds the key to the changes in the world that we all want.
Fear is a very powerful force that can override all other feelings and considerations, and each time a tragic event happens it gets re-enforced.
So when a tragic event happens, our fears are so strong that they blind us to the fact that we all want the same outcome at heart.
We all want a safer and more peaceful world, so how do we get caught up in believing that we can create peace by violent means?
This begins in childhood, and unless and until we change the way we treat children, we will remain stuck in a world ruled by violence and fear.
In order to change the way we treat children, we need first of all to acknowledge and deal with our own fears.
We use fear to motivate ourselves and others because we’re afraid of what might happen if we don’t use fear!
We do this to our children. We use fear, in the form of threats, punishments and rewards, to make them behave in the ways we want them to. We love our children and we’re afraid that if we don’t do this, they won’t grow up as “good citizens”.
We use fear with the intention of getting people to stop smoking, to lose weight, to exercise more, to avoid bad driving.
Employers use fear to motivate their employees. Political parties use fear to discredit their opponents and gain votes. Countries use fear to intimidate other countries. Many of our social and political structures and interactions are motivated by fear.
Fear is what anxiety and depression, wars, domestic violence, relationship breakdowns, child abuse, terrorism, mass shootings, self-harm and all forms of violence towards oneself and others have in common. They are all a result of fear.
We all want to feel safe and secure
There is no excuse for the atrocities committed by terrorist attacks, wars and mass shootings. Whilst this may sound strange, however, I believe that the people who commit these atrocities also want to feel safe and secure. Only, they no longer believe that this can be achieved by peaceful means.
So what can we do?
In order to stop the violence and turn things around in the long term, we must also be willing to reach out, to listen to people that we disagree with and to seek to empathise with them, in order to understand how this horrific state of affairs has come about.
We need to understand how they have come to believe that the only way they can achieve their objectives is through violence, and to ask ourselves whether we have contributed to this and whether we believe this as well.
We need to be willing to suspend our beliefs and opinions, at least temporarily, to attempt to see the world through their eyes. Then perhaps we would stand a chance of communicating with them and of finding some common ground that we can build on together to create the world we all want.
This is no easy task as our fears are deep-seated and trust has been lost, so facing our fears and building trust is a long-term process. Unless we are willing and able to do this, however, the violence will continue.
How can we do this? Where do we start?
This involves listening to all parts of ourselves, to all our feelings, thoughts and impulses, to all our inner voices, including those that may be contradictory or conflicting.
Otherwise we may be confusing our own feelings and responses with what the other person is communicating.
Distinguish feelings from actions
We need to distinguish feelings from action. Anger, rage, and revulsion are healthy feeling responses to cruel and inhuman behaviour.
Then we need to reflect and consider – what do we want to achieve and what are the most effective actions we can take to accomplish this? We need to consider both the short-term and long term…….
In the short term
It is necessary to react swiftly and take appropriate action to protect ourselves in emergency situations, such as during an actual attack.
In the long term
When the emergency is over, however, we need to take time to listen to ourselves and reflect before taking further action, rather than allowing our feelings to drive us.
The same dynamics often apply to domestic violence. So many relationships start with caring and love and gradually – and sometimes not so gradually – deteriorate into violent outbreaks.
It’s really important to take constructive action as soon as the first signs of mounting tension appear. I say mounting tension because disagreements and arguments in a relationship are not necessarily a sign of impending violence.
Most and probably all couples have disagreements and arguments from time to time, it’s the way they are handled that’s important.
Two simple exercises in Effective Communication
- Exercise 1. Stick to “I statements” whenever there is an emotional charge. This means that all sentences in our interaction begin with “I”.
So rather than saying, for example, “You make me angry” you say “I feel angry when you do that” or rather than saying “You’re always the same – You’ll never change”, you say “I get upset when you do that and I feel scared because I think that you will never change”.
- Exercise 2. Alternate listening to each other for an agreed amount of time without interruption, and then saying what your partner said back to them to make sure you haven’t misunderstood or misinterpreted what was said.
So you talk for an agreed amount of time, usually no more than 2 or 3 minutes at a time, and your partner listens without interrupting or commenting. Then your partner says back to you what they heard to make sure they understood.
If you believe that you have not been understood, you clarify what you said and your partner says it back to you again until you’re both satisfied that you understand each other. Then you change over, so your partner talks and you listen.
If this doesn’t work and/or arguments develop into blame, insults or threats, it’s vital to take action and seek professional help right away before they develop into serious problems. Prevention is better and easier than cure!
The above exercises can be used in all situations. Can you imagine what it would be like if these methods were adopted in Parliament, for example? Think about it………
And in Schools, in Organisations, in Conferences, in Meetings, in the Police Force, in Interviews, in Communities, in the United Nations……in the Law Courts………really, what stops us from adopting these methods?
What if I need help?
Most of us have not had the opportunity to learn how to understand and deal effectively with our feelings so they’re not running our lives.
This is where Psychotherapy can help – or hinder – this process, depending on the approach. Psychotherapy that aims to adjust the person to society will reinforce the status quo.
When the aim of Psychotherapy is to support the biological integration of the individual, to re-open the heart, to enable the individual to give and receive love rather than “to adjust them to society” – and when this is understood in context – ie sociologically as well as psychologically – then the natural consequence is to FEEL the connectedness of all beings and to act accordingly.
You do not have to be mentally ill to seek the help of a Psychotherapist – on the contrary, seeking help is a sign of strength and emotional maturity.
Psychotherapy can help us identify our fears and deal with them effectively, so they no longer rule our lives. Some of these fears may be unconscious – we may not even know they’re there.
Exploring your unconscious also reveals your hidden strengths and creative resources.
There are different schools and approaches to Psychotherapy, and in choosing a therapist it’s important to find a practitioner and approach that works for you.
Whilst I have trained in more than one modality, the approach that has influenced my work and life most is Somatic Psychotherapy.
I believe that the personal qualities of a therapist are just as important as their professional skills.
So I suggest you talk to more than one practitioner and have an initial meeting or session where you can ask all the questions you want, to help you make the right decision.
As a Somatic Psychotherapist, my aim is to facilitate the integration of all aspects of ourselves, mental, emotional and physical, to re-open our hearts, and to enable us to give and receive love.
Rather than looking for what’s wrong with you, I look for what’s trying to emerge, what stands in your way, and how I can help you take your next step.
It can enrich your life, whether you are experiencing emotional challenges or not, and it may help you take one step closer to creating a safe and peaceful world.
Donald Marmara, somatic psychotherapist and educator.
PS Recommended reading ( books) if you wish to explore this topic further:
Breaking Down The Walls Of Silence, by Alice Miller;
Listen Little Man by Wilhelm Reich;
Parenting For a Peaceful World by Robin Grille