Saturday, April 28, 2007

What to do when you think no one loves you and you are a bad person

This week I spoke to a group of six teenage girls who meet every week to talk about their lives. I was the guest speaker. I decided to talk about what to do when you are feeling unloved, unwanted, and that everything that is wrong with your life is your fault. After some introductions, I asked them if they ever feel as if no one loves them. I don't know any human beings who don't feel that way sometime, but we sure don't talk about it.

I told a few stories myself, such as the times my mother would tell me I was just like my Aunt Frances. She didn't like my Aunt Frances and crticized her. The kids understood that story immediately They stories about not getting along with parents and the things that parents say to them and what they say to parents. Three of the girls talked about being sexually abused. Some experienced verbal abuse, such as parents telling them they hated them and wished they had never been born and they are just like their fathers whom the mothers hate. One girl described what I consider emotional neglect.

The girls responded to parents typically by yelling back that they didn't ask to be born and that they hated their parents. They also acknowledged that their parents are under stress--at least a few did. I thought that they had learned that from professionals and that such statements directed attention away from the hurt and from constructive ways that they might deal with their hurt.

We moved on to what they do when they feel unloved and unwanted. Several of the said they use journals. One girl said she doesn't anymore because her parents read her journal. We talked at length about who they can trust when they are feeling this way.

One girl said she opened up to her p.o. and the p.o. told her parents what she said. She said the p.o. had told her what she said was confidential. Other girls talked about talking to peers who then blabbed all over the school. Most if not all of them had someone betray a confidence. I told them of a time someone betrayed mine.

So, I hoped we ended on a good note, with the girls realizing that a lot of people feel worthless, unloved, unwanted. I hope they know that talking to someone they trust is a good way of dealing with these feelings.

I wish everyone had someone to talk to. I wish everyone would talk to someone else when they feel this way. The world would change.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Real men talk to real kids about real feelings

Kids, especially boys, will benefit enormously if real men could talk to real kids about real feelings.

Fireman, policemen, athletes, older boys could talk to kids about their emotions. If men like this could tell kids that they sometimes feel sad, lonely, and unloved, this would help kids to know that they are normal. It is ok to feel this way.

If such men would say sometimes I think I'm no good, that I'm a bad person, kids would realize this is normal.

If men like this could say, this is what I do when I feel this way, then the kids would know what to do.

I would want them to say, I find someone I can trust and I tell them how I am feeling. These people listen. I feel better. I feel part of things. I know it's only in my mind that I am no good. I am a good kid who somethings think that I am bad.

Simple message.

Big impact.

It is a mark of man to admit that he sometimes feels sad, lonely, and like a bad person. Real men admit that they sometimes are weak. Talking to someone makes them feel better.

A real man tells people he trusts that he sometimes feels weak.

Teaching children that violence hurts

We have to teach children about the violence that they see all around them—especially on the internet, but in the mass media everywhere. Kids are now exposed to more violence than we older people ever have been. We have to help kids see that no matter how satisfying it might be to see so called bad guys get beat up and killed, this is not real. This is imaginary.

In real life, violence hurts. Violence can kill the person. Violence can kill the soul. We adults have to let kids know that when people beat others up, kill them, or say mean things, it hurts, it kills, and people stay dead.

When kids make fun of other kids, call them names, gang up on them, this hurts other kids. It may seem like fun and be funny at the time, but you are really hurting others. Is that what you want? Kids can handle questions like this. Kids want adults to ask them questions like this, in a relationship of caring and safety.

Kids need to grapple with the question, Do you want to hurt other people, or do you want to have fun? If you want to have fun, then have fun, but don’t have fun by hurting other people.

There are many people who would not tease others, but as bystanders, they don’t know what to do. Some enjoy seeing others being mocked and teased. It’s built in to our blame the victim culture and into our own relief that we are not being mocked. Bystanders have to figure out how to respond to people who are doing unkind things to others, such as teasing and mocking.

If you want to have fun, there are many other ways to have fun besides making fun of people or laughing when other kids are being picked on.

We have an incredible culture of blame—if someone is victimized that person deserves it. It’s almost funny, almost a relief that it is not us, but them, who are the butt of jokes.

This mean things hurt the spirit of other kids. If the kids have hurt spirits, they need to talk to other people about their hurt. If they don't the hurt just grows and grows. If hurt persons do not find a way to deal constructively with their hurt, they could do things to hurt other people or hurt themselves or both.

Hurt that is unspoken can turn to rage and then to hatred. Desire for revenge can build. Soon, thoughts other people or themselves become things that make hurt people feel better.

If we teach kids and adults how to cope with hurt, we would go a long way to becoming a compassionate society and we would prevent a lot of violent acts, too.

Adults need education on how to listen to children

Adults need education on how to listen to children who are feeling sad and alone. They need education on how to draw children out and to reassure them that what they are feeling is what many other people feel. They especially need to encourage boys to tell someone when they are feeling sad, mad, and that they are bad children who can’t do anything right.

Adults could be afraid of their own emotions of sadness, of feeling as if they are no good. So, adults have to learn to cope with their own difficult emotions and they they will be open hearted when children are sad, discouraged, lonely, and feel as if no on cares and no one loves them.

Teach children how to handle difficult emotions as common sense and violence prevention

We adults neglect teaching children how to handle difficult emotions. If we do this, we will create compassionate kids who grow into compassionate adults. We will also contribute to violence prevention.

Children need to be taught about their emotions, need to be told that there will be times when they will feel all alone, hurt, and sad. They may feel as if no one likes them and that they are bad kids who did something bad. They may think they can do nothing right.

Children need to be told when they feel this way, that is the time to find someone to talk to. Keep trying until your find someone who will listen. Someone who wants to hear what is hurting you, why you are so sad. They will tell you that every person feels this way sometimes and often when you feel this way you even think that you are a bad person, who did something wrong and who deserves to feel alone and sad and discouraged and disliked. Everyone feels as if others don’t like them sometimes.

Boys more than girls are discouraged not to talk about these feelings of being sad, bad, and incompetent. They learn at early ages that only sissies feel that way. What self-respecting boy wants to be a sissy? We have to let boys know that they are human beings and everyone feels sad, alone, and no good at times. When they do, they need to find an adult to talk to. Even girls need encouragement to talk to other people about these feelings of being no good. Because girls can talk about many feelings that boys are discouraged from expressing, girls are less likely to stay alienated over years, as Cho felt alienated, alone, and finally enraged for many years.

It's just common sense. Teach children how to handle harsh emotions. The dividends are life-long.

Connect to sad, lonely, angry kids

Violence prevention requires a community of caring persons. One person alone cannot do it. There are many ways to prevent another tragedy like the tragedy at Virginia Tech in April 2007.

The following are suggestions for what we as responsible adults can do.

We have to create a culture of caring. Plain and simple. I’ve got a lot to say about this, but blogs are supposed to be short so I will write more in another blog.

Cho Seung-Hui, the young man who murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech, was teased and mocked in elementary and secondary school. He was a child who rarely spoke, and when he did, he had a heavy Korean accent and a deep voice. Many other children thought this hilarious and they made fun of him, picked on him.

Many people would never tease a vulnerable person like Cho, but many of us also have no idea what to do to get other people to stop teasing other people. We have to resist thinking it’s funny and that the kids who get mocked deserve it.

Imagine what might have happened if everyone in Cho’s life worked together to figure out how to connect with Cho. Even in the weeks before he committed his atrocities, he still wanted to connect. He stalked girls. He took pictures of them under desks and tables. He wanted to connect but didn’t know how.

What if, when Cho was a child, when he was even more eager to connect, that there had been several people who had taken the time to get to know Cho, to get to know what he liked to do, what interested in him. What if someone said, Hey, Cho, want to go to the movies, to a baseball game, birding, or whatever it was he like to do? What if Cho had connected with someone when he was a child, how different his life would have been.

Whenever a child appears to be lonely, alienated, and the butt of jokes, the whole community must respond with care and compassion. Children, teenagers, adults, parents, teachers, police, whoever might know of a sad and lonely child must be prepared to connect with this sad, alone child. The child needs to feel connected to others.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How Some People Decide to be Violent

Very few people understand what goes on in the minds of people who commit violent acts. The killings at Virginia Tech bring out how little we know. The following is way of thinking about how violence occurs. It's a theory but it has many applications.

The following outlines the application of social cognition theory and neuroscience to how persons respond to and cope with stressful events in real time as they make choices about how they will cope: prosocially, antisocially, self-destructively, or inappropriately. These possible ways of coping are encoded in neural pathways that can be thought of as inner representations that cognitive scientists call schemas. Schemas are organized through a network of associations. Typically, schemas are activated in clusters that are associated.

Schemas usually are activated automatically, sometimes even outside of human awareness (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999). The process of the activation of schemas in stressful conditions is hypothesized to be as follows.

Persons perceive an event they interpret as stressful. In response to these perceptions, schemas activate themselves. Different schemas represent possible ways to respond to the stressful event: pro-social, anti-social, self-destructive, inappropriate, or inconsistent.
The choices persons make depend upon salience and accessibility—in other words, how habitually or frequently particular schemas have been activated in the past. Salience is related to the rewards that persons have experienced in the past for acting on these schemas and priming, which means that the inner state prior to experiencing the stressor can influence which schemas are accessible, which schemas are activated, which schemas persons act on.

In salience, some neural pathways are more developed because they have been activated frequently and thus are more accessible than others. Thus, for example, if a person’s response to stress has habitually been to eat a quart of chocolate mint ice cream, the schema to do so is well developed and is much more likely to activate itself in stressful situations than schemas that are activated much more frequently, such as going for a long walk or talking to someone. Eating so much ice cream tends toward being self-destructive, though comforting for a time, while going for a walk or talking to someone can be considered pro-social.

In priming, persons who are stressed in a supportive, pro-social environments are more likely to be guided by the automatic activation of pro-social schemas in response to environmental stressors. These pro-social schemas are more accessible because a pro-social environment has primed their accessibility and salience. Thus, in such a supportive environment, persons who have tendencies to over-eat in response to stress may instead talk to a sympathetic person who would be readily available in pro-social situations. If this occurs on a regular basis, seeking someone to talk to may become more salient than over-eating.

The experience of stress typically is uncomfortable. In some cases, stress activates schemas that recall traumatic events. In these conditions, the individual experiences discomfort or extreme emotional pain, which can lead to dysregulation, which is the disruption of rational thought, emotions, and the autonomic nervous system that regulates heart rate, blood pressure, and other neuron-physiological responses (Cicchetti & Rogosch, 2001; Shields & Cicchetti, 1998). Under conditions of stress, emotional pain, and dysregulation, persons seek to soothe themselves or to re-regulate. If they have well-developed executive skills, they will also have capacities for self-regulation and thus be able to handle the stress in ways that are planful and pro-social. If they have diminished executive skills for planful self-regulation, they are at risk to behave in anti-social, self-destructive, or inappropriate ways, or combinations (Gilgun, 2006a, 2005a).

An application of these ideas to the man who sexually assaulted a woman on the street would be as follows. The man experienced stress when his partner fell asleep on him. He experienced dysregulation of his thoughts, emotions, and autonomic nervous system. He experienced this state as painful. He sought to re-regulate and to soothe himself. His executive skills for re-regulation habitually focus upon anti-social plans for self-soothing. The schemas most salient and accessible to him were connected to rage and desires to leave the situation. The schema that activated itself in response to his dysregulation was a schema that he had habitually acted upon in the past. He began to fantasize about raping someone. He saw a woman alone. He sexually assaulted her. His stress was reduced. He felt soothed restored to some sort of emotional equilibrium.

Another condition related to Model 1 is when individuals do not feel stressed and still act out in antisocial ways. For these individuals, the model works as follows. Individuals want something. Schemas that will allow them to get what they want activate themselves. Which schemas activate depend upon priming, salience, accessibility, and executive function. Schemas related to executive function activate themselves because these schemas are associated with planful actions that anticipate consequences associated with various behavioral options. Persons with good executive skills and a fine-tuned moral sense will choose options that do not harm themselves or others while at the same time lead to their getting what they want.

Persons with fragmented or truncated executive skills and moral sense will seek to get what they want but they will suspend considerations of what the consequences of these behaviors might be for themselves and others, will distort what the consequences might be, will pay selective attention to consequences, will accept consequences, or will not even consider consequences. The schemas that are activated typically are those that are most salient.

An example of accepting consequences is the man who told me, “Rape is worth giving up a whole bundle for.” An example of selective attention is the man who murdered someone who double-crossed him in a drug deal in order to set an example for others who might also try to double-cross him. He paid no attention to the consequences of being caught and spending the rest of his life in jail. Lack of consideration of consequences as well as distortion of consequences characterized the executive skills of a man who sexually abused his children out of what he thought was love. His goal was to show love and to help the children understand what love was. The distorted consequence was his lack of forethought about what sex with their father might mean to two and three year-old children and the lack of forethought was how the sexual abuse would affect the children, their mother, and his own status in his family and community.

These perpetrators were not in stressful situations. They acted upon what they considered rational thought. The schemas they activated were schemas they had habitually activated in the past and were thus salient.

Screening for Violence Potential in Light of Virginia Tech

The tragedy that took place at Virginia Tech raises a lot of questions about why people do such things. I have done research on violence for more than twenty years. People use violence for many different reasons, but for the most part violence makes people feel better--bigger and more powerful and better than other people. People who are violent believe victims did something to deserve it. The young man at Virginia Tech who killed so many people was closed off from others and obsessed with fantasies of violence and revenge against people he believed had harmed him. Sometimes the harm they did him was simply being alive, happy and confident. He was under severe stress for years and fantasized about killing people for a long time. He probably thought about murdering people at Virginia Tech for months or longer. He bought one of the semi-automatic pistols a month before he used it on students and professors.

We need to have a nation-wide dialogue about what to do when kids and adults show signs of possibly being violence. Each school, university, and business needs a mental health professional who is trained in assessing the potential for violence. It does no good to kick these people out of schools and workplaces because many come back and kill people.

We need policies and procedures in place to screen for the potential for violence in humane compassionate ways that protects potential victims as well as those persons who are at risk to harm others. The following is a screening tool based on research and theory. I wrote it based on years of research I did and the research of others.

Detecting the Potential
for Violence

General Areas to Assess

precipitating events
patterns of direct statements
patterns of indirect statements
circumstances that increase the likelihood of violence
indirect indicators: signs of cumulative stress, and
indicators that the person has a lowered risk for violence.

Precipitating Events
emotional setbacks

When persons perceive situations to be real, they are real in their consequences.

Patterns of Direct Communication

Patterns of Indirect Communication
Body language ● Grooming
Behavior ● Glee when planning violent acts

Circumstances that Increase the Likelihood of Violence
Preoccupation with violence ● Part of a group preoccupied with violence
Means to commit the violence ● Violence in families of origin
Patterns of bullying and being bullied ● Violence in neighborhood
Psychological vulnerability ● Pro-violence beliefs and attitudes

Signs of Cumulative Stress
Emotionally closed ● Substance misuse
Shame and feeling defective ● Self-injurious behaviors
Unshared anger and grief ● Chronic behavior difficulties
“Minor” anti-social behaviors

Indicators of Lowered Risk for Violence
Emotional expressiveness ● Long-term relationship with at least
Empathy for others one pro-social person
Good interpersonal skills ● Desire to emulate the pro-social person
Spends time with friends who are pro-social ● Optimistic about a positive future
Kindness in humor ● Has means & opportunity to achieve future plans

March 2004. With comments and questions, contact Jane Gilgun at

Throughout the assessment, look for
factors associated with committing violence
factors that reduce the risks for violence
the balance between risks and moderators of risk

Examples of a situation where risk is probably low

A generally well-adjusted, popular child who in a moment of frustration, rage, or anger threatens another child; this is a one-time event

Principle at work: the child’s strengths far outweigh the risks
Suggestion for practice: In a safe and non-threatening way, be empathic with child’s emotions, suggest other ways to express the emotion, and ask the child not to express the emotion that way in the future. If the child threatens another again, contact parents and teacher to see what stresses the child might be experiencing.

Example of a situation that requires adult attention

Other children tease a child who responds with anger and withdrawal

Principle at work: this teasing is hurting the child and could contribute to a build-up of risks for self-harmful or anti-social behaviors

Suggestions for practice: Gently, firmly set limits on the children who tease; do a mental health assessment on the children who tease if there are indicators that the teasing goes beyond simple insensitivity, work with child who has been teased to help remediate the hurt and restore self-esteem, initiate an education program about teasing including reasons not to tease, how onlookers can respond when they see teasing, how children who are teased can understand teasing (It’s about them and not about you -- though easier said than internalized.)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Peeping Frogs so Loud We Could Not Hear the Sound of the Horses' Feet

The sky was crystal blue. The sun warm and bright. The frogs called peepers made so much noise we could not hear the sound of the horses' feet.

The first day's riding in a Minnesota spring along the Gateway Trail. The two horses, Finn and Ellie, and their human companions, Susan and Jane, wandered down the trail, talking or not, smiling and saying hello to the bicylists and walkers who made their way on their sides of the trail.

We saw pussy willows growing next to a small pond. The resident white egret was back. There was a pair of ducks, one black one white. The plum trees had not budded out but in a few months they would be loaded with small sweet fruit.

If anyone had said, "Your horses left a load on our side of the trail back there," it would have seemed strange indeed, anger not fitting what was all around us. Never mind that we had not been on the part of the trail he might have referred to.

Children are Afraid to Tell Others about Child Sexual Abuse

Children typically are afraid to tell anyone when they are sexually abused. Children are afraid they will be blamed. In fact, survivors of child sexual abuse do have to be careful who they tell. Many people do blame and stigmatize them. The non-offending partners of sexual abusers of children often are stigmatized.

It’s time for us adults to StopItNow!. It’s time for us to stop blaming children. It’s time to stop blaming non-offending spouses. It’s time to put the responsibility for child sexual abuse where it belongs—on perpetrators.

It’s time to talk about child sexual abuse so children will feel safe to talk about their abuse.

It’s time to make it safe for persons who abuse children sexually or are thinking about doing so, to seek help. Yes, they must be held accountable and they expect that. Along with accountability, comes our obligation to make it possible for them to change. Most want to. When they want to and when they get the help that is necessary, many if not most do change.

My concern for children got me into the field in the first place. One of my first surprises when I actually talked to child survivors what that the children often loved those who sexually abused them, though they were hurt and confused by the abuse. They wanted their fathers, stepfathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins to get help and return to the family. The didn’t want to be abused but they wanted the people they loved to be part of their lives.

Our jobs as adults is to make it possible for these adults and other family members to desist from hurting children and to take their proper roles as responsible, loving parents. This is something children want with all their hearts.

Cover-Ups are Everywhere

Unkind Deeds and Cover-Ups are so common we hardly notice them. They make headlines every day. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez is one of a long list of individuals who engage in cover up. They do unkind or dishonest things. They want to appear upright and virtuous. They don't want to state they did these unkind things. They lie, blame others, joke. My favorite cover up of all is the one about the boyfriend and girlfriend when the girlfriend finds out he's been seeing another woman.

GF: What do you want? A harem?
BF: Two women? That's not much of a harem.

Humor is a great way of getting yourself off the hook.

Baseball and bicycling is full of scandal over the alleged used of steroids and other drugs to enhance performance. Whether or not there is a cover up even the whiff of it has soiled both sports. Baseball officials have dragged their feet for many years over full investigations of these illegal and unkind acts. They are protecting a sport, they think. Protecting something "greater" is a common rationale for cover up.

An editorial in the The Wall Street Journal used the tactic of trivialization to cover up the scandal that Paul Wolfowitz started when he paid his companion $200,000 for a World Bank job. The editorial asked what is that compared to the billions that corrupt governmental officials from the Bank, money that is intended to help third-world countries.

There are many ways to cover up. I'd enjoy hearing from others about the ways people cover up their unkind deeds.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Unkind Deeds and Cover-Ups in Everyday Life

On Being a Shit: Unkind Deeds and Cover-ups in Everyday Life, is a book inspired by Harry Frankfurt’s bestseller, OnBullshit. The title sounds crude, I know, but please read on.

Unkind Deeds and Cover-Ups shows the various ways that people evade responsibility for their unkind behaviors and, whenever possible, blame others. I use humor and tongue-in-cheek scholarly language to make adifficult topic easier to take. I’ve thought a great deal about my use of the vernacular and decided to keep it since this is how people think about persons who dump on them. In some ways, the book is a spoof of academic writing not only for the language but I use a standard approach to theory building to construct a tested and refined theory of being a shit.

I wrote this book for persons who encounter others who enact being shits, a broad audience indeed. For more than 25 years, I did research on serious violence, such as rape, child molestation, and murder. In their own words, perpetrators described multiple and ingenious ways they evaded responsibility for their behaviors and, whenever possible, blamed others for their own terrible deeds.

As I became familiar with their tactics, I began to notice variations of them operating in everyday life among persons who had committed relatively minor unkind deeds and sought to cover them up through evasion, obfuscation, and blame. Eventually, I termed these everyday acts being a shit and decided to write a book about them. I wanted to let others know what I have learned from years of research and in so doing to help them avoid being ensnared in the machinations that are now so familiar to me.

With this level of sensitization, I freely admit I have been a recipient of unkind deeds and cover-ups and have attained expertise in enabling these behaviors. I am much better at being a recipient than an enactor, although I have some talent in that regard as well.

The blog is for witty people who want to build community. In this world that seems to be so full of witless efforts to self-aggrandize, I want to promote the simple idea of human connection.