How Feelings of Helplessness May Give Rise to Destructive Violence

Reading about Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, in today’s New York Times brought to mind Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who set off bombs and murdered at least 76 people back in 2011. These two men have several features in common, including social isolation, a fascination with Call of Duty (a war-oriented video game) and a history of having been bullied.

In this earlier post about Breivik, I highlighted the role of basic shame in psychopathic behavior. Adama Lanza appears to have suffered from some kind of autism spectrum disorder, which suggests early and pervasive psychological damage — the kind that might leave a person with a core sense of defect or shame. On the other hand, Lanza’s mother and father didn’t divorce until he was 17 years old and, according to court records, appeared to be caring, involved parents who divorced without much animosity. Perhaps as we learn more, we might uncover a history of family discord and evidence of early trauma. We do know that Adam had broken off relations when his father began dating and eventually married another woman, suggesting that the divorce had troubled Adam deeply. Then there’s the mother who let her son amass his own private arsenal of lethal weaponry. Surely we’re not dealing with your average American family here.

Lanza had been an object of ridicule and subjected to bullying throughout his school years. Breivik had also been bullied and, according to this scholarly article, the perpetrators of the Columbine and other school shootings had also felt themselves to be outsiders and were overly sensitive to taunting or insults; the authors found a correlation between social rejection and later acts of aggression. Although this might not explain everything about these different school shooters, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to believe there’s a link between them.

My guess is that this type of violence stems from unbearable feelings of helplessness and impotence; I imagine that a profound sense of shame is also involved. If you feel small, unworthy and unable to do anything to increase your social status — to grow up in a realistic way to become a successful adult member of society — you can at least get big by destroying something. In a culture such as ours, where achieving fame is seen by 51% of teenagers as their primary goal in life, a young man like Adam Lanza might feel he has no chance of ever reaching such a goal. He might feel helpless and impotent, like a total loser. But although he might never become famous, he might at least become infamous through destructive violence — that is, by committing some spectacular crime. The news clippings about other well-publicized school murders found in the Lanza home suggest he was focused on achieving some kind of celebrity. It seems likely he determined that the horror of a pre-school shooting would bring him the greatest notoriety.

This isn’t a particularly brilliant insight; the idea has probably occurred to some of you already. You might also have made the leap, as I did, to the hijackers who brought down the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. If you live in a culture where young men have no economic future, where the United States “bullies” and humiliates your country (at least from your perspective), you might feel powerless to make any constructive difference in your life, so much so that you opt for violence instead. When the experience of helplessness becomes unbearable, when all paths to constructive action feel cut off, when you feel small and powerless, you can always take the “nuclear” option and destroy something big and impressive. Virulent envy might also give rise to such violence: if you perceive that another person (or country) has so much more than you do and you can’t stand it, you might feel moved to destroy the object of your envy.

One other place I find an understanding of the helpless/destructive link to be useful is in my practice. Some very ill clients who struggle with feelings of helplessness, impotence and unbearable neediness will sometimes ward off those feelings by attempting to destroy their own treatment: in order to escape from being the “small” and needy client, they may become a very big and dangerous threat to themselves and to their therapists. This is a particular danger when shame and envy permeate the transference. On an unconscious level, the client may want to prove that his or her destructiveness is more powerful and impressive than the therapist’s creativity. This can be a difficult-to-detect factor in suicidality. It may also lead to malpractice suits if you’re not careful. When such feelings began to become conscious for one of my clients, he viciously threatened to sue me and “bring me down”; fortunately we were able to work through this difficult aspect of the transference and productive therapy went on for many years thereafter.

Another deeply shame-ridden, envious client abruptly terminated his treatment in a rage, just as he had “fired” many therapists before me. All too often, in the consulting room and in the world at large, destructiveness really does prevail over creativity, especially when shame and feelings of helplessness are quite literally unbearable.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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26 comments

    I think Adam Lanza felt like he had no control over his life, specially when after 17 years his parents divorce. It must of made him think that even the most solid and predictable relationships can end without a warning.
    Maybe he wanted to reverse his role and be the one who “calls the shots”.
    Even though I do not agree with what he did, I have a lot of Empathy for Lanza because I understand that he was not born this way.

    Still … lots of us feel that we have no control over our lives and we don’t become mass murderers. It seems we need a more powerful explanation.

    I feel a bit sorry for the patients — why should they feel that all the creativity and worth is on the therapist’s side? And if the purpose of therapy is to heal, it seems like that mistaken dynamic should be the first issue between the hammer and the anvil.

    Yes, it usually is one of the very first issues to be addressed. And I feel for them, too. It’s horrible to feel small and insignificant, in the presence of someone you view as superior.

    I am glad you have spoken out about the likelihood of psychological trauma in the case of Adam Lanza. Middle class families with severe dysfunctions tend to have more tools and ease in hiding problems and abuse. I would argue that nancy Lanza encouraging her troubled son to buy guns is in itself a form of abuse. I hope much more research is done on the familial history and experiences of mass murderers so early detection and prevention can be developed to help such children from becoming monsters and save lives, including theirs. There was a recent study by the RCMP in Canada that found Islamiat Jihadists were recruiting troubled young men for terrorist activities. Ideologies and belief systems based on hatred and supremacy and no value of individual human life, with disdain for the “weak” and vulnerable (perhaps a projection of the self loathing for their own helplessness in the past) certainly appeal to individuals with deep psychological trauma turned to hatred. But there is surely a missing element that we yet don’t understand as to why only a minority of those abused and traumatized turn to such cold, calculated sadism and inhumanity. And while all human psychology is a continuum, when people cross thie line in which they thrive on brutal victimization and murder, there must be something truly heinous taking place in their minds and souls that is beyond typical shame and blame, etc. What is it?

    I agree — that last bit is still a mystery. I certainly can’t explain why some people emerge from fairly bad backgrounds and become “monsters” while other people come from families that seem much more pathological and emerge relatively healthy, at least in their ability to function in society.

    Once again, I’m very moved by one of your posts.

    Your description of how angry clients sabotage their therapy very closely describes my own experience. Therapy became a very negative experience for me. I found it hard to deal with feelings of smallness, neediness, shame and humiliation. When I couldn’t put my therapists suggestions into practice between sessions, I felt a sense of failure and humiliation. I wanted her to soothe those feelings. I wanted her to understand and empathize with my feelings of hopelessness that I felt were preventing me from putting the suggestions from therapy into practice but her understanding was never enough to “rescue” me from those feelings. Her encouragements for me to keep trying just felt like further humiliation.

    I started pushing at boundaries, e-mailing my therapist between sessions and over-running as much as possible at the end of every session.

    I ended therapy abruptly and angrily although I never expressed that anger to her until after finishing therapy when she was kind enough to exchange several e-mails with me helping me to understand my feelings.

    After finishing therapy, I spiraled into depression and addiction again. It was a very shocking reminder of how destructive I can be. Your website has been a wonderful resource in helping me to understand what is behind that destructiveness and how to deal with it.

    That’s a very poignant story. I wonder if maybe the time between your sessions was too long and you might have done better if you’d been able to go more frequently. I sometimes find that this helps, and with some prospective clients, if I sense that’s it’s going to be an issue, I won’t take them on if we can’t meet often enough.

    Sometimes I remember times in my childhood where I said “no” and “I don’t want to” to almost everything offered by my parents because I couldn’t understand or express what was going on for me. This made me be viewed as a problem instead of my family being curious. I can sometimes feel the same impulses as an adult, though of course it manifests differently.

    I don’t know exactly how it relates, but somehow it seems relevant. I tend to think the destructive impulse isn’t exactly destructive in essence, but only destructive because the underlying non-destructive impulse or desire can’t make its way to the surface.

    I felt this way (and expresssed it) in therapy and was fired by my therapist for it. What was underneath the ‘no’ was “I want you to love me, and because you don’t, I’m going to make you feel just as thwarted and ‘bad’ as I do”. I DID make him feel that way, and he dumped me.