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.

By Joseph Burgo

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


  1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

  3. 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?

    1. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

  6. Hello Dr Burgo, this is a really interesting post. After reading about Adam Lanza’s isolation in the basement of his mother’s house I thought he might be a rare case of hikikomori in the West. As you probably know hikikomori is a form of social phobia that is somewhat common in Japan and affects mostly young men. Sufferers are so deeply ashamed of themselves – their appearance, their bodies, their personalities – that they withdraw from the world, and typically live in their own rooms in their parents’ home.
    But there are other aspects of this case that seem intriguing to me. The few pictures of Adam Lanza as a child that one can find on the Internet seem to show a shy but normal boy, happy even… it is striking to see how he changed in later years, as if he had become uncomfortable being himself. What if he did become uncomfortable, perhaps for not fitting in? You say his parents appeared to be caring and involved. Perhaps they were. And then there is Ryan Lanza, the brother. Ryan Lanza is strikingly normal, but he also appears to be almost a clone of his father Peter Lanza: both are accountants, and I believe I even read somewhere that Ryan was working for the same company his father worked for at the beginning of his career. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ryan and Peter had similar personalities too, though this is mere speculation on my part. Would it be possible that the Lanza family was very normal but also very rigid and incapable of accepting a child that was so different from themselves?
    You might also be interested in reading Marla Comm’s biography. Of course we’re talking about two different individuals, but looking at the similarities may help us understand both cases.

    1. One of my former clients living in Japan drew my attention to the hikikomori but I didn’t realize it had so much to do with shame. Thanks for making that link for me. As for Adam Lanza, I’m inclined to think that the bullying he experienced played a large part in what changed him.

  7. I feel empathy for Adam Lanza. It’s great to be able to say that without fear of being misunderstood. I think it’s significant that the first person he shot was his mother. I’m guessing that he felt betrayed and unloved by her, so I think the beginnings of his problem goes back to that first relationship.
    Many others (including myself) felt betrayed and unloved and unable to cope with life but we didn’t commit mass murder. I don’t know what the difference is between us and people like Adam…but most likely the answer is in his story and we may never know his full story. Maybe it’s just that he felt it’s better to be visible (even in a negative way) and dead than the walking dead, invisible person he felt he was when alive.

  8. Hi Dr. Burgo,

    This post has come at an appropriate time for me. I have been seeing my therapist for 3.5 years and 4 months ago I suddenly decided to finish, I wasn’t sure entirely why, I felt at the time there was a limit of what I could expect from therapy and perhaps I had reached it. It was about the potential for me to have significant relationships. A week or 2 later my therapist let me know that he in fact was leaving his job in March. Over the next few sessions, I realised I wasn’t ready to leave and suspected I had been picking up on his intentions for a while and perhaps thats what led to me deciding to leave initially. Though
    he was finishing but the new job was close by and he told me he would continue to see long term clients for as long he could (he didn’t know how long). I was concerned about it as I thought it would be difficult to take on another job and do part of the old one but he assured me that his new job realised that there are clients to finish with and this was taken into account in his hours and he wasn’t over extending himself. He then had a month holiday, started the new job and I saw him for the 1st time after all this last week. Early in the session he made it clear he wasn’t interested in what I was saying and changed abruptly to talk about when I was finishing and that its been 5 months now since I brought it up (its 4 months since I talked about it). I was shocked, go upset and it was a confusing session. At the end of the session he said he would only see me 2 more times. After I left, I spirled into a scary place over the next few days, crying compulsively and feeling very out of control. I also pushed boundaries and txted in between to say how upset I was.He has called in between but I still have no idea what is going on. I feel I have destroyed the relationship because of my acting out (txting/cancelling sessions ) and I am shocked that a therapist would do this, is this normal? He has been an excellent therapist and I have really come together over the last few years but I have found the ups and downs of the last few months very difficult to deal with and I’m not sure what to do. Any way, apologies for the long comment, I am a long time reader of your posts/ books and always enjoy the insight and honesty you bring to topics, thanks Dr. Burgo.

    1. No Kate, this is not normal professional behavior. He hasn’t handled this transition well at all, and the inconsistency of his messages to you is especially troubling.

      1. Hi Dr. Burgo, Well it turned out that he really did finish therapy. He was very apologetic that he didn’t handle it well but it seemed that he just didn’t understand the strain changing jobs would have until he did it. He didn’t try very long as it was only the first session of the new schedule when it all was ‘too much’! It has very much affected me. I try and run through scenarios that would allow me to believe that despite appearances, he really does care but I think I’m just trying to scavenge some meaning from the last 3.5 years. He didn’t even go through what I should do to keep the process going, to try and see if I could work with another therapist. I feel that my gut lead me astray as I really didn’t see it coming, I just trusted him, I thought even if he had to finish he would try and see that I was ok but he has no concern from what I can see. Its very scary that I lead myself so astray again. Thanks for your reply and it is comforting to know that this isn’t reflective of professional behavior, It helps to stop me from taking it all on myself.

        1. It’s very distressing to hear that he just dropped you like that. I’m afraid it says something about his character, and he probably wasn’t suited for the profession.

          1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. It means a lot to me. I’m not sure what my next step is but I am telling myself that my healing wasn’t entirely dependent on therapy. There are resources like this (and your excellent book), meditation and yoga and I’ll keep trying to figure it out. Thanks very much again and very best wishes.

  9. I read your previous article on Michael and have two comments. Your conclusions about empathy seem very poignant. What about the idea that parents cannot embrace a “Michael” for who he is because of the aversion they feel about this part of him that is anti-social. Their fear that that part of him if noted will become greater than the parts of the whole. Where does encouragement fit in here? Second, there have been people who suggest that violence especially domestic abuse by a male, is the ultimate expression of feelings of powerlessness. The shame a man experiences paralyzes him emotionally and verbally into a response of rage and a desire to act out in an almost pre-adolescent physical way.

  10. As you say, Joseph.

    “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’ll probably get in trouble for this (L) but I have neither sympathy nor empathy for someone who massacres a huge number of defenceless children in a school, or who strikes out and murders one, two or three children.
    If this individual wanted to take out his ire on someone, then how odd that he didn’t go to his nearest military base/police station, and open fire on them. Why? Children are an easier target. That’s why.

  11. Adam Lanza was not severely bullied at school – the media exaggerates as to make him more sympathetic. Classmates and former friends have come out and said this. Like nearly everyone, he was teased, maybe he took it too seriously? I would guess at least half of people have been bullied at some point. Nor can we blame Call of Duty, which millions of innocent normal people (boys and girls included!) play regularly. The reality is some people lack empathy, they are psychopaths, and there is really not much that can be done to help them. Of course this is not the PC version the media likes to talk about.

  12. I have been reading your blog and am impressed by your level of insight and depth, thank you for sharing your experience with us 🙂 I’m in a place of deep self doubt… I think that trying to understand the labels of Narcissism, Borderline etc has led me to an attempt to diagnose myself and people in my life (past and present) which just led me to this confusion, partly in response to reading some of what you’ve written.

    I know that my parents, particularly my mother (bless our forever guilty unforgiven mothers), had strong narcissistic tendencies, although I also see their care and love for me, particularly as they and I have got older and they have been less driven by ideals and more attuned and I have become less angry and judgemental. My early life was very focused on trying to adapt to that aloneness, very chaotic and lots of insecure attachment stuff with a big dose of trying to take care of my parents and resentment towards them (classically hypervigilant, caretaking, co-dependent… whatever)

    But I also know that I have been prone to entitlement, rage, addictive tendencies, and a kind of self obsessive preoccupation… I have vaccilated between trying to curb these (narcissistic?) tendencies and be more realistic and reasonable in my expectations and behaviour and productive (which has often resulted in confluence, compliance, selflessness and a low grade depression) and trying to claim myself and not end up in the clutches of inauthenticity, or worse submission to narcissistic or abusive behaviour that I habitually tend to become confluent with and then later enraged by.

    I have done a lot of therapy, in fact I would say that I was almost raised in therapy, my parents preferred to hand me over and didn’t know how to deal with my vulnerability, nor my rebellion (which was sporadically pretty rageful). None of my personal development has clarified this self doubt…. am I being narcissistic self entitled self indulgent etc or am I responding to violating/unattuned/narcissistic behaviour with good self protective instincts to protest/move away???? It drives me crazy because a lot of the time I genuinely do not know…..

    ‘They’ say that abused people abuse and that narcissists breed narcissists… I look at my (now elderly) parent and I wonder if I am now worse than they currently are? I see them (with all their blind spots and faults) humbled and genuinely trying, and I see myself often in conflict, feeling abused or unmet and expecting people (my parents or my lovers or friends) to show up and ‘be there’ for me in ways that may not (or may??? I have no idea) be realistic. I have no model for what is reasonable to expect. I have found that a therapeutic relationship is not a realistic model of expectation for lovers or friends (who are not therapists, or indeed perfect parents!) and I can get really unsafe and hostile if people are not empathic/attuned when I’m distressed, which seems like a lot to put on others. But sometimes I also feel I set the bar too low and don’t get the warning sign of ‘this person is not OK, not safe, doesn’t respect boundaries, could be narcissistic etc’.

    You get the picture? I am sure I am not unique in this dilemma and stage of learning, and I hope I am not rambling too much…

    1. Not rambling too much. I’m sure that your account will resonate with other site visitors. You have a lot of questions that, unfortunately, I’m unable to answer for you.

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