The events and dialogue surrounding this month’s march by white supremacists, KKK, skin heads and neo Nazi’s in Charlottesville have left many of us shocked by the display of such blind hatred and aggression towards whole populations of people. Even for those who feel very aware of both systemic and personal racism in this country, to watch so many white men marching, with riot gear, spewing such raw murderous rage, was debilitating.
As a clinician, I am intimately familiar with dark emotions. Feelings of hate, aggression, and even murderousness are normative with the every-day-psychotherapy client. While people are eager to deny hate inside themselves, just as many argue there is no race hate in America, hate is inherent in the human condition.
Hate and rage start with life itself. Infants frequently come out of women’s bodies screaming. Take that in a minute. Upon exiting the body, and entering the environment outside of the womb, many infants scream. With a scrunched up face, tightly balled fists, they wail. And not for the last time. For days, and weeks and months they will scream in fear, rage, and uncertainly, filled with what analyst/theorist Wilfred Bion calls a “nameless dread”. They will scream until their caretakers are absolutely beside themselves with feelings of ineptitude, bewilderment, loss of control, and ultimately their own rage at the screaming infant and the desperation of the moment.
If they have good enough care-takers, who have successfully learned how to manage their own feelings of loss of control, fear, and anger, those parents will help soothe and contain the infant’s “nameless dread”, at least most of the time. They will rock them and soothe them and whisper and sing until they calm their infant. The experiences of being successfully soothed, over time, help the infant come to experience these feelings as less frightening and panic-worthy, in large part because they learn they are temporary.
In toddlerhood when both we and our children have increased means of communication, the screaming continues. Sometimes in response to “weaning” of breasts, bottles, co-sleeping, or expectations of potty-training, sometimes in response to our limit setting, and sometimes in response to who knows what. One of my favorite blogs turned books is Why My Kid is Crying which chronicles the absurdity of kids hateful railing.
In toddlerhood we not only see rage, but overt violence. Kids hit, kick, bite, throw and scream to get what they want, keep what is theirs, and express frustration and displeasure. This is a difficult time for parents, especially if they haven’t learned how to manage their own aggression and anger. If parents are able to handle this well enough, they begin to help their kids learn ways to express and vent their anger without hurting others. I remember teaching my 2-year-old boy how to growl and stomp when he was angry, as opposed to kick me. It was important to me that he not have to silence or repress his anger, but also not to hurt me or others in his efforts to discharge and /or communicate his feelings.
Day-care centers and pre-schools are also helping to socialize our toddlers and young children. They reward them for good behavior, and sometime punish them with timeouts for not obeying. Caretakers at home and out in their world, cartoons and books are teaching them about empathy, lending a helping hand and acts of kindness, in addition to lessons directly about managing and expressing anger.
School age children are navigating more than just anger. They are managing the social world which includes feelings of embarrassment and humiliation. They are subject to teasing, and public failures and inadequacies. It requires a fair amount of ego strength to manage what feels like attacks on the ego without attacking others. The development of a healthy ego requires caregivers capable of helping children gain experiences of success and achievement, positive feedback about their accomplishments, and an experience of being loved and valued. These build an internal core strength that they can turn to when they feel insecure, embarrassed or judged.
Adolescent and teen years are an often painful continuation of the tasks of school age children. Eruptions of rage happen between peers in physical fights and tantrums occur in early romantic relationships. While engaged in the complex work of trying to develop a self-identity, they must learn how to control and manage rapidly fluctuating feelings, confusing threats to the ego posed by budding sexual desire, and efforts to establish a peer group that reflects their developing identities.
We have an entire juvenile justice system to reflect how insufficiently many young people have learned how to manage their anger, with kids literally killing each other over slights to the ego and threats to one’s image.
What if your childhood sucks?
Ok, let’s stop now and reflect a bit on what happens to kids who do not have access to sufficiently loving care-takers. Even without imagining the trauma of kids who are physically and/or sexual abused during these years, or subjected to extreme negligence, or relentlessly shaming parents or other primary adults. Even without imagining the impact of extreme poverty, which reflects shame and humiliation by comparison, and even on its own, confuses a child’s self-worth if they are not protected from hunger and adequate shelter, and grow up in run down dilapidated surroundings.
Even without these extreme hardships, what about the mother who is too overwhelmed or anxious or depressed or consumed with her own trauma to contain her infant’s angst? What about the father who experiences his toddler’s normal expression of anger and aggression as disobedience and insolence responding by dominating his toddler into frightened repression? What about the parent who was brutalized in their own childhood and manages not to beat their own child, but shames the child’s feelings of embarrassment telling them to toughen up by either repressing their feelings or expressing them ragefully instead of tearfully? And even parents who find a way to lovingly guide their children the first 12 years, can easily find themselves overwhelmed and inadequately prepared for the tumultuousness of adolescent and teen years.
Home is the “society” that educates our children. But the surrounding community, of extended family, neighbors, an area a kid grows up in, their day care centers, schools, religious organizations, community centers, sporting activities and the like, are in a position to magnify or diminish the lessons taught in the family, for better or worse. What do we expect happens to a community who has been hit hard with losses, economic or otherwise? What do we imagine a community that has suffered its own demoralization can offer up as a mirror to its growing youth?
There is no excuse for Racism, but there are reasons.
There is no excuse for the kind of hate, threats and glorification of violence we saw in Charlottesville. It is unacceptable and should not be tolerated in civil society. But as I looked at the faces of those (mostly) men, I saw their adolescent selves who were already bullies or being bullied. And I saw their 9-year-old selves, who hid their tears because anger was the allowed emotion for men in their family systems, not sadness or fear. And I saw their toddler selves, trying to navigate a family life that couldn’t reflect goodness and containment back at them. And I saw their infant selves, who when they cried out in need, found out they could not count on the world, because family is the world at infancy, to give them enough of what they need.
I am not excusing these men’s violence, or suggesting that they had it worse than others. Many folks have had a rough go of it, in childhood and otherwise. Some kids had enough in childhood but were born with constitutional issues that pre-disposed them to high levels of greed, or reactivity, or other personality traits that are dealt out randomly at birth. Some kids didn’t get enough in childhood but were born with more internal resources to rise above.
What I am saying is that they arrived at their beliefs and stances honestly. They came into the world with hate and did not have relationships that civilized them. Any parent knows well that kids don’t come into the world filled solely with kindness, love, generosity, empathy and the such. They are little beasts who try our resilience and patience beyond our capacities and who we must help manage their hate and selfishness to help socialize them. These are kids that never got civilized.
Empathy is the Weapon
We can wait till these white supremacists’ die off, as every generation produces fewer of them as the human condition advances. But if we want to silence these men, it won’t be with aggression. It will be to understand they are suffering. It is empathy that must be our weapon. Not just empathetic understanding of the economic and community decline issues that many of us have been discussing these past couple years as these racists and Nazi’s have come crawling out of the woodwork. Empathy about how they came to be who they are. These are people who haven’t experienced enough goodness in their lives, and have filled their emptiness with hate.
I have no great love for the men and women who embrace hatred of others to manage their own internal suffering and confusion. At least not when I see them on TV or at a protest or rally. But as a clinician, sometimes I see a less radical version of them in my psychotherapy office. And in the consulting room, judgement is held at bay so that curiosity can take center stage for both clinician and client.
Over the years I have had many clients who seek therapy with me, for a range of issues, whose overt racism surfaces in early session. It is rarely the work they have come to do in therapy, but ultimately must be explored, as it contains the clues/keys to their suffering. People hate in others what they hate in themselves. They project qualities they fear and revile in themselves onto entire groups of people.
They develop elaborate characterizations of groups of people that contained such feared qualities of the self that they split them off and are unable to identify them in themselves any longer. They will rail against “lazy people who live off welfare” to manage their own shame about subsidies they likely receive, like WIC or food stamps, or larger subsidies like massive financial support from parents that they want to discount as support.
The clinical work with racist clients is much like all the work we do with clients. It is about discovering, owning and reclaiming parts of self. As in the example above, a client who is able to own that they received help in their lives, from the government or a parent, and able to own its impact of them, be it enabling or helping them get a leg up, could come to terms with it, free themselves of shame about, identify their gratitude associated with it, and thereby not need to begrudge it for others.
Reclaiming split off pats of self is requires significant grieving. Each emotion we disowned, projected outward, was pushed out of us for a reason, and re-owning brings us in touch with all the original suffering it held.
I considered posting this in another blog I write, which is for clinicians interested in deepening their work through the use of analytic concepts. I decided to post it here instead because I think all of us who are interested in decrease hate, aggression and racism in the world need to find a way to embrace a difficult truth: the path is love, understanding, compassion.
See the words of Westboro Baptist Church family and former church member Megan Phelps-Roper about what helped her leave the church and former Neo Nazi Christian Picciolini about his exit from leadership of white supremacists groups. Each tell the story of how empathy from people they least deserved it from opened the door for them to leave hate groups.
I am not suggesting this is an easy solution. Nor that it is a good deed we would excitedly take on. But of course we can not fight hate with hate. Even as we stand across from the on what feels like battlefields of protest, we will not reach them screaming and demonstrating our hate. We might reach them singing songs and chants of love.
Smith is and analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additional the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
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