As a citizen of the planet earth, I find myself feeling sad about the current violence in the world. War, disease, poverty, homophobia, racism, discrimination, global warming, mistreatment of the planet, child abuse, etc., are all very sad examples of how human beings relate to each other and to the planet. This hateful mistreatment of one another needs to be understood from a psychological perspective.
Most political analysis of the current world situation lacks a psychological understanding of the individuals who create and implement hateful policies. Furthermore, people who rally behind these leaders and support their hateful policies should be understood from a psychological perspective.
Where do dictators and their followers come from? They are certainly not born that way nor did they invent cruelty and crime. Dictators are individuals who were tormented as children and were never given the opportunity to experience their authentic feelings including their shame, hatred, and rage regarding their torments. As adults, they generally idealize their abusive childhood and believe it was done for “their own good.” However, not everyone who was abused as a child will become a criminal. According to Alice Miller, the world-famous Swiss psychoanalyst,
“Every criminal was once a victim, but not every victim necessarily becomes a criminal. It depends on whether an informed witness can help the victim to become aware of the cruelty experienced, that is, to feel and see the cruelty inflicted on him. Every adult criminal lacked this witness in his childhood; otherwise he would not have become a criminal. But it is never too late for this witness to appear. Every crime is also a cry for help….They can change only if they sense, not merely intellectually, but with their feelings, how they have been turned into evil people.”
I believe feelings do not kill, action does. In particular, giving permission to feel one's feelings consciously is different from acting them out. When a child (child here refers to both male or female) is exposed to cruelty and mistreatment, generally there is no one around to tell him what's being done to him is wrong, and he is entitled to hate his abusers. With this understanding and empathy, the child would be less likely to torment others.
In her book, Banished Knowledge, Alice Miller stated, “Many people still have no idea that they are placing dynamite in our world when they abuse their children.” As stated previously, people who were mistreated as a child can mistreat themselves and/or others unless they had an “enlightened witness” in their life who helped them to condemned the abuse. Adults who defend their abusive parents are at greater risk of being harm to themselves or others.
For example, in every dictator's childhood one can find tales of abuse and torment. Only if Hitler had someone in his childhood defend him from being tormented by his father and condemn the abuse, then history would have turned out differently. I am not excusing Hitler's behaviors or any dictator's actions. I am making simple but radical points regarding the root of today's world problems, i.e., the world's violence stems from mistreatment of children.
The road to peace starts with protecting children from cruelty. Individuals who were violated as children and never dealt with their abusive past are more likely to support sadistic leaders who are like their own abusive parents. Parents need to be mentally fit before bringing children to this world. Political actions and leadership that have been performed by individuals who lack psychological understanding of themselves have contributed to the current dysfunction of the world. Every adult has had a childhood. Childhood experiences impact on how individuals treat himself or others unless he works on changing that.
I was once asked by a concerned parent on the best way to raise his child. Since humans are more likely to repeat what is familiar I encouraged him to examine his own childhood and avoid recreating some of the negative events that took place in his own childhood. In order to identify negative childhood events, he needed an empathic listener to help him identify those traumas. Psychotherapy can be one of the safe places to explore one's painful childhood dynamics and heal. I believe this healing is a form of activism because it can contribute to world peace.
We live in an imperfect world. Every adult must have encountered a negative event in his childhood. Even the best mother cannot satisfy all her child's wishes and needs. A child must be given permission by his parents to articulate whatever it is that causes him distress, express feelings about it, and receive empathy. This way the event won't become emotional baggage later in his life.
We need to become honest with ourselves and discover where our caretakers failed us. Sometimes it is not about what they did, but more about discovering what they did not do. Working on childhood issues has less to do with blaming and more to do with taking responsibility for our healing.
Every individual has an ethical responsibility to look deep within himself and become more conscious of how his past is affecting his relationship with himself and others. The inner journey of discovering the truth about our childhood and avoid recreating them in our current relationship to the world is a form of psychological activism that could protect the world from further violence.
© This article is copyrighted by Dr. Payam Ghassemlou, a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California.
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