Every day, the news brings us face to face with how violence breeds violence. Time and again, people who feel victimized make others their victims. Often, when these victims hurt others, they justify their attacks in terms of how they were injured in the first place.
George came home after a rough day at work. In a meeting with all his co-workers, his boss reprimanded George for not checking with him before scheduling the meeting. During the family dinner that night, George yelled at his son Rob for not checking with him about going out after dinner.
These circumstances reveal an important psychological process at work. It works something like this: When someone hurts and attacks us, usually someone who has power over us, we feel threatened and angry, but also helpless to do much about it. Since when this happens the feelings are also very uncomfortable, we find ways to feel less uncomfortable.
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One way is to take on the role of the powerful, making someone less powerful feel as bad, or worse, than we do. Often, we are not fully aware we are making someone feel bad like we do. Instead, we feel that our attack is justified.
A paper from some time ago gives a concise illustration of this psychological process, identifying with the one who hurts us: A young girl with an even younger brother who was very afraid of dogs told him: “You be doggy and no dog will bite you.” As long as the boy felt like he was a big strong dog, he felt protected from being hurt by any dog. His sister gave him a powerful tool to stave off his fears and anxiety. In this case, the power in identifying as a big, strong dog gives the boy control over his fears.
However, for us as adults, identifying with and actually becoming an aggressor when we feel attacked is a damaging, even dangerous way to deal with psychological pain. When someone, whether it is a family member, boss or other nation-state aggresses against us, it is important to recognize that feeling attacked can fuel our impulse to pass the pain on. Being aware of this helps us understand others and gives us alternatives to spreading the hostility further.
Some time after dinner, it dawned on George that the anger and humiliation he felt when his boss criticized him in front of his colleagues was similar to what happened with his son during dinner. George grasped that Rob probably felt much like George had felt after his boss’s public scolding. George had passed on his anger and humiliation to Rob by too angrily reprimanding his son at dinner. Later, George stopped by Rob’s room, apologized, and explained he needn’t have gotten as angry as he did with Rob.
Recognizing and identifying our feelings when we feel attacked, as George did, allows us to take a step back and not hurt others as we have been hurt, or at least can reduce the damage done. Moreover, when we realize that the other is not merely an aggressor, but is someone who also has suffered, we become more civilized and compassionate because we extend our understanding even to those most challenging for us to understand.
Tony Hacker, Ph.D. is a Seattle area psychologist who sees individuals and couples in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.