Can “Mindfulness” Therapy End Violence?

First of all, wow. How refreshing to read these words from a fellow mental health professional — for once, not myself:

Violence is not a product of mental illness. Nor is violence generally the action of ordinary, stable individuals who suddenly “break” and commit crimes of passion. Violent crimes are committed by violent people, those who do not have the skills to manage their anger. Most homicides are committed by people with a history of violence. Murderers are rarely ordinary, law-abiding citizens, and they are also rarely mentally ill. Violence is a product of compromised anger management skills.

In a summary of studies on murder and prior record of violence, Don Kates and Gary Mauser found that 80 to 90 percent of murderers had prior police records, in contrast to 15 percent of American adults overall. In a study of domestic murderers, 46 percent of the perpetrators had had a restraining order against them at some time. Family murders are preceded by prior domestic violence more than 90 percent of the time. Violent crimes are committed by people who lack the skills to modulate anger, express it constructively, and move beyond it.  [Source Laura L. Hayes, Ph.D., a psychologist in Bethesda, MD 4/9/14]

The point? Criminal minds are not like other people’s minds. Murderers and killers don’t think like other people. Their behaviors are different, and their fundamental attitudes are different.

Naive and uninformed people hear of a brutal crime and think, “Nobody could be insane enough to do that. It must be something outside of their control.” Many psychiatrists and psychologists have been happy, especially when paid a high fee by defense attorneys, to claim that somebody was incapable of doing what they did. This feeds the myth. “The experts say it’s an illness. You see, nobody could be that evil by choice.”

The truth? There’s no such thing as a mostly reasonable person who loses his cool and all of a sudden becomes a violent serial killer or someone who opens fire in a public place. Criminal personalities are not made overnight, and they’re not made primarily (nor even partially) by external forces. They’re made by people who think a certain way. Criminals are people who feel that initiating violence solves problems. More than that, criminal minds are created by people who feel entitled to what they want, by any means necessary.

Most of the world’s irrationality and evil (even of a nonviolent nature) is created by people who believe they’re entitled to something they’re not. This false belief does not usually result in violence. When a belief in violence is paired with a belief that, “I’m entitled to what I want when I want it,” then you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

The most complex forms of criminality — and the most horrifying to hear about — are rapists and serial killers, as well as school shooters and other public terrorists. People who engage in such things aren’t necessarily after material gain; often they seek a twisted sense of power, albeit from a nihilistic point-of-view.

The same applies to organized gang or mafia violence, or even entire governments such as Nazi or Communist states. When people who feel entitled to what they want gain real power, then watch out. When such people get hold of the reins of organized or government power, it’s the same mentality as a criminal only applied on a wider and ultimately more dangerous scale.

Dr. Hayes proposes a solution to out-of-control anger. She writes,

Mindfulness training is a technique that shows great promise as a tool for the development of healthy and constructive management of negative emotions. Mindfulness can reduce anxiety, depression, and stress. It has been used with success in populations as diverse as cardiac patients, prison inmates, police officers, and children. It incorporates deep breathing, heightened attention to one’s internal state, and the acceptance of internal discomfort. One can observe one’s own thoughts without identifying with them and acting on them.

“Mindfulness” is all the rage in psychological thinking these days. All it really means is introspection (see my book Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference) for details). In her definition above, Dr. Hayes is talking about monitoring one’s internal states, both for physical indicators and (presumably) for emotional or cognitive ones as well.

I definitely vote for this as a beginning step in alleviating one’s troubling emotions. Emotions get out of control, in the first place, because people fail to pay attention to their inner states and as a result become run by them. People who have not trained themselves to introspect will never be able to manage their emotions, including angry emotions, successfully.

At the same time, we have to go deeper. It’s not just the fact that you’re feeling certain things, or breathing a certain way, that gives rise to emotions. It’s the mental content of those feelings — i.e., the underlying ideas giving rise to the feelings — that’s driving them.

Awareness alone won’t help you control your emotions. A violent person will simply say, “So my breathing is heavy. Who cares? I’m going after what I want!” It’s the inner conviction and belief, for example, that one is entitled to things one is not objectively entitled to that has to be challenged and rejected.

Of course, a true criminal mindset will never do this. But for the rest of us, who might be struggling with emotions whose content we don’t like or agree with, mindfulness is a good first step — though only a first step — towards having a state of psychological serenity, where intellect and emotions exist in relative harmony and integration.

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