The Psychology Behind Mass Shootings

To understand mass shooters, we must search our own psyche.

To understand mass shooters, we must search our own psyche.

While some mass shooters are psychotic or schizophrenic, only about five percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness. The rate of mental illness is higher—an estimated 20 percent—among rampage or serial killers. Most of the mass murders didn’t qualify for any specific psychiatric disorder, according to strict criteria. These individuals—often working-class men who had been jilted, fired, and felt humiliated, or youths who felt rejected and despised—lived next door to neighbors who never imagined them capable of such crimes.

We would like to believe that the behavior of the shooters is foreign to human nature, not something intrinsic in our psyche. Or we say that a gun-worshipping culture is to blame. Yet might there be another factor, some common element at the heart of human nature, to account in part for these horrendous events?

We all have a dark side. Psychology, literature, and mythology have chronicled this aspect of our nature, yet still we flee from examining it. Carl Jung wrote in his 1957 classic, The Undiscovered Self, that a true understanding of the inner self recognizes the existence of good and evil within us. In his view, the unconscious was being ignored “out of downright resistance to the mere possibility of there being a second psychic authority besides the ego. It seems a positive menace to the ego that its monarchy can be doubted.” Jung also wrote that a lack of insight deprives us of the capacity to deal with evil. Underestimation of the psychological factor, he added, “is likely to take a bitter revenge.” [Read more...]

Our Messy Mix of Aggression and Passivity

We produce both reactive aggression and unhealthy passivity in our psyche.

We produce both reactive aggression and unhealthy passivity in our psyche.

Here we stand, aggressively destroying our planet while passively letting it happen. We simply don’t have a lot of insight into two primitive aspects of our mental and emotional functioning—aggression and passivity.

Certainly we need some amount of aggression—make that healthy aggression—in order to thrive and to secure our place in the world. An aggressive approach to work and sports, for instance, typically produces more pleasure and success than a passive approach.

Yet people are likely to produce reactive or unhealthy aggression such as anger, resentment, and cynicism as much as the healthy variety. Along with overflows of reactive aggression, we also exhibit overdoses of passivity. How else can we explain our tolerance of a growing surveillance state, our acceptance of an oppressive banking system, our weakness for mass marketing and propaganda, and our sedation by pharmaceuticals and an entertainment complex?

Our entanglement in reactive aggression—whether physical, verbal, or in our thoughts—arises out of our unconscious temptation to entertain emotionally the feeling of being powerless. We’re tempted to act belligerently (or cheer on those who do) because we’re determined to cover up a weakness that we’re reluctant to face, namely our emotional entanglement in fear, insecurity, passivity, and self-doubt.

For instance, the desire to possess assault weapons and large ammunition clips, as opposed to a hunting rifle, is all about seizing an opportunity, out of inner passivity, to experience spell-binding sensations of power. [Read more...]

Speeding Up Our Evolution

It's time to really know ourselves.

With the right knowledge, we can quickly become happier and more evolved. Our emotional and behavioral problems emerge from blind-spots in our psyche. As we uncover hidden knowledge, we can avoid a lot of suffering and self-defeat.

Overcoming emotional and behavioral problems is a learning process more so than a treatment process. When we upgrade our psyche’s operating system in this way, we strengthen our intelligence and powers of self-regulation.

My book, Why We Suffer: A Western Way to Understand and Let Go of Unhappiness, goes much deeper than other psychology books. It exposes the source of our troubles with such clarity that we can heal ourselves and each other through our own intelligence and good intentions. The book is available here as a PDF file and at Amazon as an e-book (where reviews and an excerpt can be read).

Some of the knowledge is shared freely in my many posts at this website. It’s also presented under various topics in my other books.

Why Our Emotional Suffering Persists

Key findings from psychoanalysis expose the sources of our suffering.

Were we born to suffer? William Wordsworth seemed to think so when he wrote: “Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark. And shares the nature of infinity.”

Indeed, ignorance in centuries past doomed many people to perpetual suffering. Much physical suffering has been alleviated by modern medicine, of course. But I’m not so sure that emotional suffering is on the wane. Fortunately, “obscure and dark” recesses of our psyche can be illuminated by flares of knowledge from psychology. However, due to our resistance to facing deeper truth, the best and brightest knowledge is not widely understood.

Key findings from classical psychoanalysis have exposed the sources of our suffering. The first principle of this knowledge recognizes that our chronic upset, nagging self-doubt, and persistent complaints are symptoms of unresolved negative emotions that we’re unwittingly generating from within us.

Growing awareness produces an understanding that a deep negativity—consisting of an assortment of unresolved emotions—lurks in our psyche. On the surface, we may be optimistic, clever, and skillful. But deep in our unconscious mind we harbor the unfinished business of humanity, namely our compulsion to keep diving back into unresolved negative emotions. [Read more...]

Easing Tension and Stress at Family Gatherings

Unresolved issues make it hard to fully enjoy family gatherings.

Lingering emotional wounds from our family of origin are like riptides in our psyche. At times, most of us in childhood experienced betrayal, rejection, and other painful hurts. As adults, many of us, swept along by emotional undercurrents, are unable to enjoy our time together at family gatherings. Here, for the approaching holidays, are some principles of depth psychology to help us foster good cheer.

We do want, of course, to feel affection and love for parents, brothers, sisters, and other relatives and in-laws. But time we spend with close or extended family can challenge us emotionally, producing shades of anxiety, shame, embarrassment, anger, and envy. Such gatherings bring to the surface any unresolved issues we have from childhood.

In the emotional world of our psyche, time and place are compressed. An old hurt we remember now as an adult on the West Coast can feel as fresh and sharp as when we first experienced it on the East Coast fifty years earlier. [Read more...]

Wallowing in the Lap of Bitterness

Bitterness feeds on the carcasses of festering memories.

Bitterness is rat poison we feed our memories. It’s the tedious self-torture of desolation row.

Bitterness cavorts with evil. It causes people to disown their children or to seek revenge, while it sends others off on maniacal shooting rampages. It shatters the political unity of great countries. And it ravishes joy with its lust for malice.

Bitterness is stupidly self-inflicted by people who refuse to be open to understanding, knowledge, and compassion. Even when bitter people manage to avoid doing evil to others, they do evil to themselves: They prefer to defile the carcasses of festering memories than to dance at the festival of life.

Our mind, when it lacks consciousness, can easily interpret old or new memories to conjure up negative emotions. Bitterness is produced when we indulge in these emotions until our splurge of intemperance scorches the soul. To make matters worse, we can hold on to those painful interpretations as if they were the family jewels. “That which is bitter to endure,” said historian Thomas Fuller, “may be sweet to remember.” [Read more...]