In the wake of the horrific tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, tighter gun control policies have been the primary topic on the airways, with little discussion on mental health issues of the gunman. Our nation is still in a state of shock and disbelief as we grieve from afar with the families and community of these young victims, perhaps preventing the conversation from focusing on the motives of a very deranged individual.
At this point, there is speculation of an Asperger’s diagnosis for the gunman, and reports that he was a quiet and socially awkward young man. Assuming this is a correct diagnosis, it is important to stretch one’s thinking beyond the diagnosis and consider the social dynamics a person with Asperger’s often encounters in their life. As an art therapist working in the trenches of the mental health field, bullying and victimization still is a topic driving kids to commit acts of violence on themselves and others. Sadly, the bullies and victims suffer equal kinds of pain. My guess is that at some point, the topic of bullying might surface relating to the tragedy in Sandy Hook. This post will explore our own connection to bullying and victimization.
Most likely everyone has encountered some type of bullying or victimization in their lives, either at school, within the family, or even in the work place. There are multitudes of books written on this topic, but today we will explore empathy. Can you think of a time you were a bully or a victim? Please spend a few minutes writing or drawing about it. What happened? How did it make you feel? Was it pervasive enough to shape your personality? How did you react to your situation?
If you were the victim, and now have some distance from your bullying experience, can you identify what might have led the bully to behave in the way they did? Were they bullied themselves? Did they have something painful happening in their home life? Most bullies are usually being bullied themselves, and when they finally arrive in a mental health setting and have the layers of emotions peeled back, sadness and pain are often at the root of their actions. Did you repeat the behavior of becoming a victim again in another setting? Bullies are very good at finding a vulnerable person to be their victim. If you were conditioned to be the victim at an early age you might have replicated this behavior over and over in your life. Admitting to this pattern can be the beginning of this journey towards healing. Finding empathy for a bully/abuser can empower a victim into becoming a survivor.
If you were a bully, can you identify what led you to victimize people? Were you bullied? Can you identify feelings from being bullied yourself? Did you feel empowered when you bullied others? Were sadness and pain at the root of the cause of your bullying behavior? Can you ask for forgiveness to the people you bullied if you still have contact with them?
Sadly, these early experiences, often shape who we become. Carrying the pain around can be debilitating, and is often the root of so much anguish. The question to ask yourself is, are you controlling your emotions or are they controlling you?
Relating this back to the Sandy Hook tragedy, there seems to be much talk about what we can do in our own communities. The common thread running through all of the past tragedies involving innocent lives lost to random acts of violence is the lack of love, respect and attention these gunmen were getting from people in their peer groups. Can you look around your current environment and befriend a person who looks isolated or lonely? This random act of kindness can make all the difference to creating more compassionate communities.