Integrative Psychotherapy Articles
A Solution to Violence?
Richard G. Erskine, Ph.D.
article is an excerpt of the Closing Keynote speech on Sunday, July 7, 2002
at the World TA Congress 2002. The theme of the conference was "Violence:
Let's Talk" .
See also: Author's Postscript...
The Transactional Analysis theory of motivation emphasizes the dynamic interplay of stimulus, structure and relationship hungers. Bonding, attachment and connecting are all aspects of these biological imperatives for relationship. As such, relational needs are the components of bonding and relationship that are present throughout our lives. When these relational needs are sufficiently satisfied, the result is a sense of well being in the relationship. When relational needs are not satisfied, the need becomes more intense and it is phenomenologically experienced as longing, emptiness, a nagging loneliness or an intense urge often accompanied by nervousness. The absence of satisfaction of relational needs may be manifested as frustration, anger or aggression. When relational needs are repeatedly not satisfied over a long period of time, one of the results is violence. Another is depression.
Stanley was referred by another patient as “depressed and weird.” Stanley arrived for his sessions slovenly dressed in all black clothing with his belly protruding and shoulders drooped. He looked quite depressed. He described himself as a 25-year old photographer whose “photos don’t sell”. In the early sessions, it became clear that his script beliefs were “I am a failure” and “I don’t belong”. As I investigated his feelings about these beliefs, there were no emotions. He did, however, talked about various incidences of not belonging and of being a failure. To emphasize what a failure he was, he would bring to the session his black and while abstract photographs, all of which were depressing images of destruction and mayhem.
He talked about how no one was interested in his photography. He claimed to have no feelings associated with the photographs or people’s lack of interest in his work. Eventually as we talked about the photographs, he made passing reference to some of the photographs representing mass killing. On one occasion, he talked about his plan to buy another gun and his desire for revenge. However, the more I would inquire about his wish to destroy, revenge, killing or guns, the more distant he would become in the therapy. It seemed as though he wanted me to only listen as he chose when and how to tell me his stories. Over the next several months each of his stories ended with the script belief, “something’s wrong with me”. As we investigated the significance of this belief, he had a number of childhood memories about how he was often used by and picked upon by his peers. Although he was a large boy, he always thought of himself as “the weakling” with “no friends”. The other kids called him strange, ugly and helpless. He was often hit by groups of even smaller boys who took delight in punching him because he was “so fat”.
He found no solace or comfort in his relationship with his mother who he described as controlling, pushy and over-parenting. She would often lie to her friends about Stanley and tell them about his great school and athletic accomplishments. In actuality, Stanley failed at all sports activities and barely passed school exams even with the extensive help of tutors. He always felt that he could not live up to his mother’s expectations of greatness. Hence, by comparing his failures with his mother’s expectations, he formed the script belief “something’s wrong with me” and “I am a failure.” His script belief, “I don’t belong” was continually supported by memories of both his father’s ignoring him and the behavior of several other children, particularly during adolescence.
Except for the fact that he looked like his father he often thought that he wasn’t his father’s child. His father was successful, athletic, outgoing, accomplished and on the surface had many acquaintances. Stanley remembers lying in bed waiting for father to come home to acknowledge him, to reach out and touch him, to sit and talk with him. Father usually was preoccupied with his own interest. Stanley remembered that on some occasions, his father had actually told him that he looked or acted weird. These events were continually used by Stanley as a reinforcing memory that maintained the shame-based belief “something’s wrong with me”.
As we explored Stanley’s profound sense of shame, he remembered how he would often escape to the woods when humiliated by the family or by the other kids. He would get relief by taking big sticks and smashing them against the trees. Through transactional analysis therapy that emphasized an empathetic inquiry, he vividly remembered a long, forgotten experience. At age 13, his mother had thrown a large swimming party for him and invited all his school and neighborhood acquaintances. Stanley described how “at the party all of the kids ganged up on me and teased me”. “They laughed at me when I cried.” Stanley fled his own party, went to the woods and imagined smashing all the kids as he banged sticks against the trees. In this therapy session, Stanley wept for the first time in 13 years.
As the therapy progressed into the second year, Stanley’s distress became much more apparent. He told several stories about how people were unreliable, dishonest or selfish. The script beliefs that he formed from these experiences were “all people have an angle” and “all people are hiding something”. As we explore the memories related to these beliefs, he talked about his father’s many sexual affairs and his parents’ public pretense of a good marriage. Throughout this period, he repeatedly accused me of hiding something or having a “false angle”. He also talked about his own hiding “things” from me. I told him that I thought that his telling me that he was hiding something from me was an important confession, and that he needed to have his own timeframe and personal readiness before he could tell me the details. Following this, he asked for three sessions a week instead of his usual one. Because of my time schedule, I was able to give him only two sessions per week.
What emerged during our twice-weekly sessions was Stanley’s combination of both distrusting and idealizing me. He was worried about the idealization and brought in many examples about how politicians, church leaders and important people in the community were often hiding something and were dishonest. It became clear in listening to these stories that he needed someone who was consistent and dependable on whom he could rely for security while telling his secrets.
As the second year continued, he described his violent fantasies in more detail. Very slowly at first, he eluded to his images of mass killing, of taking powerful weapons and shooting large numbers of people. In the fantasies, he was strong, brave, powerful and valued. In real life, he felt weak, foolish, powerless and a piece of trash. The fantasies provided a very different self-definition. We often worked with the contrast between his sense of shame and his sense of power and omnipotence in his fantasies. With this, he began to talk about how he was worried, that he was like the kids who have done the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado. He began to reveal the extent of these murderous fantasies – their frequency and intensity.
My accepting attitude about Stanley’s fantasies encouraged his detailed elaboration and allowed us to look at the psychological functions of the fantasies. We examined his self-definitions and how his identity in fantasy was in such contrast to his identity in relationships with people. Each fantasy also provided predictability; he would encounter a group that had hurt someone or humiliated someone. He would have the group of followers behind him. He would kill those who had done the humiliation or harm. People would be proud of him and declare him a hero.
These fantasies expressed the power that he longed for and imagined as a child when he went into the woods to smash sticks against trees. By continually fantasizing, he didn’t feel the humiliation and loss of relationship that he suffered in his childhood; he was powerful rather than shamefully powerless. In the process of telling me the fantasies and my reciprocal attunement to both his affect and level of development, the function of the fantasies began to shift. Our therapeutic relationship rather than the fantasies provided the arena for the expression of his psychological functions. With me, he could define himself. I provided both continuity and stability through my accepting attitude towards him. His identity began to change as he felt more and more okay in my presence and, because of the consistency of our meeting and sometime frequent phone calls, he would predict my responses when he would get worried about his violent fantasies. He found comfort in my attitudes towards him and in remembering my words.
Much of the therapeutic work in that year centered on the elaboration of his fantasies and his relational need to make an impact and to define himself. In his fantasies he was a hero with a group of followers. He would take guns and lead a group of men to attack those who created some injustice; after a lot of killing people would know that he was powerful. He would avenge the oppressed and be a hero. In each fantasy he made an impact. Often I did not make comments on the content of the fantasy but rather focused on the relational needs expressed in the fantasies. Through these fantasies Stanley was trying to define himself and to make an impact on others. Gradually Stanley had fewer and fewer violent fantasies.
Following the long summer recess, the beginning of our third year of therapy was marked by Stanley having a return of violent fantasies particularly when on his way to therapy sessions or on the weekends when I was away. As we again talked about his unique relational needs imbedded in each of the violent fantasies, his anger with me kept emerging. He was furious with me because I saw him only twice a week, because I had gone away for the summer, because I had defined him and ignored him, and because I had not confiscated his guns. In his anger at me, he wanted to move me, to shake me up, to get me to feel what his father never felt: compassion, protection, and companionship. Eventually, he said “I want you to see the world through my eyes”.
In this third year, by focusing the psychotherapy on the analysis of the transference, I was finally able to reach a much younger Child ego state in Stanley – a child who was humiliated by his peers, and who felt neglected and betrayed by the lack of protection from each of his parents. Stanley was a child who was defined as strange and different. I saw Stanley as a child and a man who needed security and validation for his internal process, to define himself, and make an impact in his relationships. The therapy provided the validation of the psychological function of the fantasies and a respect for Stanley’s need to be in the presence of someone who is secure, dependable, consistent and reliable.
Stanley has now sold all of his guns! He has gotten a new job working in the film industry in a very unique capacity. He is excited about his accomplishments. He reports having no violent fantasies but he is fantasizing and actualizing his desire for relationships and meaningful work. For the first time in his life he has a close woman friend. Through a contactful therapeutic relationship that focused on relational needs and the psychological function of fantasy Stanley has changed his life. Stanley has achieved an adult life complete with self-definition, impact and intimacy. Has the therapeutic bonding, attachment and relationship provided a solution to violence?
See also: Author's Postscript...
Orginally published in the Transactional Analysis Journal Vol. 32, No. 4, October 2002, pages 256 - 260.