EDITOR: School and workplace shootings, adolescent abuse of prescription pills, overcrowded prisons, post-traumatic stress disorder in returning soldiers, adolescent and young adult suicides, marital discord, gang violence, dependence on medications, including alcohol and marijuana, and various addictive behaviors — the list of individual and social ills are thriving.
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As can be seen in our societal response to the Connecticut shootings, we are passionate about wanting to find solutions. But we are failing to look at the bigger picture of what is really at the core of all of these traumatic events and behaviors: our inability to work through personal distress.
Instead working with the “distress,” we are given strategies to “cope” — through distraction, avoidance, medications, or other habitual and sometimes tragic behavior. When we don’t appropriately work with emotional distress and related behavioral problems at the onset, we, and those around us, can spiral into multiple layers of problematic behaviors that then lead to more emotional distress and unthinkable outcomes. As community leaders, we need to share and understand this basic concept, and then guide others toward a lasting solution.
Being able to work through personal distress means that we need the psychological skills to understand and work with the core emotions of fear, sadness, disappointment, hurt, anxiety and frustration. Society’s current view of these emotions is that they are negative and “distressful.” However, each of these emotions has a special purpose toward achieving our “psychological” needs by guiding personal choice.
To reduce emotional distress, we need to work with these emotions, instead of just “coping” with them. Physical pain is a useful analogy: We need physical pain to physically survive and to help guide our decisions to reduce future physical pain. For example, putting one’s hand on a hot stove — we pull our hand off when we feel the pain and we avoid touching hot stoves in the future. Imagine the absurdity if we were to just “cope” with routine physical pain. With physical pain, after noticing the pain we then evaluate the source of the pain. Similarly with emotional pain. The above emotions are there to guide our decision-making. Their purpose is to get us to pay attention, such that we can then consciously explore the underlying beliefs that are being used in our daily decisions with the goal of greater life fulfillment. Yet we as individuals and societies don’t understand and don’t know how to work with these emotions. This lack of understanding includes the psychological community, religious groups, educators, government entities, and other community leaders.
A parallel task is to understand and learn the skill of exploring the motivations and beliefs behind our behaviors. Every day we perform hundreds of behaviors, from the routine to the more passionate and perhaps problematic. Most often our behaviors are unconscious, habitual responses to events that aren’t consistent with what we want or what we believe should be. These habitual responses can frequently lead to further internal distress and/or trigger distress in others. We can easily see the damaging consequences with affairs, neglect, addictions, anger, violence, suicides, etc.
These actions are based on internal beliefs that justify the decisions, whether or not the behaviors are really in ours/others’ best interest. To change the behavior, we need to change our internal beliefs that support that behavior. We have this extraordinary gift of mental reflection — that is there to be used. We need to challenge some of our closely held beliefs, based on a consciously informed dialog rather than maintaining the habitual comfort. We need to practice exploring the motivations and beliefs behind routine behaviors, such that we have developed the skills needed to effectively respond when we see ourselves or others behaving in a more problematic manner.
The solutions to these traumatic outcomes are not going to be realized by just working harder or being more passionate in order to do more of what we have done in the past. To get there, we need to initiate an open dialog about the purpose of emotions and how to work with them so we can learn and teach others to identify and work effectively with emotional “distress.” We also need to develop the practice of exploring our motivations and beliefs behind our habitual behaviors such that we can more effectively respond to problematic behaviors. This discussion needs to happen through and with the psychological community, teachers, spiritual and community leaders, and government agencies to allow a complete exchange of ideas about the emotions and behaviors, toward the goal of lasting solutions to traumatic events.
JEFFREY PHIPPS, Psy.D
El Dorado Hills