Two days ago, a disgruntled former employee of a television station came upon a field reporter and her cameraman and shot them both dead before eventually taking his own life. These kinds of things seem to be happening more and more often. And when they do folks tend to blame all kinds of things from the ready availability of firearms to the prevalence of untreated mental illness. But the fact is that because of certain sociocultural factors that have been tearing away at character-fostering institutions for decades there are far too many character-impaired individuals among us who are all-too-ready to blame everyone else in the world for their own failures in life.
Time was when mental health professionals almost universally accepted and promoted the notion that folks who externalize blame were unconsciously using the “defense mechanism” called projection to alleviate anxiety, shame, and guilt by attributing to others attitudes, beliefs, actions, etc. that they found too unconscionable to admit were actually present in themselves. But that notion implies a person has the level of conscience to actually experience unbearable levels of shame, guilt, etc.. And time and experience has taught me that the greater reason folks find fault everywhere else is that they simply don’t want to bear the burden of reckoning with and correcting their own shortcomings.
In my book Character Disturbance, I point out that one of the main “thinking errors” to which disturbed characters are prone is what I call “quick and easy thinking” (for more on this topic see the article: Quick and Easy Thinking). Like all of us, they want the precious things in life, but unlike most of us, they’re not willing to put out the effort to truly earn them. In their attitudes of entitlement, they feel they are “owed” something, and when they’re denied, they feel cheated. And when things go wrong in life because of their disordered ways of doing things, they’re supposed to experience discomfort. That’s the way nature has fashioned things. But what folks do to end their misery makes all the difference in the world. Folks who’ve failed and want a sense of power, control, and success back in their life always have two options: blame everyone else for what’s gone wrong and vent rage on them or take stock of themselves and begin the arduous and often lengthy task of self-correction and improvement. Which do you think is easier?
In the case of the disgruntled former TV station employee, he’d been cautioned several times about his “difficult to get along with” manner, and his unmodulated displays of anger and aggression. And he’d been cautioned about this not just at the station he’d been let go from two years ago and still carried a grudge against but also from another station prior to that. That time, he blamed his difficulties on discrimination and filed a lawsuit. When it comes to disturbed characters, it’s always someone else’s fault. It’s far easier to blame than it is to accept responsibility. Changing one’s attitudes, one’s ways of thinking, and especially one’s ways of doing things is really difficult, especially as we get older. Pointing one’s finger takes almost no energy at all.
The old notion about why folks commit murder-suicide is that they’re so deep into anger-laden depression that they no longer value life. But after scrutinizing many of these cases very closely, another pattern emerges: a disturbed character’s last-ditch attempt to cheaply and quickly restore a sense of power. And so it was with the gunman two days ago, who apparently boasted of the power he’d finally wielded over his supposed victimizers and only took his life when his planned getaway ran into problems. Disturbed characters never let “them” (i.e. anyone who might exert power over them) get the upper hand, and they will never willingly accept the consequences of their actions. As far as they’re concerned, they write the story and determine the end of the story, period. They’d rather die than admit their culpability or subordinate themselves. So, if they know they’re going down, many times they become determined not to go down alone (for more on the topic of murder-suicide, see the article: A Different Perspective on Murder-Suicide).
The tragedy we witnessed two days ago is an old, old story becoming far too commonplace in our character-deficient age. We live in a complicated, demanding world and there are too many among us who never developed the character resources to deal adaptively with life’s challenges – especially failure – and to profit from their experiences, including their disappointments. It’s far too easy to just point a finger. And sadly, for too many, it’s easier still to place that same finger on a trigger and shoot. We can pass all the laws we want to but it won’t stop the madness. We have to face the character issue head-on and insist that those whose character is so disturbed that they’re dangerous receive the interventions they truly need. And we have to address the sociocultural factors responsible for “enabling,” promoting, and even rewarding so much character disturbance.
Character Matters won’t be a live broadcast this Sunday. Instead, you’ll hear a previously recorded program. But I should be back live Sept 6 and will be happy to take your calls.