School Violence: A Therapist's Perspective

In the aftermath of the school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, our society will look for a target
to blame for causing the school violence which has been occurring across the country.
Undoubtedly, we will focus on the violence and anger in those who commit such acts. To study
only the anger, hatred or violence will be like looking at the tip of the iceberg. Looking beneath
the anger and hatred, we find a number of precursors to anger which are not as obvious as the
anger. All of us have been affected by what has been referred to as "low self-esteem." We have
seen the problem in those who have felt the stigma of mental illness and in others who simply feel
that they do not "fit in." Low self-esteem or a feeling of low self-worth may be referred to as a
feeling of "worthlessness" or "worth-less-ness." Some mental health professionals label it as a
"weak ego."

Whatever one chooses to call it, the fact is that the feeling of self-worth is the "stuff" that helps to
keep us on track when we face stress, losses, everyday failures or mistakes. If our self-worth is
intact our confidence will not be lost even when we fail. We will not become vulnerable to
situations that confront us. As our lives develop a faster pace, and demands placed on us become
more varied and numerous, we often attempt to find solutions which are usually temporary and
provide only partial relief. Some turn to addictive substances, medications, overeating or other
external "solutions." There are those who compulsively approach their responsibilities with a
demand for perfectionism and, hopefully, before it is too late, learn that no one is perfect. As we
look for external ways to hold our "selves" together or to improve our self-worth, we experience
the emotions associated with feeling worthless which are typically frustration, fear of rejection,
anxiety, shame and anger. If the anger is turned inward, we feel depressed. The anger may be
turned outward against others. The reason we recognize the anger toward others is because it is
shown to others in the form of behavior. Anger is seen as the "problem." The other emotions of
frustration, fear, anxiety or depression may go unnoticed because they are the "quiet" emotions.
This is why school principals, teachers, and parents may go for months or years without noticing a
"problem" until the anger emerges and shows its behaviors which are sometimes released in
violence. Then we ask, "Why?"

Even as the person with shame or fear prepares to release the anger, a sense of control and a false
sense of self-worth may be felt. The precursors to anger have made the person vulnerable to
negative influences, such as cults or antisocial or charismatic figures. After the anger is released,
there are always those who remember the violent person as nice, well-mannered, or, at the very
least, withdrawn or "off to himself." Feelings of worthlessness are often masked. The reason for
the mask or cover up is to prevent others from seeing the vulnerability or weakness in the self.
Who among us would admit to feeling worthless or weak when only the strong and worthy are
admired and recognized among our peers? Teenagers mask their feelings of worthlessness or
"worth-less-ness" by a making a change in appearance, striving to be accepted, or by withdrawing
to prevent rejection. The masks of worthlessness can vary from one age group to another. The
adult workaholic may see his or her self-worth as equal to job performance. The causes of
worthlessness are numerous, and not all people who are exposed to the same influences develop
the belief that they are worthless. Some may not be aware that they have the belief that they are
worthless and may suppress it.

The roots of the problem of anger and violence have always existed. Therapists find themselves
trying to prevent what comes after the anger and violence, such as posttraumatic stress disorder,
rather than prevention at the roots of the anger. Law enforcement officials say that most
precautions of anger and violence will not completely prevent it from occurring. The thoughts
which lie beneath the anger lead us to the core beliefs that "I m worthless" or "I don t fit in."
Before a person can walk the halls of a crowded school building without fear, anxiety or shame
s/he must have some feeling of self-worth. Prior to becoming violent, students may seem to walk
among other students without appearing to notice that anyone is around them. This detachment is
a defense against the possibility of being rejected. The feeling of self-worth can be rebuilt, but it
requires meaningful experiences, education and sometimes counseling, all of which are geared
toward the establishment of what is true about self-worth.

Self-worth is not determined by the number of friends we have, the brand of shoes we wear,
whether we are accepted or rejected, or determined by our successes or failures. Self-worth
remains constant regardless of what happens to us externally. Each person has the same self-
worth because we are human. A man hung on a cross 2000 years ago and accepted us
unconditionally. He was trying to tell us that human worth is not based on perfectionism or
because we belong to a certain clique. If we can establish our own self-acceptance, we will not
become vulnerable to the external influences which have always existed and always will.