First off, please excuse me for the dramatic title. This article is inspired by an article written by my good friend Dr Brian Lassen – who’s article you can find here. Brian wrote about male victims of domestic violence, and how he himself coped with the situation backed up by his martial art experience and knowledge.
Brian’s article sparked an old idea I have had for a while: what kind of effects is the devil playing on the people who use violence as a form of communication or are forced to use it as part of their professional position?
For over 20 years I worked as a nightclub doorman, as a bouncer and in close-protection duties in highly violent environments. In this work, I was constantly being exposed to the threat of violence, witnessing violence directed at other people, and using violence as part of my professional position. The latter is often called ‘use of force‘ to sound more politically correct; but let´s just call it what it is: violence.
I left this profession and now work as a solution-focused therapist currently specialising in clinical hypnotherapy. My new profession and training have given me extremely valuable insight into many phenomena connected to violence; domestic or otherwise. It has also given me a chance for true healing from the damage I caused to myself in my previous profession, where I experienced situations where I had to hurt others.
I write this article from a very personal perspective – like my friend Brian did – and want it to be as honest as possible.
The following confession which might shock some readers: During my active years of having to deal with and use physical violence. Did I ever use excessive force in submitting violent opponents? Yes. Did I get some sort of primal satisfaction from this or enjoy succeeding in this? Definitely yes. Did it affect my psychological health and well-being adversely? Yes. Without any doubt. Very much yes.
Why expose yourself?
We rarely hear about the mental toll of a person who have used violence and the healing process that follows. Mostly, we really don´t want to hear about it; as it is so much easier to use labels to simplify people and situations either good or evil.
Like most people that have resorted to using physical violence in their personal or professional life, I ‘never meant it’. I chose my profession because I wanted to challenge myself, and probably due to some childhood trauma, which I luckily later have resolved. For me, my involvement with martial arts was of great benefit but also created an even stronger dualism with ethical standpoints concerning my own reactions and behaviour. But like Brian, I must say I would not be alive nor sane today without my training in martial arts, namely the Bujinkan school. From a classical martial arts standpoint, a ‘warrior’ should never use physical force unless absolutely necessary, and not enjoy it, if forced to use it. But the tricky side is that you do not really realise the purpose of these ethical rules unless you have broken them. True benevolence is possible only when there is a capacity for a great evil present.
For myself, I was trapped for decades to what I was good at, serving customers while foreseeing conflicts and neutralising them, many times by subduing other people. Objectively thinking, I know I was extremely good and professional with all aspects of my former professional work and my past trauma fit the professional needs perfectly. One of the things that kept me hooked to my career and all things it involved was the feeling of invincibility, combined with the feeling of conquering my fears daily. Then at some point, everything changed. I met a veteran of the field who had 20-year seniority to my experience. He started very openly talking about his experience of coping with the violence he had done on others in the past. He told me stories of how he would break another human’s arm at work without flinching, and then go home and cry all night and morning.
This opened new worlds to me. A second eye-opener, and confirmation to my decision to quit, came to me from my spouse at the time. She told me that after I had quit my career, my three daughters had commented: ‘Dad is so much gentler now.’ This was a really concrete and groundbreaking wake-up call for me. Although I had never even raised my voice at them in the past, I realised that my princesses had been in a situation where my nervousness and irritability had still been a burden to them, probably all their lives. This really stopped me on my tracks.
For lambs or slaughter?
I find it disturbing, that in theory, we idolise the people putting themselves on the frontlines of protecting others, while we do not want to acknowledge the heft of trauma laid on them, by expecting them to protect us by harming ‘bad people’.
We, as communicative animals, have been taught from infants, that hurting other people is wrong and evil, and this is reinforced all through our adult lives. At the same time, the entertainment industry as an example, suggests that harming ‘bad people’ is to be admired, as long as the bad people first do something that is concretely wrong and hideous. Do we still need to wonder, how this dual and simultaneous brainwashing creates confusion?
Our subconscious mind where our belief-systems reside is a very smart but extremely simple design and cannot make ethical comparisons. When we resort to actions deemed ethically wrong, the conflict between the cognitive and subconscious mind will without fail create huge distort. Whatever way we try to explain ourselves behaviour that does not match our belief system, will cause immense conflict and stress in our minds.
And please note, the same process applies to normal people resorting to violence, be it at home or otherwise.
Violence as a form of communication
It is my strong belief, that in treating people having advocated or suffered from physical violence, we simply have to look at violence as a form of communication, and nothing else. Without stigma; as impossible as that might sound.
I will dare to claim that all physical violence between humans stems from one root need – the need and wish to be in a position of social power. The superficial motive may be money, love, need for influence or any other, but it all boils down to an overblown need to control one’s environment and the people in it. And for many people, the most obvious way to achieve this is by communicating more loudly or strongly than anyone in their vicinity.
For people that do not have to use violence in their professional environment, but have at some point resorted to physical violence, the experience may be different. Regardless, the build-up and process leading up to using physical violence and the base reason for using violence are still the same – limited communication skills.
The willingness to use violence could be explained in numerous different ways. I will, however, be bold enough to claim that it is always about one-upmanship – dominating others, regardless of the communication forum and the gender(s) of the person or people advocating violence. I would also like to point out the tendency of humans to increase the level and intensity of violence, as they find it to be a successful solution to the situations and problems they face. This is simply a human trait and understandable, as people tend to repeat what they find out works.
A lion´s day – How does violence evolve?
At least for mammals, perhaps all animals, the violence does not begin from the first strike, kick, grab or bite. The universal formula, that is most blatantly seen between male members of the same species, is simply: pose – submit – fight, flight or freeze
These steps can be used to understand the dynamics of almost all violent encounters. Though in many domestic violence scenes and situations this might be difficult to see as the pose-submit phase may be happening on a continuous basis, and the physical attack seems to happen almost unprovoked when it takes place. People having to use violence and deal with it in their work environment, are continuously in this same situation. For the people experiencing the violence on either side, this pose-submit phase might just be the most traumatising phase.
Why not slaughter the lion?
I personally would hope that people involved in treating individuals, groups and couples, would take the attitude presented above into consideration, to aid them in their healing work. Remaining stigma-free and keeping a non-condemning attitude is extremely important if any improvement is expected. The realisation that the violence advocating party is very concretely damaging themselves really is an important first step.
Any and all use of violence must be stopped before any balancing can take place. As for advice to therapists, however, I would like to offer an observation. A person living under continuous threat of violence (using or receiving it) will, with no exception, live in a constant mental hyperactive state. To some extent, this will affect their cognitive abilities while their minds and bodies are in a constant pose-submit state. Releasing that tension through dominating or even violent behaviour can be an almost enjoyable experience, and the cycle really is vicious unless it is stopped. This releasing tension through violence and then return-to-relaxed-state experience combined with possible feelings of social power is a deadly trap, to both perpetrator and the victim. The cycle will intensify unless it´s stopped.
Lions turning to lambs
For a person suffering from past experiences of advocating violence, professional or otherwise, proper PTSD treatment would really be necessary.
Sadly, in our society, these people are many times left without treatment, even if they have changed course on their own accord. Many times, people guilty of having advocated criminal violence are despised to the point, where on one hand help might not be available, and on the other hand feelings of shame and unworthiness might stop the person from seeking help.
The lions then, the ones we have looked up to for defending and protecting us, are many times swept aside in this respect as we automatically consider them ‘strong’ or ‘courageous’ people. We tend not to remember that courage really many times means being scared listless by having to do a deed but doing it anyway. This may develop character, but at what price?
I would wish for more therapists, healers and aid workers would consider this alternate end of the stick with empathy. In a larger picture, wouldn´t it be great if the lions also had the alternative of becoming lambs?
Ville Virmajoki is a 25-year veteran of the international security field, having worked most of that time in very violent and hostile environments.