You probably heard the story last week about George Sodini, the man in Pittsburgh who killed 3 women, injured 9 more, and then turned the gun on himself at an LA Fitness gym. You've probably also heard it mentioned that his choice of location wasn't aribtrary: he was bitter and resentful against women in general, and picked a place where he could target his supposed tormentors.
I'll start with some quotes that won't surprise anyone, just to reinforce an important point:
Sodini was not a bad-looking man; he was intelligent and had a good job, so his failure to attract women must have had something to do with his behavior, Meloy [a psychologist] said. But Sodini couldn't see that.Anyone who's reached a reasonable level of maturity (post high school, maybe?) would have realized that it's not sensible to blame others for not liking them. Not just that it doesn't work -- even our shooter may have realized that -- but that it doesn't make sense. Now probably most of us have wished at one time or another that this or that person would feel differently toward us. But the mindset that they are to blame for it is probably quite foreign, and perhaps it's worth attempting to don that viewpoint if only to see just how different perspectives can be.
"He had difficult and unhappy and unsuccessful relationships with everybody," Fox said. "What he was never able to do was to see that perhaps the problem was him. Maybe there's a reason why everybody rejects him, no one wants to be close to him. Maybe it's something about his own personality.
"But mass murderers don't look at things that way. If they saw themselves as being the culprit, perhaps they would just commit suicide. But no. Everyone else is to blame."
Anyway, on to more novel things. First, I'll shamelessly steal another quote from the article:
"There's this myth that mass killers just snap and go berserk and suddenly, without warning, shoot indiscriminately," Fox said. "Well, he had been thinking about this for some time. He had originally planned to commit the mass murder in January [but] 'chickened out,' as he said. But this shows a lot of methodical planning, thinking."This brings us to an interesting fallacy about emotions and their regulation. We like tidy analogies and generalizations, and I'd like to poke a hole in a cherished one: the assumption that we must either bottle up or vent our emotions.
George produced a home video that's now available on YouTube, and at the end he pans past his punching bag and mentions it in passing.
Now, YouTube isn't renowned for its brilliant comments, but one or two people seemed to suggest that he wasn't utilizing that obvious source of anger release. Well, guess what? It's been studied, and venting doesn't work. In fact, the use of punching bags has specifically been tested, and it leads to more anger and aggression. Moreover, it doesn't work for sadness, either: having "a good cry" generally leads to more sadness in the future.It probably comes as no surprise to you that ruminating isn't any good, either. Unlike with catharsis, which has been thoroughly debunked by psychological science, studies uphold the common wisdom that stewing in resentment only serves to magnify it.
If you can't think of a third option to overcome negative emotions, you're probably not trying hard enough: even distraction is generally a better choice. But even that probably isn't the best we can do. Actively practicing positive skills like gratitude and forgiveness are known to help quell undesirable emotions -- but first, we have to really accept that such feelings as bitterness really are undesirable.
That may seem like an obvious suggestion, but I suspect it's one that people like George never really absorb.