On Mass Shootings, Projection, and Owning Your Shit

"You blame my temper but you do not see your own that lives within you." - Teiresias, speaking to Oedipus, from Oedipus the King.

Another day in America. Another massacre. 27 worshippers at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas were gunned down by a white man during Sunday service. This on the heels of so many mass shootings in our country, and so very little actionable response on the part of our policy leaders and governance. It is frustrating, heartbreaking, and if you’re feeling helpless and despairing right now, you wouldn’t be the only one. It feels like we are all being forced to reckon with this chaotic, terrible violence that is so difficult to understand.

My heart is with the people who have survived the shooting, and who knew and loved those affected. Since I have the luck to have not been directly affected, what I can offer is an opportunity to think about what is happening in our country when it comes to guns, mass shootings, violence, and white men.

As with most things in my life, I tend to view violence, and mass shootings, through a psychoanalytic lens. In this case, I think about projection specifically. From Freud to present-day psychoanalytic practitioners and thinkers, “projection” has been a main focus in the efforts to understand violent and interpersonally harmful action. Projection, simply put, is when there is a feeling inside you that is so intolerable that to feel it would not match who you think you are or you think you are supposed to be in society, so much so that you do your best to consciously or unconsciously push it away. Then, the feeling appears to “go away,” except you put it outside of yourself and instead locate it inside someone else. It’s kind of like this: You know that experience you have when someone bugs the shit out of you, like a coworker with an annoying habit? And it’s only upon further self-reflection that you realize they bug the shit out of you because they do exactly the same stupid stuff you do and hate yourself for doing and wish you didn’t do? That’s projection- you locate your own “badness” inside of someone else, thinking, “I’m not the one feeling bad, it’s you making me feel that way.” Or, “It’s you who does the bad thing, not me.” Only, most of the time, we never know it’s our own “badness” that we’re seeing in the other person.

According to some psychoanalysts, this is a human phenomenon, but I think it is also very specifically American. It’s embedded in our social strata. Us Americans have a really hard time owning our shit.

In some ways, this helps me understand the function of violence, if not necessarily the individual motivations. It functions to split off a part of the assailant that he cannot bear to feel inside himself, and then he puts it inside someone else. Some violent people have never had the opportunity to talk about, and process, their own violent urges and aggression, but instead have acted on impulse to harm others. Some people have never learned that feeling and thinking are not the same as doing. Good health and mutual relationships can happen when you start to learn the difference between feeling and doing, which is possible with the help of a skilled therapist or a good-enough parent or community. You are not responsible for your first thought, as they say in AA. You are, however, responsible for what you do with that thought (and emotion).

In America, we live in a culture that lifts up white voices and experiences as superior to all others, and men’s voices and experiences as superior to women’s. This is toxic for everyone, and most especially to marginalized people. It is also deadly. White men perpetrate the most violent mass shootings by far (51 out of 90 mass shootings in the US since 1982 have been perpetrated by white men). This paradigm is toxic to white women, women and men of color, and particularly black men and women. But when white men act on their rage and fear, not only can it be deadly and destructive to others around him, it can also be deadly and destructive to him.

Because there is a lived assumption that white men should not examine their status as “men” in society, but instead should hold onto it for dear life, white men are most likely, in my opinion, to deny their woundedness, pain and heartbreak, and instead redirect those feelings into anger and violence. When white men project their shame or other unbearable feelings into others, it acts as his weapon. Weapons can be guns, or they can come in the form of hitting your spouse, shouting at your children, flying off the handle, or emotionally manipulating someone to stay in a relationship with you. Using these weapons is a response to feeling that the man's position is threatened, and these weapons aim to perpetuate systemic imbalances and oppressions and attempts to solidify the man's position as superior.

In addition, generally speaking our society is not geared toward teaching men to feel their emotions and to talk it through with a loving person. We do not teach men to hold the burdens of others around him, and to organize his life in context to those around him. (However, we absolutely teach this to women.) We teach him that the whole world can be his to own and to order, and that others around him are to be conquered. After all, he gets the message that he is superior, even though he knows on some level that his superiority leaves him lonely, isolated, and lost amidst feelings he cannot feel or make sense of.

I suspect this kind of socialization, whether overt or covert through systemic messaging and media, can leave some men feeling angry, resentful, and insecure without knowing why. When filled with a desire for action that is energized by fear, hatred, despair, and insecurity, a man might turn to one of the weapons listed above to express his anger, helplessness, or retaliation. And, if that weapon is an automatic rifle, he can do a lot of damage.

Certainly, some men are very capable of thinking and processing, but this is a learned skill. Unfortunately, some men never get this kind of relational learning as children or as adults because of the ways in which men tend to be socialized.

Since I’m a therapist, you probably know what I’m going to say next: Therapy can absolutely help men process feelings that have seemed unapproachable and intense. I work with men who were never allowed to contact their feelings, and some who were actively taught to repress them, but those who are courageous enough to allow me to support their exploration into their uncharted emotional territory do well in therapy. Emotional health and relational health are as much a priority as physical health, but men are often taught how to be physically healthy before they are taught how to be relationally and emotionally healthy. Coming into contact with all the different parts of you can both undo, and awaken, other, scarier, more overwhelming and intolerable feelings, but moving courageously into your emotions rather than acting out can prevent your feelings from becoming projected out onto others in a potentially violent, damaging, or destructive manner. After all, it’s not feelings of anger, helplessness, or frustration that are destructive in and of themselves. It’s what you do with those feelings that matters to the people around you. Tending to your feelings could even save your life someday.

I celebrate and support men like you who are willing to face the challenges of undoing the damage that learned whiteness and masculinity has done to you and does to the people in your life. None of us are immune to cultural and social messaging, and many of us are struggling to figure out how to live in this world that is often confusing and unfair. I support you in your journey toward feeling more connected to yourself and others in your life and community, for your sake and for the sake of all of us. 


[Edited: This line appeared in the above text but I removed it due to flow problems. While it doesn't fit with the flow of the article, it remains true, so I will leave it here: "When the first report I read of this shooter did not name his race, I knew he was white. We do not give men and women of color the same benefit of "not seeing race.""]