Just when I thought it was safe to think about the future, the Capitol erupted in chaos.
On January 6th I was glued to the television and online news watching the coverage of how the U.S. Capitol was being overrun by a mob - a mob that turned violent and deadly (i.e., violent extremists).
I don't talk about politics much because that's not my focus and I'm not going to start today.
What I do want to discuss is, "What leads people to take the actions they take and what can we do to provide leadership during a time of crisis?"
It seems fair to say that some portion of the people attending a political rally in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021, became incited to go beyond the first amendment's rights of free speech and assembly. As a result violence and chaos ensued. What should have been part of a peaceful transition was anything but peaceful.
But why? Why did people engage in behavior that they would ordinarily (and probably) not condone if they were removed from the chaos or not incited to take mob-like action?
I'm not a psychologist or psychiatrist so don't take my opinion for anything resembling a professional diagnosis. However, I am a student of behavior, especially when it comes to committing crimes. Plus, I can research and read with the best of them.
I'm convinced that when we are not at peace with ourselves, we can not be at peace with others.
Psychotherapist Alice Miller wrote passionately and insightfully about people who were emotionally or physically abused early in their childhood. She then made the connection that people who overcame the pain, or whom we might say were resilient, often had an "enlightened witness" in the abused person's life who validated that they were valuable, who didn't judge, and who helped make sense of the "anger, rage, shame, guilt, fear, loss, [and] neglect."
Now, I'm not trying to imply that all the people involved in the melee at the Capitol were abused as children. However, I am suggesting that when we don't have someone in our lives, an enlightened witness, it is much easier to channel our anger, rage, shame, fear, and loss into violent or, at a minimum, counterproductive actions instead of doing the hard work to find productive ways to reduce the angst and fear.
In the blog Mindkind Mom, the author relates some of Alice Miller's teaching by explaining that when we didn't feel safe, when we were neglected, disrespected, ignored or abused as a child our core beliefs became hyper focused on the idea that we were unworthy. As a result, our brains became focused on keeping our bodies safe and not so much on becoming a well-adjusted individual.
Without an enlightened witness who reminded us of our value and loved us, first as a child and later as an adult, we often lived in the shadow of what other people thought about us and who they wanted us to be. In other words we were living our lives based on their beliefs about us and not our true and authentic self.
Think about how that might play out in your own life and the lives of your friends, family, and co-workers. Think about how easy it would be to become attached to someone who tells us we are important, who makes us feel heard and valued, and who then sends us out into the world ready to do their bidding.
Look... what happened at the Capitol happens thousands of times a day all over the country and the world. If we are open to seeing it, we can see the chaos in the proliferation of gangs where new members are seeking nurturing relationships they didn't find at home.We can see it when people jump from one relationship to another seeking a connection that never materializes or is fulfilling. And we can see it in the actions of charismatic leaders who foster a loyalty in followers that goes beyond simple admiration.
I believe when we are able to find our enlightened witness, and really listen to and believe in the affirming message the witness is telling us about ourselves, then we will begin to find an inner peace that calms the anger, rage, and fear that often drives us to do irrational and harmful things.
As leaders, we have an opportunity to be an enlightened witness for people who may never have had one in their lives.
Remember, people are wired for relationships. We are all seeking relationships that allow us to feel safe, stable, and secure. We are looking for someone who sees value in us for who we are
- “Our brains are wired for connection, but trauma rewires them for protection. That’s why healthy relationships are difficult for wounded people.” - Ryan North
People aren't looking for perfection from you, they are looking for permission to be at peace. Today, be someone's enlightened witness.
Photo by New York Times