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The War on Emotions is Driving Us Insane

By Robert J. Burrowes - Posted on 06 March 2014

Guest post: Anita McKone

Have you ever been provoked by someone into fear, anger or pain, and then blamed, punished or humiliated for feeling and expressing these feelings? This is a form of psychological torture which has very serious consequences. Here are three stories that demonstrate how commonly this form of torture occurs in human society.

Imagine that you are an Arab living in occupied Palestine. Everyday your work, study, family relationships and/or friendships require you to travel locally, but even distances that should take minutes may take hours because of the internationally illegal checkpoints guarded by Israeli soldiers who deliberately hold up and humiliate the civilians passing (agonisingly) slowly through. See a compelling music video about Israeli checkpoints here.

The soldiers find this work boring and take out their frustrations on the civilians in many ways. Your very existence in this land, where you and your ancestors were born, is already being treated as a threat by the soldiers: the ideological paranoia with which they have been brought up, and their mostly suppressed feelings of powerlessness, sadness and rage about relatively infrequent and small scale retaliatory violence by Palestinians, lead them to hate and fear the Christian and Muslim Arab population as a whole. In this situation, any expression of anger (even in the form of nonviolent resistance) by you at the outrageous, unjust and irrational behaviour of the soldiers will be treated as a heightened threat: their response will likely be violent. Any expression of distress will be treated with a lack of empathy or outright disgust. Some soldiers will develop an addiction to controlling and humiliating people, feeling that this gives them ‘power’, although it is not power over anything that genuinely improves their lives. See here.

In essence, the soldiers will not allow you to communicate with them sensibly, via your feelings of anger and distress, about the real and unjust consequences of their actions. They do not ‘care’.

Imagine you are a child as young as six years old being electroshocked by psychiatrists and psych nurses: see Ted Chabasinsky’s story. You scream and cry and make it abundantly clear that they are harming you physically and causing you intense fear but they hold you down and proceed regardless. They repeat the process over many days and weeks, damaging your brain and gradually eradicating parts of your memory, and demanding that you show signs of being ‘happy’. Any sensible emotional response to this physical torture is seen as a sign that there is something wrong with you that requires further electrocution. The psychiatrists and nurses will not allow you to sensibly communicate with them, via your feelings of terror and misery, about the real and destructive consequences of their actions. They do not ‘care’.

Imagine you are Christina Schumacher who was recently ‘involuntarily treated’ (i.e. incarcerated against her will and expected to take medications that would drug her into insensibility) when she was suffering extreme grief having just learned that her son had been strangled to death by her estranged husband, who then killed himself. Her therapist and that person’s seniors had decided to lock her up prior to even interviewing her, they were so terrified of allowing her to feel her natural emotional reactions to the trauma. So she suffered without emotional support for five and a half weeks, in the company of severely psychotic people who were also failing to receive treatment that helped them. She eventually received legal support that helped her secure her release. Her fury about how she had been treated was palpable – see video here – but will the psychiatrists and family members who abused her hear her anger as a reasonable communication about their violent and unnecessary behaviour? Or will they see this anger as ‘threatening’ because all anger scares them, regardless of whether or not it is justified? Will they have the capacity to ‘care’?

Is there any child who has not frequently had their feelings of fear, anger, pain and sadness ignored, trivialised, criminalised or pathologised by the adults around them? Is there any child who has not learned to be afraid of these feelings (and many others) as a result? If you are wondering why the soldiers and psychiatric personnel in my above examples lack empathy – how is it that they can be so cruel and uncaring? – the answer is clear. They have been frightened out of feeling their own emotions, and trusting and valuing these emotions, first as children, then further as part of their ‘professional’ training. How can anyone empathise with another person’s feelings if they are terrified to feel their own? If they are too afraid to feel the fear that lets them know when they are genuinely under threat, and the anger that would help them stand up against the people who have lied to and abused them (generally their parents, teachers, politicians and superiors), how could they value another person’s fear and anger as valid communication?

What can we do if abusers will not (or, more accurately, cannot) listen to us, because they are too afraid? They may have the physical power to make us suffer, but it is crucial that we do not internalise their abuse of us, and that we act to reverse any internalisation that has already taken place. Healing and a return to selfhood happen when a person listens to their own feelings, including the fear that they should not listen to and trust their own feelings. If you can find someone who is not afraid to allow you to feel – who can sit with you, paying quiet attention while you feel (scared, angry, sad… whatever) – this will help to reassure you and reverse the lesson of emotional suppression you have been taught. If there is no-one available to listen calmly and quietly, then find an undisturbed space and listen to yourself. Your feelings care about you and are trying to communicate the truth about who and how you really are. Feeling emotions is not always fun, and takes considerable physical energy, but your emotions are your power to be your real self, and allow you to be an active and resilient player in your own life, rather than a powerless victim of circumstance.

A person who does not trust or value their own feelings is no longer truly alive:  they have a delusional, socially constructed identity that stands in for their real self and that steadfastly refuses (out of fear) to communicate with the real world. Such a person becomes obsessed with and addicted to controlling things that trigger their emotions: most often, these ‘things’ are other people’s emotions and behaviours. To break the cycle of emotional suppression, and the insane destructive behaviours that are caused by this, we have to find the courage to care about and listen to our own feelings. For further information about how to do this, see my article ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’.

And if you would like to join a worldwide movement to end all forms of violence, including the psychological torture described above, you can sign the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World’.


Biodata: Anita McKone is a nonviolent activist and independent psych researcher from Australia. She works with her life-partner and co-activist/researcher Robert J. Burrowes. Her articles on psychological, philosophical and political nonviolence, and her original ‘Songs of Nonviolence’ (free to download) can be found here. Her email address is

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