The Decline of Emotional Control

The Decline of Emotional Control

A biological male wins the Miss Netherlands title. Whistle-blowers are maligned for reporting crimes. An employer fires his employee for stopping shoplifters. With stories like this filling today’s news, it’s hardly surprising that people become angry at the direction of our culture. But there is another form of anger that is more serious that a simple reaction to depressing news. That development is the loss of emotional control.

An extreme form of this loss is the condition known as Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED). As the Cleveland Clinic explains, the condition is “marked by frequent impulsive anger outbursts or aggression” that are “out of proportion to the situation that triggered them.” The outbursts are “not planned.” They “happen rapidly . . . last no longer than 30 minutes, [and] cause significant distress.” They take the form of “temper tantrums, verbal arguments or physical fights or aggression.”

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) classifies this condition under the heading “Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorders.” Another psychiatric source describes it this way: “If your brain were a car, think of impulse control as the brake system . . . For those who live with impulsive control disorders like IED, the impulse to act overrides this brake system and pushes on the gas pedal instead.”

The Cleveland Clinic notes that “researchers are still trying to discover the exact cause of intermittent explosive disorder, but they think genetic, biological and environmental factors contribute to its development.”

The genetic and biological factors are rightly left to scientists to determine. However, the “environmental” ones are broader in scope, including cultural, psychological, sociological, and philosophical factors. These factors can aggravate genetic/biological conditions and thus help shape attitudes, beliefs, thought patterns, and actions.

Here is a sequence of six such aggravating factors that have arguably contributed to the rise of anger in general and likely have increased Intermittent Explosive Disorder as well. (After all, IED is a form of anger, albeit a radical form of it.)

(1) In the early 1960s many psychologists proclaimed that the key to happiness and success is increasing one’s self-esteem and avoiding all criticism, including that from parents and teachers and self-criticism. The psychologists also claimed that everyone creates his/her own truth. Taken together, these ideas clearly suggested that since nothing we say or do deserves criticism, there is no need to change in any way and, therefore, self-improvement is unnecessary.

(2) Soon many teachers began teaching students the psychologist’s’ view of self-esteem and, in accordance with that teaching, made lessons less demanding and grading more lenient. Also, by affirming that truth is created rather than discovered, they paid less attention to the distinction between fact and fiction, evidence and unsupported assertion. As a result, having “the right to an opinion” came to mean that “every opinion is right.”

(3) In time, many religious leaders embraced the new psychology and began tweaking the Bible to support its teachings, notably by emphasizing love of self as well as love of neighbor. Some went so far as teaching that love of self is a requirement for love of neighbor. Taken together, these ideas reinforced the idea that self-improvement is unnecessary and, in the case of Catholicism, called into question a central aspect of the sacrament of confession—having a firm purpose of “amending” one’s behavior.

(4) Before long, many parents followed the lead of the psychologists, educators, and religious leaders. Fearful of reducing their children’s self-esteem, they minimized rules and responsibilities and refrained from chastising their children for laziness, rudeness, bad manners, and disrespect of others. They also became fearful that teaching their values to their children would infringe on their “right” to form their own values. This fear, together with encouraging children to accept themselves as they are, prevented parents from encouraging their children to break bad habits and cultivate good ones.

(5) Young people were influenced by what they learned at home, in school, and in church. As a result, with their emphasis on loving, accepting, and esteeming themselves, they became more concerned with defending their own thoughts, feelings, and internal reverie than on exploring the world outside themselves and advancing in knowledge and wisdom.

(6) By the time young people became adults, they were well-versed in maintaining self-esteem and resisting all criticism, including self-criticism. They were also more forceful in expressing their opinions and more inclined to demand that others respect those opinions as unquestionable truths. That demand had little chance of being met, of course, because other people regarded their own opinions as unquestionably true and therefore had little interest in other people’s opinions.

The combined effect of these emphases on self-esteem was to ignore the traditional emphasis on self-examination, self-knowledge, and self-improvement. That emphasis had been based on ages of experience and insight. Confucius said, “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” Lao-Tzu said,“He who knows others is wise, but he who knows himself is enlightened.” Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” And (jumping past many centuries) Scottish poet Robert Burns lamented that we really don’t know ourselves, writing that if only we had the gift of “seeing ourselves as others see us” we would be freed of “many a blunder. . . and foolish notion.”

Today, millions of people scoff at this ancient wisdom. They believe that knowing oneself is automatic and takes no conscious effort, so it is impossible to be dishonest with themselves or unaware of their tendencies, intentions, or habits. That foolish belief breeds unreasonable confidence in their opinions and intolerance of those who do not share them.

Such people live with the delusion that anyone who disagrees with them is not only wrong but intentionally, maliciously wrong, and therefore an intellectual danger to them. So, they watch only news channels and read books that mirror their perspective on issues. And when they engage in conversation with others, they listen only long enough to determine whether those others are friends or foes. If they decide “foes,” they don’t ask why the others think as they do and what information they base their views on. Instead, they become angry and raise their voices in denunciation of the others. All this without considering that the others’ viewpoints might have a measure of merit or that they themselves might be mistaken.

Worst of all, such people never think to examine their habits of mind for soundness or consider their vulnerability to error, and therefore are unlikely to overcome their anger.

These people can be found throughout our society—in school classrooms, business offices, restaurants, theaters, on public transportation, in public squares, churches, and even around family dinner tables. They may express their anger alone or in groups. It can be triggered by any subject of conversation, especially politics and religion. (Intermittent Explosive Disorder, of course, can manifest itself without a trigger.)

There is no way to tell with certainty how many incidents of violence and property destruction have been caused by the six developments noted above. Nor can the breakdown of families or the inability of elected officials to cooperate with one another be definitively traced to those developments. But both kinds of social disruption are at very least aggravated by them. And we are all the poorer for that.

Copyright © 2023 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero