The Violence is Within

By Scott Baum, PhD, CBT

Editor’s note:

For the purposes of this newsletter, this article has been edited. A full text of this article as well as other articles are available from the author. Scott can be reached at 212.665.3908 or email

Violence is within us. It is part of our dialogue with ourselves and our communication with others. It can pervade and even fill the communal space we share, and it can take root in the soul and fester.

This is about my understanding of the forces that lead people to be violent with each other and how we as therapists perceive those forces in our clients and carry what we learn as professionals out into the world. It is not my intention to focus on the violence of the streets or the gulag, but the violence that strikes closer to home; the damage done by a parent to child, teacher to student, leader to follower, therapist to client. The kind of violence that is present when dependents are exploited for the gratification and enrichment of one in authority. This kind of violence diminishes a person, making her or him feel devalued and ultimately annihilated, psychically and spiritually.

I have been affected by such violence, much of it lost to memory but still a potent force. My own experiences have made me aware that violence exists behind the doors of even the best and quietest of homes and most reputable of organizations. Even ones composed of therapists. Many of my conclusions have been drawn from my own experience-my own family background, my discoveries about how I’ve been both the object and perpetrator of violence and how I had to listen to those treated violently for years before I understood its effects. I was one of the many for whom violence was always present, embodied and enacted, sometimes consciously, more often automatically, unthinkingly.

Psychotherapists see the devastating effects of violence all the time, the damage chronic violence does to the mind and spirit, as well as the body. And we see its legacy, witnessing time and again how people consumed by violence done to them feel impelled to repeat the cycle of destruction. As therapists, we are charged with finding the root causes of this violence. It falls to us to talk openly and honestly about how we, as therapists, relate to violence both in the clinical setting and the world. Understanding how violence develops and is expressed is one place to start. Seeing how it is denied and covered over by perpetrator and victim alike is another. Ways of confronting and addressing the violence as it manifests itself in clinical work is a third.

However, in some ways the most important discussion we can have is about what we as therapists and people learn about ourselves; the violence within and among us and what we do about it…

For many years I expressed myself in ways colored by my own experiences with violence. I adopted a tone of self-righteous, strident outrage that demanded of others immediate comprehension, total deference and ultimate agreement. I protested violence violently. That protest is now more grounded, the terror of having experienced the violence I did is somewhat tempered. Let me tell something of what I have learned and how I learned it.

I am a bioenergetic therapist. In my personal therapy, bioenergetic work, a view stressing the unity of psychic and somatic processes, has been extremely valuable. It has allowed me to touch and amplify a flow of experience which was nearly dead. Bodywork gave me a path of experience to follow, a way to rage and grieve over and over, a way to gag and throw up the toxins I had ingested. It offered me a way to slowly and painfully dissolve the cocoon in which I lived my life.

This would have mattered little without the help of a therapist devoted to the primacy of felt experience. That was not the case in my family, despite appearances to the contrary. There, the devotion was to image, and to loyalty and surrender to that image. My therapist’s absolute and abiding belief in the validity and meaningfulness of my experience provided the support I needed to begin, along with the efforts of those who have cared enough, and dared to fight with me-especially my wife-to soften the bark of my defensiveness and face the brokenness of my body and the awesome negativity embedded in my psyche. I was able to see the negativity as a reaction to the people most significant in my life and the culture in which they lived.