Violence Actual and Imagined: Reflections on More Than 25 Years of Research on Interpersonal Violence

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Jane Gilgun. Gilgun University of Minnesota, Twin Cities To be published in Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping words running head: reflections on violence Key words: personal narrative, violence research, prevention, resilience Jane F. Gilgun, Ph. Professor Gilgun does research on children, adolescents, and adults who have confronted serious adversities. Her focus is on the development of violent behaviors, the meanings of violence to perpetrators, and how persons cope with, adapt to, and overcome adversities.

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She has presented locally, nationally, and internationally on resilience, her violence research, and on qualitative research methods, including the use of qualitative approaches for the development of assessment tools and for the development of theories of change. In this narrative, I describe my gradual understandings of the meanings of violence to perpetrators and of the violence that resides in my own heart and in my use of violent imagery and thoughts in my daily life.

Most were in prison when I interviewed them. Others had served time and were living in communities. I wanted to understand what violence means to perpetrators. I also wanted to understand why some men become violent and others with similar risks do not. To do this, I interviewed men who had risks for being violent but who had not inflicted great harm on others and were law-abiding.

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To extend the comparisons, I interviewed women who had risks for violence, some of whom had committed violence as well. How to do this was simple: ask them. The people I interviewed taught me a lot. Some people experience hardships such as long term abuse and neglect during childhood and the teen years and manage to live productive lives. Persons who showed resilience told stories of suffering and courage. Their stories inspired and enlightened me.

I came away from interviews with people who showed resilience full of admiration for their persistence, courage, and determination to use their experiences to make life better for others. I also was angry at the abuse and other hardships they had endured and became more determined than ever to contribute to making things better. The stories I listened to taught me many other things, too. They helped me to understand what can happen when children and teens do not have attachments of love and care.

When they do not get help and comfort when distressed and hurting. When they are exposed to models of violence day in and day in out their families, communities and in the various media including videos, television, computer games, and the internet, and there are no messages and meanings that show them that they can get respect and attention through acts of consideration and kindness.

They are then set up to re-live many of the emotions and thoughts associated with the original adversities and traumas. These are painful, chaotic states that can lead to dysregulation, where thoughts, emotions, and behaviors become confused and agitated. Heart rate and breathing accelerate. Thoughts of being bad and unlovable, self-hatred and self-contempt, and fears that the dysregulation will last forever are typical signs of these chaotic states.

Some people also experience dysregulation as physical pain, similar to being dropped into boiling oil or have various somatic complaints such as headaches and shortness of breath. Dysregulation is intolerable. Persons do many things to re-regulate; that is, to restore themselves to comfortable and composed states. Persons who activate pro-social efforts to re-regulate do not harm themselves or others and sometimes enhance their quality of life and the quality of life of persons who are there for them.

Persons who use anti-social efforts to re-regulate engage in behaviors that harm others and themselves or threaten the well-being and even the lives of others. Examples are picking on someone else, taking out your anger on someone else or an animal, and driving angrily and recklessly. Some people develop elaborate fantasies about themselves as powerful creatures who can do what they want when they want to with whomever they want. They are the heroes of their own fantasies.

They feel powerful, in control, good. Often acts of extreme violence have a long-term build-up of fantasies that are like movies with plot lines and climaxes and denouements. These attempts at re-regulation are short-term and eventually become part of the problem that individuals had wanted to solve. They are harmful and sometimes pathetic ways of gaining control over inner chaos and of restoring a sense of self-worth. Ultimately anti-social ways of coping with dysregulation are self-defeating because persons whose violence stems from dysregulation typically feel remorse after harming another person.

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Some people act in ways that harm themselves. Each of these acts temporarily relieves the painful states of dysregulation, but the underlying mechanisms that lead to dysregulation are unaffected. In fact, these short-term solutions may become part of the dysregulating mechanisms themselves, though the intent of the persons who behave this way is to make themselves feel better and to restore themselves to a sense of sanity and safety. When dysregulated, persons usually consider or use all four of these strategies, but one style typically dominates.

For example, for persons with pro-social styles of coping with dysregulation, thoughts of kicking the dog may flash into mind and be discarded immediately. Having a bowl of ice cream or going shopping might be considered and even indulged in. Finally the person finds someone to talk to, goes dancing, or phones an uncle in frail health to see if he wants to go grocery shopping, or all three.

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Individuals may behave in some anti-social or self- harmful behaviors along the way to pro-sociality. Gender, Violence, and Ideology Gender plays a role in styles of coping. Although members of both genders may engage in all four types of behaviors, men are over-represented in the acting out, anti-social styles of coping. Women are over-represented in self-destructive behaviors. Overall, most women and men engage in pro-social ways of coping with adversities. However, in terms of numbers of arrests and convictions for acting out violent felonies, men outnumber women by more than nine to one. I also learned that some violent acts have nothing to do with misguided attempts to cope with the effects of adversities and nothing to do with dysregulation.

Their violence is their way to get them what they want.

Plain and simple. They have internalized stereotypes and beliefs of what it means to be a man, and they act as if these meanings give them permission to do whatever they want regardless of how their behaviors affect others. I learned, too, that some women enact the worst aspects of female gender socialization and hurt other people simply because it is something they want to do, and it gives them pleasure. These cruel and sometimes violent behaviors occur when persons are in regulated states. They do not result from efforts at coping with dysregulation, emotional pain, and other effects of adversities.

In some forms of violence, therefore, I have concluded that soul wounds and hot buttons are not at issue. Both men and women internalize gender stereotypes and beliefs that become part of internal working models of themselves, others, and how the world works. These working models, which can be considered inner representations and cognitive schemas, become guides to behavior.

Like those who act on their violent beliefs, reactors, when they are in dysregulated states, typically have recourse to internalized working models based on gendered stereotypes.


I frequently was stunned into silence. Many of the stories I heard are still beyond my understanding. Yet, some of their tales gradually made sense when I was able to see my own dark sides in their stories. He told her to have sex with his white German shepherd. She did.

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  • Stan said It was like I was God and the white leader or whatever. All these people were laughing and making comments. It was like I made this happen. It wasn't just her and the dog itself. It was like them other people, too. As he talked, he laughed and waved his arms around, as if re-living what for him was a glorious time. The woman. The dog.