Hurt People Hurt People
By Rebekah Schipper
Maybe you have heard this line before; maybe you have experienced these words personally. Either way, these words seem to be a through line for so much of life these days. There are a lot of hurting people hurting people, and there are a lot of us without realizing it continuing the cycle of pain.
I was drawn back into this idea recently during a conversation with a wise, compassionate person who had been on the receiving end of an anonymous letter. The letter was hurtful, accusatory, and deeply untrue. While the receiver was angry and hurt by the letter on many levels, he contextualized the writer by simply saying, “Clearly, this is a hurting person.”
Those simple words were a gift of grace to the writer of the letter by the receiver, but they got me thinking about all of the many “anonymous letters” that are out there right now, hurting people. These letters are coming in the form of emails, Twitter exchanges, gossip, triangulated conversations, letters to the editor. We might make the case that they exist in the form of manipulation, abuse, and even war.
Hurt people are causing a lot of pain and suffering, and as one looks around the world, one could claim that the circle of suffering has expanded significantly. How, then, do we become agents of transformative change? How do we end the cycle and stop hurting people out of our own hurt? How do we begin to heal?
Healing is the ultimate goal–not just for us but also for those who have hurt us. Only when we experience healing in the hurt places can we stop passing off the pain to others. While the following is certainly not conclusive, they are a few thoughts I have had on how we can begin to heal–especially right now–and how we can be transformative vessels to end the cycle of hurt.
Don’t Turn Away.
“Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.” – Rumi
I grew up in a household of six children–three girls and three boys. I was the fifth out of sixth in the birth order, following my older sister and then my three brothers. Being the younger sister of three older brothers proved to be a lesson in toughening up for me, as there were many battles where I came out on the losing end.
I have found myself wrestling with one particular battle a lot over the last few years as I think about the impacts on me socially and emotionally. As I have learned more and more about the brain and the imprints of adverse experiences on our bodies, I have found myself wrestling with how this particular experience impacted my need for autonomy and control and my discomfort with any physical touch that might leave me feeling confined (like a strong, lasting hug).
This experience hurt me, and I can see the ways now that I have hurt others with my hurt.
Unfortunately, I was taught to turn away from the hurt–look the other direction. Recently, I brought up this experience with my mom, and while I know she feels shame for not knowing everything that was happening (which come on, she had six children…how could she have known everything?), her belief is that we should simply, “forgive and forget.”
I have heard that line, “Forgive and forget,” quite a few times over the course of my life, and there has always been something about it that doesn’t quite sit right. I can get behind the forgiveness aspect. After all, my siblings have asked for forgiveness for the ways they treated me at times, and I have granted that forgiveness. But, I just couldn’t forget, and when I would realize that I hadn’t “forgotten,” I would feel shame, like somehow my inability to forget made me less of a person.
I have learned, though, that forgiveness and healing the hurt are not the same. Forgiveness can be a door into the healing, but healing requires a sitting with and a studying of what caused the hurt in the first place. While forgiveness is an existential expression, hurt is a physiological experience. Our body is imprinted with the hurt, and if we don’t want to perpetuate the hurt, we need to sit with it, study it, and allow it to speak to us. Polly Berends writes, “Everything that happens to you is your teacher…the secret is to learn to sit at the feet of your own life and be taught by it.” We need to allow ourselves to be taught by our hurt. Sometimes that requires us to ask questions like, “What is this hurt actually” or “I wonder what impact this hurt has had on my relationships, my view of the world, my fears and passions?”
Sitting with your hurt, though, is different than allowing it to consume you. Consuming means we become the hurt. Sitting with the hurt means we become compassionate observers of the hurt, and as compassionate observers we can begin to differentiate between what is the hurt and what is true about ourselves. For example, “I have been made to feel less than but I am not less than.” We do not need to become our hurt.
“Name it to tame it.” - Dan Siegel
Dan Siegel’s research suggests that we can reduce the impact of an emotion on our body by up to 50% when we can name it for what it is. Naming our hurt is easier said than done, though, because it first requires that we can recognize its existence in our body, and then that we can be vulnerable enough with those around us to admit what we are experiencing.
I stink at vulnerability. I feel like I spent the first twenty plus years of my life trying to defend myself from any perceptions of vulnerability. My capacity to seem like I was strong, impenetrable, was a strength–or so I thought. I prided myself on the fact that I never cried; I relished in the idea that I didn’t need anyone to support me emotionally. Instead, I was the strong pillar on whom others could lean.
Unfortunately, all the hurt and emotions and stress that I was bottling up in order to protect my image as invincible (note…I’m sure there were plenty who saw right through my facade) started to leak out sideways. I found myself withdrawing from the people who loved me, I lost my temper more quickly, I lacked a generous perspective for those around me, and I couldn’t focus for more than a few minutes. I was tired, exhausted, and emotionally depleted.
I was ultimately continuing the cycle of hurt. As Dr. Brené Brown writes, “people would do almost anything to not feel pain, including causing pain and abusing power” (Atlas of the Heart xvii). I know that I was causing pain because I didn’t want to admit that I was in pain.
When I finally took the leap to sit down with a therapist, she and her trained “bs detector” quickly saw through my facade, and I found myself weeping through many of my visits–me, weeping…someone who didn’t shed a tear at my own wedding or the birth of my children. I sat on her little couch and just cried.
Finally, I was able to admit how I was hurting. I was able to name it to tame it, and I while I cannot fully explain it, Siegel is right. As soon as I was able to begin naming the hurt, I started to feel lighter, more spacious. I began to feel like I could once again experience the breadth and depth of emotions, and once I began to name that there was a deep pain in me, I stopped offloading that pain on others. I don’t know why it works that way; it just does. I didn’t feel it was necessary to run away from the pain, blame the pain on someone else, or try to make others feel pain like mine. I was finally able to just be with the pain.
If we are to stop the cycle of hurting others with our hurt, we need to name the hurt, the pain, that exists. Maybe you are feeling the hurt of loss–loss of a loved one, loss of a friendship, loss of a job, loss of a sense of control. Name it. Maybe you are feeling the hurt of disconnection–loneliness or isolation. Name it. Maybe you are feeling the hurt of distrust–broken promises, infidelity, spiritual abuse, or deception. Name it. Or, maybe, you are feeling the hurt of the last two years societally and all the words and ideologies that have worked so hard to separate us into camps of belief. Name it.
Whatever your hurt is right now, sit at its feet and listen and learn from it, and then, go to a trusted person and name that hurt out loud. You will find that in the midst of getting curious about your hurt and naming it for what it is that it will no longer hold power over you in the ways that it did, and over time (with a few steps backwards, here and there) you will stop continuing the unhealthy pattern of hurting others with your hurt.
That is the goal, after all–to stop the cycle of hurt. Imagine the world with less deceit, manipulation, bullying, war, power-grabbing, and insulting words. That’s the world I want to live in; that’s the world I want my kids to live in; and that’s the world I want you to live in.
Let’s start being healed people who heal people.