“Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me.”
They were an older couple, in their 50s. She was a receptionist and he was a security guard, both with alcoholic histories, but thanks to AA and perseverance, had been sober for about 15 years. Like many couples their age, they had adult children from previous spouses. They came to see me to save their 20-year marriage which was in jeopardy because of his anger.
Fortunately, they were bright, verbal, articulate, honest and humble. From a therapist’s perspective, that means they were “fun” or interesting and rewarding. Lots of good stuff happens with such clients in the therapy hour. I get to do my magic. They presented their issues like layers of a labyrinth, a multifaceted system of hollowed out caves I could carefully explore. Within the topography of their pain, I could decipher the patterns of conflict that kept them stuck doing what never worked. And as I found clues, I took pictures of them with my mind and used my words to throw them on the screen for all of us to see. For the first time, they understood their false moves. They saw how each of them hurt the other as they lunged clumsily toward self-protection. And it was this couple that taught me what that’s called.
Clients enter therapy to learn and heal and sometimes end up teaching the teacher. Stan (not his real name) said he saw it on the wall during an AA meeting. “Hurt people hurt people,” he said. I nodded, quickly grasping I had just been gifted a rare jewel. A two word phrase repeated. Adjective-noun-verb-noun where one word (hurt) is used in two ways to convey simply and eloquently the core cause of most human conflict. People hurt people when they are hurting.
Most people don’t want to hurt others. It just kind of happens. Someone speaks or sends a careless e-mail or text and inadvertently inflicts a small wound on a friend, child, partner, parent, sibling or spouse. Or they are simply in a bad or irritable mood and fail to take care. Hurt happens. And while the wounded one reacts with pain, it can quickly become weaponized. We attach words and meaning to our experience.
We think, “I do not deserve this unexpected and unwanted injury. The other person hurt me on purpose. They are wrong and bad. They had a choice and meant to hurt me. I have a right to retaliate. They deserve to be hurt the way I hurt.”
As we nurture our pain, we justify our angry response. Missiles away. Back at you. You hurt me I hurt you.
In the history of the world, this is how it’s always gone. Someone gets hurt and reacts by hurting the other who then reacts with similar self-righteous indignation. Now we have two who see themselves as innocent victims and view the other as the bad guy who (in their minds) is guilty of deliberate, intentional harm. And so it goes. Back and forth. Two people who simply want love, kindness and understanding from the other, behaving in a way that ensures neither will obtain it.
If we could put it into words, this is what each person is thinking but not saying: “I am in pain. You caused it. I need you to understand that. I need you to care about this, about me. I need you to help me let it go. All you need to do is acknowledge my hurt and your role in causing it and convince me you are truly sorry. Help me understand how this happened. Help me feel safe again with you. Then we can move on.”
Now imagine both people thinking this at the same time while they are growing angrier at the other because the other is refusing to give them what they want. It is like two people drowning in the ocean at the same moment, yelling at the other to save them.
David Burns, the author of Feeling Good and other books, taught us our truth is our enemy when it damages what we value most in the world: our connections with the people around us. When our need to win or be right is stronger than our need to love another person, we’re in trouble.
I am also convinced that other people’s behavior is seldom about us. It’s usually about them. It’s not personal. People do what they do and say what they say for their own reasons that have everything to do with them, their perceptions, needs and fears and a whole lot less about anyone else. Each of us creates our world and as we rigidly cling to our perspective, we can feel threatened by those who have a different view.
If we can empathize, not personalize at the moment we feel hurt, we stand a better chance of seeing the truth from their perspective. As we set our viewpoint to the side, we can see the world through the eyes of this other person. When we find and speak their truth, they are disarmed. We can express thought and feeling empathy as we listen non-defensively and validate their experience. We don’t have to agree that the other is completely right and we are wrong but we do need to help this other person feel heard, cared for and understood.
Blame is the toxic poison that pollutes too many relationships. It is easy to find fault and criticize others. Since we are all imperfect, our flaws are not hard to find. Each of us makes mistakes and too often when we stumble, someone we love gets hurt. What happens next is crucial. Can we stay calm and take responsibility? Can we see it from their perspective? Can we seek to understand before we seek to be understood? Can we give them what we would want to receive if it happened to us? Can we help them heal?
Remember what it’s like when someone sets their truth and feelings to the side and takes time to listen. Remember what it’s like when someone is present with you and your pain and takes responsibility for their words and actions. Remember what it’s like when someone you love says they are sorry and they mean it. Remember what it’s like when someone deeply understands you while they avoid blaming you or defending themselves. Remember what it’s like to be affirmed and validated. We need to give what we need to receive.
Hurt people hurt people but each of us has the power to heal – not hurt – others and ourselves. Let’s start now, shall we?