Monday, June 17, 2013

Hurt People, Hurt People

“Hurt people hurt people. We are not being judgmental by separating ourselves from such people. But we should do so with compassion. Compassion is defined as a "keen awareness of the suffering of another coupled with a desire to see it relieved." People hurt others as a result of their own inner strife and pain. Avoid the reactive response of believing they are bad; they already think so and are acting that way. They aren't bad; they are damaged and they deserve compassion. Note that compassion is an internal process, an understanding of the painful and troubled road trod by another. It is not trying to change or fix that person.”
Will Bowen

“Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses, you build up a whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life...You give them a piece of you. They didn't ask for it. They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn't your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so simple a phrase like 'maybe we should be just friends' turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It's a soul-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. I hate love.”
Neil Gaiman

As a “one-stop shopping” kind of counselor, my day can take all kinds of turns. I might start with an elderly person struggling with grief issues, then deal with a couple of AD/HD kids who try and tackle me, and then, somewhere by late afternoon, sneak across the street for a big gulp and a hot dog, (I’ve never outgrown the 7-11 lunch). My last patients are usually couples, and I usually find this to be the most challenging part of the day.

Why is that?

It has been my experience that usually by the time a couple makes it to marriage counseling, there has been a lot of polluted water under the bridge. You can bet that the couple has said some very hurtful things to each other, and that there is probably going to be a lot of anger on both sides of the couch, (they rarely sit together).

There are differing opinions as to how to proceed as a couple’s counselor. The original thinking was that if you could improve the couple’s communication skills, you could then improve their relationship. Others such as John Gottman had a different view, and instead focused on the importance of understanding differences, emphasizing what was positive between couples, and developing a healthy understanding of what it means to “agree to disagree” on some subjects.  

In the end however, I personally have found that most of the time it is often about people who are feeling hurt, and, as the author states so eloquently above, hurt people, hurt people. This is especially true in a marriage, where people have taken vows signifying someone is going to be their partner for the rest of their lives. It’s a massive commitment, and one that requires an amazing amount of trust and vulnerability. I include the Neil Gaiman quote above because I think it explains that sense of vulnerability almost perfectly. When you love someone you give them the power to hurt you, sometimes very badly, and when this does happen (and it always does) we are left with a kind of hurt that gives quickly to rage. WHY did I let myself do that? HOW could I fall into that trap again?

Some people at this juncture choose to never love again, or at least love very cautiously. This is certainly one solution. But in the end there is no real love without this vulnerability, and one could argue, no real life without love. We either take this leap of faith, or stay out of the pool completely. Each road has its peril.

But what are our choices when we have been hurt, and how do we then understand our own emotional reactions well enough to stop hurting others? It’s a difficult question. I’ve seen some of the most intelligent people I know turned to angry children when they have experienced the pain of hurt and rejection. In these cases we lose the ability to take perspective and lash out as a result of our own painful experiences.

This idea does not simply apply to marriages either. The world is full of hurt people who go on to hurt others. Look hard enough at criminals, addicts, and abusers, and you will usually find a history of someone who has been badly damaged in some way. This is not to excuse behavior, but to instead try and understand. Often those who have been hurt in their relationships go on to poison their children with this same anger, and this can then continue the cycle for another generation. As Mitch Albom says so eloquently, “All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.”

So what is the answer to dealing with hurt? This is a question that becomes very difficult to answer. The solution lies in our ability to access our own emotional intelligence, and maintain a sense of perspective and awareness, even as our anger begins to rise. It’s a predictable pattern, this relationship between hurt and anger, and we must come to realize that even the brightest of us are not immune to it. In thinking about dealing with our own reactions, here is some advice from Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence about how we have a choice to respond in these situations.

1   1.  Self-Awareness- The next time you’re feeling a really strong emotion, try stepping back and just observing that emotion as it is. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling? What am I thinking? What physical sensations am I experiencing with this emotion?”

2.  Self-Regulation- Channeling an emotion in a new and constructive way, such as through exercising, writing, or painting.

-Avoiding triggers – such as certain people, situations, or environments – that are more likely to bring out a negative emotion.

-Seeking positive experiences to reverse negative ruts (such as watching a comedy movie when we are feeling down, or listening to motivating music when we are lazy).

3. Empathy- Empathy is our ability to see things from another person’s perspective – and to take into account their individual thoughts and feelings about an experience. Another powerful tool for improving empathy is perspective taking. This is a mental exercise where you literally imagine yourself experiencing a situation from another person’s perspective to better understand them.

I know I personally have had to fall back often on these techniques, as I have hurt plenty of people myself. The goal is to get better as we go on, while also understanding that as humans and thus fallible creatures, we are going to make the same kinds of mistakes again and again and again. The next time you are about to jump off the cliff in an argument with your significant other, try and think about these ideas. Am I acting out of hurt? If so can I recognize this emotion and try and deal with it rather than saying something I can’t take back? All of this is easy to grasp when we are calm, but so much more difficult to implement when we are truly angry. Managing, naming, and harnessing these emotions is however a wonderful tool for creating relationships that can endure through the inevitable moments of hurt and anger.