It may be true that, as the expression goes, “hurt people hurt people.” That often when someone behaves in a malicious manner, it’s because they, themselves, are suffering.

The psychological research is kind of mixed on this question, actually. There is support for the hypothesis that many people in pain “pay it forward” in the form of hurting others. Many perpetrators of violence and abuse, for example, report having experienced violence and abuse in their own lives. Likewise, many people who have harmed others report impoverished backgrounds and attachments.

There certainly is support for the “hurt people, hurt people” hypothesis.

However, it’s also the case that the vast majority of people who have experienced pain in their lives do not go on to hurt others.

In fact, many victims of abuse and violence report that the experienced shaped them to the extent that they’ve made it a fundamental part of their values system to AVOID causing pain to others.

This happens so frequently, in fact, that it is a frequently observed phenomenon that people who have had pain in their lives are often victimized repeatedly, possibly because they are averse to setting boundaries and fighting back (because they associate such behaviors with the “aggressive” tactics of their abusers).

That is to say: experiencing pain is NOT a reliable precursor to inflicting pain on others.

Adding to the confusion around this question is the fact that there is a subset of humans who inflict pain on others, not in response to any particular pain on their part, but for gratification. Various terms applied to these people are “psychopaths,” “sociopaths,” and “narcissists.”

The argument could be made that these individuals are, in fact, experiencing and acting out of their own pain. The problem in supporting this argument, however, is that people who hurt others for sport are notoriously difficult to study; and most of the time when they ARE studied, it’s in a forensic context.

That is to say, it’s virtually impossible to study these individuals unless they get arrested (and even then, it’s not particularly easy to study them— an observation I made firsthand doing psychology internships in the state forensic system).

All of this is interesting, but it all begs a very serious question: when we’re being hurt by someone’s behavior, what are our responsibilities?

Should we understand the person hurting us is likely coming from a place of pain themselves, and take it on ourselves to understand, empathize, or change them?

Should we cut ourselves off from them entirely, assuming they are unlikely to change?

If a central part of our values system is being kind, generous, and compassionate to other people, especially people in pain, how do we square our values system with the fact that the behavior of other people is sometimes hurtful, destructive…and consistent?

Unfortunately, there are no easy or straightforward answers to these questions. I wish there were. I’d be the first to give you the perfect way to deal with those in your life whose behavior is hurtful, whatever the reason behind it.

One thing I do know, however, is: no responsibility we have toward anyone else negates your primary responsibility to take care of yourself.

Sometimes taking care of yourself does mean limiting contact with a person— regardless of the consequences. (And believe me, when someone wants to keep you tangled in their web, they will do their best to inflict dire consequences when you attempt to free yourself.)

Sometimes taking care of yourself means recruiting support in dealing with a person, in the form of  friends, a therapist, or legal authorities. (And believe me, hurtful people will go to great lengths to keep you isolated if they suspect you getting support will interfere with their ability to do their thing.)

Sometimes taking care of yourself begins with getting brutally honest with the impact a person’s behavior is having on you— even if every fiber of you wants to stay in denial about it. (And believe me, many hurtful people use our own denial as a primary weapon of choice to keep us locked into their vicious games.)

Many times, we’re drawn toward the impulse to “help” the person who is hurting us, for a variety of reasons. They may be a family member, who we feel attached to and obligated toward. They may be someone who we know to be in great pain. They may be someone for whom this hurtful behavior is new or aberrant, someone who we think might “snap out of it” if only we could find the right responses to them.

Your mileage may vary when it comes to “helping” someone who is hurting you, but I can absolutely assure you: nobody is “helped” by allowing the hurtful behavior to continue.

Nobody is “helped” by failing to hold people accountable for hurtful behavior.

Nobody is “helped” by you staying isolated, just to “protect” the person who is hurting you.

It is sometimes observed that “helping” the person who is being hurtful, and protecting yourself, doesn’t need to be a black and white issue— that it is perhaps possible to do both. I think every situation is different in this regard, and I’m not near presumptuous enough to opine what the best course of action is for your specific situation and your individual values system.

All I know is, I’ve often seen the desire to “help” hurtful people be used as an excuse to stay in situations where the pain is guaranteed to continue.

Self-esteem cannot be built upon a sacrificial altar.

Secure your oxygen mask first. Get safe. Get support. Take the risks necessary to be safe and supported.

Yes, easier said than done.

But protecting yourself is not a luxury. It’s not optional.

It’s your first, and most important, responsibility.


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