It’s true that some people who exhibit aggressive behaviors have a history of being abused themselves.
But it’s NOT universally true that “hurt people hurt people.”
People who have survived abuse or neglect know that it often leaves us with MANY intense, overwhelming feelings, needs, meanings, beliefs, and associations.
Trauma often hands us this HUGE tangle of contradictory emotional and behavioral “stuff”— and we have no idea what to do with it.
Among the feelings that many survivors have no idea what to do with are anger and powerlessness.
What on earth do we do with anger that we never felt safe or entitled to express?
What on earth do we do with the feeling that we can’t possibly escape pain, even if we tried?
Some people do fantasize about channeling their unexpressed rage and their conviction to never again be powerless into aggressive behavior toward others. Some people imagine that going on “offense” in life and the world is the only way to ensure that they’ll never again be victimized.
It doesn’t follow, however, that experiencing trauma automatically turns someone into an aggressive, angry person who got through life looking for ways to lash out.
I’ve worked with hundreds of abuse survivors. I am an abuse survivor. For everything that it’s possible to say about how trauma TENDS to impact human beings, i can assure you that there is ENORMOUS variability in how people experience, respond to, and cope with THEIR trauma.
It’s incredibly important to understand how our history impacts how we feel and function every day— especially if our history includes complicated, painful relationships or experiences.
But we have to be SUPER careful not to reduce our emotions and behavior to “we experienced X, thus we HAVE to do Y.”
I’ve met MANY abuse survivors who are TERRIFIED of what their history of abuse can “make” them do.
I’ve met survivors who are absolutely HORRIFIED of the supposed inevitability of becoming abusers themselves, because “hurt people hurt people.”
I’ve met survivors who want absolutely nothing more than to NEVER hurt anyone else the way they were hurt, who were CONVINCED that their abuse had planted a “poison seed” within them to lash out at others— even though there is not a bone in their body that desires pain to be inflicted on ANYONE (often INCLUDING those who hurt them).
It’s just not as simple as “hurt people hurt people.”
Yes, hurt people CAN hurt people— but so can people who do NOT have abuse or neglect in their history.
In my experience, many abuse survivors are so powerfully averse to hurting anyone the way they were hurt, that they do backflips to avoid even the appearance of aggression or anger— often sacrificing basic assertiveness in their quest to NOT become their abusers.
A history of abuse or neglect MAY be part of the puzzle for why a person is aggressive or hurtful to others. But, as we say in psychology over and over and OVER again: correlation is not causation.
You, the person reading this, who is afraid that your experiences have planted a “poison seed” inside you that will inevitably blossom into you behaving hurtfully toward others: it isn’t true.
Yes, your history will impact what you believe, what you think, what you feel, and yow you behave.
Yes, you probably will have to do some work around what anger and assertiveness and powerlessness and regaining your agency MEAN in your life.
But because you were hurt does NOT make you more likely to become a monster.
Your trauma may have impacted or even shaped your personality in some ways— but it has not REPLACED who you are. Even if it feels that way sometimes.
There is no script for what you HAVE to do or be because you were abused.
In my experience, the thing most hurt people want is to not hurt anymore.
One thought on “It’s not as simple as “hurt people hurt people.””
Great essay, Doc. Thank you.