Hurt People Hurt People Part II: Finding Compassion for People Who Hurt You
Sometimes, the hurt, angry people who hurt us, particularly when we were small, caused deep emotional scars and resulted in an adulthood spent struggling with painful, difficult issues: addiction, depression, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy, to name the bigger ones. Despite having these difficulties, such adults can often get along alright, but they do tend to spend a great deal of time wondering what’s wrong with them and why they feel so numb all the time and/or so out of step with the rest of the world. And often, these adults must maintain relationships with the people who hurt them (namely, their parents or other caregivers), swallowing or ignoring their painful feelings in order to “keep the peace,” thus protecting themselves from further emotional harm.
I remember being depressed for days, even weeks, after spending time with my family as a young adult. I would disappear into a marijuana stupor, preferring that delightful numbness to the raw emotional pain I didn’t understand and didn’t know how to deal with. The truth is, until I got sober, got into some counseling, and began to understand the real issues I was struggling with, the numbness was pretty much a constant way of life; it was the only way I know how to escape how deeply sad, angry, confused, and worthless I felt.
How does a person deal with all of this? And, having dealt with it (or at least, having dealt with a lot of it), is it possible to find earnest compassion for the people who hurt you? More importantly, is it possible to take care of your own needs simultaneously? I think the answer to these questions is yes; and not only is the effort to find compassion worthwhile, it is perhaps the core element of healing from these longstanding, long festering emotional wounds.
When I first started to heal and the reality of my childhood became clearer to me, I identified mostly with being a victim of all that alcoholic rage and narcissism. “It’s their fault I feel so bad about myself! It’s their fault I have to do all this work on myself!” I was extremely angry, but only saw my hurt. I blamed, and it felt good. Fueled by the intoxicating mixture of finally understanding and righteous indignation, I began to fantasize about the confrontation I wanted to have with my parents, about all the things I would say to them about how they hurt me; I wouldn’t have admitted it to myself, but what I wanted more than anything was to hurt them as they’d hurt me. I wanted revenge. Fortunately, I had some wise counsel that cautioned me against actually having this confrontation. “Write letters but don’t mail them,” people told me. “Get it all out.” “Talk to people who understand.” “Give it some time.”
I trusted what people told me, so I did decide to “give it some time,” and words can’t express how grateful I am that I did. I decided that confrontation wasn’t a good idea, at least not while I was still so raw and angry, and that I would find other ways to deal with my messy feelings. When I had to visit my parents for holidays, I spent days preparing for the trip. I planned ways to take care of myself, compiled a list of “emergency” phone numbers, and gave myself permission to leave if things got too bad (which I actually did once, on Christmas Eve, when my father got so rageful I packed up my things at midnight and made the 4 hour drive home). After the visits, I spent days and sometimes weeks de-briefing with my peeps, who cheered me on and helped me deal with my complex feelings about my parents, whom I both loved and hated.
But even with all this positive, self-nurturing effort to make time with my family-of-origin bearable, I still found it largely un-bearable. I would still spiral into weeks of depression after seeing them, and struggle just to get back to where I was before I’d left. So as I learned to take better care of myself, I instinctively created more distance and spent less and less time with my parents; I found I had to distance from my sister, too, whose own unresolved anger came out largely as passive-aggressive hostility that she vehemently refused to acknowledge.
As guilty as I felt about it, I knew the distance was necessary for me to clear my head and figure things out. And once unfettered by the demands of a family that didn’t treat me very respectfully, I began to figure things out with exponential speed and agility. As I progressed down the personal growth path, I began to see that forgiveness was an absolutely essential component of healing, that it was simply not possible to progress past a certain point if you held resentments in your heart. I had to find a way to forgive and move on.
Eventually, I did. Through much soul-searching and many struggles to understand not only my own issues with anger and forgiveness, but to understand these concepts in general, I reached a place of compassion. I saw that this pattern of “hurt people hurting people” went back for many generations before my parents; that they weren’t simply perpetrators that emerged out of a vacuum, but rather, were acting out their own unresolved issues of hurt and anger from their own unhappy childhoods, that my grandparents had done the same thing, and that this pattern probably went back in both my parents’ families ad infinitum. I also saw that this pattern is widely prevalent, and that most, if not all, people–and thus most parents–are at least somewhat hurt, somewhat angry, and always imperfect. We are all to some degree hurting, and we all, to some degree, hurt the people we care about. It is one of the prices we pay for being human.
Understanding all of this didn’t really help with my grief, which I came to see as a separate issue that I would have to deal with on an ongoing basis. And it didn’t really improve my relationship with my parents (now just my father), who still behaved much as they did when I was small–and which is also a separate issue that I will continue to deal with. But the understanding did two important things that have allowed me to fully forgive my parents and move on with my life. First, in understanding the generations-long pattern in my parents’ families, I realized on a deep, visceral level that none of it was personal. Yes, I deserved better. But so did they. And so does everybody. But that’s the way the world works. We deal with the cards we’re dealt, if you’ll forgive a worn old cliche, and we make the best of our situations. Otherwise, we end up expecting something from the world that the world can’t give, bitter and disappointed, and hanging onto the hurt and anger that, while we didn’t deserve it, is nevertheless our responsibility to let go of.
Second, the understanding helped me separate what were my issues–things that I could actually do something about–from what belonged to other people, or to the world at large. As I said, I learned to separate my relationships with my family from the residual hurt and anger I was struggling with. In doing so, I’ve been able to do several things simultaneously: nurture my grief, embrace my anger, and work on my relationship with my family. They are all connected, yes, but in separating them into their own issues, I find that I am able to approach each one with a lot more clarity and compassion, both for myself and for the other people involved.
Thus, through continued healing work on myself, I came to terms with my ancient grief and anger, learned to nurture myself, and, yes, found compassion for the people largely responsible for all this pain. “Largely responsible” might sound blaming, but in reality, it is the simple truth. I can say it with love and empathy in my heart for them (even though I mostly feel these from a distance), and feel light as a feather when I do.