What does not kill me makes me stronger
Inflicting suffering upon another person is universally accepted as being morally wrong. But we hurt one another all the time, every day of the week, every hour of the day – regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, social position or sexual orientation – to the extent that the world is never short of pain and suffering, caused both intentionally and unintentionally.
For example, rather than cooperating, many of us instead choose to compete against one another’s needs, aims and desires, hurting or abusing people as we fight for what we want. Some of us hurt others by what we fail to do for them. Some we hurt invisibly by the kinds of jobs we do, choices and investments we make. Sometimes we hurt people and we don’t even know how we did it.
Generally, there’s no great mystery about how we hurt and abuse one another, intentionally or unintentionally. But it is important to find straightforward words to begin to talk about it in straightforward ways that allow us to forgive where possible, let go of people when necessary, recover and heal, and finally learn valuable lessons that can protect us in the future. Knowing how we are hurt, and how we wound others, is the first step to deciding what to do about it. This knowledge then allows us to begin to decide what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in others’ conduct towards us and our conduct towards them. It is this knowledge that is the basis of our forming personal rules of engagement with the world, otherwise known as boundaries. Boundaries allow us to protect ourselves from what is hurtful or harmful, whilst allowing what is helpful and supportive into our lives. Healthy, effective boundaries are what help us recover, empower ourselves, maintain emotional and psychological stability, and preserve and protect us from toxic behaviours.
Some words and phrases we use to describe toxic, harmful or traumatising behaviours*:
Domestic Abuse and Domestic Violence, Narcissistic abuse and Exploitation, Child Abuse, Sexual Abuse and Assault, Criminal Damage, Fraud, Theft, Extortion, Blackmail, Harassment, Bribery, Discrimination, Neglect, Ritual Abuse, Mental Cruelty, Psychological Torture and Trauma, Rape and Date Rape, Cruelty, Infidelity, Evil, Sadism and Sexual Sadism, Invasion of Privacy, Bullying, Stalking and Spying
*if you need to form new boundaries it does not mean you were to blame for, or invited, these kinds of behaviours from others
In therapy, forming new boundaries starts by first of all coming to terms with the pains we have suffered, or caused others to suffer. The process starts by our finding ways to describe and understand what happened before going on to decide how we can formulate new ways of dealing with the world by, for example, constructing more effective boundaries that can help steer us away from situations, people and circumstances that are no good for us.
To that end, here are some of the many ways that we hurt one another:
1. Betrayal: being unfaithful or disloyal; dishonouring agreements, confidentiality or privacy; back-biting/ being ‘two-faced
2. Disrespect: demeaning the other; failing to consider the impact of our behaviour on another’s feelings or wellbeing; unfairly criticising and blaming; humiliating the other; belittling and being sarcastic at their expense; undermining a person’s reputation without justification; personal snubs and insults; mocking the other’s beliefs, words or actions; invasions of privacy and personal boundaries
3. Abandonment: emotionally or physically abandoning the other; neglect of children and other vulnerable persons
4. Theft and Destruction: inflicting loss through stealing, defrauding or causing harm or damage to people, animals or property
5. Usurping and Undermining: withholding reward; favouritism (disfavouring some and giving others preferential treatment); scapegoating; taking credit for the other’s efforts or identity; outdoing and oneupmanship; devaluing the other; using silence or withholding explanations; manipulating or controlling the other (bribery, blackmail, using money to manipulate etc); gossiping, creating scandal or backbiting (including social media); shaming and humiliating; false blame and responsibility shifting or avoidance; placing the other in jeopardy (also betrayal); imposing unfair expectations; creating dependency or enabling helplessness; rewarding or enabling irresponsible behaviour
John was a manager who befriended Sarah and gradually undermined her position in the workplace by taking credit for her ideas, attempting to meet his personal needs by both favouring her and at the same time attempting to coerce her into a relationship. Her lack of confidence and clear boundaries allowed enough ambiguity in the relationship to permit John to continually pester Sarah, resulting in her becoming stressed both in and out of the workplace. By the time things reached breaking point there was no alternative but to take out a formal greivance against John, who was abusing and misusing his position to gratify his personal needs. Clear boundaries could have allowed Sarah to take action early on, helping her avoid becoming ill with stress as the result of years of tolerating John’s narcissistic abuse.
6. Violence, Torture, Cruelty and Aggression: causing distress, loss or harm to the other physically, sexually, verbally, emotionally, psychologically, financially; deliberately instilling fear, pain, stress, worry or anxiety in them (including passive-aggression and animal cruelty*)
7. Lying: being deceitful or false towards or about the other person; withholding concealing or omitting truth or information
- It’s worth noting that people tend to over-estimate their ability to lie successfully and under-estimate the ability of the other to detect a lie. As such, we often ‘know’ when someone is lying, even though we seldom let them know this. Lies can thus impact upon trust in a relationship when a lie isn’t discussed openly. This is true for many of the other ways we hurt one another.
No matter how beautiful a lie is, in the end it hurts even more than the truth would have done.
8. Neglect: denying care, attention, time, merit or affection to another person; depriving them of support; or failing to alleviate unfair conditions when it is within our power to do so e.g. a parent using money for personal indulgence that was intended to feed, clothe and support his/ her family.
9. Exploitation: using another person to serve our interests at their expense (emotionally, financially, socially etc); failing to give the other fair recognition or reward for their efforts
10. Reactive Abuse: “Reactive abuse” occurs when a victim of abuse reacts to the abuse they received and is then blamed and further abused for their reaction. It’s a technique used to shift responsibility for the original abuse, often resulting in a circular argument of blame that the perpetrator uses in an attempt to locate the problem in the victim. All kinds of abusers+manipulators use this responsibility shifting technique. It is an energy trap for victims who try to argue against it.
Ruth was a habitual liar and used betrayal, secrets and infidelity to control and abuse her partner and previous partners. By having another man in the background as an ambiguous ‘friendship’, and a secret phone she used to contact him, she was able to punish her partner whenever they argued about Ruth’s lies and her use of this other man as the ‘third leg of the stool’; a passive-aggressive device abusers use to maintain insecurity and continual threat in a relationship. Arguments often resulted in Ruth disappearing for hours as she ran to her other man, presenting herself to him as the victim, returning home with a cover story of lies about where she had been. This is an example of the vicious circularity of reactive abuse; the abuser blames and punishes her victim’s reactions to her lies, deceit, secrets and betrayals.
Ruth’s lack of personal integrity was matched by her partner’s lack of self-esteem and healthy boundaries: boundaries that could have protected him by his refusing to allow an unfaithful and dishonest woman into his life.
Responsibility and Letting Go
Once we are able to identify the source of our hurt we can begin to better express the emotions associated with it; the needs we have left over; before clarifying who was responsible for the actions that brought about the pain or suffering. Sometimes it becomes necessary for our own wellbeing to remove ourselves from contact with individuals or groups whose influence is toxic to us simply because some individuals are either unable or unwilling to change their abusive behaviours. Letting go of such people can bring both relief and some degree of loss, both of which are important to address. Very often we confuse a sense of responsibility between ourselves and others by mixing our emotions and needs with the other’s actions, and vice versa, for example. Clarifying responsibilities helps us create an emotional separation between self and other. Identifying who was responsible for what is the first step to letting go, unburdening ourselves of unjustified blame, meeting our needs, and turning our suffering into a learning experience instead of a continual source of pain.
Forming New Boundaries
In Part 2 I’ll be discussing ways in which we can begin to establish better ways of protecting our interests when dealing with others: how we can form healthy and effective boundaries and the importance of maintaining and enforcing them.
Truth is everybody is going to hurt you: you just gotta find the ones worth suffering for.
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