Hurt People Hurt People: Healing the Hurting While Protecting Yourself

Heart Ballons

Thought this image really represented the idea of releasing a situation out of love.

“Hurt people hurt people.” (As in, people who have been hurt generally end up hurting others.) I’ve heard this expression I don’t know how many times, and every time it comes to mind, I’m reminded of another pattern of behavior I see in people. Let’s say you’re walking though, I dunno, the food-court at the mall, and you notice a piece of trash on the ground, laying right in your path. The way I see it, there are two types of people: those that pick up the trash and toss it in the nearest garbage can, and those that pass the garbage by, leaving it for someone else to pick it up. (I promise I’m getting somewhere with this.)

So if we agree that, generally, hurt people hurt people, and that their behavior is rooted in their own emotional wounds, my question naturally becomes, how do we help hurt people? (Both to help them heal and to prevent the cycle from repeating itself.) Well, for starters, rather than stepping over other people’s garbage and letting someone else take responsibility for it, we should take the extra time and effort to pick it up and throw it away, thereby making the food-court a happier, cleaner place for everyone to enjoy. No questions asked, and no hard feelings one way or the other. Just doing your civic duty. More directly: when someone hurts you (verbally/emotionally) the best way to help the person that hurt you is not to just ignore the offense and silently hold a grudge, or to pretend the offense never happened. Neither of those options help heal the offender, and in fact, can be seen as a passive-agressive way of condoning hurtful behavior. Making the effort to aid in the healing of that person could enrich their life, and prepare them to be a healthier contributor for future relationships. They could be one less hurt-person going around hurting other people.

So what do you do? I’m not saying this is perfect, but here’s what works for me:

  1. Grieve the offense. And by that I mean allowing yourself the grace to know that however the offense made you feel, that your reaction is perfectly okay, and totally normal. Feeling hurt is okay, and rather than trying to push it down and remain unaffected, give your emotions freedom to exist. Soon enough all of the really strong, volatile feelings will ebb, and you’ll be able to think a little more clearly about the situation. Don’t try and fix the situation while you’re still feeling passionately about it.
  2. Forgive. Often, this takes time. Giving yourself the time to grieve will go a long way in allowing your heart to be open to forgiveness. But here’s the thing about real forgiveness: Your forgiveness cannot be conditional on the offender’s willingness to make amends. Forgiveness is not a two-way street. It’s not a trade. You choose to forgive the offender, and they owe you nothing for it. I’ve often heard it put this way: “Forgiving someone doesn’t “let them off the hook,” but it lets them off of YOUR hook.”” I’ve always liked that.
  3. Define why the offense was wrong, and establish boundaries. This is where you look at the situation, and figure out why, specifically, the offense was so hurtful. This can only happen honestly, and without spite, if you’ve forgiven the person. Remember: when I began, my question was “If hurt people hurt people, how do we help hurt people?” It’s important that you can explain how the other person’s words/actions affected you. For example, “I’ve always trusted you as one of my closest friends, but when you lied and spread rumors about me, it completely broke my heart. I love you, but what you said about me isn’t true, and until this is repaired, I can’t trust you the way I used to.” It’s important that the offender knows that you will not allow them to continue hurting you. That their actions have real, measurable consequences.
  4. Release the situation. Once you’ve forgiven and addressed the offense and its effects, that’s the end of it. The offender doesn’t “owe it to you” to apologize, or repair the damage done (though that’s obviously the preferred outcome), and if you’ve truly forgiven, you won’t feel like you’re owed anything. But on the flip-side, you don’t owe it to the offender to allow yourself to continue being hurt by that person. If the offender chooses not to do their part in healing themselves, it is your responsibility to take care of yourself and remove yourself from the situation.

I probably felt motivated to write this out because while I’m happy to pick up litter even when it’s not my own, in relationships, for most of my life, I was the the type who allowed herself to be hurt over and over and over again, because I was too afraid to upset the offender to risk pushing for healing. I always felt like, since I’m strong-willed enough to take it, I should stick around because obviously this person needs me in their life. But along the way I’ve learned that I can’t sacrifice my emotional health so that someone else doesn’t have to bear the responsibility of their behavior. By bearing the brunt of this person’s hurtful behavior, all I was doing was enabling that person to continue hurting others without having the opportunity to realize that their actions have consequences.

And here’s the thing about all of that, and the consequences of aiding in another person’s healing process: usually it stings (like when you clean a scrape with an alcohol swab), and the hurting person will likely recoil. You might lose that relationship. But that’s okay, because the healing needs to happen, regardless of whether or not you’ll be around to see its eventuality. Another thing I’ve learned is how important it is for each of us to do our part, regardless of whether or not we get to see the healing through to its end. We must understand that, even with the relationships we value the most, we might just be one small brick in the path to that person’s restoration, and never actually see the person fully restored and emotionally healthy. And while that’s especially hard for me to reconcile, I realize that it’s not about me, it’s about what’s best for the hurting person, and I’ve just got to acknowledge that no matter how badly I want to play a leading role in their healing, I might just be a teeny-tiny bit-part, and I need to be happy to do the very best I can with that.

Someday, when I feel up to it, I’ll talk more about this again. But until then: have you ever had to have a tough conversation in order to help heal a friend or family member? How’d it work out for them? Did you ever see them come around?

Leave a comment


  1. Gerry

     /  March 11, 2012

    Profound, insightful and experienced – thanks. Was aware of the approach but haven’t always followed it – good reminder.

    Am only a recent subscriber (caught one of your tubes re iPhone and then was interested to hear more) but have found myself agreeing with many of your views (from the weird happenings with the dreams re your laptop, to career v motherhood, to breast feeding (my wife manually expressed for 4 months – very very hard, and emotionally painful when it stopped)). Think yr posts are great, and your husband and daughter sound great too – bet they’re very proud of you. Don’t stop posts or tubes. Thanks x

  2. katmercer

     /  March 12, 2013

    love it!

  3. You might enjoy a book called “Bonds That Make Us Free”. A lot.

  4. I have a lot of hurt people in my midst , family too. As of yet, I have not seen these people come around to healing, but I was willing to step out of their lives to allow them to heal.

  1. Reassessment | Running Screaming

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