I have always been interested in how the emotions we feel translate into behaviors actions. One of the things I have always wondered about is why feelings of hurt make us want to hurt others. Now I don’t want to over-generalize, but I think all of us, at some point in our lives, have felt hurt to the point that if we didn’t lash out at another person, we have really thought long and hard about it. I am not talking as much about physical pain here, although there certainly is an instinct to obviously fight back at times physically. I am talking more about feelings of hurt at the emotional level. Sometimes we have inflicted pain upon those closest to us and people we love. Such things never lessen the pain, and tend to only make it worse since we are, in general, compassionate beings who know that we’ve inflicted pain upon others. This usually just adds guilt in with the emotional pain we are already experiencing. The question becomes why do we think it, and why do we do it? As usual I don’t really have any answers, but will just explore some possibilities.
The first thing that comes to mind is that it is sort of a primitive survival mechanism. If you’ve ever felt really hurt by someone’s actions towards you, you know that it takes a toll on you physically. Our emotions are a product of the release of various hormones and other chemicals in our body, and so a certain emotional state can have a strong effect on our physical systems. Thus we can actually feel like we are in a fight for our life and the only way to win is by defeating the threat that has impacted us so strongly at the emotional level. This can also be done on a larger scale. Governments can (and have) play up threats to one’s existence and way of life, and dehumanize the enemy to rile up many people into an emotional state where they want to lash out at the threat. It seems clear that feeling threatened on an emotional level, by making it feel personal, making you feel fear, can incite one to fight back. The simplest answer is very often the right one, so perhaps feeling hurt simply makes us feel threatened so fighting back feels necessary to our survival.
Of course what it doesn’t explain is why we might inflict pain on those that we care about. When unknown
enemy or someone you don’t really care for who has hurt you or who you believe is hurting you, it almost makes sense to want to hurt them back. But if you’ve ever lashed out at your spouse or partner in anger, at your child (either physically or verbally), it almost seems counter-intuitive that this would ever be a solution to alleviating your own feelings of hurt. Sometimes those that we lash out at, aren’t even the ones that have hurt us, and so it seems even more strange that we should have such behavior. On a more personal level, it seems to me that in my life when I experience a lot of hurt I often feel like I’m in the dark. Perhaps that is not necessarily the best analogy, but what I’m getting at is that the solution for making oneself feel better is not clear. So perhaps that’s why I equate it to being in the dark, because when you are in the dark it is difficult to find a way out. Depending on the depth of the pain we may start to panic and fear sets in, so we get desperate. We want the pain to end, and get out of that darkness so bad that we claw, and scramble, and we try to move quickly. But like any fast movement in the dark we don’t know what we are grabbing at, we don’t know what we are reaching for and we hit all sorts of things along the way, hurting others and ourselves. Flailing in the dark is never going to be best solution over keeping calm and thinking our way out of that dark palce.
Delving deeper I wonder if there isn’t something uniquely human about this quality that goes beyond some
sort of animalistic behavior and is perhaps darker, even if it isn’t necessarily malicious. When I’ve felt really hurt by someone, it’s easy feel like you don’t matter to them. Just like I said it is counter-intuitive to hurt people we care about, so when you feel hurt by someone who cares about you, it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that they don’t care about you anymore; that they are indifferent. I think apathy is one of the toughest emotions to have to deal with. When you feel like nobody is paying attention to you, it’s easy to get depressed, and more often than not we react in a way that tries to get us noticed. Usually in not the most healthy way either. The feelings of hurt may have us thinking that the world is so indifferent to us that our existence does not matter. Many suicide attempts are simply cries for help from people that do not feel “noticed”. In some way I think we’d rather somebody hated us than were indifferent to us. And so it seems sometimes lashing out at someone may simply be a mechanism for being noticed. If someone is angry at you, it means you matter. It means that they can at least feel some emotion for you even if it is a negative one. To reach that point though it is truly sad, because what we usually want is love and compassion, and when we become so desperate that the opposite becomes the next best thing, perhaps then we truly are in the dark.
The real problem is that I don’t know a good way out of this behavior. There are all sorts of clichés and memes, and self-help books that tell us that harming others is never a bona fide way of alleviating our feelings of hurt, but nevertheless we seem to drift towards hurting others who hurt us. Most of the time we just hurt people in a moment and then we quickly realize what we’ve done and apologize. Sometimes we feel justified in hurting others for the short-term satisfaction it brings, even though it doesn’t end our suffering over the long-term. When I look at war torn countries, where so many people have lost loved ones, and you wonder how can they alleviate the hurt that they feel without continuing a cycle of violence and feelings of hatred? I wonder if this just isn’t a darker part of who we are, and the only thing we can really do for ourselves is to be aware of it, and hope that in the moment we can focus on what will eventually lead to true happiness in the long-term instead of just hurting others, especially those we care about, even if they’ve inflicted pain on us. Maybe they are just as in the dark as we are.