Do you really want to hurt me?

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.

While it’s true that perhaps we do end up being strengthened by the hurt we feel, there is a period of time where it doesn’t feel that way.

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

From http://www.verybestquotes.com

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.

It’s a mistake

Over my recent vacation to Canada to introduce our new baby to family we had one of those frightening moments.  He was sitting next to me on the sofa as I was watching him play with a toy.  Thus far he had been a pretty stationary baby.  He was starting to move more and I was paying more attention to him so he didn’t fall.  My aunt asked me a question and I turned my head and just like that I hear people yell out and I turned my head back to see him dive onto the floor, landing head first, his head bending backwards.  I picked up quickly and held him close, his cry was different.  My wife then grabbed him from me, not because she was mad at me (I think) but just her own motherly need to hold him.  I was on the verge of tears.  My head was swimming with thoughts that I had broken his spine and he’d be paralyzed or that I had caused some other brain damage…perhaps even fatal.  Thankfully he was fine, although if he gets a B in math class I’m sure I’ll feel responsible.

In reflection I thought about how quickly such horrible tragedies can happen.  What if the fall had been a bit harder?  Hit a different part of the head?  At times, life seems to be a matter of fractions of seconds and millimeters (inches for my American friends). It made me think about some recent stories I read about parents who have lost their children.   Earlier this year a bookcase killed a 3 year old girl as she tried to climb it and it tipped over killing her.  These kinds of things happen often enough now that we should be more aware, but there are literally a lot of possible dangers out there and I am not sure it’s possible to prepare for every one of them.   Very recently, footage at a London train station showed a baby carriage blowing onto the tracks as the parents stopped to help someone with their bags.  Fortunately the mother was able to get the carriage off the tracks in time, but the stroller literally gets turned by the gust of wind caused by the approaching train and quickly ends up on the tracks.   There is nothing remarkably different about these two events other than some fortune in spotting the trouble before it was too late.  I am sure there are many more parents who have been fortunate that a similar accident has not killed the child only injured them.  Or perhaps they caught the impending accident in time by catching something before it fell or moving the child out of harm’s way.  Perhaps when the child was a little younger and lighter, or the bookcase a little heavier they saw it teeter a bit and said “Hey, I should secure that.”  The positive outcome is most often the outcome.   Children can take more bumps and bruises than we think, and tears are often temporary.  No child dies from crying no matter how much we don’t want to see those tears.  But we simply can’t predict or foresee all possible dangers.

These two incidents and the one I experienced are good examples of how habit influences our lives.  We often get used to routine and what we consider as usual that we don’t take into account the unexpected.  After 7 months of my son not trying to roll off the couch you come to sort of expect that it won’t happen, even if that seems stupid in hindsight.  I am sure the parents who lost their daughter to the falling shelves, never thought she would try to climb it, or never had seen her try before.  I’m sure all of us who are regular train travelers are well aware of the gust of wind that rushes ahead of a train, especially in an enclosed station.  How many of us might think about how that wind might push a stroller?

The routine can even lead to more unfathomable mistakes.  Such as not realizing your child is in the car seat behind you and leaving them in a hot car for hours.  If you are a parent or just a compassionate person it takes just a second to imagine what the infant must have gone through.  There is no way your mind can take you through that slow death.  You will hit a wall before it gets really terrible and all you know is that unspeakable darkness comes after.

These incidents unfortunately also end up serving as a reminder of the lack of compassion that is so visible in society today.  The comments that people make to these parents are truly horrifying.  Scores of “perfect parents” who think they’ve done everything right and would never make the mistakes these parents did.  These perfect parents are calling for the gallows instead of realizing that the person you are criticizing is in a massive amount of pain.  If it could be displayed as a physical wound it would be a chest wound to the heart with the patient ending up in the intensive care unit in critical condition.   And how “perfect” are these parents anyway? Have these parents never had their kid fall? Driven over the speed limit with their kid?  Driven in a busy city with their kid?  Have they never lost their kid in a crowd?  Have their kid’s sweaty hand slip from their grip in a dangerous situation?  Did they never have to watch their kid after having a couple of drinks, perhaps affecting their judgment or reaction time?  There are more possibly dangerous scenarios than I can list, and the fact that nothing ever happened to them during that time is the only reason they are not one of these tragic stories.

Now don’t get me wrong.  There are terrible parents out there.  There are parents who do unspeakably horrible things to their children, or who are just irresponsible and are neglectful to their children causing them great harm, mentally, physically, and sometimes fatally.  It is actually the harm to children that led me away from the idea of their being a loving deity out there, but perhaps that is a post for another time.  The point is that the death of a child is always a horrible thing regardless of how it happens and so it is understandable that we would get angry.  That feeling, however, does not give us the right to lash out at other people in pain.  We all make mistakes, and many of them go unnoticed because nothing bad ever comes close to happening while we are making them.  You want to get angry, direct that energy into something useful; education, better safety standards, helping others.

These perfect parents, even if it were possible often sound like the kind of parent who hovers over their kid, never letting them play just because they might get a bruised knee and keeping them so far from danger that they are more likely to get brought down by the simplest things in their adult life because they’ve never had to cope on their own.  And here’s the rub – as parents we must walk that thin line between protecting our children and giving our children the freedom to overcome their own obstacles in life.  Children need to face fear, and they need to solve their own problems and make mistakes while doing it.  Children also need their parents to be good people, and not just good guardians.  The London couple helping out somebody with their baggage is a great act of kindness that kids need to see.  If you think that you are a positive individual who is a good role model for your children then part of you must continue to be the person you’ve always been.  Kids may take over your life, but you are not your kids.  You have your own identity and, again, if you value yourself then part of being a good parent is just being what you think is a good human being (good luck in getting an agreement on that anytime soon).

Finally, I want to quickly express my concern for the trend in wanting to criminalize every parent for these mistakes.  All the details of the case rarely get reported and unless you are intimately involved in the case you really don’t know the truth.  Furthermore, even though many parents do not face criminal charges thankfully for these horrific mistakes, some do simply because they don’t have what society considers having a “good character”.   Maybe you occasionally do some marijuana, maybe you flirt a little with other girls or had an affair. Maybe you just aren’t a rich white person.

All I can tell you is that had my son truly been severely injured or killed in his fall, I can guarantee you that no prison would have walls stronger than the one I would have built for myself.  Nothing you could say would be harsher than what I would be telling myself.  I will guarantee you that you do not love your child any more than I do and though your negative judgment would be despicable, I would still never wish on you such pain in my anguish.  So if you can’t direct your anger and sadness to the loss of a sweet child into something helpful at the very least remember the golden rule, which I hope you are teaching your children, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.”