Over the years I have treated many people suffering from a variety of psychological and emotional problems. When I listen to what has happened to them I am aware that many of their difficulties originated from what other people had done to them.
There are many theories as to why people suffer in the way they do. Certainly physiological factors such as genetic predisposition, chemical makeup and neural brain structures have real affects on mental health. There are also tragedies that affect our lives such as the death of a parent or sibling, illness or other events that we have no control over. These are real factors that do great damage to people. However, for the most part I am aware that, by and large, what we humans do to one another is the greatest cause of psychological and emotional pain.
How do we hurt others? This may seem like an obvious question, yet it isn’t so obvious when we come to think of it. Of course there are the obvious cases where we purposely hurt others for a variety of reasons. This type of hurting often ‘goes around’ where one person or group hurts another and the victim then attacks the victimizer. Both take turns hurting one another. Now this type of hurting is obvious, but often only from the outside. As we can observe with individuals and countries it often happens that each entity feels like a victim and denies being an aggressor. Denial frequently occurs in the case of hurt. I see this in the case of families.
It is my experience that a great deal of individual hurt begins in the family. That is the reason that I will ask people to give me a family history. During the history I am aware that not only the family members denied hurting one another, but the individual will deny that they were hurt. For example, I will ask someone who is suffering from something like depression and/or addiction what it was like growing up in their family. Often they will talk about parents who judged, belittled, hit, ignored, tormented and generally abused them in one manner or another. Yet in the next breath they will say that the parent was ‘loving’, or ‘did the best they could’. I will often agree that there was love shown, but I need to emphasize that there was also hurt. Children of alcoholic families are prime examples of denied hurt. Nevertheless, I want to make it clear that people are often not aware of hurting one another, especially in the family. How can we become aware that we hurt others?
I believe that a person needs to begin by seeing that he or she is indeed hurt. Wounded people hurt other people. We pass the hurt around – a pecking order, so to speak. Again, we often need to confront our denial that our hurt began in our family of origin. I realize that it causes clients a great deal of stress and anxiety to admit that their parents hurt them. However, I will explain that many relationships are mixed, with positive and negative. One does not have to negate the other. For example, a codependent parent can do harm to a child by trying to take over that child’s life. Nevertheless, the codependency and the harm it causes will often be denied by the parent and child because there often was a conscious good intent on the part of the parent. Nonetheless, even in the case of outright injury there is usually denial present.
Alice Miller, a Swiss psychiatrist, wrote about this in her book, ‘For Your Own Good’. In it she explains how many societies rationalize child abuse and call it a form of love. This also confuses children. The result is that the person is left with many issues such as poor self esteem, anger management problems, PTSD, depression, addiction and other problems. Yet they are unwilling to admit these, since it will implicate their parents. In addition we will not admit that we hurt others. Thus, this whole destructive pattern of hurt is held in place through denial. This is the core of many mental health problems.
We have to begin, as a race, to admit that we are hurting one another constantly. We were hurt and so we carry this on. Mental health is often not such a complex matter of genes, chemistry or any philosophical or religious origin. We not only hurt the ones directly around us, but we indirectly hurt others through social and national policies that harm individuals and nations. And when we hurt others we do harm to ourselves. Mental health begins and ends with responsibility.
How can we take responsibility for our own lives and the lives of others? We can take responsibility by facing who we and the truth of our lives. We must learn to accept how our words and actions affect other people. We must listen rather than judge, support rather than blame, be kind rather than stern, connect rather than avoid. Yesterday at a restaurant in Toronto I heard a young woman say to her friend as she spoke of her father; “He never listened to me, he never asked me who I was, he never was interested in my life, and he never understood me.” It is in this way that people are harmed. And it is in responsible relationships that people are healed.