The Real Truth About “Hurt People Hurt People”

“Hurt people hurt people,” or “Hurt people hurt others,” is a poignant phrase that contains a lot of truth.

The premise behind the phrase is simple. It infers that people who are taking wrong actions and causing harm to others often do so because they are acting out of their own anger, fear, pain, sadness, trauma, and suffering.

In many situations, that person would not be acting that negatively if they had not been harmed, so they should be viewed with compassion instead of shame.

The problem with “Hurt People Hurt People”

That can be a problematic belief. In theory, it’s great. It gives a reason for the person’s wrong actions. It encourages other people to view them with compassion instead of leaping to negative judgments. But, on the other hand, it’s not always true.

The funny thing about anger and conflict is that it feels ridiculously good for some people. It feels good to clash with other people. It feels amazing to come out on top. But some people, bullies, spend their time punching down because they can’t actually handle real conflict with someone that will throw it right back at them with equal or greater force.

That is a very foreign concept to some folks. To most people, anger is a negative emotion to avoid because it doesn’t feel good to them. They don’t want conflict. They want peace and quiet.

Yet anger can make life so simple and clear…

“To hell with these people. They are the reason my life is bad. They are the reason I can’t succeed. It’s not me or my shortcomings. It’s these other people.”

And anger causes people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Anger allows a person to justify their own garbage behavior instead of having the humility to examine oneself and acknowledge their faults. It’s a convenient scapegoat that, unfortunately, really stifles a person’s emotional growth and maturity.  

Compassion and kindness do not mean being a doormat.

Martyrs, or enablers if you prefer, with poor boundaries are the first to tell you how important it is to be kind, and in their mind, nice to people who may not act civilly. As a mentally ill person who spent a lot of time facilitating support groups and doing peer-oriented work, these people are exhausting, wrong, and usually burn out real quick.

“Hurt people hurt people” is a lovely phrase that some manipulators will gladly stand behind to shield themselves as a poor excuse for their negative choices and actions. And make no mistake, plenty of those wrong actions are active choices to get one over on the other person they are dealing with. They know what they’re doing is wrong; that’s why they hide behind an excuse instead of brazenly standing forward with their negative actions.

It’s like the domestic abuser that takes great care to hide their actions, then claims they didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong. Or an unfaithful person in their relationship who claims they didn’t think it was a big deal. Of course they knew these actions were wrong. That’s why they were hidden. They didn’t want to suffer the negative repercussions of their actions.

The context of trauma and mental illness is slightly different, but not by much. The martyrs excuse that negative behavior, which encourages it, making it much harder for those people to actually face their problems and recover.

Going through a lot or having problems is not an excuse to treat other people poorly. However, sometimes it does happen as a byproduct of trauma or mental illness. If a person’s brain is telling them that everyone is an enemy and they totally and completely believe that their mental illness distorts reality, then hey, that’s how it is. Still, you can’t have soft boundaries with that person because they can and will cause harm to you or your life if you allow it.

Similarly, trauma responses can cause a person to react with anger and fear on an instinctual level when they feel like they are threatened or in danger. But, again, that requires compassion with firm boundaries as well. It’s not okay to accept abuse or bad behavior because someone else suffered. Suffering is infinite, and you are only one person.

You do not, and should not, be a doormat and accept bad behavior just because another person has had a hard time.

“Hurt people hurt people” can stifle personal growth.

As a hurt mentally ill person myself, sentiments like “hurt people hurt people” stifled my personal growth and recovery. I used it as a convenient excuse to hide behind when I did a wrong thing instead of just owning up to my own bad choices and actions.

Sure, there were occasions where I was motivated by mental illness or trauma. But, there were also other occasions where it was just an easy way to avoid responsibility. And unfortunately, avoidance does not lead to personal growth or recovery.

Many people get so wrapped up in their own pain that they forget to try to heal and move forward. Instead, they get trapped in their own negative mental spaces where any small amount of light that tries to shine in just gets snuffed out.

Being hurt, experiencing trauma, living with mental illness; all of these things are so incredibly difficult to deal with at times. It can be extraordinarily hard to do the right thing when your brain is feeding you bad information about the world, causing you to emotionally react and overreact to situations that may not mean anything.

And sometimes, it’s just impossible to do the right thing. Sometimes we don’t have a choice in the matter.

But, in other situations, we do. We have choices to make in approaching treatment, accepting who we are, and striving to be healthier people. A person who does not find joy in their anger and conflict will spend their life miserable and alone once the people around them start erecting healthy boundaries.

So if you are one of those people who see their pain and trauma as a convenient reason to do wrong and hurtful things, do yourself a huge favor and start working on it. Get yourself to a therapist. Take it from a former bitter, angry person. Happy, healthy people don’t spend their time with bitter, hostile a**holes. Healthy people just politely nod and slowly back away until you look around and you’re all alone.

You may have already experienced this in your life. It’s okay. There will be other friends, other relationships. You just have to keep pressing forward to a healthier place.

Hurt people hurt people.

Yeah, they do.

If you want to be compassionate and try to help those people, make sure your boundaries are solid and be prepared for some conflict. Don’t take it personally because it’s not personal. The way they act toward other people is typically a reflection of what is happening inside them. So long as you act ethically and upright, you have nothing to worry about.

What happy, healthy person goes around causing harm to other people? That’s right, they don’t. They’re too busy enjoying their life to bother with that absolutely meaningless conflict. They’re not drowning in their trauma or need for conflict.

And if you are a person who wants to stop causing harm to others, really try to get at the reason why that is. It will likely require a therapist to get to the bottom of the problem and start working on a solution. Life doesn’t have to be that way. Most problems can at least be managed if not resolved in a meaningful way.

But that will require a choice, a lot of work, and personal growth.

You’re not a bad person because you’ve done some wrong things. You can be better and do better things. You just have to be willing to confront your hurt and work on healing it.

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About The Author

Jack Nollan is a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years now. Jack is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspective from the side of the mental health consumer. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.