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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

When People Let Us Know What the World Has Done to Them

We tend not to get far through an average week before being hit by examples of distinctly insensitive and wounding behaviour. Someone at work keeps making us feel powerless and irrelevant for not listening to a message we are trying to share with them. A friend shows us with unnecessary energy just how much more important their studies are to them than we are. A prospective partner blows hot and cold, wanting our presence and then the moment they get it, shutting us out, leaving us confused and humiliated.

At such points, the temptation can be to despair of human nature, draw a blanket over our heads and give up. But we might – as an alternative – apply a particular phrase to make sense of what is at play:

Someone is letting us know what the world did to them.

What we mean by this is that the way in which a person is confounding us contains a disguised repetition – unfairly directed towards us – of what someone else, probably a close caregiver in childhood, did to them many years ago. They are following an invisible – usually forgotten – script handed to them by an imperfect yet impactful role model.

Isaac Israëls, Portrait of a Wounded KNIL Soldier, 1882

Thinking this way has two immediate benefits. Firstly, it can help us to imagine – both accurately and consolingly – that the problematic behaviour almost certainly has rather little to do with us. It will have started long before we came on the scene and is not ignited by anything especially awful in our characters, as we’re inclined to fear. We’re not being punished for our sins or reprimanded for failures in our souls that have been secretly identified; we’re the unwitting recipients of pain set in motion elsewhere long ago for very separate and sad reasons.

Furthermore, the phrase gives us licence to carry out our own psychological detective work. Rather than passively submitting to insult and bad treatment, we can turn the tables on our tormenting acquaintances, recover a sense of agency, and start to assemble bits of an answer to the puzzles of others’ motivations.

We might not know too much about someone’s past, but even with only minimal information, we can begin to hypothesise certain poignant and elucidative back stories. The person at work who doesn’t take any trouble to listen to us must once, despite their current high status and power, have been a helpless child to whose needs someone didn’t pay very much attention. However hard it may be to picture, what we have on our hands is not an implacable opponent but the frayed and overlooked psyche of an overlooked infant. For their part, the friend who tells us once again that they can’t see us because of a pressing deadline might have had intimate experience in their younger years of what it is like to be shut out of someone’s life on the grounds of ‘work’; they may be snubbing us now, but chiefly because (most likely) a mother or father turned them away at their hour of most intense need. Likewise, someone in the past of the seducer who blows hot and cold with us after every date must have given them a strong taste of the pain of being pulled in and then cast out again when they were barely the size of a chair.

We may go on to wonder why humans seem compelled to act out these unfair scenarios. The simplest answer is that we are prone to imitate the behaviour we are shown, assuming it to be the way things must and should go. An additional suggestion is that we inflict pain on others in the hope of being relieved of pain ourselves. We come to believe that evacuating a problem onto someone else will magically lighten our own load, a version of the psychology of the bully, who unconsciously imagines that if only they can mock someone weaker than they at school, they will feel less hurt and crushed by the mockery that is their lot at home. 

Imagining the ways in which people’s distressing behaviour towards us reflects difficulties in their pasts gives us an opportunity to reflect on how we might ourselves be causing trouble for others. It is notoriously hard to directly perceive how we might be acting in problematic ways, but the phrase prompts us to start – in a roundabout way – with our own injuries. It invites us to reflect on how people entrusted with our care might have hurt us in our formative years; perhaps we were made to feel insignificant or our cries were not heard or we picked up an impression that we were repulsive or ‘too much’. These memories then give us critical clues with which to explore the acutely uncomfortable topic of how we might be evacuating our pain on to others around us. Might we be champions at making others feel small? Do we have a distinctive genius for hinting that people don’t matter to us? A mechanism powerful enough to explain what others are doing to us will also – along the way – shed awkward light on what we may be continually doing to others in turn. 

Ultimately, the phrase ‘someone is letting us know what the world did to them’ offers us a conduit to a more compassionate society. Few of us actively torture others; most bullies have no clue they might be any such thing. We’re all merely blindly following certain damaging and insensitive scripts. We’ll be on a path to greater kindness once we attempt, in many situations, to try to behave towards as others as no one ever particularly behaved towards us – but should very much have done.

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