Joy is an uphill battle when the people in your life do nothing but hurt you.
As I spent months studying the topic of joy, I couldn’t ignore the power of community and social intimacy for rewriting hurts, building resilience, and bringing joy. However, I also couldn’t ignore how some social connections are the cause of a life without joy.
Loneliness is an epidemic
A large reason why individuals are lonely today is because their relationships have hurt them. As a result, they shrink away from intimacy and connection, not wanting to experience that hurt again.
But loneliness is a greater pain than the hurt people give us.
In this article in the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States, wrote, “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”
Loneliness is a major health problem. If we let our hurts drive us into isolation, we suffer long-term.
So what’s the solution? First, we notice the hurts. Then, we begin the journey of repair by first becoming a safe person ourselves.
What’s a safe person?
After a grueling time of counseling, my counselor recommended a book to me. He told me I had struggled from the betrayed trust of past relationships, and this hurt was causing me to isolate and not trust anyone. In reality, I didn’t know who a safe person was. So he recommended the book, Safe People, by Dr. Henry Cloud and John Townsend.
Reading the book highlighted not only the ways I’ve been hurt, but the way I’ve hurt others. I wasn’t always a safe person. My hurts caused me to repeat those same hurts to others.
But I soon learned that by becoming a safe person myself, I could help others become safe people.
My definition of a safe person is anyone who is …
- Present with us (able to engage with our emotions, sit with us without distraction, and offer empathy)
- Kind and generous with you (able to extend words of love, share their life with you, and practice grace and forgiveness)
- Honest with you (able to tell you the truth and confront you when you need confronting)
When we notice the hurts people give us, we first start by being a safe person with them. In some instances, this allows them to change their ways. Of course, in cases of abuse and extreme hurt, you need to remove yourself from the relationship. But being a safe person can change the hurts and invite intimacy into relationships.
10 qualities of people who hurt you
How can we notice these hurts? First of all, they’re difficult to notice. Many times, someone will say or do something that doesn’t initially hurt us. But a day later, we wonder why we feel tension in our spirits. It’s because the seed of that hurt given the day before has now blossomed.
Sometimes we don’t feel the hurt in the moment. Other times we do. But if you’re curious about what behaviors can hurt you, watch out for these 10 qualities of people who hurt you:
1. They are quick to apologize.
Apologizing is a good thing. But you often have to beware the speed at which an apology comes. If someone does something wrong and are quick to beg for forgiveness, do they actually understand why they hurt you? Or do they want to end the drama of the situation fast?
In my experience, people who are quick to apologize often repeat the mistake that caused the hurt in the first place. These fast apologies often lead nowhere.
A real apology should be supported by a change of behavior. Otherwise, it’s empty.
2. They don’t make it safe to share feedback.
If you can’t be honest with a person without them getting defensive, they are not a safe person.
A safe person takes feedback for correction, and meets it with humility. When shame distorts a person’s outlook, they see feedback as an attack and retaliate with a defensive attitude. This is not safety, and will end up hurting both parties in the long run.
3. They avoid vulnerability.
“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” -Dr. Brene Brown
Sometimes, people like to avoid sharing difficult emotions. They give off the illusion that they are always happy or unphased by troubles, when on the inside, they are actually hurting.
People do this when they struggle with vulnerability. They struggle with letting people see the messy, dark parts of their life. And when people avoid sharing this space with others, it leads to surface-level relationships that only perpetuate loneliness.
If a person cannot be vulnerable with you, they’ll end up brushing past your pain when you try to be vulnerable with them. Relationships can only exist on the surface, a place where loneliness loves to linger.
4. They don’t take ownership for faults.
Shame is a tricky emotion. Oftentimes when people feel it, the pain of it is so great, they look to discharge it fast. This oftentimes takes the form of blaming or lying for self-preservation. They don’t want to feel that they are bad, so they look to make another party responsible. Because of this, they can’t take ownership for their faults.
But ownership is necessary for growth. There will be times when this person needs to own up to their fault so they can take the actions to fix them.
Without ownership in a relationship, you’ll face a dead-end, where the real responsible party never takes actions for correction.
5. They don’t allow you to express emotions.
Imagine you’re sad and a friend comes to console you. But all of a sudden, they hijacked your sadness. Now you’re comforting them because they’re inconsolable.
Or imagine you’re angry at a friend for a valid reason. But that friend responds by guilting you for feeling angry at them. Then you’re forced to let go of your anger and apologize to them, because they’re angry with you now. They hijacked your anger.
Unsafe people don’t allow you to feel your emotions. They hijack them and make situations about themselves. These people hurt you because you can’t be honest with them. Your emotions don’t belong in your relationship with them.
6. They are resistant to change.
We are creatures of comfort. We like the security that comfort provides. But this comfort can get in the way when it makes people resistant to any change at all.
For instance, suppose you are in a romantic relationship and the other person never wants to go on a date outside of the usual dinner and a movie because you’ve never done anything else. This person is resistant to change and will keep hurting you unless they invite change into their lives.
Things can’t remain the same forever. For relationships to thrive, they must invite growth and change. When relationships are absent of this, they will be strained.
7. They have to take you down to lift their ego up.
Do you have a friend, family member, or spouse who always makes fun of you? This is sometimes hard to notice, but examine how this person makes fun of you. If they quickly position themselves to be the better figure, then they might have a nasty habit of tearing others down to boost their ego.
This oftentimes comes from a person with low-esteem. When their view of their self is so low, they have to tear others down to make themselves look superior in the eyes of others.
These people will hurt you because the insults and jokes will keep coming as long as they feel less than.
8. They find ways to justify unhealthy habits.
Imagine you try to get a friend, family member, or spouse to stop smoking. You present them with all the facts about the dangers of smoking, and you make an emotional plea as well. You think you’re getting somewhere, when all of a sudden, they come back with a defense about why your facts are wrong and why you shouldn’t feel bad about their behavior.
These people don’t want to change. Even if they’re presented with a rational and emotional argument, they’ll find some way to justify their unhealthy habit. These people will hurt you by continuing their unhealthy ways despite your intervention.
Now, if you are dealing with someone who has an addiction, know that an addiction is different than choosing to justify an unhealthy habit. The person literally has no other option for them on the table other than to indulge their addiction.
If a person has an option to choose an unhealthy habit or change, this person is someone who consciously hurts.
9. They offer platitudes when you need empathy.
Have you ever felt disappointed when you shared your hurt with someone and they respond, “Don’t worry, God’s got a plan.” Or maybe they say, “Just give it to God.”
This is actually a sign that this person can’t engage tough emotions. Instead, they seek to numb with a pithy platitude so they don’t have to go to that negative place.
Here’s the problem: platitudes rarely work. A person won’t feel better after you share a platitude with them. They’ll feel better when you give them what they actually need: empathy. It’s much better to say, “I’m here with you,” than saying a statement that shows you’re not willing to be with them.
10. They are sympathy-seeking.
Sometimes people tell you bad news in their life not because they want you to be with them. They just want you to shower them with sympathy, saying, “That horrible! I’m so sorry you have to go through that!”
They fish for sympathy to feel better. But the problem here is that sympathy is a short-term solution. If they have a habit of sympathy-seeking, your entire relationship will be you giving them pity, not walking side by side.
Empathy is a long-term solution. It takes people by the hand and walks beside them. It doesn’t baby people. It helps them fix the situation so they don’t have to keep relying on sympathy for connection.
What should I do next?
If you’re thinking, “oh no, I know these people,” don’t take any brash action. The gut response is to instantly withdraw from hurtful people. But sometimes, people only hurt because they don’t know any other way.
This is why being safe with a hurtful person is oftentimes the right first step. By being present, kind, generous, and honest with them, you give them the opportunity to be the same for you.
But becoming a safe person yourself is too simplistic of an answer. Relationships are messy, and take careful discernment and gentleness. Just know that becoming a safe person is oftentimes the first step toward reconciliation. If reconciliation can’t happen (or if you’re in an abusive situation), then withdraw.
In most cases, withdrawal should not be the first step. Notice the hurt, be a safe person with them, and transform the relationship into something life-giving. Maybe then, joy can seep into your relationships.