Years ago, I worked as the manager of a cute little camera shop. It was back when people still brought their negatives in to be turned into prints. The shop was nestled in the heart of an affluent part of town. I loved my regular customers and I loved my job.
One day, one of my regulars came into the shop. She was agitated and threw her negatives onto the counter.
“You figure it out,” she said, tossing a list at me. I looked at what she’d given me but I had no idea what she wanted.
“Could you show me what you want?” I asked, trying to be as kind as possible. She was obviously very upset and I didn’t want to make matters worse.
“Just figure it out!” she retorted. “Are you stupid? Just do it! I don’t have time for this. My husband is out of town.”
I tried again to make sense of what she’d given me, but I really did require a little more input on her part and told her so.
“I said, ‘Just do it!’ ” she shouted. “Do I look like an idiot to you? Who do you think I am? Either you take care of this or I’m going to call your regional manager and tell her how rude you are to your customers.”
At this point, I became angry. I’d been nothing but helpful to this woman for months, and to suddenly have her treat me like this was infuriating. The look on my face probably didn’t help matters, because she suddenly burst into tears and ran out of the store.
I was stunned to say the least and I watched her pace in front of the front window of the store for several minutes. I was so completely dumbfounded by this turn of events that I hadn’t even noticed another customer in the shop who had been watching the entire exchange.
She was an older woman and she gave me a sympathetic smile.
“Do you understand what happened there?” she asked me.
“No,” I said. “I have no idea.”
“Her husband is out of town.” She made quotation marks with her fingers in the air, waiting for me to clue in. I just looked at her.
“With his secretary,” she clarified.
“Ah.” The lights went on for me, and I suddenly felt a wave of sympathy for the poor woman who had just been yelling at me. She’d been utterly convinced that I was insulting her, that I was demeaning her, that I was hurting her, when in reality I had only been trying to help her complete her order.
Someone else was hurting her very deeply and because of that betrayal by her husband, it clouded her view of everything in her path.
This sort of thing is not a rare occurrence. In fact, I dare say that we’ve all done something akin to it at some point. Kindness is an easy gift to accept when we haven’t been hurt, but our pain often becomes a lens through which we see the world. Our sensitivities don’t say as much about other people’s intentions as they do about what’s going on inside of us.
Dr Clarence Baptiste, director of the A1 Counselling Centre in Toronto, Canada, puts it this way: “In therapy, we find that people who have been abused or hurt in the past are especially afraid of allowing themselves to love or receive love. They are afraid that they could be hurt again and they want to protect themselves.”
This elemental drive to protect ourselves from pain is what affects every other relationship in our lives, from friends and family to the strangers we encounter.
Sometimes we see this when people discover that their significant other has been cheating on them, and in future romantic relationships they are very suspicious, afraid of being duped once again. Or we see it when people have been abused in childhood and become very guarded adults, afraid of opening up to anyone, friends or family.
We can even see it in simpler scenarios, such as when an employee steals from his boss and the boss becomes more reserved and less trusting of all of the other employees. Regardless of the source, if you don’t address your pain, it will affect your future. That’s a guarantee.
In overcoming pain of the past, Baptiste gives us five simple steps we can take so that the experience doesn’t cloud our future.
We hear this again and again when it applies to abuse, but this step applies to other painful situations as well. For example, we would all agree that the child who has been abused by a parent is not to blame, but what about the boss whose employee is stealing from the company? The boss might easily feel responsible, wondering if he could have done something to nip the situation in the bud.
This kind of thinking, while logical in some respects when it comes to putting safety precautions in place, can go too far. The boss feels betrayed and taken advantage of. He feels vulnerable. But regardless of our preparedness for unforeseen circumstances, other people’s behaviour is never our fault.
People make choices and if those choices hurt you, you aren’t to blame for the choices another person makes. Accepting that you are not at fault for the pain you are experiencing is the first step in healing.
It’s easy to downplay our pain, because by pretending that it doesn’t hurt, we try to fool ourselves into not feeling it. That sort of strategy doesn’t work for long and our fear and anger come out in various ways.
Whether your pain is a physical wound that everyone can see or an emotional one, it’s real and it deserves to be addressed. The woman whose husband was cheating on her couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t bothering her, because the pain exploded on everyone she came into contact with in one way or another.
This is a big step in addressing your pain, because it puts the responsibility back where it belongs. The person who hurt you might not have meant to hurt you. It might have been as simple as a misunderstanding or as sinister and intentional as planned abuse; but regardless of the severity of the situation, the person who inflicted the pain needs help to understand that what they are doing is causing pain and must stop. That help might be in the form of counselling, or it could be a simple conversation under less extreme circumstances.
Every situation is unique, but one thing remains constant: it isn’t acceptable to hurt other people. If that person is unable or unwilling to change, you must remove yourself from that abusive situation. It’s the smart thing to do.
They are likely to be just in need of help. Recognising this is a vital step in learning to forgive the person who hurt you. Parents who abuse their children were often also abused in their own childhood.
They need help learning better coping mechanisms than were taught to them by their own dysfunctional mothers and fathers. The dishonest employee stealing from his company might have money problems at home or have issues with authority.
Pain is like an electrical current that flows from one body into another. Until that current is grounded and dealt with, it will keep going from person to person, inflicting pain as it moves along. Most people who hurt us aren’t evil people, just hurting people who need help dealing with their own personal pain.
This is not so much about forgetting as it is about letting go of the hurt. This will give you an opportunity to start again.
This pain doesn’t have to affect your future. You can face it. You can deal with it. You can make positive decisions that will help you to break abusive cycles and you can choose to start again.
While pain might be inevitable in life, it doesn’t have to last forever. You can face it, overcome it and learn to love again.