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Break the Cycle: How to Stop Hurting Others When You Were Mistreated

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“What’s broken can be mended. What hurts can be healed. And no matter how dark it gets, the sun is going to rise again.” ~Unknown

I grew up with difficult and hurtful parents who spoke critically, with the intent to demean.

Each word of sarcasm, each thinly veiled joke or put-down undercut my self-esteem. Each knocked me down a rung in life and kept me from my potential.

Rampant comparisons to other Indian kids succeeding academically, attacks of my mediocre performance at school, and harsh language were my mother’s weapons of choice.

When someone attacks your self-esteem repeatedly, you feel beat down. It feels like you were meant to fly, but your own family is making you drown.

Then, your natural tendency might be to do to others what someone has done to you.

My tendencies were to judge and compare others in my mind, to taunt and verbally attack them. It was fitting then, I guess, that my career path led me to becoming a lawyer, now an ex-lawyer.

As I got into the habits of sabotaging and hurting others, I never thought much about it. I just assumed that because my parents had talked to me harshly and treated me badly, I had the license to do the same to others.

Others could handle the pain because I had. Others could endure a verbal lashing because I had. Others could handle emotional abuse because I had.

You, too, might have grown up in a household that wounded you deeply. You might have never been able to leave the shadow of the pain and suffering you experienced. And you might have learned to treat people as others once treated you.

I’ve come to believe that just because others hurt us, that doesn’t mean we have to continue the cycle of abuse.

You don’t have to fall into your natural, default behaviors. You can change. You can choose different actions and make different decisions. You can break the cycle of negativity, criticism, and abuse.

Here are six steps to heal the pain you felt and end the cycle of hurt.

1. Work on forgiving those who hurt you.

This may be much more easily said than done, but forgiveness is the key to healing. If you can’t forgive today, at least set the intention to forgive. It doesn’t matter how tragic or traumatic your past was; you must forgive for yourself. You’ll feel like a heavy weight has been lifted from your shoulders. You will be able to breathe much more easily.

It helps to put your abuser’s behavior in perspective so you can see their actions in a different light.

Try to understand what influenced their behaviors and characteristics. For example, with my parents, they were likely raised in a similar way. Also, culturally, parents in Asia tend to be direct and hold you to high standards because they want you to succeed in life. Their intentions may have been ultimately good, but the way they went about parenting was misguided.

Look at them through a lens of gratefulness. What could you appreciate about them, in spite of the pain they caused? Is there anything you can appreciate about the pain? I owe my sense of compassion, which is the foundation of my work, to my parents. Because of how I was hurt growing up, I now do work that reduces suffering and helps people find peace.

Look at them through a perspective of love. If you saw them through a loving prism, how would you explain their actions and behavior?

2. Work on your own healing.

Instead of burning in anger and hatred, focus on what you need for your emotional and mental health.

Assess the damage they’ve caused, look at the impact their behavior has had on your life, and determine what you must heal.

Visit a counselor if necessary. Find coping mechanisms. Write about your hurt. Open yourself to a spiritual practice. Seek the tools that can help you heal your emotional wounds.

Cultivate love for yourself. Speak to yourself gently. Let go of your high demands and expectations of yourself. Notice if how you treat yourself is similar to how the people who hurt you in the past treated you.

3. Look for alternative role models.

Watch your behavior and notice what you do when others hurt or anger you. How do you react when others push your buttons?

If you don’t know how to respond or react differently from the people who raised you, look for alternative role models. Seek people with positive and emotionally healthy ways of responding to personal situations.
Study them. Take notes. Notice how they handle trying circumstances. Model their behavior in your own interpersonal relationships.

4. Learn positive and empowering behavior.

If you were taught destructive and dysfunctional ways of being and speaking, opt for alternative ways. Hold back on hurtful words, convey your needs with softer language, and respect other people’s boundaries. Practice listening intently instead of responding rashly to what others say to you.

Recently, someone told me that I couldn’t park my car in a particular part of a lot and had to park much further back and walk. The area I had parked in was for the vendors of the event I was attending.

My first reaction was to fight back, use the parking lot rules against them, ask for the manager, and make a big scene about how unjust it was for me to have to move my car a couple blocks away where there was clearly space right there.

Then I noticed the person was wearing a volunteer badge and had an overwhelmed expression on his face. I opted not to do what my defacto behavior was and instead chose understanding. I tried to see that he was doing the best he could and was just looking out for the vendors, who were critical to a successful event.

Even if this person was wrong and even if it was unfair, I could still make his day a little less stressful and more pleasant. I could avoid arguing, making a scene, or verbally attacking someone who was trying their best to serve others.

5. Focus on your reactions instead of the behavior of others.

You can’t control others’ reactions, but you can learn to notice, change, and improve your own.

Look for triggers and other behavior that provokes you. Notice your immediate reaction when people treat you badly, disrespect you, or lash out against you.

Instead of immediately engaging with this behavior, withdraw, reflect, analyze, and take a thoughtful next step.

This is what I had to do when I was talking to a woman I had recently met, who was not a fan of the type of writing I do.

I found her remarks dismissive and non-supportive, and felt like lashing out. I wanted to attack her in some way or put down some part of her life that she valued, but after several days and after much calming down, I focused on my reaction. I let the anger simmer, re-evaluated her simple preference for fiction writing, and came to the conclusion that different people have different reading preferences.

I was still hurt and told her so without demeaning or attacking her in return. I was able to communicate that I was hurt, which she apologized for, without hurting her. A win!

6. Spread your light.

Remind yourself that even if you grew up with challenging people and the darkness of human behavior, you get to choose how you treat others and show up in the world.

You can operate by the default of hurting others—or, worse, seek revenge—and mimic the harmful and negative habits you witnessed growing up, or you can actively take different steps and make different choices.

You can bring yourself out of the darkness of bad behavior, cruelty, abuse, and negligent child rearing. You can go out in the world choosing love and spreading your light of compassion and understanding.

You can be the conduit who transforms pain into healing, not only for yourself but for everyone around you. You can show others who are hurting that forgiveness, understanding, love, and compassion are possible even after you’ve been hurt. And in doing so, you can help make the world a less hurtful place.

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About Vishnu

Vishnu is a writer and coach who helps people overcome breakups to rebuild their lives and live with purpose.  He blogs at www.vishnusvirtues.com For Vishnu's latest book, 10 Sacred Laws of Healing a Broken Heart, visit his Amazon page here.

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  • This is a great article… and one that has many gems of wisdom in it. I can’t eally add to this article that much, but will say that if forgiveness is difficulty, try the Hawaiian Ho’oponopono system of forgiveness, for it is a great starting part (just make sure that you focus on the feeling, and not the words, that’s all;-)
    Thanks for posting

  • thanks for the feedback @juliansirian:disqus and appreciate the addition of the Hawaiian system of forgiveness. I’ve heard it in passing but now more curious on it. Great description of it in your comment.

  • Rachel

    This is a very real experience growing up in Asian families. My family are very judgement and critical people, and stepped all over me since young. What I achieved, was never good enough for them unless I am the best. I struggled with low self esteem my whole life despite being an over achiever. And worse, I have learned to be judgemental and critical of people around me.
    It was only after a major life changing event that happened to me, that I woke up, reflected alot and change myself.
    Now, I love my family from a distance and kept strongly to my personal boundaries.
    Sometimes, the people you love hurt you the most. Sad but true.

  • Tiina

    Vishnu, thank you for this article. I wish daily for people to live in more awareness of your latter points. I think we often know the first three and work on those. I would like to know more about your thoughts and how you address the judgment and of being overly critical of people you love (and others). Being aware of where it comes from is great, but I have not yet found a lot of articles that I feel directly address how to quiet the judgment and criticism that you also speak of in the beginning. Thank you again for sharing

  • KathyFitz

    Great and unique article! Thanks, I needed that! I would only interject that first we must recognize that we are acting in the same way as we were treated. It’s difficult to see beyond what feels “normal” to us.

  • Damian Hudson

    Vishnu,
    I really enjoyed your post and it helped me a lot. I being quite young, i didn’t have the wisdom you had but this gave me a little more wisdom that i will help others with just like you did. This was really helpful with me because i sometimes would not trust woman, believe that all where the same and only wanted me as long as I was doing well. But this really helped me believe that not every girl is the same and I have a lot more trust and faith in the world. I will stop letting the past dictate how i treat women and will trust them again and hopefully find myself happy in loves arms again. thank you

  • Jamie

    <3

  • rt

    Vishnu good on you for standing up and realizing what is wrong for you, not who and what others do to us. I grew up in a family where I was physically and verbally abused by my father.I was never praised or treated with respect. But being the person I was and knowing what he was doing was wrong I always spoke up hoping we would understand what he was doing was wrong. But this cost me more abuse. I refused to give up my values and change who I was because of who my father was. Then I married and ended up with a very controlling man, which I had accepted for many years because that’s what I had grown up with. Until after 25 years of my marriage decided that my life and values were too important to accept this relationship any longer. But when I finally stood up for myself (again as I had in my childhood) this person’s true colours of disrespect became extremely evident on top of being very controlling. And that’s when I decided at the age of 50 I was not going to accept,change or continue living like this for rest of my life,so I separated. What I learned Vishnu is when you know in your heart what another person is doing is wrong (especially family) don’t change who you are,become like them or accept that this as normal because it is not. We all make mistakes because of how we are treated but cannot see this at the time. But the day I realized I would not change who I was and took back my power, was the day I finally showed myself the respect I deserved that I had not given myself growing up or married. You stood up for yourself and realized what was right for you and you did the greatest thing,changed and this deserves forgiveness. When we know better, we make better choices and decisions and that’s a gift to ourselves and one we now share with others. Good luck!

  • Sarah Zoe Bufton

    Wow, you really summed up so much of what it means to be a good person in the world today, no matter where you come from. We all have a heartache to overcome. Someone who treated us poorly. Why would you want someone else to feel that pain when you can lift them out of it instead?

  • Tipis

    Thank you Vishnu for this inspiring article. It touched my heart to read about the parental abuse. I have had a similar childhood and a physically and emotionally abusive father- and trying to heal and relive my life with mor love for myself and the world. All the best for your spiritual journey too. Wish you much happiness and love.

  • Thanks so much Tipis. Your comments and well wishes mean a lot.

  • Thanks @sarahzoebufton:disqus for your comment. Yes, why would we treat others poorly when we can uplift them. Good question and point, and something that I strive to do intentionally. Our default can sometimes be to fall back on those types of behaviors displayed by the people who treated us poorly.

  • thank you friend.

  • hi there, i’m speechless and inspired by your words. so admirable. thank you for sharing the power of strength, standing up for yourself and staying true to who you are. thank you for sharing the gift of your story with me and others reading.

  • Forgiveness only really becomes possible when you have healed the inner hurt that fuels the anger of non-forgiveness.
    The best approach to bring about such healing comes with learning to meditate on the painful emotions inside you, what in mindfulness psychology we call the Little Self. What the Little Self needs more than anything is YOU, that is your True Self, the bigger part of your being that can love and care for the Little Self (ego). This is precisely what we learn how to do when we meditate on our emotions; we learn to love ourselves again.

    The Boulder Center for Online Mindfulness Therapy

  • appreciate the kind words @disqus_xHh02XvWgD:disqus yes indeed, thanks for that addition!

  • Good question, Tiina. I’m going to work on this one next : ) How do you lessen the tendency to judge, compare and belittle others. Something both that I am actively working on and will contemplate for writing. A couple suggestions off the top of my head is to remind ourselves that everyone is facing their own struggles and battles, and to give them a break. Second, I’d say we should practice self-awareness nad be actively looking for our minds when it does this. So not focusing on the judgment but trying to catch ourselves on the act of judging. Thank you again.

  • Your comment resonates with me big time Rachel. Yes, I think many of us are experiencing similar things from a cultural perspective. Thank you for sharing what happened to you and what you do now to manage your relationship with your family.

  • Thanks so much for adding to the discussion and sharing this emotional healing technique with us, Peter!

  • Glad to hear the spark of light and wisdom. Letting our past treatment plus belief systems have less and less influence on our lives today is the goal 🙂 @damianhudson:disqus

  • Tanya Jain

    This was so wonderful and helpful. I really enjoyed reading this.

  • Thank you for reading @disqus_bOuCyGMFKN:disqus

  • Shanker

    Hi Vishnu,

    Very good article. I accept many of your points. However, it is not clear how can I love my offender though I can sympathize with him. I can feel grateful for other things he did to me too. But I don’t think, I can order myself to love him. That looks like a self-abuse!

  • hi @disqus_RluS6odpas:disqus thanks for your comment. I think we can only do what we are able to do. Gratefulness is a good first step. It’s not about loving the offender as much as trying to view them through a prism of love and compassion for the purpose of forgiving them.

  • Balroop Singh

    The light that you carry within is spreading its glow everywhere Vishnu! I am so happy for you that you have found serenity and peace despite all the criticism that you had faced while growing up…I can relate so much to your upbringing dear friend. Our own hurts can be no excuse for mistreating others, well said!
    I know how hard it is to forgive but we have to do so to gain our own freedom, to let go the demons of past and be at peace at some stage of life. It is creditable how you have slowly worked your own way towards healing. Stay blessed and keep spreading your virtues. 🙂