When people hurt others, it may be tempting to chalk the behavior up to the scars of some past traumatic events in their own lives. But this is far from always the case.
Most mental health professionals are familiar with the adage that “only hurt people hurt people.” This often repeated saying reflects the longstanding belief that we would all naturally turn out to be decent, caring, loving individuals who treat their fellow human beings with respect and dignity if we didn’t experience traumatic events during our critical character formation years. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would do unconscionable things to another if they weren’t still bearing the scars and emotional pain connected with their own past abuse and neglect. But while there’s certainly truth to the notion that emotionally wounded and unhealed people are at greater risk for engaging in socially problematic behavior, it’s not necessarily true that trauma always lies at the root of such behavior. In fact, when it comes to a person’s character formation, sometimes what doesn’t happen is just as important as what does. It’s the important life lessons some folks failed to sufficiently learn and embrace during their formative years that seem to make all the difference to how they later relate to others and the world around them.
When I was doing clinical case research for Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], I came across something interesting. It appeared that despite coming from backgrounds devoid of emotionally scarring trauma, many of the character disturbed individuals I had worked with or evaluated had failed to learn several of the most crucial lessons which all of us have to learn to function well in a social world. Some had failed to learn how to respect the vulnerabilities and needs of others. Others had failed to learn how winning in the long run often necessitates being willing to give some ground or make some concessions in the short run. Still others hadn’t learned the supreme benefits of “owning” and honestly reckoning with personal shortcomings and failures; they didn’t know when it was best to put their pride aside and face up to their missteps. Sometimes, these important life lessons simply weren’t taught. Other times, the importance of these lessons wasn’t stressed or reinforced. And in some cases, despite the fact the the lessons were actually both taught and well-modeled by primary teachers, they were never really “embraced” because the person’s heart just wasn’t open to accepting and adopting them. Coming to appreciate the crucial importance of these life lessons to a person’s character development, I codified what I affectionately called the “10 commandments” of sound character development — see my Series on Developing Character. (For some time now, other clinicians have been urging me to expand upon these essential aspects of sound character formation, so with the help of my co-author on How Did We End Up Here? [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], Dr. Kathy Armistead, a new book will hopefully be released soon tentatively titled “The Ten Commandments of Character: How to Lead a Significant Life.”)
It’s also been a common perception that individuals with significant disturbances of character don’t change. But when you look at things from a learning perspective, the prospects of change appear much more hopeful. If arrested character development is more about what a person hasn’t yet adequately learned, then there is hope — because all of us have the capacity to learn. Of course, how motivated we might be to set old ways aside and to try out some new strategies can vary considerably, and whether the pressure we’re feeling to do things differently is primarily internal vs. external makes a difference, too. But while change is never easy, we humans are unique in our capacity for learning. So when it comes to helping the character impaired among us to see and do things differently, it’s all about optimizing their motivation and encouraging their embrace of the essential axioms of healthy, pro-social living.
It’s never too late to learn, and there’s a special benefit that comes with new learning. When we try out new strategies and witness the consequences, we gain a unique kind of insight: experiential insight. It’s the very kind of insight that the character impaired among us so desperately need. And acquiring that kind of insight often requires mastering and taking to heart some crucial lessons which many people learn and embrace much earlier in life. I’ll be posting more on some of these lessons from time to time, hopefully on the heels of the release of my next and likely last book.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on September 26, 2016.
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