Hurt People Hurt People and The Seven Keys of Conscious Compassion


Some of them are hard to love.

They come into my classroom with a scowl upon their face and a dark shadow behind their eyes. They sit slumped and defiant or spend the entire period looking like they’re ready to fight.

Some of them are hard to love.

They respond to a positive word with a curse, cutting others down with their words even as others try to lift them up. They seek out the weak and bully them into bruised submission.

Some of them are hard to love.

They scrawl their writings on the walls and destroy the belongings of others, leaving a path of destruction in their wake.

Some of them are hard to love.

And those are the ones that need love the most.

Because hurt people hurt people.

And we can (and often must) respond punitively, creating consequences for actions and penalizing behaviors. Parents are called. Detentions and suspensions are meted out. Communicating that the behaviors are not permissible and hoping to make the outcome severe enough to shape the choices made in the future.

But when the behaviors come from a place of hurt (as they so often do), simply communicating, “You shouldn’t do that” followed by a repercussion doesn’t halt the behavior. It doesn’t alter the root cause.

Because hidden behind the unlovable shell is a wounded child. Scared that the family will be evicted from home after overhearing a heated conversation about the ever-tightening finances. Angry at the parent that walked out and moved on to start a new family, discarding the old. Ashamed that he or she did something to invite the unwanted touches that seem to come with increasing frequency. Anxious about being perceived as dumb as the demands of school become overwhelming.

And all of that hurt gets compressed into a dense and potent projectile, aimed and ready to fire at anybody that gets too close. Choosing an offensive strategy in an attempt to feel in control and to limit further pain.

And in some ways, the strategy is effective. People are kept at a distance and connections (that risk pain upon breaking) are not formed. But of course, the pain remains. Not only within, but shared generously with those around.

Hurt people hurt people.


In the beginning of the divorce, I focused on the bad. The malignancies within his character and the implied cruelty in his actions.

Part of that was intentional. A sort of insurance that I would stay safely out of love with him. But much of it was simply inevitable. The shock and awe so bright that it blinded me to any possible good in him.

I was hurt.

And I was determined to hurt him in kind.

For months, I studiously avoided any memories that painted him in a favorable light. Or, if they came despite the lack of an invite, I immediately voided them by deciding that either the memories were false or the man I remembered loving was simply putting on a play for my benefit.

In my mind, he was all monster and no man.

And that worked for a time. It certainly severed my love swiftly and completely. It ensured that I remained at a safe distance. And it even allowed me to be grateful that he was no longer in my life.

But then at some point, that view no longer served me.

In fact, it held me back.

Dismissing 16 years of wonderful memories as all false was like excising a benign and harmless tumor from my flesh. I knew what he had become but I didn’t have to believe that he was always that way. I couldn’t believe he was always that way. Because I once knew the boy before he became the man. And the monster.

So, I started to allow in the good memories. The smiles. I allowed some of the brutish paint to wash off of him. And I examined what lay beneath.

A wounded soul.

And I cut that rage, that disgust, that fear with equal parts understanding and compassion.


Not because I approve of his actions.

Not because I wish to excuse him of any consequences.

And not because I intend to allow him to hurt me any more.

But because I remembered of all of the hard-to-love students that I have had move through my classroom over the last many years. And I recalled how once I learned their back stories and understood the root of their pain, I could find compassion for a student that once provoked only rage.

And I reflected on the power of that compassion.

Sometimes, it was enough to wash the bladed armor off the hard-to-love child. Turning a problem into a blossoming to celebrate.

And yes, often it wasn’t enough. Maybe the wounds were too deep to heal properly or the kindness too short-lived or inexpertly applied.

But then I also remembered that I have never once regretted viewing a hard-to-love child with compassion. That I remain hopeful that some seed has been planted that may one day grow. And that I feel more at peace when I lead with empathy rather than anger.

And so I used that experience to reconsider my view of my ex husband. To allow that maybe, just maybe, his actions were carried out not in a desire to hurt but because he was trying to escape his own hurt.

And like with my hard-to-love students, I felt my anger dissipate and peace flow in its place.

Hurt people hurt people.

And when you allow yourself to see the hurt, you become able to see the person. Not just the ugly mask.


I often face push back for the view I choose to have of my ex. It’s seen as “too soft” or giving in to what the narcissist wants. And it is true that some people see compassion as a weakness and move to take advantage. And it may very well be true that he is not capable of feeling remorse or compassion himself.

It doesn’t matter.

Compassion doesn’t come with qualifiers for use. It’s not meant to only be applied to those with whom we relate and those who elicit feelings of sympathy.

Because often the ones who are the hardest to love are the ones who need it the most.

So how do you practice compassion in such a way that you do not enable or come to further harm?


Rather than practice knee-jerk kindness, strive to act with conscious compassion.

The Seven Keys of Conscious Compassion

1) Set and maintain boundaries to protect yourself.

2) Allow or provide appropriate consequences.

3) Avoid expectations of behaviors and responses.

4) Do not take the behaviors personally.

5) Seek to identify the root cause of the behavior.

6) Accept that you cannot control the other person’s responses and actions.

7) Apply conscious compassion to everyone, including (perhaps, especially) yourself.

Here’s how I strive to practice (and yes, it’s always practice, never perfect) conscious compassion in regards to my ex husband:

1) Set and maintain boundaries to protect yourself.

I immediately directed my paycheck into a new account so that he did not have access. Next, I make a commitment to avoid looking him up online after the divorce papers were completed. I am fortunate that he took care of excising himself from my life, but I would enforce a no-contact rule even if he hadn’t. In this case, this is compassion from a distance.

Compassion and boundaries are not mutually exclusive. You can behave compassionately and still refuse to tolerate certain behaviors. You can practice kindness and still remove somebody from your life. In fact, if you practice blind compassion towards others without the boundaries that you need, you are not behaving compassionately towards yourself.

2) Allow or provide appropriate consequences.

Perhaps I went a little overboard with this one in the beginning. I didn’t have to call the police. But the bigamy was a felony:) I no longer attempt to make him face the consequences, but I also refuse to do anything to shield him from their impact. His cause. His effect. Or, as Rush Limbaugh said, “Compassion is no substitute for justice.”

3) Avoid expectations of behaviors and responses.

This is a difficult lesson. Before I returned his car to him (crazy and long story here – read the book), I combed through the items left and I took much of it as evidence (like the wedding vows in his own handwriting to his other wife!). I found two sentimental items in the glove box – a pocket watch that had belonged to his deceased grandfather and a cassette recording of his childhood best friend’s father, a folk musician. I left them on the driver’s seat.

Stupidly, I expected to receive some indication of thanks. Or at least a slackening in the on-going assault against me in the courts.

There was nothing.

But even then, I was still glad that I gave him back those items. And from that experience on, I never again expected anything in return for any kindness. Except the very real fact that just doing it made me feel better.

4) Do not take the behaviors personally.

From The Four Agreements in Divorce:

I hadn’t read the book yet, but this little acceptance changed my life. When I embraced this message, I began to forgive and to release the anger. Before that point, I saw him as deliberately working to destroy me. On some level, I pictured him plotting in his basement office, stroking the soul patch on his chin,

“Let’s see… I’ve already maxed out this card. Hmmm…I know! I’ll use the one in her name so that she has to deal with it later. Okay, now that the financial ruin has been planned, what else can I do? Well, obviously, an affair would be upsetting. Now, where can I find a willing woman? Oh, and at some point, I’ll have to leave her – yeah, that will really destroy her! What would be the worst? In person? Phone call? Letter? Sticky note? Skywriting? I know! I’ll do it with a text message. She’ll never see that coming!”

Pretty crazy, huh? I was taking it personally. In reality, he was not thinking of my well-being any more than I considered his during the divorce. Once I realized that his decisions and actions were about him, not me, I could stop reacting defensively and start seeing more rationally. He was hurting too.

It is difficult in a divorce to not take things personally. After all, you two were a partnership, a team, and now your partner has been recast as your adversary. It’s a wake-up call to realize how individual we really are. You were married to each other, yet you each experienced the marriage through your own experiences and perceptions. We can have empathy for another yet we have to take responsibility for ourselves.

Our egos take a beating in divorce. They perceive any attack as directed and they try to fight back. Put down the gloves and accept that the ego is simply protesting, much like a child throwing a tantrum. Let it cry. Let it scream. And then wipe its tears.

5. Seek to identify the root cause of the behavior.

This is often tricky because the person who has hurt you is often unable or unwilling to dig that deep into themselves. So you have to be a detective and assemble the clues. In my ex’s case, his parents were both alcoholics and I have a suspicion that there may have been abuse by another adult in his life. I had the benefit of being able to reflect on interactions I had witnessed between the boy and his parents and the childhood home videos that I viewed with his teenage commentary in my ear. I have my guesses as to the root causes. They may not be accurate, but that’s not the important part. Just recognizing the possibility allowed my anger to soften.

6) Accept that you cannot control the other person’s responses and actions.

His choices were/are his choices. His responsibility. I refuse to engage in “what if” thinking, exploring potential differing outcomes based upon what I did or didn’t do. My locus of control only extends to myself. So that’s what I chose to focus on.

7) Apply conscious compassion to everyone, including (perhaps, especially) yourself.

Because inside all of us has been a wounded child. And often that child just wants to know that he or she is seen and the pain is acknowledged.

Hurt people hurt people. And sometimes we turn that around and hurt ourselves. To thine own self be kind.


Conscious compassion keeps you safe.

But it also gives you freedom.

A way out of the cycle of hurt people hurting people.

Thank you for sharing!

11 thoughts on “Hurt People Hurt People and The Seven Keys of Conscious Compassion

  1. I’m still in the early stages of my divorce and waiting to go to mediation/court next month.

    I woke up early today with much anger towards my ex (fraud, lies, etc.) and others involved in pushing her towards divorce – they never considered my side of the story nor cared to ask before pointing my wife towards a divorce lawyer rather than suggesting counseling. This post was great timing for me, too.

    I hope I can learn to put it into practice.

    Thanks for all your posts. They’ve been a light in my dark, dark world these days.

    1. So sorry to hear. I know it’s rough and I know the anger is raw right now. I remember that those times well. Good luck in the weeks leading up to court.

  2. Brava!!! This – I just can’t say enough about it. It hit on so many key points for me. Since the beginning of our split, I have tried to be as loving and compassionate as I can with my ex – realizing that he is operating from a place where he is only capable of doing what he can do. He refused to deal with his demons (even when I begged him to) or even acknowledge that he has any issues – so how could I expect him to deal with the end of our marriage in a healthy way? I won’t lie – it’s hard sometimes. I was (and still am on occasion) angry with him for the way he handled everything and the way he treated me – but that anger doesn’t hurt him – it only hurts me. Good stuff, Lisa!

    1. It’s so hard to lead with compassion. I know I have to remind myself often and frequently slip up. But you are so right, the anger hurts the one who carries it n

  3. I do agree and understand his behavior is all of his own childhood and behaviors coming back to haunt him. Like you said though, the problem lies in the fact that the narcissistic types see compassion and kindness as a weakness and ultimately use this to their advantage. While understanding this allows me to move to into a better place within myself if I continue to GIVE this compassion to him constantly simply continues the cycle. I have compassion in the fact that I don’t want any harm to come to him, I know he suffers too. But someone who doesn’t try to help themselves yet will continue in their blaming sort of behavior, may not deserve my compassion. The most compassionate thing I can do for myself is to withdraw the over-giving of compassion and allow him to stumble and fall (or not) because I won’t be his scapegoat anymore. No one is willing to be one for me, I will not willingly be his either. Thanks for letting me say my take on this. I’m certainly no expert unless on the job experience counts here. – LOL

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