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Encountering Chronically Hurtful People
How to Identify Them and What To Do
excited to introduce special guest author Roxanne Livingston to you because she's the real deal. She's
made chronically hurtful people the focus of her professional work, and come out of it with the essential
nuggets we each need to recognize who these people are and to immediately initiate certain key self-care
strategies when we do.
We suggest you get a copy and
memorize what she's discovered - it could save you a lifetime of pain and suffering (this is no exaggeration!)
Here's a taste of what you'll find:
Most of us, maybe all of us (except
perhaps true saints and mystics), have a capacity to behave toward others in hurtful ways, and most of us have
behaved this way in one way or another--likely more than once. However, I have come to understand over time that
there is quite a difference between people who occasionally "lose it" and do hurtful things and those who behave
hurtfully as a matter of course. These differences are important both in clinical practices (whether in
psychological and medical practices or in social service work) and in our personal lives.
In both arenas, those who try to serve, assist, or live with hurtful people often find themselves frustrated,
discouraged, confused, or even furious. While these reactions are understandable and normal, once one understands
the issues and dynamics of the situation and has tools appropriate for the task at hand, these effects can be
People who have empathy for others and who live their lives in accordance with some version of "treat others as you
would have them treat you" may assume that it may be best to treat someone who does something irresponsible and
hurtful with understanding and forgiveness.
Understanding and forgiveness work well with those who acknowledge and care about their wrongdoing, recognize a
common humanity and interdependence with others, and are willing to make changes. However, when understanding and
forgiveness are directed toward those who repeatedly engage in irresponsible behavior and have no interest in
changing, those irresponsible behaviors may be reinforced rather than altered.
I have noticed over time that responsible and caring people often put up with a chronically hurtful person (CHP) in
their lives for years. Their thinking goes something like, "It takes two to create problems; it must be my fault
too" or "She is a good person underneath," or "I am probably too sensitive," or "He just is tired, (stressed,
lonely, etc. etc.). And when the CHP is a public person affecting society, "Our culture is so competitive and
stressful, no wonder he got caught up in that and did that." Overlooking problem behavior in others and accepting
too much responsibility for another's hurtful pattern serves no one.
THREE KEY WAYS TO IDENTIFY A CHP:
Identifying a CHP is not always an easy matter. CHPs are expert at fooling people, and expert at eliciting
One way we can begin to suspect that the person we are dealing with is a CHP, is by taking some time to review our
past dealings with this person. Be as scientific and objective as possible. Pretend you are watching a play and
these people are characters saying and doing what was said and done.
1. Did this person change?
If, for instance, he or she did something hurtful to you or others, ( i.e. lying, cheating, manipulating,
attacking, blaming, etc.) did this person apologize, make amends and change, or not ?
2. Is what he or she says congruent with what he or she does?
3. When things go wrong are others blamed?
Self-Care Strategies When Dealing With a Chronically Hurtful
When a person, or group, or social system begins to realize that he or she (or we) have been struggling with a CHP,
it may be helpful to do the following:
1. Pay attention to your own feelings and experience.
So many of the manipulative behaviors on the part of CHPs are designed to keep a power imbalance in place,
i.e. keep others off balance, distressed, dependent or confused. The CHP needs to be "One-Up."
The CHP in your life may at times behave in a way that you feel comfortable in her presence, but sooner or later,
you will be back in discomfort. Notice that.
2. Name your feelings.
When you are reviewing your experience, pay attention to how you felt; so often we can find ourselves thinking
about what happened, trying to "figure it out" instead of feeling what happened.
Try on several different feelings if you are unsure what you felt. If you come up with "confused "or "guilty" as
your feelings, try going a bit deeper. "I wonder if what I was really feeling was fear, ( or anger, or hurt or
3. Support your feelings.
Even if at first you are unsure about what happened or are questioning or judging your response, accept and support
your feelings. "I judge I shouldn't feel what I feel, but the truth is I do."
4. Ask the feelings what they want.
Listen to what your feelings are saying. If you are angry, you likely need to set a boundary or limit. If
you are sad, it might help to get comfort and support for yourself from a trusted party.
If you are scared, you may need to get information about what might indeed be dangerous, and find ways to create
safety for yourself, emotionally or physically or both.
Once you have learned to stay with yourself, i.e. stop wondering about what the other person "really means" or "why
that happened," try thinking about and practicing the following for any future dealings you may have with the CHP
in your life.
1. Everything this person does or says or claims to feel is 100% about that person.
If he has been blaming you, it is about him. If she is saying she is "truly sorry" it is about her.
2. Remember that you are a credible and responsible person.
If that is true for you, you do not need to prove yourself to anyone, much less a CHP. Trust yourself.
When you conduct your life so that your outward behavior is congruent with your inner values, that is enough. Trust
3. Stay out of fights.
A CHP may attempt in many ways to keep you in distress. In his mind, he is the victim of any disagreement or
conflict, no matter what really happened. If you find yourself reacting to a provocation from a CHP, stop the
action as soon as you can. Remove yourself from the area if need be, but time yourself out in some way to
4. Stop needing or wanting from this person.
This is difficult because, of course we want our relationships, professional, personal, (or as citizens) to be
mutually supportive, trustworthy and responsive.
Reciprocity and respect for needs are normal expectations in a healthy relationship of any sort and in a healthy
society. However, if we become dependent for our personal sense of self-worth or well-being on a CHP, we will need
and want from someone who is incapable of mutuality.
Power is what CHPs are about, not relationship.
People who are disconnected from their inner selves and are dependent on drama and excitement outside of themselves
for a sense of aliveness, wreak havoc in the lives of others.
These people consider themselves to be good people and are not interested in the negative consequences that their
behavior has for others.
While there may be a number of reasons to explain anyone's hurtful pattern of thinking and behavior there is no
excuse. (The exceptions here are some people who are brain-damaged, or may have a severe form of psychosis.)
Those who work with or live with CHPs survive and thrive only when they:
detach from responsibility for someone else's choices, and
take very very good care of themselves.
Roxanne K. Livingston, M.A., is a Licensed Professional Counselor practicing individual,
couple and family therapy for the past thirty years in Oregon.
She provides training and consultation to social service, mental health and health service agencies, corrections
departments, public school personnel, and private practitioners.
Previously she was the unit director of a multi-service mental health program for youth and families in
Winston-Salem, N.C. and supervised an outpatient mental health program in Linn County, Oregon. She was a therapy
supervisor for a model treatment program for sex offenders in Salem, Oregon, and was an adjunct professor of
Psychology at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
She has regularly taught classes on mental health related topics for public agencies under contract with Portland
State University. She was awardedClinical Membership in the International Transactional Analysis Association in
1978, and is a Nationally Certified Counselor.
She has also completed a one year certification program in Transpersonal Studies through the Institute of
Transpersonal Psychology in Menlo Park, California in 1990.
Roxanne Livingston, M.A.
February 13, 2012
You can ask for permission to reprint this or reach her via email at
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