Every one of us is in pain; every one of us wants to be loved. We act the way we act because we want the hurting to stop.
“Pull over! Pull over now!”
In a rage-filled tirade, the driver in the car next to me screams in my direction as he tries to force me off the road and into a nearby gas station.
He’s been honking at me non-stop for a solid mile by this point.
He doesn’t look very intimidating — skinny, middle-aged, average height — but I’m panicking all the same.
“What if he’s got a gun or something?!” I think to myself.
I’m nervous because I messed up, and I know it.
I cut this guy off a few intersections back, and now he’s chasing after me.
I’ve got little choice but to break the speed limit to try to prevent what seems like an impending physical altercation.
What I did, cutting him off wasn’t all that serious — a minor inconvenience at best, a sign of disrespect at worst.
Still, I know I’m in the wrong and I regret my actions.
It doesn’t matter now though: I’ve got this person chasing after me, and I’m doing everything I can to avoid causing an accident or hurting an innocent pedestrian.
As we zoom up the two-lane road, he finally seems to realize he’s not going to get the face-to-face interaction he so desperately wants.
He speeds off into the distance, evidently hurling more insults at me through his rear-view mirror.
I turn down a side street, whisper a bunch of expletives to myself, and try to process what just happened.
I scold myself out loud, saying, “you can’t ever do something like that again. You never know how a person is going to react. You could have got yourself killed, man. Don’t do that again.”
Rethinking the Road Rage Incident
A few hours later, I try to replay the events in my head but this time from the other driver’s point of view.
I can certainly relate to his annoyance.
Nobody, myself included, likes getting cut off.
We all — or at least many of us — get ticked off from time to time whilst driving.
Whether it’s having to sit behind ultra-slow drivers in the ‘fast’ lane or being forced to wait for another light change in order to make a left-hand turn because the previous driver refused to pull into the intersection, we all lose our cool behind the wheel now and then.
However, I’ve never tried to force another driver off the road or to initiate a physical confrontation.
Either way, this encounter wasn’t just about one person cutting off another.
Something else was clearly going on here.
Maybe the other driver was suffering from mental illness — it’s possible, but it’s not the impression I got.
He seemed more irate than anything else.
Plus, I’d seen family members and friends act like this before — i.e., become extremely upset in response to a relatively minor incident — and so I felt I had a decent sense of what had actually happened.
The more I thought about the chase, the more I realized:
This guy wanted to hurt me because he himself was hurting.
Being cut off was not the cause of his outburst; it was the set of circumstances through which he was able to momentarily release the emotional pain behind that outburst.
Whether he understood it at the time or not, his actions were a response to — a manifestation of — all the disappointment, embarrassment, fear, frustration, rage, rejection, and shame he had been carrying around with him, both consciously and unconsciously, for weeks, months, years, or even decades.
Maybe his partner had just ended their relationship (anger, confusion, rejection, sadness).
Maybe he had been fired from his job a week earlier (fear, humiliation, shame).
Maybe he had been dealing with chronic pain for the last 20 months (discomfort, frustration, hopelessness, isolation).
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different possible explanations for his conduct that day, but every one of them, I suspect, involved some sort of emotional trauma he was trying to confront or from which he was trying to escape.
Every One of us Is Hurting on the Inside
Ultimately, there’s nothing special or unique about this guy’s actions or his life circumstances (whatever they were).
This man is no different than you or I — he is us, we are him.
If we honestly evaluate our own actions, we’ll inevitably see that we too sometimes behave in less-than-admirable ways precisely because we feel so much hurt on the inside.
Every one of us is hurting; every one of us is looking for ways to deal with, to give expression to, and ultimately to move past the pain inside our hearts.
We do the things we do either because we’re actively suffering or because we want to avoid re-experiencing the suffering from our past.
If we can understand this idea — i.e., that all behaviour is a product of direct or indirect attempts to avoid or overcome devastating emotional experiences—we can start on a path towards greater self-understanding and increased compassion for others.
This isn’t about excusing or justifying cruelbehaviour or refusing to hold people accountable for their actions.
It’s about acknowledging that:
- Every one of us wants to be accepted, appreciated, and valued by others; and
- When we lack love and support from other people, we tend to engage in self-destructive and/or outwardly harmful behaviour.
We Care What Others Think About Us, and Often for Good Reasons
Earlier this year I delivered a 70-minute lecture on addiction and the War on Drugs to approximately 100 university students.
To begin the talk, I briefly reviewed one of the main tenets of social reactions theories, i.e., that people act in accordance with how they expect others to react to their behaviour.
I then said to the class:
“For example, nobody here is willing to rudely interrupt me right now as I’m speaking because you’re worried about how your classmates would react to you if you were to do so. Your fear of potential embarrassment is encouraging you to remain quiet at this moment.”
The point I was making had nothing to do with whether people in less powerful positions (students) should or shouldn’t challenge the ideas expressed by those in more powerful positions (instructors).
Rather, the point I was making is that we human beings care, often very deeply, about what other people think of us.
Getting kicked out of a big lecture hall whilst our peers/colleagues watch and pass judgment is usually quite a nerve-wracking experience.
Indeed, it’s one we’d prefer to avoid because it typically causes embarrassment, humiliation, and shame.
Fearing these unpleasant emotions, we act so as to keep the audience’s (and the speaker’s) gaze off us, i.e., by sitting quietly and paying attention to the lecture.
This is just one example of the more general principle that we shape our behaviour, more or less directly, based on how we expect others to react to it.
Other examples include:
- Tipping a server after a meal because we don’t want the server or our dinner guests to view us as being cheap;
- ‘Playing hard to get’ in a new romantic relationship in expectation that doing so will make the other person desire us more than if we were to be upfront about our feelings; and
- Using a sterner-than-normal tone of voice when disciplining a child in anticipation that such a change of voice will effectively convey the seriousness of the situation to the child.
We often hear that we shouldn’t pay attention to what other people think or say about us.
On the one hand, this is good advice.
For instance, we all know people who stay in careers and relationships that they despise, sometimes for decades at a time, because they’re terrified that if they switch jobs or break up with their partners, they’ll deeply disappoint one or more people in their lives (e.g., their parents).
Staying in an unfulfilling career or a destructive relationship is incredibly harmful to one’s own health — both mental and physical.
So, worrying less about how other people might judge our decisions regarding choice of career or romantic partner does indeed make a lot of sense.
On the other hand, however, we naturally care very much about what others think of us, and often for very good reasons.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which presents a theory of behavioural motivation based on developmental psychology, tells us that:
- Once human beings have successfully satisfied basic physiological needs and needs for (various kinds of) safety
- We look for meaning and fulfillment in two additional areas of life, i.e., love/social belonging and self-esteem.
(We also seek out self-actualization and transcendence, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
On social belonging and self-esteem, Maslow writes:
“[We] hunger for affectionate relations with people in general, namely, for a place in [a] group, and [we] will strive with great intensity to achieve this goal. [In some ways, we] will want to attain such a place more than anything else in the world[.] …
All people in our society…have a need…for…self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others. … [W]e have what we may call the desire for reputation or prestige…, recognition, attention, importance or appreciation. Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth,…and adequacy of being useful and necessary in the world.
But thwarting of these needs produces feelings of inferiority, of weakness and of helplessness. These feelings in turn give rise to either basic discouragement or else…neurotic trends.”
In short, we need to form meaningful relationships with, and to be respected and valued by, other people.
This need has been developing within our species for tens of thousands of years, if not much longer.
Comparatively speaking, it’s only recently that we’ve been able to survive as lone individuals, what with the advances in technology and all.
For most of human history, being banished from the group meant certain death, either at the hands of rival groups or by the unrelenting forces of nature itself.
We are tribal animals through and through.
It’s not merely that we enjoy being amongst, working with, and helping others, but rather that, fundamentally, it’s who we are.
That’s why banishment, exile, and other punishments that sever the connection between us and the group(s) to which we belong are so devastating: they strike at the very heart of our (social) nature.
A Case Study of Human Suffering: Solitary Confinement
Solitary confinement consists of isolating an individual from all forms of human contact and interaction virtually every minute of every day for weeks, months, or even years at a time.
It’s commonly recognized not only as one of the cruelest, harshest, and most destabilizing punishments in the world but also as one of the worst things a person could ever experience — period.
Prolonged isolation destroys a person’s mental wellbeing and shatters his/her social understanding and experience of the world.
Damaging consequences of solitary confinement include:
- “[A]ppetite and sleep disturbances, anxiety, panic, rage, loss of control, paranoia, hallucinations,…self-mutilations…and suicidal ideation and behaviour” (source);
- Nervous breakdowns, heart palpitations, nightmares, lethargy, headaches, confused thought processes, chronic depression, mood swings, violent fantasies, and the questioning of one’s own existence and/or of the world as such (source); and
- “[D]ecrease in the size of the hippocampus, the brain region related to learning, memory, and spatial awareness … [and increase in the activity of] the amygdala[, … the] area [that] mediates fear and anxiety” (source).
The consequences of solitary confinement, many of which result directly from the forced isolation of self from others, are an extreme example of a more general psychological/sociological principle.
As Maslow explained 75 years ago, we need other people — but not only this, we also need them to need us in return.
This is why rejection — whether by a single person or an entire group — tends to devastate us so much.
Rejection can be as ‘simple’ as a group of kids laughing at a singled-out child or as ‘complex’ as one person divorcing another after 25 years of marriage.
Feeling as if others have turned their backs on us is torturous.
The anger, fear, guilt, shame, and shock to which it gives rise can last anywhere from a few minutes to many decades.
Indeed, we all know adults who are still traumatized by the rejection they experienced as children or teenagers.
As we carry this pain around with us, we try — sometimes consciously, often unconsciously — to suppress it or alternatively to confront it, both of which have consequences for how we live our lives and how we treat others on a day-to-day basis.
This kind of suffering, however, is not the only form of trauma that plagues us at different points throughout our lives, leading us to lash out at ourselves and/or others.
“To Live Is to Suffer, to Survive Is to Find Meaning in the Suffering”
Viktor Emil Frankl wrote the above words in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
In a similar vein, and many years earlier, the existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote:
“With every increase in the degree of consciousness, and in proportion to that increase, the intensity of despair increases: the more consciousness the more intense the despair.” (source)
In simpler language: the more we understand how the world works, the more frightening and depressing the world becomes.
I don’t subscribe to this daunting way of thinking, but I do agree with the implicit suggestion behind it:
As the only social animal capable of rationally projecting itself into the future, human beings have a tendency to ‘fly away’ from the present moment and to obsess about the future at the cost of our (and often other people’s) happiness.
Fear of the unknown — of how different aspects of our lives or of the lives of the people about whom we care might pan out — can be a source of tremendous angst and suffering.
This is likely truer today than ever before, especially given that we now live in a world where it’s extremely easy to compare ourselves — our ambitions, our achievements, our failures — to billions of other people with only a few clicks of a mouse.
Even when ‘life is good’, we still have a tendency to find a way to make ourselves miserable, particularly by comparing our successes and failures to those of others.
Perhaps this is an innate feature of the human condition.
Perhaps it’s nothing but a manufactured reality brought into existence by the needs of industrial capitalism and consumerism.
Either way, it’s clear that we sometimes become bitter, envious, and resentful of the accomplishments of others, even if, objectively speaking, we have little, if any, reason to complain about our lives right now in the present.
It’s not just a matter of keeping up with (or outperforming) the Joneses.
It’s also about the desire to be accepted, respected, and valued by other people.
We Chase Material Things Because We Think They’ll Make Others like us More
Nobody would work 80 hours per week in order to buy fancy cars, top-of-the-line clothing, and flashy jewellery if there weren’t an ‘audience’ to take notice of such purchases.
Driving a Lamborghini is fun, but doing so would eventually lose its allure if nobody else were around to see you in it.
We chase expensive goods and services because we believe — or, more accurately, we’ve been led to believe — that acquiring such commodities will make us more endearing to others. Most of the time, though, we don’t actually want the stuff per se: we want what the stuff will apparently bring us, i.e., the admiration, reverence, and — most importantly — love of others.
Panic → Catastrophize → Lash out at Others
When we’re confronted with the possibility, actual or imagined, that we might not achieve the success we think we need in order to acquire the social acceptance we so desperately want, we start to panic.
We catastrophize: we remove ourselves from the present moment, ‘jump’ into the future, and begin torturing ourselves over questions like:
- How am I ever going to make something of myself?
- What kind of person would want to raise a family with me if I can barely afford my rent each month?
- Am I always going to be known as the ‘family screwup’?
- If I quit my job/don’t get this promotion/never move up in this company, what will my friends/relatives/partner/kids think of me?
Then, once we’ve worked ourselves up into a frenzy, we lash out at ourselves and/or at others:
- We try to avoid the anguish by engaging in risky acts that ‘help us forget’ our suffering, like random sexual encounters, irresponsible drug use, or fights with strangers; or
- We try to confront the pain head-on but we do so in unproductive, reactive ways, like screaming at our loved ones, rashly confronting our bosses, or making drastic life changes with little-to-no-planning.
What’s particularly sad about these dynamics is that, often, the current state of our lives doesn’t justify the panic we feel or the cruelty we show others.
Speaking from personal experience, I know exactly how easy it is to obsess over something that might happen three, six, or even 12 months from now to the point where you start pushing away the very people who would be there to help you if your fears were to become a reality.
I’ve taken my pain — my anxiety, my disappointment, my shame — out on my loved ones before, often at times when they were doing nothing but showing me the very sort of love and support I was worried I’d lose if I were to become a ‘failure’.
Fortunately, I’m blessed to have forgiving and patient people in my life who understand that anxiety about the future or sadness about the past sometimes leads a person to say or do unfair and regrettable things.
The point I’m trying to make here is that human beings suffer doubly: once by having to deal with agony in the present, and again by recognizing that they might experience additional suffering in the future.
These various forms of anguish then lead us to behave in deplorable ways at times.
The Takeaway: We Need More Compassion and Less Judgment
The key idea I’m trying to convey in this article is that we can begin to make better sense of our own actions and of the actions of others if we accept the following four crucial insights:
- Emotional trauma is a significant driver of human behaviour — in one way or another, everything we do is an attempt to avoid or overcome devastating emotional experiences, either of the past or the future;
- Every one of us has pain inside our hearts—our brains maintain ‘imprints’ of the trauma we’ve experienced throughout our lives, which means that we’re constantly trying, whether consciously or unconsciously, to heal from such hurt;
- We all want to be loved, supported, and valued as individuals — human beings need to form and maintain meaningful social relationships with others in order to prosper and lead fulfilling lives; deep down, we all seek acceptance; and
- Lack of love and support leads to self-destructive and/or outwardly dangerous behaviour — fear of embarrassment, rejection, stigma, and exclusion causes us to panic and, in turn, we lash out.
Nothing I’ve written here is meant to convey the idea that we ought to excuse, justify, or ignore people’s bad behaviour.
Instead, I’m suggesting we should recognize the truth of something Will Bowen once famously said, i.e., “hurt people hurt people”.
As with the irate driver who tried to run me off the road after I cut him off, there’s usually far more than what ‘meets the eye’ when it comes to the reasons why people hurt us or, indeed, why we hurt them.
Often, our own suffering leads us to try to make other people suffer too.
Sometimes, we’re simply fed up with life, and we take our frustration out on others.
At other times, we’re motivated by anxiety, by the prospect that we’ll be abandoned by those about whom we care the most, and so we attack rather than be attacked.
What the world needs right now, it seems to me, is more compassion, more empathy, and less judgment.
People do things for identifiable reasons.
This doesn’t mean all action is rational or even conscious — it absolutely isn’t.
What it does mean, though, is that it’s possible to understand and sympathize with the reasons why (some) people do crappy things (some of the time).
Yes, there are countless motivators and causes of human behaviour I haven’t addressed here, including biological makeup and genetics, childhood experiences of abuse, exposure to violence, experiences of mental illness, discrimination and marginalization, and so on.
All of these factors deserve their proper consideration, not least because they each serve to exacerbate or otherwise complicate the pain in people’s lives, thus amplifying their tendency to react by hurting themselves or others.
Nevertheless, what remains clear is that negative emotional states propel human action.
We all suffer. We all want to belong. We all do things of which we’re not proud because we’re hurting on the inside.
The next time somebody hurts you, try to remember they’re probably suffering just as much, if not more, than you are.️️ The next time you’re tempted to hurt somebody else, try to remember they’re probably in enough pain as it is.
Don't miss a single word. Get Publishous Magazine delivered directly to your inbox each week for FREE!
Please complete the form below and you will receive the next episode directly to the email address you provide.