Mind Matters: Why do we hurt each other?

Why do people hurt each other? Why do war, brutality, and personal vengeance exist? Man’s inhumanity toward his own has made history for eons. It provides the stuff of headlines, jobs for lawmakers and law enforcers. Is there any way to make sense of the senselessness of violence?

Violence is not only physical; it very often is inflicted emotionally in relationships. Today’s discussion will focus on some of the reasons individuals emotionally wound each other. Only when we recognize how and why we hurt each other, can we choose a better way.

An understanding of our brains can help us to see the possibilities for a gentler, kinder world. The human brain has been designed to protect us. The primary function of the oldest, least evolved portion of our brains, the reptilian brain, often referred to as the “old brain” is to keep us alive. The basic reflexes for breathing and swallowing are located here at the back of the skull and upper neck. So are the life-preserving instincts of fight or flight. In this part of the brain is housed the equipment that readies us for escape or attack when danger is perceived.

The old brain has no thinking cells; it only senses in the way that frogs, alligators and other reptiles do. Thus it sometimes perceives danger when there is none, or erroneously misinterprets information, then reacts as if harm or death is imminent. This part of the old brain knows neither time, place nor person; only vague emotional memories are locked in its cells. For example, and alligator fed by humans will learn to associate any human with food and will automatically react with aggression.

By the same token early childhood memories of physical or emotional abuse are stored in the old brain ready to be awakened by any stimulus that is reminiscent of former hurts similar to the original injuries. A smell, sound, touch, look, tone of voice, almost anything might trigger an instantaneous reaction, a reaction aimed at preserving life. Remember, the old brain cannot distinguish between what is life-threatening and what is not. This is the fight of flight response in action.

Interpersonal relationships become the vehicle through many of these responses occur. Such reactions may result in people being physically or emotionally injured.

The situation between Jean and adult daughter Liza is a good example. Jean was visiting Liza and casually mentioned that her taste in decorating was unique. Liza angrily retorted, “ I like what I like!” Jean was hurt and responded with a sarcastic comment and soon they were in a verbal battle.

What happened? Jean’s intended compliment had been interpreted as criticism and triggered an old forgotten memory of being hurtfully criticized. Her old brain instantly responded to protect her. Jean’s reaction was similar, as she was misunderstood and she fought back. Neither was aware of the reasons behind their behavior.

Similar scenarios are replayed every minute in families, workplaces, schools, wherever individuals interact. People hurt each unintentionally because they do not realize that everyone has hidden sensitivities, secret buttons that can be unknowingly pushed.

There is hope. We can train our brains through increased self-awareness. When we find ourselves or others overacting we can stop and recognize the signs that old pain may be at the source. Often peoples’ actions and reactions stem from their old brain hurts. Recognizing this and also taking more responsibility for our own old baggage would make life much more peaceful for everyone. Stress levels could be greatly reduced all around. Relationships would be more harmonious.

In recent years it has been discovered that another part of the brain is wired for love and compassion, giving us an inborn capacity to be kind and loving. Recognizing what pushes our buttons helps us become more understanding of what happens with others. As we develop greater sensitivity to others we relate to them with growing compassion. We strengthen the parts of our brain that can override the automatic reptilian reactions and replace them with thoughtful caring. One by one we make the world a better place.

Elinor Stanton is a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner on Marco Island. She has 30 years of experience, both in private practice and a large health maintenance organization in Boston. She graduated from Boston College and University of Rochester, and is certified as a clinical specialist by the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

Comments and questions are welcomed and may be submitted by e-mail to etseven@aol.com or call 394-2861.

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