When people are in pain, they try to cause pain in others. But you don’t have to be their punching bag.
I remember growing up my mother always told me that the girls who were so cruel to me were in pain. She told me only people in pain would try to cause pain in others, so instead of being afraid of them or angry at them for the way they treated me, I should pity them.
I’m pretty sure she was right. When I look over my relationships with men, the toxic and the most abusive men were also the most damaged. They carried their trauma like a weapon, swinging it hard at anyone who triggered that pain in any way, and keeping themselves safe by making those around them weak.
But the older I’ve got, the more I’ve disagreed with her about not being angry. The girls in school were definitely in pain, though at the time I felt they were invulnerable titans I couldn’t even meet in the eye. I definitely feel sorry for them, I feel sad that whatever it was about nerdy awkward me that offended them so much they had to lash out at me, but I’m angry. They had no right.
The men who treated me so terribly, violently, abusively, were definitely in pain. But that didn’t entitle them to use me as their punching bag because something about nervous and desperate to please me made them feel threatened.
I don’t think I could have turned off the fear. I was, at various points in my life, terrified of these people in so much pain. But perhaps if I had felt more righteous anger I’d have carried less guilt. If I felt angry that they felt entitled to treat me like that and do those things to me, perhaps I’d have wasted less energy on blaming myself. Because anger can be healing. It wasn’t until I started to realise I was allowed to be angry about what happened to me that I started to move on with my life, because that anger symbolised my realisation that they weren’t entitled to do it in the first place.
I started thinking like this after an altercation on Facebook. Someone I had initially thought was a stranger, I didn’t immediately recognise the name, commented on one of my posts. I’d shared a jokey statement that my wool allergy prevented me from stealing some of my partner’s snuggliest sweaters and that I was fuming, because I like to steal his sweaters. I was told to stop complaining and to think of the people all over the world who are starving and freezing to death, that no I cannot talk about my wool allergy, and that I should grow up. It’s not by any stretch the worst I’ve had people say to me online, and definitely not close to the worst of what’s been said or done to me in person, but it was entitled, rude and hostile, and I’m under no obligation so accept it.
Old me would have felt like I should apologise for triggering whatever feelings had caused this person to be rude to me. Tried to suppress any anger and focus on the pity. Tried to reason that I do spend a lot of time and energy fighting for causes of the suffering of people in the world, and that I don’t feel like I need to spend all day every day being serious. That sharing a jokey snippet of my relationship is light-hearted and fun, and that I’m not comfortable with a stranger trying to dictate to me what I may and may not talk about. But new me, new me who realises I don’t have to sit down and take it just because somebody else is in pain, told her to fuck off and unfriended her.
It turned out it was an old friend of my mother’s whom I hadn’t seen since I was a child, and apparently felt that having age over me gave her authority over me, in the way it did in childhood. But I’m not a child. I’m thirty three with children of my own, and nobody has been entitled to reprimand me like that since I was a child. Even my own parents get met with the sharp end of my opinions when they try and tell me what to do. Not that they’d do that so aggressively or in public, of course, but still.
I learned to stand up for myself. I learned to understand that people aren’t entitled to use me as a punching bag because of their own pain. Because I’ve also learned that we’re all in pain. We’re all struggling, we’re all damaged, and people around us will always trigger that pain. Not because they intend to but because they will by the very nature of being human, because it’s humans who damaged us in the first place. But being in pain isn’t a free pass. Suffering isn’t entitlement to be horrible. And hurting doesn’t mean you should be cushioned from the anger you cause in others.
We all have to own our own shit. My pain has caused me to lash out at my partner, and his at me. We’ve had arguments after poking the bruises we each carry from hurt caused to us in the past. And then, afterwards, we’ve apologised. Recognised that we over reacted and been knobs, and moved on with our lives. Because we’re both entitled to feel angry when someone hurts us for any reason, and we both know that.
I will teach my children what my mother taught me. Happy people don’t try and make other people sad. Only sad people try and make other people sad. Only people in pain will try and hurt other people. But they don’t have to. They are making a choice to do it, and you do not have to make the choice to take it. I will teach them to pity the bullies, feel their sadness and understand it. But, where my mother has always been a gentle soul who tries to never be hostile to anybody, I’m going to teach my children that righteous anger is self defence. And I’m going to teach them to say fuck off. Because really, and truly, some people just need to fuck all the way off.