The effects of emotional hurt

Human minds seem to be vulnerable to being hurt emotionally, but also equipped with emotional healing processes…

What does emotional healing look like?

When children get hurt emotionally they have a powerful instinctive drive to heal the hurt. They immediately look for an adult’s attention. If the adult can stay loving and attentive the child will cry, laugh, tantrum or tremble with fear about what hurt them, for as long as it takes, until they are done. They then happily get back to whatever it was they were doing before they got hurt. The emotional part of the hurt has been fully healed (physical hurts always also include an emotional component). The hurtful incident, having been fully healed, leaves no ongoing bad effects.

Children should not be left to cry, tremble or tantrum alone, but with the constant loving care and attention of an adult. The key understanding is that the crying, trembling or tantruming are not themselves the bad thing: they are the healing of the bad thing, and children are driven by a powerful, built-in instinct to heal.

What happens if children don’t heal fully?

If children don’t fully heal from an emotional hurt then the hurt sticks in their minds. Some of the hurt is dissipated during play, because children find ways to laugh about things that confuse them. But the bits of the hurt that don’t dissipate confuse and clog up the child’s mind. Each new hurt adds a little bit more confusion.

If a large backlog of hurt and confusion builds up, the child starts to develop irrational fears, limitations and fascinations. They also become desperate to clear the hurt and confusion from their mind, and will take any opportunity to do this. Any small upset or disappointment becomes the chance to recover from the backlog of past hurts that neither you nor they can remember: children will often cry or tantrum, for no apparent reason, about tiny things that go wrong – for example, a broken biscuit. These are desperate attempts to heal the backlog of confusion and hurt they have accumulated. They don’t understand what they are doing, but it’s very important that they get a chance to do it.

The effects of unhealed emotional hurt

Emotional hurts – when we don’t recover from them – leave a residue of the hurt in our minds. This residue is a confusing tangle of everything we experienced during the hurt: all the sights, sounds and smells mixed up with confused thoughts and horrible feelings. The most confusing hurts happened when our minds were at their most vulnerable – when we were very young.

These residues of hurt are so painful that we try hard to forget them. But when we are reminded of any part of the residue, other parts of it flood back into our mind as disembodied feelings, ‘thoughts’ and sensations. This is very confusing as we’re not usually aware these belong to an old situation. To us they seem like part of current reality and so our perception of reality becomes confused and distorted.

When we respond to this distorted reality we do things that don’t make sense. The more confusing the residue of unhealed emotional hurt, the more distorted our perception of reality – and the more irrational our subsequent behaviour can get.

Why do people overreact?

Most emotional hurts happen when we are very small children. This means part of the residue of most unhealed hurts is the feeling of being very small and powerless. When a full-grown adult unawarely feels like a small child, their reactions become disproportionate. This has at least two different effects: when we encounter even small difficulties we may feel completely powerless and give up before we’ve even started. Or, if we feel a need to defend or assert ourselves our response can be so strong that it ends up being an attack.

What happens if everyone is hurt?

What happens if a whole population accumulates a large amount of unhealed emotional hurt?

We are all human. We are thoughtful, caring and cooperative in important areas of our lives. But in other areas we behave strangely. We may unconsciously avoid whole areas of life experience because they remind us too much of unhealed hurts. We may develop irrational fears, limitations and fascinations. When we notice these on other people, we may think it is their choice or their personality, and we may think the same about ourselves.

What is most confusing, however, is what we don’t notice. We don’t notice the fears, limitations and fascinations that everyone has in common. Because they don’t stand out they come to be seen as normal, as cultural – or even as human nature. It becomes abnormal not to have them.

Young children don’t have these limitations, so they are regarded as abnormal and adults try to ‘correct’ them. This process is very hurtful to the children, and it means they end up with similar hurts to the adults.

Emotional hurts about emotional healing

The most damaging emotional hurts are hurts about the emotional healing process, because these prevent the healing of all other hurts.

When a young child is crying, laughing, tantruming or trembling (with fear), they are using their instinctive healing processes. They have a deep need to do this, and it’s hard to stop them. However, almost all adults have significant unhealed emotional hurts in the area of emotional healing. Being in the presence of a child using these processes for more than a short time can feel ‘unbearable’ to most adults. They try to stop the child in any way they can. Sometimes this is gentle, and sometimes it is humiliating or violent. Either way, for the child it leaves an emotional hurt associated with the healing process. If enough of these hurts accumulate, emotional healing becomes ‘unbearable’ to that child too.

For example, many boys have been repeatedly stopped from crying. Much of this was done with humiliation and/or violence. The residue of the hurts left by these incidents make crying feel ‘unbearable’ to many males. We may suppress it (in ourselves and in others) in any way we can – ‘nicely’ or not. When we do this to a young boy it passes the hurt on to the next generation of males.

Is it possible for adults to recover?

The short answer: it appears to be possible, but requires much more time, effort, skill and determination than for children. It involves recovering our instinctive-but-by-now-well-suppressed emotional healing processes, and more…

Large scale, society-wide effects

The mechanisms outlined above are self-perpetuating and have caused emotional hurt to become endemic across human society, with huge effects throughout human history and into the present. All of the articles on this site deal with these effects in one way or another, directly or indirectly, but the following articles lay out some of the more fundamental mechanisms involved:

Central Ideas

Human beings are capable of high levels of cooperation, love and caring. However, for thousands of years most of us have been living in societies that systematically suppress these human qualities. These inhuman social systems now function to sustain themselves, the systems, not the people within them...

When we humans are very young, our fragile minds are sometimes overwhelmed by experiences they can’t yet handle...

Human minds seem to be vulnerable to being hurt emotionally, but also equipped with emotional healing processes...

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