09/09/2013 06:28 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

The Anatomy of Hurt

My patient's cry is piercing the room as she tells me about her lover. They have been together for six years. He repeatedly professes his love for her, and declares his desire to leave his wife for her, but doesn't do it. "If he really loved me he would," she says with utter conviction.

Another patient says she feels anxious by her female boss who puts her on the spot at staff meetings and makes non-sexual but inappropriate comments that make her want to evaporate.

What both women fail to grasp is that they have unwittingly placed themselves into someone else's psychic drama, sparking forces that have little to do with them and then enabling them. The lover is staying with his wife not because his love for my patient is not sufficiently strong but because he needs his family structure to hold him. He fears disintegration or is afraid he cannot live with his family's suffering if he leaves. The boss who is spitting inappropriate comments at my other patient is waging a social and cultural war with her employee because she perceives her -- wrongly -- to be the rich, privileged kid that she has always longed to be.

The jungle of relationships in which we all live is filled with opportunities to feel incompetent, unworthy, flawed and wronged. But when such a troubled and chronic dynamic evolves between two people at home or work, both make it possible. It is the story of a collision of two matching pathologies -- the one who does the hurting, actively or passively, and the one who is the target.

The aggressors find a quality in the victim that triggers an emotion that they cannot hold within themselves because it is too upsetting or inconsistent with their view of themselves. The boss has never dealt with her anger and jealously and when her employee triggers those emotions she lashes out. The employee is too insecure about her place in social settings to see what is going on. This is because she too carries a secret. Even though she gives off the air of culture and privilege (she is blond and pretty), in reality she comes from a home with lots of turbulence around status and money. So both are acting out strong emotional residues from their pasts.

As for the lover, he relies on his affair because he has not managed to meet all his needs in his marriage. The mistress gets her sense of being loved when she is in a relationship triangle reminiscent of Freud's Oedipal conflict. When jealousy meets guilt and shame, when rejection meets fear of abandonment, a dynamic is likely to evolve.

For the victim, it feels like a personal attack. The emotions that get stirred are often so intense that it can feel like poison roaming in the body. When the dynamic becomes chronic it poses a danger to well-being. It creates a tear in the continuity of the much needed nourishment that relationships provide. It can lead to anxiety and depression, and even post traumatic symptoms, poking holes in our ability to trust and feel safe, doubting our judgment and capacity to meet our needs.

Of all the possible reactions to such situations, some are more effective than others. One of the more damaging responses, whether verbalized or not, is the feeling that "something is not right with me. I am not enough. Not strong enough, talented or attractive. If only I were more outspoken, good looking, with a degree from Harvard. If only I could pay more attention, love more and anticipate correctly the needs or moods of the person who is causing me pain, I would be spared the agony." A chain of appeasing behavior evolves that is not effective and never solves the problem.

To survive the politics of life, here are some thoughts:

Awareness and self-knowledge are protective shields. If you understand your vulnerabilities it is easier to identify potential landmines and to steer away from them. With the exception of true abuse, the dynamic of hurt is never a one-sided story. No matter which side you are on, the hurter or the one getting hurt, it should signal you that something is not working well and you need to take stocks. What is it about me that is susceptible to being sucked into a situation that is causing me pain, or that is provoking me to be aggressive?

We are particularly vulnerable to injury from people in positions of power, either power we give them, or power they occupy because of their role (employer, teacher). Naturally they elicit parent-child relationships which cause us to regress. We become our childhood selves again. We tend to idealize them and feel that they hold something that is needed by us to feel calm and protected from the uncertainties and anxieties of life -- love, recognition, acceptance. What we fail to understand is that their idealization is our devaluation.

We do not have control over the actions of others. People move through life equipped with the emotional tools that consist of their inborn temperament and the conditions of their upbringing. They operate within their system of meaning and motivation. People do whatever it takes to survive in a world fraught with anxieties, where moral codes have lost their guiding power leaving us to find our own paths. And in carving those paths people are more or less secure, guarded, rigid, integrated, intelligent, aggressive, and generally more or less effective in negotiating their needs.

In dealing with each other, we often attribute to others what we find difficult to accept or acknowledge in ourselves. If we are angry and don't know it we will tend to see people as angry and then respond to that anger by fear. If we feel worthless we tend to be afraid that we will disappoint others and fear their judgment.

The goal, then, is to break the dynamic of hurt by stopping to play our part. If we can identify what adds fuel to the fire, we should stop adding it. Or cut our losses and move away.