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So much of our susceptibility to messages that tell us that our appearance is inadequate derives from abuse we suffered early on in our lives. We were treated in ways that made us conclude it wasn’t safe to show up as our true selves. If we can come to understand this abuse better, it will be much easier to let go of the need to protect ourselves from further hurt by pursuing conformity at the expense of authenticity.

If only people who were hurting walked around with a huge axe lodged into their forehead. Then, when they were aggressive, mean, rude, tactless, insensitive, dismissive, inconsiderate or nasty, we wouldn’t have to try to feel compassion for them. The blood dripping down their face would make their agony plain, and we would naturally focus on trying to find a way to ease their pain. And if they struck us down in anger as we offered to help, we would simply grieve for their suffering, mindful of how hard it must be to live with an axe stuck in your head. 

But people’s hurt isn’t always so obvious. It can come out in a myriad of unexpected, unpredictable ways, catching us off guard. It may come with a smile, laughter or bravado. It may be disguised in self-confidence, or even a protective zealotry that leaves no room for genuine connection. So, all we often end up seeing is the devastation left in the wake of their hurt. And we just can’t understand it because the original wounds are hidden. 

Wounded people may look like they are enjoying themselves. And they may derive some satisfaction from being on the winning side of an illusory war. Every dead body in the enemy camp is another brick in the wall of their fortress. But the world they are living in is one of scarcity and fear. Devoid of love, it is barren and unforgiving. There is no resting place. Danger is ever-present because it’s always being created within their own minds, regardless of how safe the external environment actually is. 

The words they speak may have no bearing on the way they live life and interact with others. This can look a good deal like hypocrisy. But what is hypocrisy really when someone is unaware of the impact they have on others, or of the way they are hurting themselves? Imagine going to embrace someone believing that your hands are soft and tender, but when you look down you see that instead of fingers, you have knives. Every time you reach out, you end up hurting people. Rather than hypocrisy, then, it is a tragic form of ignorance. 

Seeing this clearly can be very difficult. It certainly is for me. Part of the inquiry inevitably involves realising that, over time, we may have acquired our own axe – perhaps it is not as big or as sharp as theirs, and so the fallout is not as dramatic, yet it is undeniably there. This might not sound like a very fun exploration! Yet it is this kind of learning and growth that makes life exciting because we get to see our personal histories afresh, and wake up to a different, more welcoming world. This is the journey towards spiritual maturity, and it’s ok to have a lot of growing up to do. I know I do! The main thing is to be open to seeing things differently, from a vantage point that causes less suffering, and results in greater peace of mind. The rest will take care of itself in its own time. 

If we can get eyes for the wounds lurking beneath the violence, we will be less shaken by the attacks. We will recognise them for what they are: the innocent attempts of a wounded creature flailing in the dark, trying to reach for the light. Perhaps most importantly, we can also choose not to hug people who will unintentionally stab us in the back. After all, we don’t help them out of hell by becoming their carving meat. Far more helpful is to remove any weapons we may have sticking into ourselves, and show other people how much more enjoyable life is without an axe stuck in your head. Then, with any luck, they might just get curious enough to consider the possibility that it’s there, and go and take a look in a mirror. This is crucial because only they have the power to remove the axe from their own head. We can’t do it for them even if we desperately want to. It just doesn’t work that way. As soon as they see it, they will naturally take it out all by themselves. As their wound heals, their knives will wither away, and they’ll be able to hold people close without harming them once again. 

And if this doesn’t happen, at least we will have broken the cycle of spreading the hurt from one person to the next, and can begin forming a beautiful new pattern of passing gentleness and kindness around instead. This is the joy of being alive, and we all deserve to be a part of this glorious circle of love! 

Judy Sedgeman and Christine Heath explore the concept of psychological innocence in Episodes 15 and 98 of their wonderful podcast, ‘Psychology has it backwards’: https://www.psychologyhasitbackwards.com

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