A few months back I was talking with a friend about her damaged uncle. My friend, while I'm sure she has struggled with different issues throughout her life, is one of those people who can just push through the discomfort quickly and emerge victoriously on the other side. To an outside viewer, she appears to do it effortlessly. I couldn't even begin to tell you what childhood mishaps attacked her self esteem because she never seems to have made them her home. My struggles more closely parallel those of her uncle and I found myself trying to explain why a man in the final decades of his life could still be struggling with "but my parents mistreated me." Repeated attempts made me believe three undeniable concepts are at work.
1. No matter how old a person is, if he or she can still mentally touch an open wound from past mistreatment, there will be a corresponding degree of rigidity and incapability to change and move forward. It is easy to assume the larger the pain, the greater the problems, but I don't think that necessarily plays out. Or at least not in an obvious way. For one thing, pain is individual. Most of my childhood problems were more of the "Barbie gets caught on the outskirts of a bad neighborhood" variety. There was a very funny moment in a very disturbing movie remake decades ago. The movie was "The Collector" and the laughable moment was when the heroine, already being stalked by her eventual killer, heatedly explains her discomfort to the police. "He gave me gifts!" I can't tell you how many times I've remembered that scene and my nervous laughter when I've tried to explain my relationship with my parents and why I've struggled with self esteem.
Pain is individual. We're not allowed to line up the damaged and judge whether or not they have a right to feel hurt. I believe an individual's problem moving forward stems less from how badly he was hurt than what he does with that pain. Do you remember one of your first childhood cuts or scrapes? Remember poking the wound throughout the healing process to see if it still hurt? A skinned knee will eventually scab over and that poke won't feel any different than it does to the adjacent skin. Emotional wounds don't heal the same way and repeated checks, rather than confirming or denying forward progress, tend to create a habit of negatively reaffirming your life. People who are stuck in this "Groundhog Day" of emotional pain seem to believe they can move to forgiveness when it no longer hurts and don't realize that the healing will begin (and it will hurt less) AFTER they forgive.
2. Frequently, pain colors "the damaged's" entire life. On a ten scale for difficulty, they wake up every day at about an eight. Before the red lights, traffic jams, road rage or other daily challenges, they wake up thinking: "What the hell might happen next. I don't know if I can stand much more." There's a good chance they have at least a few documentable obvious problems like debt or health issues. Their baggage contains a whole lot of entitlement because "my life has just been so hard or unfair, I really need someone to acknowledge or validate my pain." They don't need to poke the wound to see if it still hurts. It always hurts. It never goes away. That is exactly how I felt during the years leading up to my divorce as well as a few afterwards. "Can't anybody see I'm drowning here? Somebody, anybody, please throw me a line."
I was talking with a friend recently about one of her retail customers. The woman was one of those constant complainers. Nothing was right. Nothing was what she wanted. All of which added up in the customer's view to discounts she was entitled to receive as well as a free coke. I listened, all the while feeling very fortunate she had not been my customer. Then I tried to explain to my friend why the woman might be that way only to discover my friend already knew. A core limiting belief of people in that mode of thinking is "no one understands me." In reality, a lot of people do understand and aren't without empathy at your situation. They genuinely are sorry for all of the lemons life has handed you. What they don't understand is why you felt the need to build a monument to that pain and move in there. At the same time, you are not a lot of fun to be around and "if you can't find a way to "move on" emotionally, could you please just "move on" physically. Seriously, there are other stores that sell this stuff, you know?"
This sort of person is stuck where they are because everything is filtered through "me." Rather than noticing how hard the sales person may have tried before they gave up, they will be stuck in the fervent outrage of "how could they treat me that way? Don't they know the customer is always right? I'll show them. I'm never coming here again!" Never realizing the sales person is probably thinking, "You promise?"
The empathy that "damaged" is looking for is also the exit door he or she keeps missing. It is a "get what you give" world. If you aren't receiving any empathy, appreciation or consideration, there is a high likelihood you aren't giving them to anybody either. Besides which, remember that notion "pain is individual?" The worst childhood story I have ever heard involved the children of an undiagnosed schizophrenic woman who was also a single mom. For the first eight to twelve years of their lives, mom locked them in a closet every day because "the voices" told her that was where they would be safest. I don't know about you, but I know it wouldn't help my self esteem very much to be outrageously indignant about my poor treatment as a customer only to discover my persecutor's childhood was far worse than mine. That isn't even because I know it is a "get what you give" world. It is simply because I have this notion perhaps I don't deserve things I am unwilling to give to others.
3. There comes a time where it is no longer a question of what heinous things may have happened to you. If you aren't happy with your life, it isn't because of your parents, your government, your president, the Democrats or the Republicans or your boss. You are the one ultimately responsible for your life and if you aren't happy, it is exactly like the internet meme says: "If you want something you've never had, you have to do something you've never done."
Maybe it is as simple as counting your blessings instead of infringements against you. Maybe the world is so offensive because you really are looking to be offended. Maybe each time your thoughts repeat the word "me," as in the sentence "how could you do this to me," you could ask yourself what they might have been feeling right before they hurt your feelings. Could you have unknowingly hurt their feelings? If that is possible, is it possible they didn't know they hurt you? Is it possible that was never their intention?
If you can't do any of that, consider this. Writers, musicians and painters frequently learn their art by emulating the voice or techniques of established masters they admire. Find someone you admire who has whatever it is you feel you lack. Success. Love. Happiness. They have it. You want it. So do what they do. Read their blog or their biography. Look up their Wikipedia. Find out as much as you can about how they have lived their life and repeat it. Fake it to make it. Repeat it every day until you are living the life you want on your own.