“Hurt people, hurt people. Healed people, heal people.”
I’m not sure whose quote this is. When I searched online, I found that no one’s really sure of its exact origin, plus the quote that most people use is “hurt people, hurt people”. They miss out on the second part, which in my opinion, renders the quote incomplete.
I first heard the quote, along with its second part, from Nipun Mehta sometime back in 2016. And ever since it’s nested cozily in my heart!
By the analogy of the quote then, broken people must raise broken people. Do they though?
It is difficult to answer the question of whether broken people raise broken people until we’re on the same page about what it means to be “broken”. Here’s the thing, there’s no agreed-upon definition of “broken”. One feels like one is broken. Feelings are extremely subjective. They are valid. They are the person’s reality in the moment. And, they are subjective. While there is a possibility for someone having gone through a specific trauma – and not having worked it out – to pass it on to their children, there are also many instances of children who grow up feeling not broken despite being raised by parents who feel broken. It’s also important to note that, just like everything else, the feeling of being “broken” isn’t permanent.
Let’s explore this whole idea of being “broken” – what it really means, what its possible causes are, what it can potentially lead to, and what to do about it.
If I’m being honest, I’d frankly never considered how many people relate to the term “broken”. They feel “broken”. They say, “I’m broken.” They think they are “broken” within. Some even feel that they’ve, somehow, always been “broken” inside.
What Does It Mean When A Person Says They Are Broken?
The closest I remember feeling what others (in various articles) describe as being “broken” was when I was going through a traumatic loss, and for the first time in my life I felt like I’d gone to the “dark side”.
There was a sense of hollowness, meaninglessness, and pointlessness. It felt like I was unredeemable. Like, there was no coming back from this.
I guess, when someone says they’re broken, they mean something similar. There’s a sense of hopelessness about one’s own self.
It could be that they never thought they were good enough for anything. Or, it could be that some action of theirs made them feel terrible about themselves, thereby, hopeless in their own self. Or it could also come from deep loss where what’s lost feels so big that it makes one feel broken.
None of these – not good enough, feeling terrible about oneself, a deep loss creating broken-ness – come out of the blue. They have valid sources from which they stem. This means, there are dots to be connected that can help us see how someone becomes “broken”.
How Does One Become A Broken Person?
The reason I put the word “become” in italics above is because it’s the wrong verb for the context. You can’t become broken. When something stops working or is disfigured, is when we say it’s broken.
Now, you may feel like you’re not able to function as usual, or you may feel shattered into pieces – I know I did after my first long-term relationship ended. Since you feel it so intensely, the word “broken” becomes the most apt metaphor to make sense of what you’re experiencing.
Again, your experience is your reality of the moment. However, it may not necessarily show you the truth as is. You can never “break”. Though you may feel and think like have at times, and at times you may feel and think so for a long time.
So, let’s change the question to: What makes one feel broken?
a. “I have always been broken.”
When looking back at your life, if you can barely remember feeling: “I got this”, “I’m good at this”, “I can do it”, or “I’m a decent human”, chances are it’s because of the messaging you received from your primary caregiver(s) growing up.
The kind of attachment we form with our caregivers, and the messages we receive from them, greatly influence how we perceive ourselves, and the world.
If I feel I’ve always been broken, there’s a high chance that growing up I received messages that made me feel and think dog-poop-like about myself.
There’s plentiful rigorous research(1) on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that confirms, “increased exposure to ACEs was associated with an increased likelihood of poor health, mental health, and substance use outcomes in early adulthood.”
What do these ACEs include?
“…recent studies have demonstrated that a wide range of adversities, and not just sexual abuse, are predictors of many forms of mental ill health, and not just PTSD.
These adversities have been found to include: mother’s ill health, poor nutrition and high stress during pregnancy; being the product of an unwanted pregnancy; early loss of parents via death or abandonment; witnessing interparental violence; dysfunctional parenting (particularly ‘affectionless overcontrol’); parental substance misuse, mental health problems and criminal behaviour; childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse; childhood emotional or physical neglect; bullying; childhood medical illness; and war trauma.”– Negative childhood experiences and mental health. The British Journal of Psychiatry(2)
On a side note, if you don’t understand Attachment Theory, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with it if you’re keen to do the work in your inner world.
b. “My action was so terrible that now I’m broken.”
In these cases, chances are that I have a deep-seated belief about the morality of my actions. I believe my action is so terrible that I am unredeemable.
At times, it’s not even my direct action that makes me feel this way. For instance, for many people who have gone through abuse – emotional/ physical/ sexual – there’s shame attached to it.
Why shame is there is quite complex, and nothing I write here is likely to cover all possible reasons. However, one of the potential reasons for feeling ashamed in such cases is that somewhere there’s an underlying belief saying I had something to do with this bad/ immoral act.
Thus, I’m now unredeemable.
Where do these deep-seated beliefs and narratives come from? Broadly, from two places – one, our caregivers, and two, the society around us which includes our extended family, friends, and culture.
If you think about it, caregivers are a part of the larger society, and the larger society in turn is made up of every single one of us.
The longer a belief is nurtured, the deeper and wider it spreads its roots and shoots!
c. “Now that I’ve lost _____, now I’m broken.”
When we experience great loss in the form of a relationship (any relationship – platonic/ romantic/ cross-species/ with Self) ending by separation due to breakup, divorce, death, or other unavoidable reasons, many of us experience feeling some sense of losing a part of us.
This is grief. Grief after loss is a normal human emotional process. When the grieving process doesn’t have enough support it can turn into a more permanent sense of feeling broken.
At times, when there aren’t enough other resources in our life – supportive family and friends, meaningful work, personal practices, etc. – one might turn towards suppressing it through avoidance or addiction, or may move into depression, or even aggression.
How Do I Know If I’m Broken Inside?
Many people with unresolved ACEs, or going through recent loss, carry on with their lives in full-on avoidance mode. Their motto seems to be: what I don’t see, doesn’t exist!
Look, I could give you a long list of signs like many other articles, but here’s what I want you to know: If you feel broken, then no matter what else, your feeling is valid. Does that mean you are broken? Nope.
If you were to do a deeper search in Google Scholar about a “broken person”, you won’t find anything substantial. Guess why? It’s because broken-ness is a feeling. It’s not a group of “symptoms” that can be clubbed together and called The Broken Person Disorder.
By the way, if you google Broken Person, you may come across a few articles talking about Broken Woman Syndrome and/or Broken Man Syndrome.
I don’t want to link to them, because that will actually make more people find them!
Please know that there’s no legitimacy whatsoever to these “syndromes”. No credible source recognizes these syndromes. The syndrome that does exist, as a subcategory of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is Battered Woman Syndrome which is related to domestic violence.
These articles claim these syndromes with negligible observation, study, or experience, might unknowingly cause more harm than good.
Their lists of signs include things like, they are not confident, they can’t handle rejection, they push people away, they are insecure, they are violent, they are sensitive, they shut down, they lack self-esteem issues, they lack good communication, they don’t see their potential, they have mood swings – I can keep going!
It’s like they’ve put together all the unpleasant thoughts and feelings most people experience, to varying degrees, at some or other point in time in their lives, and named it “being broken”!
If you’re feeling broken maybe you are experiencing one or more or all of the above in the list. And that’s okay. However, because you’re feeling all the above doesn’t imply you’re broken.
In fact, feeling a constant sense of being broken could be a symptomology of some other “disorder”! Just kidding! Please don’t get any ideas. There’s a reason why I’ve put “disorder” in quotes.
If you haven’t read this from my content before, I’d like to share with you how I look at “dis-orders”:
“This-order” needed to be created in your inner world to help you survive at some point in time in your life. However, since it’s not working at this point in time, it seems like a dis-order. But really, it’s just a kind of order that’s not effective anymore.
This is how I see “disorders”. If you want to explore this way of seeing, I strongly recommend Gabor Mate’s The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture.
For me, the book was like rain on a dreary desert! He shares, with data, how the Western medical system has failed us by skewing our understanding of what “normal” should be. If you were to read just one book this year, let this be it!
But hey, if you’ve been diagnosed with a mental disorder, and the mainstream framework of mental health works for you, that’s great! You can ignore this.
What Do You Do When You Are A Broken Person?
Well, first things first, you change your question! What do you do when you feel broken?
Again, you’ll find a lot of articles giving you lists of things to do – which is okay – do them to feel “better”.
However, if you want to work towards dissolving this suffering from its roots, then consider the following 5 steps that broadly lay out a methodology:
1. Explore Your “Broken-ness”
I believe this is the most important question in this whole article: What is my “broken-ness” trying to tell me?
You begin with exploring what makes you feel you’re broken. The reason this is important is that our mind usually hides the really nasty stuff from us!
So under this feeling of being broken, there will be things you probably do not want to accept. Like, I feel worthless. Or, I’m a mean person.
The next question would then be – what am I doing/ not doing in my life that makes me feel/ think in this way?
2. Cultivate Kindness
When you do sit down with yourself and really look into the darkness (by the way, dark is not equal to bad; dark is what you can’t see beyond yet), it will likely be hard, to say the least!
Thus, cultivating kindness. I haven’t written “kindness to yourself” because I believe you can be kind to others only as much as you can be kind to yourself.
This work of looking into the darkness within is heavy work. There’s no way to do it with heaviness without drowning! The only way you can hold what you don’t like within you is with kindness and love for it.
I know, for many people this is a foreign concept. But it’s foreign because you don’t know the right skills. I’m sure the French don’t use the phrase, “It’s like French to me”! Why? Because they have the skills to speak French!
So while kindness, love, and compassion might sound like words to you, when you do choose to do the work, you’ll be able to cultivate them.
3. Bring In Support
What do you do when you want to learn a new skill? You either put some effort into bringing in support, or you don’t learn it. Really, those are the only two things that usually happen to most people.
When I say “bring in support”, it could be a book, a video, a course, a teacher, time, nature – anything really – as long as it’s credible and effective for you.
I’ll say this loud and clear – you cannot do it without some form of support. Every single person takes support from someone somewhere.
This isn’t just true for this work, it’s true for all kinds of inner and outer work.
4. Do The Work
The first three steps are in preparation for the work. Now you’re ready to get your hands dirty!
Doing the work has many different parts to it – working with your narratives, understanding your emotions, observing your habitual patterns, connecting with your body, cultivating personal practices that help you stay grounded and resourced during challenging times, and many more.
It doesn’t matter where you start. All that matters is you start. You may choose to read a book, do a course, or work with someone. Again, start, and the path will reveal itself to you.
In case you’re a woman and you’re looking for a space that has live guidance and support for life, Rooted In Chaos might be the program for you, where I guide women to move out of emotional suffering and towards emotional wisdom.
5. Maintain Consistency
If starting is all that matters, then consistency is what ensures continual growth and evolution of what you start.
Two major differences between those who “make it” and those who don’t (you can apply this to life in general beyond this work):
a. Learning effective skills: You can put in a lot of effort trying to open a door the wrong way, but it won’t open, no matter how much effort you put in.
When you know the “right” way, you’ll still need to put in some effort of walking to the door and pushing it, but now your effort will lead to the door opening. It’s the same story with learning effective skills that work!
b. Practice, practice, practice: There are no shortcuts in this work, or for that matter, even in life. There can be different roads, some better, some not so much. But at the end of the day, we all need to walk the road.
What we can do is invest in some good walking shoes! Think of effective skills as your shoes. The better your skills, the easier it’ll be to walk no matter the road. The more you practice, the better your shoes!
Will Broken Parents Raise Broken Children?
First off, let’s replace the terms “broken parents” and “broken children” with parents who feel broken, and children who feel broken.
Now, it’s important to understand the real question here. What the question’s really asking is: do people pass on their intergenerational/ traumatic patterns to their children?
J. Read & R. Bentall in 2012(2), studying negative childhood experiences and mental health, found that “Some of these adversities have been shown to be intergenerational so that parents who themselves suffered in childhood struggle to provide an optimum environment for their own children.”
Broadly speaking, how children turn out depends on a number of factors. Some of these are:
- What the parents choose to do about their past unresolved issues and/ or possible unhealthy behavior.
- What temperament the children are born with.
- Alignment between a parent & child’s temperament.
- What other support systems the children have.
- What kind of friend circles the children form as they grow up.
This is in no way an exhaustive list of factors. But looking at these five, it should be visible that how children grow up is more than just a reflection of their parents.
Yes, children with parents who have unresolved issues and aren’t working on themselves, are highly likely to struggle more than children with parents who are aware and are conscious parents.
However, we’ve all heard stories, if not known firsthand, of great parents with children who’re struggling, and struggling parents with children who’ve found a way to break out of those cycles.
I found this beautiful Quora thread where Kittie Rayborn shares her story and says:
My parents are both broken people… I am the most not-broken person I know…. It is possible, if not easy.
You just need to find different role models who have healthy habits and relationships and focus on those instead of what you learned from your parents.
The reason I find this thread beautiful is that there are 132 comments on it, with many people sharing how they’ve had similar experiences of having “broken” parents and them turning out “not-broken”.
While this in no way discounts a parent’s role in a child’s development, it’s important to understand that raising a living being is a complex process.
C.J. Kliff and his colleagues found in their study, Nature and Nurturing: Parenting in the Context of Child Temperament(3), that:
“In general, children high in frustration, impulsivity and low in effortful control are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of negative parenting, while in turn, many negative parenting behaviors predict increases in these characteristics.
Irritability renders children more susceptible to negative parenting behaviors.
Fearfulness operates in a very complex manner, sometimes increasing children’s responses to parenting behaviors and sometimes mitigating them and apparently operating differently across gender.”
So you see, this isn’t 2 + 2 = 4!
However, one thing that’s very clear to me is that each person can do their best by owning their responsibility without blame. The blame game is based on frustration, guilt, and shame – nothing more, nothing less. If a parent, no matter their past, chooses to pick up responsibility to work on themselves, they can create a safe & nurturing space for their child, which frankly is the core of what a child truly needs.
Another interesting article is by Shannon Ashley on Medium where she talks about how “broken” people can become better parents. She says, “Even if you didn’t have great models growing up, you can still nurture the healthy relationship every child needs.”
If you’re a parent who feels broken, and you’re willing to work on it, chances are you’ll raise “non-broken” children! The emphasis here is on if you’re willing to work on it.
The pain and hurt you’ve gone through, no matter what intensity, is not your destiny.
Hurt People, Hurt People. Healed People, Heal People
Coming back a full circle! What does “hurt people, hurt people” really mean?
Anyone who is hurting with unresolved pain from past events, seemingly traumatic or not, is usually unable to clearly see the reality of the given moment as is.
Trauma isn’t in the event. Trauma is what happens inside me when an event takes place. When my mind is unable to fully process the happenings of an event, a void of sorts is created in my mind for that event.
If I don’t revisit this void to make sense of it, the void stays, and many times can deepen, widen, and fester.
When something happens in my current life that reminds me of the void, my mind is no longer responding to the current moment. It begins to react to the void instead.
In such a reactive state, it is likely that I say or do things that remind others of their similar voids.
Thus, hurt people, hurt people.
If on the other hand, I’ve healed from that event – in other words, I’ve resolved that void, I will now have the ability to be present in the situation at hand, and respond to the reality of this moment.
Also, since I’ve done my own work, I’ll be able to see others who may now be in their voids. Instead of moving into my own void, I might be able to hold space for them with kindness and compassion.
Thereby, supporting their healing. Thus, healed people, heal people.
To Wrap It Up
- You are not broken. You might be feeling as if you’re broken, and/ or could have beliefs that you’re broken.
- All feelings are subjective and valid. If you feel you’re broken, no one can tell you you’re wrong to feel it. It is your feeling, you alone know its truth.
- When feeling broken it’s helpful to explore what’s making you feel broken, and then with kindness and support work on things that need to be tended to within, with consistency.
- There is data on trauma being passed on intergenerationally, yet, not all “broken” people raise “broken” children because a number of variables come into play in someone’s upbringing.
- And finally, one can choose to work to resolve their “broken-ness” or traumatic patterns, and thereby, become better parents to their children.
How does this article land on you? Do you have any thoughts or comments?
Do you feel broken at times? Have you ever experienced a sense of brokenness?
What kind of work/ practices do you cultivate to support your inner journey?
Share in the comments below.
(1) J.P. Mersky, J. Topitzes, A.J. Reynolds, Impacts of adverse childhood experiences on health, mental health, and substance use in early adulthood: A cohort study of an urban, minority sample in the U.S., Child Abuse & Neglect, Volume 37, Issue 11, 2013, Pages 917-925, ISSN 0145-2134, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2013.07.011.
(2) Read, J., & Bentall, R. (2012). Negative childhood experiences and mental health: Theoretical, clinical and primary prevention implications. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 200(2), 89-91. https://doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.111.096727
(3) Kiff, C.J., Lengua, L.J. & Zalewski, M. Nature and Nurturing: Parenting in the Context of Child Temperament. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev 14, 251–301 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-011-0093-4
Deep Inner-Work: A Follow Along Workbook For Women
A 40-page workbook with unique prompts and exercises to help you go deeper than any course or workshop would have taken you so far!
To download your workbook for FREE, click HERE.