Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships

Options for Relating to
Psychologically-wounded People

Keep Your Boundaries

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/gwc.htm

Updated  02-11-2015

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      This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 4 - select and evolve nourishing relationships. These articles build on Lessons 1 - 3, and prepare you for Lesson 5 (evolve a nourishing family) and Lesson 6 (effective parenting).

      This article assumes you're familiar with..

  • the intro to this Website and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4

  • requisites for a mutually-satisfying relationship, and related Q&A items.

  • the answers to this quiz, and...

  • options for analyzing and resolving common relationship problems 

      This brief YouTube video previews key points in this article. The video intro mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this site. I've simplified that to seven.

      Premises - typical young kids exposed to adult abandonment, neglect, and abuse (trauma) survive by evolving a personality composed of many specialized subselves or parts. This usually results in up to five more psychological wounds, which hinder healthy development and social functioning. The effects of these wounds range from minor to severe.

       Survivors of early-childhood trauma are called "Grown Wounded Children" (GWCs) in this Web site. Because ineffective parenting is the norm, many or most average people have moderate to severe wounds. That makes relating to them "well" a challenge.

      This article offers...

  • perspective on "wounding"

  • how to recognize a significantly-wounded adult or child

  • options for relating well to a significantly-wounded person; and...

  • options for five special relationships. 


      Relating well-enough with a psychologically-wounded person can be hard - specially if you're wounded too. Typically, such relationships are frustrating, conflictual, and studded with anxieties, guilts, hurts, angers, distrust, disappointments, avoidances, and disrespect.

      If the wounded person is someone you live or work with, you can't avoid stressful interactions with them. Common responses are denial, minimizing, and pretending "things are fine" - when they're not. One high cost of that strategy is loss of self-respect.

      Other common responses are arguments, confrontations, insults, whining, pleading, threats, ultimatums, and attacks, and hoping fruitlessly the other person will want to change. These lose-lose choices usually result from ignorance and lack of awareness.

       So the payoff for (a) recognizing wounded people (GWCs) and (b) learning how to react to them is notably less stress and more satisfaction, serenity, and self-respect. If the wounded person is a family member, a major motivation to learn is protecting your minor kids from inheriting psychological wounds.

  Recognizing GWCs

      Significant psychological wounding causes observable behavioral traits. People with few or minor wounds (guided by their true Self) display different attitudes and behaviors. Unless you're chronically self-absorbed (a symptom of wounding), you have probably developed a semi-conscious way of spotting psychologically-injured people by their attitudes and behaviors, tho you may not think of them as "wounded.".

      Because typical GWCs (adults) are experts at camouflaging themselves to appear "healthy" and "normal," it's useful to learn telltale behaviors that signify "major wounding here!" Once you do, you'll probably find many GWCs around you, ranging from obvious to well-disguised. Use this and this to spot GWCs - starting at home.

      Identifying wounded children is easier. They're often (mis)labeled as "problem kids" or they're invisible or over-responsible "little adults." Such kids are living evidence of wounded, unaware parents and major family dysfunction.


      If you choose to - or have to - relate to a wounded adult or child, what are your choices? To start, decide what you seek:

  • to earn your self-respect by telling the wounded person how their attitudes and/or behavior affects you (instead of silently enduring them); and possibly...

  • to request or demand that the person change something;

        and/or you may wish to...

  • help the wounded person in some way.

      To achieve the first two of these goals select from these options:

__  educate yourself on inherited wounds and recovery by studying Lesson 1  in this ad-free Web site;

__  Assess whether YOU are a GWC. If so, use ''parts work'' to free your true Self to guide you;

__  value your and their dignity, integrity, and self-respect equally. This will be hard to do if you're controlled by false selves;

__  be clear on your and their rights as dignified, worthy persons; Kids have the same rights!

__  adjust your attitude: view the adult or child as "wounded and unaware," not "bad;"

__  learn to practice the seven communication skills in Lesson 2;

__  identify and respectfully assert your specific relationship needs and boundaries with the wounded person one at a time

__  expect and learn how to respond to the person's "resistances" to your assertion - use empathic listening and re-assert your needs as often as you need to until you feel heard;

__  invite the person to do win-win problem-solving where appropriate; and...

__  Be alert for codependence: avoid feeling you're responsible for "fixing" or "healing" the wounded person unless they're your child;

      Pause and reflect on these choices: do they seem "do-able" to you? If not, why? Reluctance to tailor and try these options probably means you're controlled by a protective false self and/or are living in a dysfunctional  environment.

  More Detail

      Let's gain perspective on some of these options:

 Put Your (rue Self in Charge

      An essential step is examining honestly whether you may often be dominated by a false self (wounded). Two common false-self defenses are denial ("I'm not wounded!") and minimizing ("Nah, my wounds are minor.") A third defense is "I've already healed my psychological wounds well enough." A fourth defense is thinking and saying "Yeah, I'm pretty wounded" but not really meaning it or wanting to do anything about it. 

      To assess yourself for wounding, follow these steps honestly after you finish here. To free your Self to guide you in all situations, apply Lesson 1.

Adjust Your Attitude

      When your Self is solidly guiding your life, examine your attitude about irritating, frustrating, and obnoxious adults and kids. A common reaction is to label them bad, wrong, evil, insensitive, stupid, selfish, arrogant, abusive, dishonest, dumb, childish, immature, pathetic, gross, worthless, irresponsible, bitchy, idiotic, sleazy, low class, hopeless, retarded, controlling, crude, manipulative, egotistical, unreliable, bigoted, criminal, addicted, spacey, weak, a loser, failure, or wimp; etc.

      If you think or speak labels like these, (a) you're probably governed by a critical false self, and (b) the other person probably senses your attitude whether you're vocal or silent. That will provoke hurt, resentment, hostility, defensiveness, spite, distrust, anger, avoidances, and c/overt counterattacks until you change.

      Change how?

      A better attitude toward wounded kids and adults ("obnoxious people") is compassion. That doesn't mean you must tolerate their stressful behaviors or agree with their values. It means you regard their needs, personal rights, and human dignity (worth) as being as valid as your own.

      Think of an obnoxious adult or child, and recall how your subselves usually judge their behaviors, attitudes, or traits. Now picture this person as being swathed with bloody bandages, hobbling painfully with a heavy leg-cast and crutches.

      Try saying "(Name) is really wounded. S/He didn't cause the wounds, and doesn't know what to do about them." Do any of your inner voices (subselves) balk at this compassionate point of view? ("Yes, but...") If so, try to identify who they are, and interview them one at a time to find out why they object to compassion. Reassure them it does not mean you have to endure a wounded person's unpleasant traits or behaviors. Then demonstrate this by identifying and respectfully asserting your needs and limits with the other person.

Identify Your Primary Needs

       Focus on the wounded child or adult and identify objectively what bothers you about them - their...

  • attitudes and values (e.g. egotism or inferiority, sarcasm, arrogance, bigotry, fraud,...), or some...

  • personal traits, like tardiness, unreliability, dishonesty, insensitivity, and "laziness;" and/or some...

  • habits and behaviors like cracking knuckles, smoking, talking loudly, interrupting, whining, chewing with an open mouth, belching, swearing, etc.

Use this awareness to define your specific relationship needs with this person. then..

Request or Demand a Change

      To relate "well enough" to a wounded adult or child, you need realistic expectations on what you can affect and what you can't. You also need to know the difference between a request and a demand.

      If you try to change something about the person, be aware of why you want to do that: (a) to increase your own comfort, and/or (b) to help the person "live better." If s/he doesn't want help living better, your offering it can feel insulting, annoying, and disrespectful

      Generally, you cannot change the person's...

  • personality - i.e. their subselves' values, preferences, and beliefs;

  • self-destructive attitudes and habits, including addictions;

  • self perception, including self-doubting and low self esteem;

  • protective reality distortions like denials, minimizing, and idealizing;

       and you can't change their...

  • motivation and ability to grieve their losses to completion; or their...

  • motivation to admit and reduce their wounds; or...

  • unpleasant physical traits, like a raspy or loud voice, irritating laugh, or a chronic cough;

      You may be able to affect the wounded person's:

  • awareness of their wounds and the wounds' effects and...

  • awareness of some toxic attitudes and behaviors; and you may be able to affect...

  • some behaviors toward you and/or others;

      If a GWC isn't ready to hit bottom and reorganize their subselves, use these wise guidelines and settle for "planting the idea" of psychological wounds and recovery. You can also respectfully inform the person how their traits affect you and your relationship without asking for change. An effective way to do that is to use respectful ' 'I-message'' assertions and empathic listening. 


      To make these options more real, let's illustrate them...

  Plant "Seeds"

       Here, "planting seeds" means watching for chances to objectively explain personality subselves, true and false selves, wounds, and wound-recovery. Then let go of trying to control the wounded person's reaction to these ideas. Before "planting," review these ideas about offering respectful feedback to other people.

      Normal first-reactions to these ideas are disbelief, skepticism, suspicion, rejection, defensiveness (Well, I'm not ruled by a false self!")  and sometimes scorn ("That's just New Age psychobabble!"). Another common (false-self) response is acknowledging the credibility of these ideas ("Yeah, that makes sense, but..."), and vehemently denying that they apply to the person or their family.

      If you choose to plant these information seeds, expect "resistance" - arguments, discounting, indifference, suspicion, etc... If your Self is in charge, s/he will avoid...

  • preaching and moralizing,

  • threatening ["If you don't reduce your wounds (something awful will happen)]";

  • explaining and using logic to persuade the GWC to assess for wounds;

  • labeling the other person (e.g. "How can you be so irresponsible?"), and...

  • blaming them for not taking action. 

These are all lose-lose false-self choices.

      Be specially alert for feeling you must "save" the wounded person. Assuming responsibility for an able adult's life and pain is inherently disrespectful, and may hinder them from needed healing and growth. Obsession with saving a wounded, unaware person suggests false-self control and possible relationship addiction (codependence). Excessive evangelical (religious) zeal is a common example.

      An exception to this is wanting to protect someone's child from serious psychological wounds. See this and this for options.

      Whether you plant seeds or not, another option you have in relating to "obnoxious" (wounded) adults and some kids is to...

  Give Respectful Feedback

      Some wounded adults and most kids aren't aware of, deny, minimize, or justify, the impacts of their irritating traits and behaviors. If they're shame-based (which is common), they'll dodge responsibility for these impacts ("That's not my fault!"). To maintain your self-respect and integrity, you can offer a factual description of how the person's attitudes, traits, or behaviors affect you - without expecting them to agree or change.

      To raise your odds of being heard clearly, study this overview of effective assertion, and the powerful tool of assertive I-messages. Using the latter might sound like...

"Are you open to some feedback from me?" Be prepared for "No." If you get a nod or "Yes," then say something like...

"(Name), when you interrupt me so often, I feel disrespected and frustrated, and I lose interest in talking with you."

"(Name), when you choose to swear often and talk so loudly, I feel distracted, and have trouble hearing what you're trying to say."

"(Name), your perfume is so strong it distracts me from focusing on what we're talking about."

      Imagine how you'd react if someone gave you feedback like this, calmly and respectfully, with steady eye contact. Notice several things about these two-part "I-message" examples: they...

  • describe specific GWC behavior and specifically how it affects you;

  • are brief, factual, specifi8c,clear, focused, and non-critical;

  • avoid apologizing, explaining, or generalizing ("you always / never..."); and they...

  • avoid sarcasm and judgmental labels; and they...

  • omit any request or demand for change.

       The purpose of such factual feedback is not to cause guilt or change. It is to...

  • give the wounded person accurate information they might not get otherwise;

  • leave them free to use it as they wish,

  • set the stage for asserting respectful limits with them, and to...

  • earn your own self-respect.

Nonjudgmental feedback can also promote win-win problem-solving if you're both open to that as partners. For more options for offering feedback to obnoxious behavior or attitudes, see these examples.

Assert Your Needs and Limits

      This option extends the prior one by using a respectful three-part "I"-message (assertion):

  • a factual description of the other person's offensive action/s,

  • specifically how the actions affect you and your relationship, and...

  • a clear description of what you need from them or won't tolerate without a consequence.

      Use assertion when (a) your Self is solidly in charge, (b) you feel genuine compassion for the adult or child, (c) you're clear on your mutual rights, and (d) you've identified your current primary needs.

      If you've described subselves and psychological wounds to the person, you can refer to that in your assertion - e.g. ...

"Alex, when you don't let me know you're going to be late, you're probably controlled by your false self. I feel irritated and discounted when you ignore my needs, and I need you to want to put your true Self in charge and to stop wasting my time."

      If you set a specific consequence or limit with the other person, you need to enforce it consistently, or remain in a victim role in your relationship.

      How do these response-options compare with how you normally react to "obnoxious" (wounded) people?

Special Cases

      The options above apply to any significantly-wounded person. Some relationships merit special awareness and perspective, like relating to a wounded mate, ex mate, minor child, relative, and co-worker. Let's look at each of these briefly...

   Relating to a Wounded Mate

      This is the most difficult case, because the stakes are so high. The best time to assess a partner for significant psychological wounds is during courtship - specially if prior kids are involved. An inherent block to this is (a) needy, unaware GWCs often unconsciously choose each other, and (b) minimize, deny, or ignore any warning signs of a disabled true Self.

      Prior divorces, affairs, addictions, chronic financial, legal, and/or occupational problems; and ex-mate hostility, and marital legal battles, all suggest significant wounds and unawareness. For more perspective and options, see these courtship danger signs.

      If you're committed to a wounded partner, expect ongoing or escalating frustrations, Assess yourself for significant wounds, and be alert for your subselves' trying fruitlessly to change or "save" your mate.

   Relating to a Wounded Ex Mate

      Typical divorced parents need to maintain a co-parental relationship for years for their kids' and grandkids' sakes. Typical divorces are usually symptoms that both adults are wounded and unaware. Parenting values and responsibilities and the kids' welfare can be ongoing sources of conflict between wounded ex mates - specially if they don't know and use effective communication skills.

      Relating to each other with patience and compassion requires each adult to want to forgive themselves and each other for prior hurts, and to steadily separate their personal relationship stressors from child-related conflicts. That requires their respective true Selves to be steadily in charge.

       When former partners choose a new mate (a stepparent with or without their own kids), family relationships become extra complex. This is specially true if the new partner is an unaware, unrecovering GWC, which seems to be the current American norm.

      Use these articles and Q&A items to help manage these complex co-parenting roles and relationships well. See this article for perspective on improving ex-mate relations.

   Relating to a Wounded Child

       Our troubled US, culture is largely unaware of the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and its many toxic effects . So significantly-wounded kids are often labeled problem children, brats, trouble makers, outcasts, losers, delinquents, misfits, bullies, sissies, wimps, scaredycats, babies, stupid, lazy, selfish, "bad seeds," black sheep, and "good-for-nothings."

      These shaming labels starkly indicate adult ignorance, and tragically increase the excessive shame, guilt, anxiety, and hopelessness that typical minor children of GWCs feel.

      The first thing to do in relating well to a wounded minor child is to objectively assess (a) the nurturance level of their home and family, and (b) the degree of wounding and unawareness (low > high) in each of their caregivers. Then re-examine your expectations of the child, for you may assume s/he "should" behave like kids from idealized high-nurturance environments. That's like scorning a poodle for not behaving like a dolphin.

      If you acknowledge (a) a child's psychological wounds and unawareness, and (b) that s/he didn't choose these, and (c) don't know what to do about them, you can see "misbehavior" and "bad attitudes" with compassion and empathy, rather than frustration, criticism, anger, impatience, and ridicule. That does not mean excusing kids from the consequences of their attitudes and behavior.

      For more perspective and options for relating well to a wounded child, see this article after you finish this one.

  Relating to a Wounded Parent or Relative

      A universal challenge for all GWCs is relating well-enough to the wounded, unaware adults who  raised them. "Relating well enough" means consistently filling your current relationship needs well enough in various situations.

      Once again, the first step is to put your true Self in charge of your subselves. Until you do, it's likely that your Scared, Guilty, Lost, Obedient, and Abandoned Inner Kids and their Guardians will dominate you around your parents and grandparents ("I feel like a kid around them.")

      Then validate your rights as a mature adult, and authorize yourself to hold different values and opinions than your parents - even if that offends, disappoints, and/or angers them.

      Deciding if, when, and how to respectfully confront childhood caregivers with their wounds and unawareness is hard. Until you do, chances for honest, satisfying (vs. dutiful or pretended) relationships with them are low. That's specially frustrating if you want your own kids to benefit from nourishing grandparental relations.

      To achieve genuine compassion, accept that your wounded parents and grandparents didn't get their needs met well enough as kids because their ancestors and society were wounded and ignorant. Part of effective adult wound-reduction is grieving the loss of a wholistically-healthy, high-nurturance childhood. That requires acknowledging what specific developmental needs didn't get met, why, and what those losses have meant in your life.

       False selves often bitterly blame parents for not providing what they "should have." Real (vs. pseudo) wound-recovery progress shifts blame and resentment toward grief, and genuine compassion for their disadvantaged ancestors. Sometimes, grieving childhood losses requires honest confrontation with parents ("I never felt I could trust you to listen to me without correcting me."). Do this to vent, not to punish, whine, or complain.

      A key challenge to overcome in forging honest relationships with wounded relatives is letting go of  the ancient decree "You must respect your elders," without guilt or shame. Respect, trust, love, and honor, must be earned, no matter whose genes and name you carry!

      A final special case to consider is...

  Relating to a Wounded Co-worker

      A universal problem is relating civilly to obnoxious and/or incompetent co-workers. Usually, you must maintain a tolerable relationship in order to get your own work done, while nourishing your self-respect.

      This is a special case because the needs you want to fill with a co-worker are the same and different than those with other people. Your response options are the same as with other wounded people, but the risks of relating ineffectively are unique (potential loss of job satisfaction and security).

      A special challenge is deciding how to relate to a wounded supervisor, manager, or team-leader. If their attitudes and behaviors are too obnoxious too often, and if compassion, planting seeds, and confronting constructively don't improve this, you may need to find other work. Avoiding this decision can be self-neglectful.

      If you do change workplaces, know that average unaware GWCs often unconsciously choose low-nurturance school, social, and work environments similar to their dysfunctional childhood families. Each time they (you) do, it's a new chance to hit bottom and begin true healing.

      For options on improving relations with co-workers, see this after you finish here.

+ + +

      We just hilighted relationship options with special wounded people - mates, ex mates, minor kids, childhood caregivers, and co-workers. Pause, breathe, and notice what you're feeling and thinking. If you've learned anything useful here, what is it?


      This Lesson-4 article is one of a series on healthy-relationship fundamentals. It proposes that growing up with too little nurturance automatically promotes a fragmented personality and up to five related psychological wounds. These cause significant personal and social problems and -- if not admitted and reduced - premature death. Most average Americans appear to be Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) in denial, which promotes major personal, family, and social stress.

      Once aware of these wounds and what they mean, you can...

  • assess yourself for wounds, and intentionally reduce them;

  • change your attitude about wounded people from disdain and pity to respect and compassion; and...

  • learn to spot wounded adults and kids, and assert your needs and limits with them respectfully  while enforcing your boundaries and keeping your integrity intact.

      This article offers perspective on and guidelines for these responses, and briefly explores relationship-response options with wounded mates, ex mates, kids, relatives, and co-workers.

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

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