Holding Space for People’s Pain While Being Firm in Your Boundaries

Something I’ve learned during my three-year healing journey is that healing can be lonely. There are fewer healed people than unhealed. Fewer people doing the real work of change and growth than not. Sometimes, you bump up against those unhealed folks.

There are some people who are intentionally unhealed. They have no interest in healing and would rather stay with familiar pain than find unfamiliar safety and happiness. But most people, in my opinion anyway, want to heal. They’re just not very far along on their journey yet and have a long way to go.

It can be hard coming across those types of people, especially when they are healing from the very thing you already healed from. It can be difficult to hold space for those people for several reasons. First, it can be triggering or even re-traumatizing to hear their stories and witness their pain. Often, it hits far too close to home. Second, unhealed people are just that—unhealed. They behave like unhealed people, the same way you did when you were unhealed. They say “hurt people hurt people” and I can’t say it’s untrue. People who are hurting have a way of hurting others around them because their pain is so intense that it just finds its way out of them. I know this for a fact, as I’ve hurt plenty of people on my own healing journey because I was just in too much pain to be anything but hurtful.

These people deserve compassion. They deserve for their pain to matter, even when their pain is coming out in ways that are harmful to others. What becomes tricky, then, is learning how to hold space for their pain while also maintaining strict boundaries for yourself.

How do we do this? How do we affirm, validate, and ease the pain of unhealed people, even when they don’t treat us well, without violating our boundaries?

For me, it comes down to a few simple rules. A personal creed to live by. Here are mine. Please take what resonates and leave the rest, or adapt what I have in a way that feels right for you.

#1. Don’t take things personally.

Hurting people are prone to lash out occasionally. They are carrying around pain that feels unbearable, and at times, they misdirect their anger, hurt, or outrage onto the wrong people. It can be hard when this happens, especially if you are actively trying to help them. But by learning not to take things personally—to understand that their behavior is not about you but about the pain they are suffering—you can listen objectively without getting defensive or angry.

#2. Listen without internalizing.

Often, what unhealed people need most of all is for someone to listen with empathy. It can be easy to accidentally internalize their words—to be transported back to your own pain as you listen. This can bring you back to your own past triggers and traumas and make the conversation even harder to have. Something else I’ve noticed is that unhealed or healing people tend to lack awareness that they are not fully healed. They are not self-aware enough to realize that they are still operating from a place of trauma, and often, they believe that they have all the answers. They engage in black and white thinking and are unable to hold space for different opinions or experiences. That’s okay, it’s part of the process. But it’s important to listen without internalizing.

#3. Reject passive-aggressive behavior.

For me, being passive-aggressive is one of the clearest ways for me to identify areas where I need more healing. When I am unhealed, I don’t feel empowered to say what’s really on my mind—to have hard conversations and state my needs. So, instead, I use passive-aggressive behavior to try to telegraph my feelings and needs to other people. So, passive aggressiveness irks me for several reasons. I have learned to draw a line where the passive aggressiveness starts. I am willing to have hard conversations, even sharply. I’m also willing to still hold space for the feeling behind the passive-aggressive behavior, as I do very well understand where it comes from. I just won’t let someone treat me that way and still receive my time and energy.

#4. Disengage when you need to.

Hurting, unhealed people deserve your compassion, but you must protect your peace and your energy. Get in the habit of saying things like, ‘I love you and I care about this, but I don’t have the energy to give right now. Can we schedule a time to talk?”

It is possible to show kindness and compassion to unhealed people without violating your boundaries. It’s a matter of remembering that you were once standing in their shoes (compassion), while also remembering that you didn’t do all this hard work on yourself to be disrespected by someone who hasn’t completed that work (boundaries).


Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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