The Cruelty Conundrum: When the People We Care About Hurt Us

Why do people we care for sometimes engage in cruel behavior? What can we do about it?

Alfred Adler believed the ultimate goal for all human beings is to belong and feel connected to others. Unfortunately, when a person doesn’t find connection with others through kindness and good deeds, they become discouraged and feel inferior to others.

Adler said no one can tolerate these inferiority feelings, and so they over compensate by striving for superiority. One way to strive for superiority is to become a bully. Bullies who band together with other bullies in order to strengthen their sense of belonging are called gangs, terrorists, mafias, and racists.

Understanding Cruelty

Learning theory explains cruel behavior as being modeled. If a child is treated with emotional or physical abuse, the child learns to act that way: “monkey see, monkey do.” So a person, the child who has experienced being treated cruelly, learns to be cruel.

Still another reason for cruel behavior may be mental illness. There are some mental illnesses that manifest themselves with angry outbursts, violence, a lack of empathy, or difficulty understanding the impact of one’s behavior on others. There are also medical conditions, like brain injuries or Tourette’s syndrome, which can feature aggressive outbursts as a symptom.

There are a number of other theories that can explain cruelty, including genetic inheritance. Darwin thought behavior is related to survival, so violence could be seen as adaptive to our very survival—or violence may in the end be the reason humans ultimately fail to survive.

Responding to Cruelty

We can’t change another person’s actions, but we can change our own reactions. Here are some typical reactions to cruelty:

• Retaliation
• Anger and outrage
• Defensiveness
• Fear
• Avoidance
• Self-blame
• “Walking on eggshells”
• Lowered self-esteem
• Attempts to please

These are natural responses, but they never work to stop cruelty. In fact, any of the above reactions can make cruelty intensify. So what can we do to stop cruelty?

We can do as Rudolf Dreikurs said and “separate the deed from the doer.” A person who engages in cruelty engages in unacceptable behavior, but that does not mean the person is unacceptable. That does not mean we chastise, admonish, and punish the person. If we believe in Adler’s theory that all people have a thirst to belong, we can make an effort to accept the person while not accepting cruel behavior. We learn to be more inclusive and forgiving .

We have to feel good about ourselves when we hear cruel things. If we like ourselves enough, there’s no need to get defensive when nasty things are said. We can react as if it’s untrue nonsense that doesn’t deserve an ounce of our negative energy. If someone tells me my hair is pink, which it is not, I don’t have to argue. I may make a joke of it or say, “Thank you, pink is my favorite color!”

We have to take a stand against cruelty. No one deserves to be treated cruelly. It takes two people to fight and only one to stop it. Be the person to stop the nastiness. Refuse to fight. Say “I’m not going to fight with you,” and physically remove yourself.

We must tell ourselves over and over and over again, “I deserve to be treated kindly.”

Does knowing the source of the cruelty help stop the nastiness? I’m not sure. What I do know is that if we want cruel people to stop their behavior, we have to look within and change our own reactions to this heartlessness.

© Copyright 2011 by Felice Block, MA, LCPC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Lindy

    May 23rd, 2011 at 11:00 AM

    You know, some people have been treated bad for so long that for them that is what feels normal. Sad.

  • Isaac D. Kennedy

    May 24th, 2011 at 12:00 AM

    “A person who engages in cruelty engages in unacceptable behavior but that does not mean the person is unacceptable. That does not mean we chastise, admonish, and punish the person. If we believe in Adler’s theory that all people have a thirst to belong, we can make an effort to accept the person and not accept the behavior. We learn to be more inclusive and forgiving.”

    Sure, that’s how I would feel while a bully was kicking the heck out of me. Not! What nonsense. I couldn’t disagree more.

    We DO need to chastise, admonish and punish the bully. That’s why bullies were few and far between in my day. They were dealt with, not wrapped in cotton wool.

  • Arnold

    May 24th, 2011 at 4:11 AM

    I have a bunch of racists in my neighborhood. They are always looking for people of color and hurl abuses and stuff. That is what they do all the time. They’re a bunch of 5 guys and they’re together all the time. I always believed it is their insecurity, and their inability to do anything worthwhile that leads them to such behavior. But there’s not much we can do about it. Trying to make them understand things would be like to throw yourself in front of a train-it’ll only harm you and have no effect on them.

  • Eleanor D

    May 24th, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    It saddens me to think that someone has lived in such cruelty, and then simce that is the only behavior that they know, then they continue the cycle and do it to others, friends and family and even strangers. There has to be a way to stop the cycle of bad behavior somewhere but I guess that is the difficult part, knowing where to start. Teachers and parents alike have a huge role that they could fill here, but for some this is where they find the most cruelty to begin with.

  • shelley

    May 25th, 2011 at 4:46 AM

    So I guess it is not socially acceptable anymore to tell your children that if someone hits them then they have permission to hit back? I know this sounds abtiquated but this is what my parents always taught us and it seemed to work pretty well.

  • M Lee

    July 28th, 2011 at 7:16 PM

    Thank you so much for this article. Still having difficulty accepting DSM dropped Narcisstic Personality Disorder. My mother, diagnosed this as a teen, could be quite cruel and periodically flew off in narcisstic rages. These woundings and scars have carried into my adulthood.

    It’s so true:
    ‘We must tell ourselves over and over and over again “I deserve to be treated kindly.”’

  • david

    August 8th, 2011 at 3:12 AM

    We’re all bullies, every last one of us in one way or another. There’s an anecdote about a man who gets told off by his boss, he then goes home and yells at his wife, the wife yells at her son and the boy kicks his dog.

    Since we’re all guilty the logical way forward is to try and change, together, by “separating the deed from the doer.”

  • Bibi

    May 9th, 2012 at 9:28 PM

    Well put David.

  • Felice Block

    September 8th, 2012 at 9:27 AM

    I can’t think of anything more sad than a teenager whose sense of self has been attacked so deeply that he or she becomes suicidal. The internet has taken bullying to an exponentially toxic level. I have no answers as to how to resolve this, only open it up for discussion.

    Bullying is a complex soceo-political problem. We as a society have to take a good look at how we tolerate

  • Kap

    September 22nd, 2016 at 8:49 AM

    Every one gets angry and at times has the right to get angry but that doesn’t give them the right to be cruel

  • sherry

    March 18th, 2022 at 1:59 PM

    I have gone though so much behind my back and lie in my face for 8 years. It has left me totally destroyed finically, reputation and identity theft. He did this on purpose. I never thought it was him, it took 8 years to see it. I am recovering as I also have PTSD, anxiety, dyslexia

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