How to handle hurt feelings

Sorry I hurt your feelingsHurt feelings. We will all run into them at some point, be it with a lover, a friend, or even a stranger on the internet. But there’s no reason they should have to derail a relationship, a perfectly decent day, or even a conversation. So here’s a practical guide on handling hurt feelings, from both sides of the equation.

I’m going to keep the focus narrow here. We are only dealing with accidental hurt feelings, i.e. when someone with no harmful or malicious intent tramples on someone else’s feelings without realizing they’ve done so. If someone is being intentionally hurtful, that’s a whole different bucket of trolls.

To illustrate the simplicity of the mechanisms at work here, I’m going to use a central analogy for the accidental trampling of feelings: the accidental trampling of toes.

  • I Got Hurt Feelins

So. Someone has just stepped on your foot as they walked past. You realize that they probably didn’t do it on purpose, but you’re in pain and having an emotional response to that pain.

Here’s what you do:

1. Acknowledge that this pain is your pain, and this emotional response is your emotional response. Nobody can *make* you feel something. If they could, unrequited love stories would turn out very differently.

2. Bravely speak your truth: that you are hurting. No matter what anybody tells you, simply feeling that pain and the accompanying emotions is not a wrong action, a counter-attack, or anything other than an internal reality of yours.

3. Alert the person who has just trampled on your toe to it’s location so as to avoid further trampling.

Here’s what you DON’T do:

1. Exaggerate or dramatize the pain to garner sympathy. This is likely to have the opposite effect, especially over time.

2. Cast blame or aspersions on the toe-stepper. This will only result in more toe-stepping in the future, as people have a need to assert their rightness when someone insists they’re in the wrong.

3. Analyse the toe-stepper’s general behavior or character based on this incident, and/or tell them how to behave.

i.e. “You really need to watch where you’re going”; “You’re such a clutz!”; “Your negligent, toe-trampling ways are going to get you in trouble some day!”; etc.

4. Hide or swallow the pain. This is likely to result in A. more unintended toe-stepping (since the stepper still hasn’t been alerted to the location of your toe), and B. unexplained and seemingly irrational emotional outbursts on your part further down the line.

  • I Never Meant to Hurt You

So, you’re walking along, minding your own business, when suddenly someone calls out,

“Ow! You just stepped on my toe! That really hurt!”

Here’s what you do:

1. Assure them that it was an accident. Action and intent are not the same, but both matter. A simple, “I didn’t mean to,” can go a long way.

2. Empathize. You’ve had your toe stepped on, right? It sucks, right? Put yourself in their shoes (pun intended), and let them know you understand and relate.

3. Let them know their pain matters to you. Saying you’re sorry isn’t accepting blame or admitting to ill intent. It’s simply letting someone know that you care about them and that you are sorry they are feeling hurt.

Here’s what you DON’T do:

1. Insist that, since you were not aware of stepping on any toes, they must have imagined it.

2. Insist that, because you are a good person, not some cruel sadistic toe-crusher, you could not possibly have stepped on their toe.

3. Deny that their pain is real for any reason.

i.e. “Oh come on, I barely touched you”; “Don’t be so sensitive”; “Quit playing the victim”; etc.

4. Cast blame or aspersions on the injured party

i.e. “You shouldn’t have been standing there in the first place”; “You provoked me”; “You need to toughen up”; etc.

5. Escalate by reminding them of times in the past when they’ve stepped on your toes.

6. Demand they stop feeling what they are feeling. That’s not just unfair, it’s patently counter-productive. The best way to dispel a negative emotion is to have an external focus. A walk, looking around, some kind of real-time distraction. Telling someone to control their emotions is a good way to insure an internal focus, which will only amplify their current emotional state.

7. Bludgeon yourself with guilt. You didn’t know that toe was there. It’s okay. Learn and move on.

8. Take abuse. Just because someone is in pain doesn’t give them carte blanche to lash out. You aren’t obligated to listen to someone who is treating you with undue cruelty, and you’re not doing them any favors by allowing them to hurt you, either. It’s always okay to walk away and allow time and space to work their magic.

9. Give a snarky non-apology, i.e. “I’m sorry you chose to feel hurt”


Finally, it’s incredibly helpful (though admittedly very difficult) to step outside of your own role for a moment. Consider how you would react to this person’s pain if you were not the one who unintentionally created it. Pretend you are an outside observer, just there to make sure the injured party is okay. In that role, there’s no need to defend yourself, only to offer comfort and help.

When in doubt, ask the magic question:

“What do you need from me right now?”

You’d be amazed how quickly and thoroughly that one little question can de-escalate even the ugliest of arguments. Because when it comes down to it, all anybody really wants is to know that someone cares about their needs. Hurt feelings, or otherwise.

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