paAfter we hurt someone’s feelings, it is easy to fall into a few  impulsive responses. They are not bad if they work for the other person, but it can be problematic if you respond the same way to everyone. A few common default responses are:

  1. Over-Apology Route: We frantically take our hurtful words back. Offer restitution. Tell them we will watch their favorite TV show with them even though all relaunch seasons of Doctor Who is on Amazon Prime.
  2. Triggered Fight Route: Once we got the ball rolling, we escalate into an unnecessary tirade against the other person as a means to defend what we first said.
  3. Leave It Alone Route: Pretending nothing happened. I will just make it worse if I do anything else, so I will just do nothing. Maybe the problem will just go away.

We default to unhelpful responses often because we do not understand the other person’s state of mind. We are too caught up with our own. Here are some examples of when we get a little self-focused with our responses listed above. (1) Although apologies are important, excessive apologies at the wrong time can be more about reducing our own guilt than reducing the other person’s pain. (2) Although trying to explain your point of view can help, continuing to fight could be our means to reduce the growing inkling we were actually out of line. (3) Although we cannot fix everything, leaving it alone can come from self doubt that we can ever do anything helpful.

However, we are not prisoners of old habits. The tapestry-weaving fates above do not decide the results of human conflict. We can consciously choose compassionate responses and put aside our own feelings to honor the other person we just hurt. Let us take this idea up a level.

There is no one perfect way to act if you hurt someone. It depends on how the other person processes hurt, and this is exactly where we will start. People actually follow the ancient Golden Rule a lot more than they think they do. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you need a hug when you are hurting, you give a hug. If you need space, you give space.

Maybe we can upgrade to a platinum rule. Do unto others as they would like to have done unto them. A key move is to learn and respect the unique way people handle their own hurt.

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space, is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor Frankl

To expand on psychiatrist and existentialist Viktor Frankl, between someone’s hurt and your response, there is another space. In that space, the other person is processing their hurt.

Once you do learn how someone processes pain, try to understand what their behavior means. Greater levels of understanding the other person lead to better responses. Remember one action can mean something different for each person. For some individuals, silent treatment means they are imagining you die a slow and seemingly accidental death. For others, it just means they need to introvert a little. They will be back with a reconciliation hug later.

A key move is to learn and respect the unique way people handle their own hurt.

It is time to swing over to other person’s point of view. We are going to pivot through just a few of the many ways people process hurt all the while learning what what they need, what they mean, and how you can help.

1. Ask for space but really want a hug.

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These people are like baby pandas. You are not sure if they are fighting with you or snuggling with you. Because it is a vague reaction, you really need to know someone well to verify if they belong to #1 or to the following #2.

If you’re in a close relationship, simply ask. “Do you actually want to be alone when you say you want to be alone?” Don’t ask it when your partner’s already reduced to tears. Bring it up earlier in the relationship when no one’s angry. Premarital Counseling 101.

If they actually do want a hug, say sorry and give them a hug. Han Solo did it. You can do it too.

2. Ask for space but like actually mean it.


Most introverts fall into this category. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re plotting your demise behind closed doors. It doesn’t mean they’re giving up on the problem. It most certainly does not mean they are abandoning you.

A lot of people need alone time to mentally process what just happened or even how they feel. If so, it is a sign of respect and compassion to give them space. But if they are actually trying to plot your demise, then I am sorry.

3. Bite back


An equal and opposite reaction is sometimes as true in human disagreements as it is in physics. Sometimes the other person could match your remark and raise you one or two more insults. What happens now?

In the fictional case pictured above, a biting and imperceptibly flirtatious exchange follows between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. However, unless you find yourself in a Netherfield sitting room opposite Colin Firth or Jennifer Ehle, where you are is the beginning stage of a large fight. Dare I say the most important stage of a fight.

Some people think the insensitive, back-and-forth remarks at the beginning stage are relatively harmless–you only need to slow down when it gets too heated during the middle of an argument.

In the field of psychology, the beginning–which barely even looks like a fight–is the most crucial stage. Psychologists Carrère and Gottman purport that they can predict if a couple will divorce within the first 3 minutes of watching them fight.

Whether their claims are accurate or not, let’s see if we can work with these first 3 minutes. Imagine you just said something hurtful, and the other person responded immediately with something hurtful. Timer set. Go.

What not to do:

  • Large-scale, vague accusations. Stay away from over-arching flaws about a person’s character. Instead, pinpoint the specific behavior or attitude that hurts you. Example: Instead of: “You are such a lazy person!” Try: “Dude, it really helps when you pitch in, and it makes things a lot harder for me when you don’t.
  • Projection. Always do a self check on this. Projection means the other person’s behavior subconsciously reminds you of something else. An ex-spouse, an earlier offense, or even a part of yourself you dislike. You then project what you are reminded about onto this person like a movie screen. How to know if you are projecting? If you give a problem more emotion than it deserves.

What to do:

  • “I” statements. When it comes to someone else’s thoughts or hidden motives, discard statements like: “You think this!” Try: “I see it as…” Recent studies indicate that omniscience is not one of the five senses. No matter how long we live with someone, we do not know exactly what the other person means, thinks, or feels. We are only able to accurately inform someone of our own thoughts.
  • Listen to understand–not to respond. Trite but true. There is an undeniable, psychologically healing phenomenon that occurs when a human being feels heard. It defuses anger, heals trauma, fosters a sense of self-respect, and strengthens relationships.

How to know if you are projecting? If you give a problem more emotion than it deserves.

Now we know Lizzie and Darcy do end up happily together in a large estate with extensive grounds near Lambton. I cannot guarantee you Episode 6 of BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, but we swing for the fence.

4. Act sarcastic but still feel hurt.

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We often make two assumptions when someone responds with mocking sarcasm.

A. “Clearly, I didn’t hurt them that much.”

B. “They’re the one hurting me with that remark.”

Not a crazy thought. After all, “sarcasm” comes from the Greek “to tear flesh.” Therefore, unless your appreciation for biting, Oscar-Wilde-esque comebacks is stronger than your feelings, a sarcastic response will bother you.

Let us circle back to Item A. Now we know from John Bender’s multidimensional character in The Breakfast Club (from the image above) that he actually is a deeply hurting teenager. Sarcasm can act like a wounded animal that is overly harsh when cornered. It means that a person really doesn’t trust you enough at this moment to tell you how hurt they are. Possibly for the best. It depends on who you are and what you did.

Nevertheless, guarded behavior generally has more to do with someone’s past than you (as we learned from John Bender’s history of domestic abuse.) So next time someone’s sarcasm really guts you, remember they are responding based on their history. Later at a neutral time, communicate if sarcasm indeed bothers you. The other person will be more receptive to it then.

5. Straight up tell you.

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Straightforwardness about feelings does not mean oversensitivity–it means no mind games. Everyone knows where they stand. There are several good ways to respond to this level of vulnerable honesty, but this is not one of them:

“I am just being honest.”

It is the “just” that usually renders the statement inaccurate. Honesty is a good thing. But if you are like 99.9% of the population, you were probably not “just” being honest. Walking hand-in-hand with your honesty could be bitterness. Passive aggression. Envy. Jealousy. Condescension.

The truth is like a knife. It is still helpful even though it hurts. We need it for critical incisions to remove something harmful. But if that knife is dirty, you could end up hurting a person more than helping.

So try this one on for size.

“I don’t want to be this bitter right now, but I still wanted to be honest with you.”

That is usually more honest, isn’t it?

6. Want to talk it out for 4 hours

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If #2 is the classic Introvert category, this one is home to the Extroverts. Extroverts process their emotions by verbally communicating with other people. Even if it sounds like they are talking in circles, they are progressively processing your words and their feelings towards them.

Processing takes time, so the conversation might take time. For this reason, “Come back and talk to me when you figure out what you want” does not work. It worsens the situation. Not only did you hurt them, but you are removing their mode to process the hurt.

To make things interesting, let us say you are an introvert belonging to the #2 category; and you are having a large disagreement with your beloved extrovert. What do you do if you need alone time to process, and the other needs a long conversation? The best thing you can do is tell them that you really want to listen to them. However, right now, you just are not mentally capable of processing what they need to talk about it. Work was draining, and the night is ending–and the mental energy that your loved one deserves for this topic is just spent from the long day. Make sure your extrovert knows that the conversation is so important to you that you need to save it for when you are mentally present. That way you do not get too drained, and your extrovert still has a chance to process with you. However, you want to follow up with them, or it looks like a write off. If it goes well, they might actually feel better because they know you are serious about wanting to listen to them.

7. Pretend like it’s no big deal


When someone emphatically declares “I’m fine,” either they are not yet aware of their emotions, or they are not ready to talk about it with you. Most likely the second.

Dr. Anita Vangelisti from the University of Texas conducted a study about 9 different reactions to messages that hurt. Reactions such as “I’m fine” or any other acquiescent response (like the following #8) were linked to the highest degree of emotional pain. Perhaps if people do not feel as hurt they could rally enough strength to deal with the problem right away. Even if you want to deal with the problem, prodding at them rarely gives results. You might naturally default to these poking and prodding numbers:

  1. “Come on! You must be upset with what I said! Say something!”

Even if you are right on target, repeatedly reminding someone of their own emotions usually does not give great results. It usually makes someone close up even more or feel prematurely exposed if they do tell you. Let them open up to you in their own time. If we hurt someone’s feelings, we do not need to do hurry them so we can reduce tension faster.

If they never admit to feeling upset, they have deeper emotional blocks than poking at them will solve. At a neutral time, maybe try: “I never see you get upset. Everyone gets upset, so now I’m never sure when you are.” It helps them start the journey of figuring out what makes them angry in a calmer place. If they get passive aggressive on you later, communicate at a neutral time of how to find a balance. “Can you please let me know it if I hurt you? It doesn’t have to be right away.”

2. “You have to tell me if something bothers you, because I won’t know.”

Asking someone to be honest with you is a fair request. We are not Bentazoids who know what everyone is feeling. (Google it if you do not know what Bentazoids are. If you already know, I raise a glass to you, my friend.) If you really have trouble picking up on feelings, the other person will probably have to work on opening up to make a close relationship work. However, if you actually can perceive feelings better than you let on, do not use the statement above as a cop-out to take responsibility.

8. Start apologizing

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If you unfairly accuse someone, sometimes the recipient will passively start apologizing. People in this category often were indirectly taught by their caregivers that if someone acts out against them, it is their fault. Such as angry parents always blaming their children for their tempers. If you care about this person, the best thing you can do is to slowly help them realize that they do not need to apologize if someone else is mean to them.

Even if you are annoyed at their acquiescence, think about how this behavioral pattern was programmed into their mind as a small, defenseless child. Instead rolling your eyes, tell them what their caregivers never told them.

“No. I spoke out of turn. This isn’t your fault.”

9. Truly can’t feel their hurt feelings but try anyway.

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Sometimes people get frustrated with those who do not show emotions, so they egg them on. Many people were conditioned from a young age not to feel their pain. That means their feelings were numbed–not annihilated. Meaning you should not keep poking them to see if their lifelong emotional ibuprofen wears out. Getting in touch with emotions should start in safe space, not in a place where they just got hurt. Remember, it is hurt that put them down this numb road. Poking the wound might only reinforce the numbness.

10. Try to abuse or manipulate you.


If someone responds with abuse or manipulation, you have no reason take it. It does not matter if you said something hurtful or “provoked” them. All other 9 responses are understandable. Physical abuse or vengeful manipulation is not.  This article is about learning to respect and honor someone after you made a mistake or put your foot in your mouth. Taking a punch in the face or listening to a tirade of verbal abuse 10x worse than anything you said to them is not a kind of respect. It is a kind of abusive relationship.


Final thoughts | Overcoming the roadblocks

One roadblock to using these technique ourselves is the following sentiment:

I feel artificial using these techniques. They are simply not how my personality reacts. I still need to be me.

Your desire to stay true to yourself is crucially important. You cannot be what everyone needs. Thinking you can be is a Messiah complex.  But speaking of the messianic, a Rogerian method is helpful if you are trying to still be you.


Picture a personality that you find heroic. Someone who is kind and empathetic about other people’s opinions and feelings–yet honest and assertive about their own. Likely you are subconsciously picturing your actualized self. If you are unfamiliar with Rogerian theory, the actualized self is your most mature, wise, and true-to-yourself state. How do you picture that personality responding to a situation where they wrongfully hurt someone’s feelings? Can you see them using any technique shown above? If not, let it go. Take the tools that feels comfortable. Stand tall. Now try using them.

Note: To mitigate the growing, erupting sense of hypocrisy inside of me,  I must disclose that I do not have any of these techniques down. I mess up continually on all of them, but I still find that they help me mess up less than I normally would. The article represents my clinical training, research, and “learned the hard way” experience.