Lesson 4 of 8  - optimize your relationships

Not Hurting Someone's
Feelings Can Harm Them!

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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

  Updated  01-13-2015

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      This article is one of a series in self-improvement Lesson 4 - ways to optimize your inner and outer relationships. It explains why the urge to avoid "hurting someone's feelings" can hinder their awareness, healing, and growth.

      This brief YouTube video summarizes this article:

      This article assumes you're familiar with:

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • Self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4

  • how to provide effective feedback

  • how to communicate with "difficult" people


      Most kids are taught by caregivers, hero/ines, and the media "You're bad if you hurt someone's people's feelings!" Some parents are more effective than others at teaching their kids to be empathic, sensitive, and "kind" towards other people. Did your adult relatives, instructors, and coaches try to teach you those values? Did they model them?

About Feelings

      Average kids and adults are unclear on what "inner pain" and "hurt feelings" are. Both can refer to one or more of these uncomfortable emotions:









anxiety or fear




disgust emptiness panic horror

      A toxic belief is that uncomfortable emotions like these are "bad" or "negative." A wiser view is that any emotion signals that we need something - so all feelings are useful, not positive or negative! 

          "Never hurt someone's feelings!" implies another (usually unspoken) rule:

    "You are responsible for other people's feelings and comfort."

    Notice your reaction to this. Do you think this is a useful rule to teach young kids? I suggest that a better rule is...

 "Each of us is responsible for our own behavior, feelings, and comfort."

     Do you agree? Did anyone ever teach and model that for you?

          A core part of most moral systems is:

    "Kindness to other living things is good, and
    unkindness ('meanness and cruelty') is wrong and bad."

Few people would argue with this rule. However, people (like you?) are often unaware of the important difference between immediate vs. long-term kindness. More on this in a moment.

      As a veteran family-systems therapist, I observe that most average people aren't aware of inheriting [psychological wounds + unawareness + ignorance]  from their well-meaning ancestors. This toxic bequest promotes many personal and relationship problems - including "obnoxious traits and behaviors."

      Adults and kids who inherit wounds and unawareness are the most apt to "have their feelings hurt." Typically they have low self esteem (excessive shame), a stern, hyperactive Inner Critic, and Inner Kids who fear (and expect) ridicule, scorn, rejection, and abandonment.

      Psychologically-wounded adults and kids are either unable to empathize,  and are unaware of (or indifferent to) hurting other's feelings; or they suffer significant guilt, shame, and anxiety if they cause someone "pain."

      About Confrontations

      Experience teaches us that "hurt feelings" can come from confrontations. Reflect for a moment on that word. Recall the last confrontation you caused or experienced What do you associate it with? "Negative"? "Upset?" Anxiety? Guilt? Anger? Hurt? Power? Excitement? "Fighting?" Attack? Frustration? All of these? What's your attitude about confronting people? Reluctance? Anxiety? Avoidance? Righteousness? Anticipation?

      The word "confront" comes from Latin roots that mean "to stand before." A confrontation occurs when one person "stands before" (gives direct or indirect feedback to) another person about their traits, attitudes, opinions, and/or behavior.

      Confrontations are caused by needs to (1) vent, (2) cause change in the other person. and/or to (3) inform or help the other person - whether they want help or not. Dominant false selves can also confront aggressively to scare, punish, or control other people and/or to feel powerful.

      Note that confrontations may be unpleasant because of what is said, and how it is said - e.g. disrespectfully, harshly, loudly, wordily, repetitively, punitively, and/or publicly.

      Many people believe confrontations are "negative." They avoid confrontations because they associate them with unpleasant reactions and emotions (above). So "I don't want to hurt (someone's) feelings" can really mean "I don't want to risk unpleasant reactions and emotions." If this is true of you, study Lesson 2 to learn how to give people calm, specific, respectful feedback about their traits and behaviors, and how to avoid stressful "confrontations" when your true Self guides you.

      This brief video offers perspective on successful confrontations. The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site - I've reduced that to seven.

Why "Being Kind" May Hurt Both of You

      Think of the last time you avoided telling someone something "to spare their (uncomfortable) feelings." Did you do that out of "kindness" or to avoid guilt from breaking the childhood rule "Never hurt another person!", or both?

      If you accept the views that (1) we are not responsible for others' feelings, and that (2) all feelings (emotions) can be useful, then protecting someone from feeling "hurt" deprives them of the chance to identify their wounds and unmet needs, and to heal and grow. 

      For example - you "bite your tongue" (withhold feedback) with someone who rambles and interrupts you and others frequently, and seems unaware of or indifferent to how that affects people. By not giving the person direct feedback you're enabling them - i.e. you're condoning disrespectful behavior and promoting the person's unawareness and/or denial.

      Your silence also deprives the person of a reason to assess whether they're psychologically-wounded and unable to empathize with ("insensitive to") other people. If they are, it will cause major problems for them and any kids throughout their lives. This principle apples to all annoying, obnoxious, or dangerous attitudes and behaviors in another person.

      If you were (or are) irritating or frustrating other people, would you want someone to tell you that respectfully, or to say nothing? Saying "Too bad!" or "That's their problem!" suggests self-centeredness, feeling superior, and/or a lack of empathy. These are symptoms of significant wounds and being dominated by a false self.

      Avoiding honest feedback and possible confrontation with another person can also hurt you if you're controlled by a false self. Your tireless Inner Critic subself may pronounce scathing declarations of your weakness, timidity, and wimpiness for "not standing up" to or for somebody. That will usually activate the Shamed and Guilty Inner Kids, which erodes your self respect.

      There are best times and places to be direct with other people, and times when bluntness really is unkind and insensitive. For example, compassion is usually more humane than confrontation with someone in major grief, depression, physical pain, or who is mentally impaired or overwhelmed. Your wise true Self is expert at deciding when, why, and how best to assert your truth to a child or adult.

      Pause, breathe, and notice your thoughts and feelings. Do you agree with what you just read? If not, what do you believe? Is your true Self answering? How do you know?


      If you choose to "hurt someone's feelings," is there a best way to do so? I vote "yes!" Consider these choices:

  • Make sure your true Self is guiding you. If you don't know how to tell or how to free your Self, study Lesson 1.

  • Study and practice the seven communication skills in Lesson 2. Can you name and describe them?

  • Accept that all emotions are useful, and you aren't responsible for the other person's feelings - they are. This doesn't mean you can be uncaring, critical, or disrespectful.

  • View respectful, clear feedback as offering a gift - a chance to become aware of and reduce wounds and/or annoying behaviors. Whether the other person accepts your gift is their decision. If they reject or ignore it, will that "hurt your feelings"?

  • Review your personal rights, and adopt an attitude of mutual respect - regardless of the other person's attitudes or behaviors.

  • Get clear on what you want to assert to the other person - an opinion, a suggestion, information, a request or demand, or something else.

  • Get clear on why you want to assert: to _vent, _ cause change, to set a limit, and/or _ to help the other person, to protect someone else, or _ some other reason.

  • Choose an undistracted time and place, and ask the person of s/he's open to some feedback. If s/he's not, respect that. and watch for another opportunity. Note that giving feedback without asking implies that your needs are more important than the other person's, which is disrespectful.

  • Assert your feedback calmly, clearly, and briefly, with friendly eye contact. Handle expected defensive reactions with empathic listening, and then repeat your assertion without extra verbiage. With an interruptive person, that might sound like:.

"(Name}, you interrupt me often, and you seem unaware of that. When you do, I feel disrespected, frustrated, and start to tune you out. I need you to stop interrupting and listen to me."

      Notice the brevity, clarity, and factual, respectful tone of this assertive ''I''-message.Notice also, it is not sarcastic, angry, critical, complaining, whining, or an attack. Can you imagine speaking like this? Would your "feelings be hurt" if someone said something like this to you?.

  • If you do the above and still experience significant anxiety and/or guilt, you're probably ruled by false selves. See this for ways to reduce excessive guilt to normal when you finish this.

      Another example:

"(Name,)" you're very overweight (or obese). I see you as not caring about that and neglecting your wholistic health,  and I worry because I care about you."

      Notice the factual brevity and lack of preaching and advising (like "You really should eat less and lose all that extra weight!") How likely is it that the other person's feelings "would be hurt" by informative (vs. judgmental) feedback like this?

      Now put these ideas and examples to work. Think of a child or adult who annoys or worries you. Now think of your reaction to that so far Have you avoided giving direct feedback to he or him? If so, how do you feel about yourself?

      Practice:  Using the examples above and these similar ones, compose a brief, clear "I"-message you'd feel comfortable asserting to this person. Imagine their face, and say your assertion out loud. If you feel significant or lingering  guilt, anxiety, or shame, they're probably caused by one or more Inner Kids living in the past. See Lesson 1 for options.       


      This Lesson-4 article offers perspective on the common reflex to avoid "hurting someone's feelings." It defines "hurt feelings" and ''inner pain,'' and proposes...

  • all feelings (emotions) are useful pointers to unmet needs and psychological wounds. None are "negative." inherited

  • feeling emotions is different than expressing them; and...

  • you're not responsible for managing other adults' feelings - they are.

So not giving clear respectful, factual feedback may enable the other person and deprive them of awareness, healing, and growth. It may also lower your own self respect.

      The article offers two examples of how to provide direct, respectful feedback to someone who annoys, offends, or worries you. This article adds many more examples.

          Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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