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Understanding People Who Hurt You as Expressing Their Hurt

One valuable lesson, among many, that I’ve learned as a therapist is to not take hurtful remarks or actions personally. When clients say something unkind to me, I try to understand why they said it. This focus has helped enormously in my personal, as well as in my professional, life. This doesn’t mean that I repeatedly allow people to hurt my feelings or that I let them off the hook for their remarks or actions. It means that I do not internalize what they say to or about me and think negatively of myself because of it.
Here are some clinical examples of what I mean.
  • A relatively new client said to me, “Well, at least you’re not as worthless as my last therapist.” I could have interpreted his comment as meaning that I’m still pretty useless and not very helpful. Instead, I thought that he might have had a bad experience or several to consider his previous therapist as worthless and that he’d been seeing me weekly with the idea that I wasn’t going to be of help either. He was fearful, pessimistic—but, fortunately, pleasantly surprised.
  • A client who’d been out of work for a long time due to mental health problems, told her father about her new part-time job. His response to hearing that she was working part-time in a bookstore implied that he was disappointed and expected more of her. After we talked about his inappropriate reaction, my client recognized that her father’s need for success and to be viewed as special, prevented him from seeing how wonderful it was that she was working again—anywhere. To her credit, she recognized that his comment said nothing about her and everything about his limited ability to view her as anything but an extension of himself.
  • During a session, a mother told her daughter that she had better find a man soon, before getting any older or that “no man would want her.” My client could have struck back with an equally hurtful comment, but understood that her mother only saw herself as valuable if she was with a man. My client, on the other hand, judged her own self-worth by the meaningful work she did and the quality of her numerous friendships. She understood immediately that her mother was projecting her low self-esteem onto her and, therefore, didn’t take the bait.
Again, I’m not encouraging you to put up with mistreatment or to focus on why someone is acting badly in lieu of stopping it. Emotional abuse, for whatever reason, is not to be tolerated. My point is to illustrate that rather than you feeling defective because of what is said or done by people, you can instead see their comments or actions as rooted in their deficits. Said another way, there’s something wrong with them, not with you.