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Why We’re Afraid to Hurt Other People’s Feelings


A major problem for many dysregulated eaters is stressing themselves out to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. They try too hard or do too much, over-focus on others’ needs and under-focus on their own—and end up feeling angry and resentful. I’ve blogged before on why and when it’s okay and not okay to hurt people. This blog is to explain the reasons it’s so difficult for some of you to cause others pain.

The first reason is that we recall how hurt we felt as children, forgetting that children and adults have very different nervous systems and abilities to regulate and cope with emotions. As children, our frontal lobes (used for clear thinking and problem-solving) are still developing and we cope poorly with hurt feelings because we lack the physiological components to do a better job. We can’t think rationally and put what’s happening to us into a larger, correct context. Although adults (over 25) have fully developed brains and we have every right to expect them to cope with hurt feelings, some can’t because they too weren’t taught how to do so.

A second reason we feel guilty or uncomfortable hurting adult others is because the people who raised us didn’t exhibit effective coping skills. When they were hurt, maybe they drink or used drugs, yelled and shamed us, physically hurt others, or sulked and became depressed. If you grew up watching others have difficulty managing emotional pain, you’re going to think that all adults can’t tolerate it which is untrue. Most adults do just fine. No one likes being hurt, but the majority of us manage and soldier on.

A third reason we shrink back from hurting someone’s feelings is that we saw our caretakers retaliate when they were hurt. Maybe your rebellious brother got smacked around, your parents punished you unfairly for your childish mistakes, or they said mean, blaming things to you which have stuck in your head to this day. Perhaps you equate hurting someone with getting hurt back in spades and decided long ago it was better to suffer in silence than at the hands of someone else.

A final reason to fear hurting others is that you were brought up with the religious instruction to turn the other cheek and that it’s wrong to ever hurt someone’s feelings. That’s only half the story and one simplistic strategy for managing life. The other is to hurt someone to stop yourself from hurting and to take care of yourself. Both strategies are essential. You just can’t pick one and stick with it for life. 

You’ll suffer greatly and unnecessarily if you won’t save yourself by hurting others. Emotionally healthy adults expect to be hurt and get over it, as should you.