Hurt Feelings: When Are They Too Much?

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Today I thought I'd reach into the reader mailbag and address some questions and comments that a longtime reader sent my way recently.

(I love getting feedback from you readers, so please contact me and your concerns might find their way into an article, too!) OK, here we go:

"I would be particularly interested in the following two issues:

1. Dealing with unkind treatment. (Please note the emphasis is on the action, not the person who may not necessarily be ill-natured.)

2. Resentment/anger/hurt as a result of perceived betrayal or disloyalty. For instance, an old friend (someone who has been close to you for a long time) displaying preference for a new friend, or a spouse being friendly to someone who has been unkind to you. When is it unhealthy pathological possessiveness/jealousy versus betrayal?"

I’m sure just about everyone can relate to these questions. Who hasn’t been on the receiving end of hurtful behavior? And sometimes you know that the person hurting you isn’t a “bad person,” right?

As for the second one, in a society seemingly obsessed with achieving a 100% happy experience of life, admitting to having negative emotions can seem almost shameful to some people. As a result, people sometimes end up beating themselves up for feeling hurt by others’ mistreatment of them!

On the other hand, it is true that our own unresolved issues can keep us from being able to cope with inevitable interpersonal problems in a healthy way, and cause us to feel more hurt, more often, than may really be warranted.

Coping with unkind treatment

Not everyone who treats us badly is “ill natured,” as my reader puts it. In a previous two-part piece I wrote about dealing with “toxic people,” as they’re commonly called, I made the point that it’s better to think of such people as allergenic rather than toxic.

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That’s because what is toxic to one person isn’t necessarily an issue to someone else. Indeed, I’ve known a lot of “toxic” people, both in my personal and professional life, and I have yet to meet one who was universally disliked. Quite to the contrary, they often have a group of friends who think they’re the cat’s meow!

The real issue is that you and everyone else in the world have basic social and psychological needs and capacities that need to be met and exercised in order for you to get by adequately, and a deeper set that are uniquely human, which need to be met and exercised in order to thrive.

Those basic and uniquely human needs and capacities usually aren’t satisfied by the same courses of action, and not everyone prioritizes them in the same way. Not to mention, there is some variation in what we’re looking for, owing to our uniqueness as individuals.

Therefore, what you’re looking to receive from others isn’t necessarily something that everyone else is willing or able to give at this time. They are doing their own thing, meeting and exercising their needs and capacities as they see fit.

When you view the situation this way, as an allergic reaction you’re having to someone else’s behavior, rather than blaming other people for their treatment of you, you can loosen up a bit around the adversarial nature of the interaction, which itself can help you feel better. This perspective also enables you to cope with unkind treatment, putting you in control of your interpersonal life rather than it controlling you.

Coping is responding

When we’re on the receiving end of maltreatment, it hurts. And when things hurt, the primitive parts of the brain are mobilized to do something about it. Your "reptilian brain" is wired to do one thing: keep you alive.

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To that end, it is concerned with pursuing ease, momentary pleasure, and relief from discomfort. When you’re faced with an allergenic person’s hurtful behavior, if you aren’t careful you’ll react impulsively and unwisely to it.

Perhaps you’ll lose your temper and say something that only adds fuel to the fire. Or shut down and turn inward to protect yourself from further injury, or perhaps even turn to drugs or alcohol as a source of relief. Generally speaking, your reactions aren’t in your best long-term interests.

What’s better than reacting is responding. A response begins with being aware of the strong emotions that are arising, and accepting them. (Accepting the emotions, which doesn't require liking them, or the other person's behavior!)

Then, with the perspective afforded by that awareness, choosing a course of action that is aligned with your long-term well-being, not just your immediate relief. It’s a way of reinforcing and capitalizing upon your being in control.

For instance, let’s say you discover that your allergenic person has betrayed your trust to someone else. Your reaction might be to lob an insult, storm off, or shut down—obtaining momentary relief.

Your response would be aligned with your long-term interests, which could vary depending upon the situation. If the allergenic person is generally a positive and important part of your life, you may wish to discuss your feelings openly and honestly. For instance: “You know, I divulged that information to you in confidence, as my friend, and knowing that you disclosed it to Mary, I feel hurt and betrayed.”

If, however, the person is your boss or colleague, you might wish to include practical concerns about your work environment when considering your response. Rather than addressing the issue directly with the person, maybe the greater good is served by refraining from disclosing personal information in the future, and instead processing your negative feelings with friends or other loved ones with whom you do feel safe.

If the person is of little importance in your life, perhaps the best response is to end the relationship and reinvest your energy in hypoallergenic ones!

Yes, it’s easier said than done

Responding sounds great, but it isn’t easy because of the strength of your primitive brain and its reactions, which have been conditioned and reinforced over time. (And that's OK, because the hardest courses of action are usually the best ones!)

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Having the conscious intention to be more reflective and responsive is a good first step, and there is something that can help you build that muscle: mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness involves practicing awareness, curiosity, and acceptance of the unfolding moment-to-moment experience of your life. Over time you build your capacity to tolerate distress without reacting to it in a knee-jerk fashion by emphasizing your higher-order, long-term-oriented human brain functions over your primitive ones.

You can read more about mindfulness in several articles here, and listen to a podcast about it here. Also, you can give it a shot right now with a guided meditation.

How much distress is too much?

So the other part of my reader’s question is, essentially, how do you know when your emotional response to something like betrayal is healthy and natural, or is the result of being too possessive, jealous, or insecure?

I’ll start by saying that if any of the following are true, you’d probably benefit from the help of a professional: you can’t stop thinking about a situation, or negative emotional states are the most common ones for you, or they’re impairing your ability to function, such as by keeping you from being able to concentrate at work, sleep at night, interact with others effectively, or otherwise meet your normal responsibilities.

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Even if a single incident isn’t leaving you impaired, it pays to “zoom out” and look for patterns.

Do you find yourself feeling betrayed often, by other people in your life? Is there a general theme running through your life of being mistreated by others, or not being able to trust others for fear of being mistreated? Do you have trouble settling into the good times, circumstances, and relationships of your life because you’re always expecting someone to screw it up?

Patterns like these might indicate that you have some unresolved problems with trust or insecurity lurking around in your social domain.

These often, and perfectly reasonably, stem from real events in people’s lives, either as children or adults, so resist the temptation to conclude that you’re defective or somehow wired wrong! As with anger, difficult emotions that arise in relationships are actually a blessing: they show you exactly where your attention (and self-compassion) are needed.