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Hurt Feelings Come From Hurt Thoughts

Did their remark hurt your feelings, or could it have been your own thoughts?

Pxhere free image
Source: Pxhere free image

In a sense, this subject—namely, how thoughts lead to feelings—might seem almost too obvious to write about. After all, rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT) is based on the premise that thoughts drive emotions and, sequentially, those emotions drive behavior. In addition, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) abides by very much the same principles of what motivates human action—and reaction.

Still, on a more personal level, I think it’s invaluable when someone triggers in your sadness, anxiety, anger, or any other negative emotion, to reflect on just what caused these disturbing feelings. And this is also true when your distress emanates not from without but within. For however much you might wish to disappear discomfiting emotions directly (as in, “I’m depressed right now, but I hereby will myself not to be depressed”), it’s crucial to recognize that your feelings emerged secondary to your self-talk. And they do so either (1) as an automatic consequence of these negative thoughts, or (2) as a reminder (cognitive, visual, or sensory) of some situation in the past that, unconsciously, has been conflated with an event—and its hurtful interpretation—in the present.

Here are some representative examples:

---You share something with a friend, and unexpectedly they look at you with a terribly pained, downcast expression. It turns out that what you said, though it was innocent enough, reminded them of an earlier experience in which a (presumed) close friend betrayed their trust, leaving them feeling foolish, stupid, and even despondent. Accordingly, in the here-and-now they couldn’t help but react to you as though you were that disloyal, deceitful person from their past.

Note here that if at the moment you felt sad and guilty for hurting them, it would be because you said to yourself (almost certainly below the level of awareness) something like: “I must have said something really insensitive. I don’t know just what but I still have to take responsibility for it, especially since they’re such a good friend.”

On the contrary, had you thought: “Wow! there’s some button I must have pushed ’cause they really overreacted to what, frankly, wasn’t even about them,” you would have been able to avert these self-accusatory feelings. Rather, you would have been curious about what so triggered them. And that might have prompted you to request that they help you better understand what you said that led to their so-sudden upset. Moreover, with this concerned, but non-self-blaming, reaction you would have improved the chances that whatever misunderstanding contributed to their distancing themselves from you could be effectively redressed.

---You’re walking on the beach with your husband and you can’t help but notice his regularly looking off to the side at women in their late teens or twenties frolicking in bikinis that show off their well-tanned, hour-glass figures. Now in your late 40s, gravity has begun to take its toll on your formerly curvaceous figure and you infer that your partner has lost his prior physical interest in you, replacing it with a fascination (if not fixation) for younger women. And such a thought leads you to worry about the possibility of his having an affair.

Given this pessimistic appraisal of your partner’s wandering gaze, you feel anxious and insecure. But because you’re too afraid to talk to him about your thought-induced fears (for what if they should be confirmed?), you keep them inside, with the unfortunate result that they continue to gnaw away at you. Nonetheless, had your speculations been more rational—that his roaming eyes exhibited typical masculine behavior, demonstrating an inability to resist what, by nature, could hardly not be arousing to him—you could have kept your cool, reminding yourself that your sexual relationship with him has been just fine, so there’s no substantive reason to worry about his fidelity.

Here, too, you can see that worrisome emotions don’t come from events or situations themselves but from your assumptions, evaluations, or beliefs about them. So if you want to deal productively with emotional distress, as much as possible you need to detach yourself from it and figure out how you might be “talking yourself into” such troublesome feelings. True, it’s also possible that your emotions are logically related to your thoughts. But if you’re to be scrupulously honest with yourself, you might well discover that your thinking is biased—that because of past experiences still negatively charged, you’ve come to view things in the present from a negatively distorted or exaggerated perspective: A perspective that may be much less mature, or “adult,” than you currently are.

Here’s one last example, and because it involves an extra step, it’s somewhat more complicated than the first two:

---Someone is rude to you and—immediately, it seems—you experience intense anger toward them. Your anger might result from such thinking as: “I deserve to be treated with respect,” “That person has no right to talk to me like that!” or “How dare he/she patronize me (or condescend to me)—they’re no better/smarter/more attractive than I am!”

By righteously blaming the other person, you no longer have to experience the emotional sting of feeling “put down” by them. And that’s why anger is a “go to” mechanism of defense for so many people. But consider that just before you experienced this wrath, you felt hurt by their apparent message that you were inferior to them. For otherwise, you wouldn’t have felt such a need to push back against them.

That is, the initial, or primary, emotion wasn’t anger at all. It was hurt. And if you’re to best understand what the emotion of anger is all about, it’s critical that you realize that anger is virtually always a way of mitigating painful feelings (as I point out in my many posts on anger, such as “What Your Anger May Be Hiding").

Once you come to realize that it’s in your giving the other person’s words authority over you that’s compelled you to take their discourtesy or disrespect to heart, you can reflect on whether that authority is actually warranted. And hopefully, in concluding that it really isn’t, the hurt that eventuated in your (defensive) anger will begin to subside. And that can restore the emotional equilibrium which in the moment your unconscious thoughts made you lose.

Finally, the way you gain control of your negative emotions isn’t by denying them, or battling with them. It’s by grasping the frequently irrational beliefs that typically underlie them. And once you can alter these beliefs, you’ll find that the feelings so intimately tied to them will change as well.

© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.