This page is about dealing with hurt feelings. In three short articles, it charts my learning over a period of several months:
1. Dilemma (19.8.20.)
The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me
(Job 30:27; NIV).
During the summer of 2020, two people hurt me badly, on separate occasions. I decided to be honest with them, and did so as lovingly as I could. However, both reacted to my feedback with anger and blame, and neither was willing to work together towards reconciliation.
My dilemma: Should I be honest, or say nothing?
This breakdown in two significant relationships left me ruminating for many weeks about all that had gone wrong, generating a constant sense of dread. Sadly, this was not a new experience. Dealing with hurt feelings has posed a serious dilemma for me throughout my life: is it better to be honest with those concerned, or to say nothing?
What did Jesus say and do?
As always, when I don’t know what to do for the best, I looked for guidance in the teaching and example of Jesus. However, he taught, and displayed, both outspoken and silent ways of responding to hurt and injustice, which I have always found confusing.
For example, on one occasion he stated clearly, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them, and if they repent, forgive them” (Luke 17:3; NIV). Yet at another time he said, “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39; NLT).
So, what happens when I try to follow each of these two, very different, approaches?
Experience has taught me that when I am honest with someone who has hurt me, it almost always backfires. In response to my feedback, they turn on me with anger and blame. I then react to their hostility with my characteristic sense of dread.
When I say nothing, I allow the other person to hurt me, absorbing the pain and damage, just as I did with my emotionally abusive mother. This makes me feel powerless, and depressed.
Thus, whichever approach I try, I generally end up feeling as if life is not worth living.
Fortunately, Jesus was absolutely clear that whether or not we speak out, we should always forgive those who hurt us. This applies even if they never acknowledge what they have done, and never apologise. Forgiveness gives me something positive to work on during the months of emotional upset which follow each time someone distresses me.
When people hurt me, I ruminate endlessly about what happened, how I responded, and what went wrong subsequently. Whether I am honest with them, or say nothing, the outcome is equally damaging for my mental health. Not knowing how to resolve this dilemma has plagued me all my life, and remains a serious problem to this day.
After writing the piece above, I began to talk my dilemma over with a few, trusted people for the first time ever. Gradually, my thinking about it began to change, as described in the next article:
2. Action plan (30.8.20.)
If you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple, and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God (Matthew 5:23-4; NLT).
After writing the above article, I spent a lot of time working out how to improve my ways of relating to those who hurt me. From the insights gained, I gradually put together an action plan to follow whenever a crisis arises.
My action plan
Rather than seeing my response as a stark choice between speaking out and saying nothing, I decided to tackle each situation in a series of stages. This approach helps me not to act on impulse.
Stage 1: Withdraw, pray, reflect
When someone behaves unacceptably towards me, I will not confront the person involved immediately. Instead, I will explain that I need time to reflect on what they have said or done. I will then withdraw to sleep on the matter for at least one night. Taking time out will enable me to pray, discuss the situation with someone I trust, and think carefully, before responding. This should prevent me from reacting in the heat of the moment, with a high risk of permanently damaging both the other person, and our relationship, as well as myself.
Stage 2: Decide whether or not to be honest
During the time out, if I decide it is pointless, or inappropriate, to speak directly to the person concerned, I need take the matter no further. Instead, I will work on praying for them, and forgiving them.
On the other hand, if I decide to tell the other person how their behaviour has affected me, I need to remember that they may have had no intention, or awareness, of upsetting me, and might therefore be very taken aback when I raise the subject.
Stage 3: Speak out briefly, and lovingly
When I decide to give direct feedback, I will do so as briefly and lovingly as possible. I will remind the person of what they said or did, and be honest about how it has hurt me. Anything beyond this is superfluous.
Stage 4: Wait to see how the person responds
If the other person reacts badly, there is no need for me to do anything further. Instead, I will try to put the whole matter behind me, though I admit that I have always found this impossible. We are all responsible for our own behaviour, and I can’t expect everyone to respond exactly as I wish.
On the other hand, if the other person reacts positively, and apologises, I will accept this immediately, forgiving them completely. We can then be reconciled, and the whole matter will be resolved.
Stage 5: Start afresh
Finally, however badly things turn out, I can try to start afresh each day. Every time I find myself ruminating about what happened, I will remind myself that the matter is now closed, and that it’s time for me to move on.
From now on, when someone hurts me, I have an action plan to follow. My overall aim will be to maintain a careful balance between being honest, preserving relationships, and protecting my mental health.
After finishing this article, I made further progress in dealing with hurt feelings, as described in the final piece of this series:
3. Further learning (23.1.21.)
Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves (Philippians 2:3; NLT).
Despite my hopes, putting together my action plan didn’t make me feel any better about my two shattered relationships. I was still living with constant dread, which drained my already very limited energy. My sleep and dreams were disturbed, and I began to slip into depression. Clearly, my approach to dealing with hurt feelings was incomplete.
Then, one day, I suddenly realised that when I’ve been honest with someone about their behaviour towards me, but our relationship remains shattered, there is one more step I can take, in the hope of resolving the situation.
One more step
I can write to the person concerned, saying how sorry I am about everything that has gone wrong between us. I can tell them that I’m praying for them, and for our relationship, and let them know that I long for us to be reconciled. Even if they don’t respond, I will then know that I have done all I possibly can to put things right between us.
This insight enabled me to write carefully and lovingly to those who had hurt me. To my delight, one responded with great generosity of spirit, though sadly the other did not reply. However, by sending these letters, I finally managed to stop ruminating about all that had gone wrong. In consequence, my abiding sense of dread slowly began to diminish.
The teaching of Mother Theresa
At this point, I believed my action plan was complete. Some weeks later, though, I stumbled on Mother Theresa’s teaching about how to deal with exactly the kind of hurtful situations that had destroyed my peace of mind for so many months.
In her book, “The Joy in Loving” (Penguin Books, 2000), Mother Theresa offers brief but powerful advice on how to become more humble, and therefore more Christ-like. The wording varies slightly in different editions of the book, so I have amalgamated the most relevant points into a single list which hopefully maintains the spirit of her approach:
- Do not dwell on the faults of others.
- Accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
- Accept criticism, even if it is unmerited.
- Accept insults and injuries.
- Accept being slighted and disliked.
- Accept contempt, being disregarded, and being forgotten.
- Be courteous, kind, and gentle, even when provoked.
Inspired by the simplicity and clarity of these teachings, I began to absorb and practice them. Not long afterwards a friend unexpectedly censured me for something which was not under my control. Feeling hurt, I instantly began to defend myself, but quickly recalled Mother Theresa’s wise words, “Accept criticism, even if it is unmerited.” I stopped speaking, and turned away. Overwhelmed by despair, I started to weep. To my friend’s credit, she quickly realised how much she had hurt me. She approached me, and apologised profusely. We clung together for a long time in great distress, comforting each other. Eventually I was able to explain how afraid I had been of her sudden anger, and how much her words had upset me. I told her that I loved and valued her, and we were fully reconciled.
Humility, acceptance and courtesy
This was a deeply healing experience, unlike anything I had previously experienced. Moreover, it was not followed by dread, or depression, which was little short of a miracle. I therefore resolved to use Mother Theresa’s approach of humility, acceptance, patience, courtesy, kindness and forgiveness whenever someone hurts me, rather than defending myself, saying nothing, or relying on the complications of my earlier action plan (see article 2 above).
These three linked articles have described how I resolved my lifelong dilemma about the best way to respond when someone hurts me. From now on, when a crisis occurs, I will try hard to use the simple, manageable approach encapsulated in Mother Theresa’s teaching.
This way ahead is fully endorsed by Jesus, who said:
Love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also… Then your reward in heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High (Luke 6:27-9; 35; NLT).
There can be no finer action plan than this.
My warmest thanks to all those who engaged in discussing this issue with me, especially Alan, Dianne, Rosemary, and John. Their contributions have been invaluable. Many thanks also to Ber, whose technical help and personal encouragement enabled me to write and organise this document.