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How To Tell A Loved One That They’ve Hurt You

Telling a loved one that they’ve hurt us is something that most people consider difficult but especially so when you’re a pleaser. Whether it’s blaming yourself, not feeling that you have the right to bring up your concerns or anger, or whether it's fear of conflict, criticism, rejection, and even abandonment, or fear of upsetting them, or even fear of looking like a ‘bad’ or ‘rude’ person, you may end up staying silent or showing it in other ways (passive aggression).

Here’s the problem: When you silence your feelings and thoughts, particularly on issues that affect you and the integrity and authenticity of your relationships, you end up being dishonest with you but also dishonest with the person who you say is a loved one. Your reluctance to express your hurt to them ends up costing you your integrity but it also creates underlying resentment.

Now you may have good reason to be concerned – you may be concerned about their reaction based on a previous reaction of theirs, or it may be based on your fears in general. Whatever it is, you have to find a way of letting the person know that you feel hurt. So here are my suggestions:

1. Before you have a discussion about this, sit with your feelings and thoughts on this and get clear on what they’ve done and what you’ve been responding to. Where is the upset coming from? Specifically from the action or is there more upset coming from your response to their action? For instance, are you upset because they crossed the line or are you upset and confronting them because they crossed the line and then you berated and blamed yourself for it? That’s two very different things. A discussion with them is a step to taking care of and addressing the over the line issue but if you’ve berated and blamed you, that’s something that you need to take ownership of. This doesn’t change what they’ve done but it does ensure that you own your own and let them own theirs. If a lot of your upset stems from what they did triggering an unresolved wound about something from the past, this means that you can broach the subject of their behaviour and then look at where you need to do some healing work.

2. Is this a build-up? Sometimes, for one reason or another, we let things pass and then when that person does something that really bothers us, we have a list of things to confront them on. Now of course, you can’t go around riding people’s arses like Zorro over every last thing but if you have remained silent when really, you shouldn’t have because it was big enough for there to be underlying resentment, you need to own your part in what is likely to be an uncomfortable discussion as it becomes clear that you have a few bones to pick. Does it change the fact that they’ve crossed the line and hurt you? No, but you are probably going to have to explain why you’ve remained silent on some stuff and I would be careful of using blame language like, ‘I didn’t say anything because I knew you’d….’ because that’s just going to get their back up. It would be better to hold your hands up and say, ‘I’ll be honest with you – there’s been a few times over the past X months etc where I’ve been bothered / upset / angry about some stuff but I haven’t said anything. I hold my hand up and admit that I shouldn’t have let it get to this point. I let my own fear of conflict and yeah, to a degree, I was worried that you would react badly and that we would fall out. In doing this, I’ve given you the impression that I’m OK with certain things or that something did not upset me, when actually it did. I’m sorry that I didn’t let you know before but I’m letting you know now and in future, I will be more upfront with you.’

3. Assess your expectations. One of the things I’ve learned is not to go into these situations with a predetermined outcome in mind – i.e. where you’ve decided what that person should be and do to make things right. You have no idea what they’re going to say or how they’re going to react (even if you think you do) and you will set you up for a fall if you decide this stuff because if things don’t go exactly to plan, you’ll think, Ah feck. This whole speaking my mind thing is a load of crap. It doesn’t work.  If you go into these situations solely considering your position and perspective including what you have determined they should say and do, you are going in with a closed mind. Sure, going in like this means that you don’t have to re-consider your position, if only to recognise that you may not have drawn a ‘perfect’ conclusion about things but it will just communicate that you’re not listening. Recognising that things may not go to plan isn’t so that you can balk and run in the other direction; it’s so that you can decide what you will do if the other party doesn’t apologise or acknowledge your position. When you dodge conflict and criticism, you’re closed to the potential consequences as if things have to happen as you would like. There are worst case scenario and then there are others but whatever they are, you can and will handle them.

4. Be clear on what being assertive means. Following on from #3, remember that you are stepping up for you to be true to you, not to control and rule others. The alternative is to remain silent and inevitably end up miserable while pretending that things are OK while passive aggressively showing your hurt.

5. Rehearse in advance what you’re going to say. The rule of thumb I suggest for ‘conflict wafflers’, i.e pleasers and those with self-esteem issues is to stick to three key points. By rehearsing, you can practice being calm and also ensure that you get to the issues at hand. The more waffle you have, the more likely it is that the issue’s going to get lost. If they said something, restate what was said. ‘What did you mean when you said ____________________ because when I heard this, I thought _______________ (e.g. that you were suggesting that I am stupid).’ Obviously you know that you’re not stupid or whatever it was. ‘When you said ________________ (eg. the joke about your weight), it felt really insensitive. Did you intend to __________________ (e.g. make fun of my size and make a joke out of me in front of all of those people)?

6. Don’t go in to do battle and don’t go in expecting to ‘lose‘. Don’t think about winning and losing – think about stepping up and letting the other person step up for themselves. Remember, you could just stay silent and assume that the person is an assclown or that they’re some helpless div who doesn’t know what they’re doing. You stepping up will clear away any illusions you have about that and let the person account for themselves. Don’t go in on the offence or as a victim. If this person is a loved one, come from a position of respect, trust, and care. This is a good time to acknowledge whether you’re going into this for an argument or for mutual resolution. Remember that if you focus on winning, you are focused on making somebody lose. This is not how you treat people you love. Also, even if they haven’t reacted well in the past, bearing in mind that you still consider them to be a loved one and you still want them in your life, don’t let their previous reactions stop you. Each situation is unique and you learn stuff along the way so how you interact with them is going to be different to the last time. Even if they react exactly the same as last time, you won’t be walking away from this feeling as if you’ve let you down. You can be proud of you for representing and they have it officially on record that you’re stepping up for you.

7. While anger can give us the confidence to have a discussion, I would caution you on charging in there in the first highs of anger. You are more likely to be reckless and in turn, more likely to feel bad about voicing what you did and back down from it out of shame over your response.

8. Do not bring up old sh*t. Focus on what has happened in this incident. Certainly don’t use past incidents as your opening gambit because it will look like you’re lawyering up.

9. Be honest – that’s the truth with respect. If you stick to #5, it’s easier to stay on topic and get straight to the point. You will feel really good and even proud of you when you realise that you can stick up for you. I’ve found it very beneficial to come from a place of self-awareness. ‘Normally I tend to bottle up and stew over things but I really want to do things differently.’ This lets you own your own and communicates to the person that you’re being mature and respectful and also what the alternative would be. It often encourages them to be less defensive and also to empathise… if they’re capable of it. Being honest also means being honest about what your needs are because if the hurt stems from a lack of consideration of you and your needs while they take care of their own, being honest about this disparity gets it on the table about whether you can engage together in a way that’s mutually fulfilling.

10. If they get upset or angry, be firm about what you’ve said without being aggressive because it will just descend into an argument. Try to keep your voice calm even if theirs isn’t and if they keep saying something that isn’t true, remind them of a key point. For instance, my mother really upset me last year with a really offensive comment. I remained calm despite coming very close to blowing my gasket with her and when she kept saying something, I said, ‘As I said earlier, the reason why I’m upset is because ________ not because ___________.’ and ‘No, I didn’t say __________, I said ____________’. Also remember that some people get angry and upset as a diversionary tactic as the focus becomes on their reaction, not on the issue. Stick to the issue at hand. They can manage their own responses.

11. Just because they get angry or upset, it doesn’t invalidate your position or experience. That’s just their response. Not all of us respond well to conflict or having our inconsiderateness flagged up to us. Empathise and remember that you feel a bit or even a lot defensive when people bring things up to you. Don’t try to own their feelings or response.

12. Do listen. Sure, you may have been the one to bring up this discussion but it’s not communication if it’s not two-way. Hear them out even if you don’t agree with it. If they’re aggressive and abusive however, it’s time to bring the discussion to a close. Another example from the same discussion that descended into an argument with my mother, ‘If you’re going to say stuff like ____________ then this discussion is over.’ I even said, ‘This discussion isn’t getting anywhere so let’s both go about our day and let’s have catch up when things have calmed down’. When she said something shady again, I reminded her of what I’d said earlier and on the third time, I was off the phone. Do not hold yourself hostage to a bad energy situation not least because you’re not going to resolve anything and you’re probably going to back down.

13. If it’s a boundary issue, do not back away from it. This doesn’t mean that you can’t hear them out but if they’re using belittling language and essentially making out that you ‘shouldn’t’ be bothered by it, stress that you appreciate that it’s not easy to hear that you’ve hurt / pissed somebody off but that you won’t change your mind on the boundary. Sure you might reconsider whether what led up to it was exactly as you thought but the boundary remains intact. For instance, I had a friend say something really inappropriate and personal. If we were alone or with our close group of friends, it would have probably been OK but there was someone there who was pretty much a stranger. This crossed my boundaries. If I had thought that she was being malicious when it turned out, it was thoughtlessness, I would then reconsider my perspective on that but the boundary would remain.

14. Remember that you can be angry with someone and love them at the same time. A close friend and I had an argument on holiday and she announced during it that if I was annoyed with her, then we might as well not be friends. It was at that moment, as angry as I was with her and very tempted to tell her to jog on, that I pointed out to her that just because we’re having an argument, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love her or that our friendship has to end. She did calm down and she was my maid of honour.

15. Some loved ones don’t really do discussion and conflict very well which shouldn’t be a surprise because neither do we as pleasers. That said, what you then have to realise is that you really must not take their reaction to conflict personal. Some will skulk off when you’re annoyed with them and then come back when they’re over their sulking session. Some will try and dodge you until you run out of energy to have the discussion. ‘It’s great to hear from you / see you but we have to talk about what happened’, is something that you can say to the ones who press The Reset Button. You don’t want to keep having the same issue. You may have to force the issue, ‘I’m going to wait here until we can both sit down like adults and discuss this’, or, if they’re adamant at avoiding you, hurtful as it can be (I’ve been through this), step back and leave them to their devices and don’t own their reaction. Remember, you have had your own associations with conflict and criticism as well as your own negative beliefs – others do too. You have done your best to address the situation with them – make sure you address it with you so that you at the very least are self-soothing and not self-blaming.

16. If you know that the person you’re dealing with has empathy issues, not only should you stick to the three key points in #5 but you must erase the expectation that they will eventually see your point. They won’t and it may not become clear to them until they experience it themselves. Something I called ‘Belated Empathy’ or even ‘Retrospective Empathy’. Accept who they are and don’t personalise their empathy shortcomings. It’s who they are.

17. Once you’ve said all that you need to say, I wouldn’t sit there rehashing and rehashing in an attempt to get them to see your point. All that’s going to happen is that you’ll exhaust one another and possibly end up in an argument. Say your piece and step away. Let the dust settle for a few hours or days.

18. If you need time out or time to calm down, ask for it or tell them. ‘I really want to finish this discussion but I need some time to calm down / gather my thoughts.’

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