The Fear of Hurting the Other and the Inhibition of Self

Thinking man and upset womanEven when it is unintended, some people find it intolerable to hurt someone they love. To experience hurting the other can create shame, guilt and strong “I am a bad person” feelings. As a result, we may avoid saying what is on our mind and put aside our own feelings and needs. This inhibiting of the self can be harmful to our relationships and can create the conditions for developing anxiety and depression.

Marlene, a 27 year old married woman, came into my therapy office feeling anxious and depressed. She described how unhappy she was in her marriage to Ben. She told me she loved her husband but was feeling like she was in a straight jacket. If she expressed a need that conflicted with his wishes, his feelings would get hurt. She couldn’t tell him that she didn’t want to play tennis with him every weekend or that she was tired of going out every Friday night with his friends from work. She explained to me that when she told him these things, he told her that she made him feel unimportant, criticized and pushed away. She felt ashamed that she was the cause of his feeling so terrible. She would apologize to him and try to keep her feelings to herself, but then she would attack herself and feel like a bad person. She was shutting herself down and feeling depressed. She also reported that when she was aware of a need that she felt she shouldn’t express to Ben, she would get anxious for fear that she couldn’t contain herself.

What Marlene described to me suggested that she had issues she needed to work on as an individual and that as we did this she would be more able to address the difficulties in her relationship with Ben.

While Ben might be particularly subject to feeling hurt or slighted, Marlene’s inability to tolerate hurting Ben and talk with him about these issues, made the relationship difficult. It also became apparent as I spoke with Marlene that she suffered in all of her relationships by worrying how she was impacting on everyone. She had never considered that we all hurt people, even those we love, unintentionally. She didn’t understand that it is impossible to be in a relationship without hurting those we love. When I suggested this to her, it didn’t make sense.  How could she possibly bear watching Ben be so hurt? She would have to give him what he wanted.

As Marlene and I talked, I wondered what made it so painful for Marlene to consider that something she said or did had the unintended consequences of hurting someone she cared about. I asked Marlene how she thought she got the idea that it was totally unacceptable to hurt someone she loved. We also explored Marlene’s idea that when someone feels hurt they are horribly harmed. Marlene thought my questions were strange. How could it not be painful to see someone you love hurting because of you? How could you not feel like a very bad person? Of course hurt causes terrible damage. I replied that it was appropriate to feel sorry or sad that you had been the cause of someone’s hurt, but that it didn’t have to make you feel like such a bad person. I said that you can’t always be sure how the hurt is affecting someone unless you are told or ask.  Each hurt is different. I said that these experiences could be talked about and the other person might be able to listen and understand the intent. I added that this was something she could work on with Ben.

Marlene considered my ideas with some skepticism. She remembered how her mother would get so hurt when she was little. She had one memory where her mother started to cry and tell her how hurt she was when Marlene didn’t like the dress she was given for her sixth birthday. She recalled how her mother told her how much Marlene hurt her feelings and how could Marlene not appreciate all the time and money her mother had spent to pick out such a perfect dress. Marlene remembered how scared she was when her mother was so distraught and how much shame she felt to have done such harm to make her mother feel that way.

Over the many months that Marlene and I continued to talk in therapy, she began to make connections between how her mother, on many occasions would be hurt if Marlene didn’t have the “right” response. She became clearer that she would do anything to ensure that she was not the cause of her mother’s distress. In fact, Marlene had given herself the job of making her mother happy. As Marlene became aware of this, she also began to realize that with her strong need to keep her mother happy and not cause her any hurt or distress, she had learned to overlook her own needs and desires, especially when they conflicted with what she knew her mother needed.

When Marlene talked about how she had learned to disregard her own wishes and squelch her own voice, she started to make connections to her behavior with Ben. Her fear of increasing Ben’s hurt when their needs conflicted, gave way to the idea that maybe she could talk with Ben about this. She recognized that Ben’s reaction when he was hurt was nothing like her mother’s intensely distraught response. Perhaps, there was a way for them to talk and negotiate and consider both of their needs.

In fact, Ben was surprised to learn that Marlene was scared to assert her needs for fear of hurting him. He told her that even though he felt hurt, he didn’t feel she had done any harm to him. He told Marlene that he didn’t think he was so fragile. He thought he could try to consider that when she expresses her needs, it didn’t have to mean that she was dismissing him. He told her he wanted to keep talking about this. He knew he could get hurt easily, but he didn’t want it to affect Marlene by causing her to inhibit her thoughts and feelings.

Marlene continues to come to therapy to work on becoming more comfortable expressing her own thoughts and feelings and dealing with her impact on those around her. She has gotten much better at dealing with conflict and asking for what she wants in the world. She is worrying less about being a bad person.  Marlene has become more tolerant of herself and more respectful of her right to say what she wants. She is increasingly able to say no to what someone she cares about wants and risk the possibility that they will feel hurt. As she is able to allow fuller expression to her true voice, she is feeling less anxious and depressed. She and Ben are doing better at talking with each other and they are much more able to address the conflicts between their needs in a constructive and loving way.

When we become overly interested and vigilant about the impact we have on others and design our behaviors to make sure they don’t have feelings we can’t tolerate, we are putting our authentic selves on hold. This denial of who we are causes us to build up feelings consciously and unconsciously. Preventing ourselves from expressing what we think and feel, and shutting up our true selves, puts us at risk for anxiety and depression. If we can learn to become more comfortable with how we impact others, and address what we think our impact is, instead of trying to control the other’s feelings, we will be promoting the development of our true selves.

© Copyright 2011 by By Beverly Amsel, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • B.M.R.

    July 19th, 2011 at 4:44 PM

    Good for Marlene! I see so much of myself in her and can understand her confusion about “the idea that it was totally unacceptable to hurt someone she loved.” I lived with that many years and became a shadow of my former self.

    I think when your partner knows that you’re like that it’s also used as a form of control which they manipulate for their own ends. Or maybe that was just mine. :) Ben sounds nicer and more accommodating.

  • Lorne

    August 28th, 2019 at 10:44 PM

    Same! When my wife left she said she was looking for a relationship where he would “support her and do things for her and she didn’t have to do anything”. Not a good match for someone who is hyper afraid of hurting people. The fear of hurting people has kept me single for 10 years (that’s why I’m here :)

  • Cyn Moreno

    July 19th, 2011 at 5:35 PM

    Here’s the thing: you cannot control another person’s reaction towards you. You may be able to predict it but you cannot control it. The only thing you can control in situations like that is you and your response to them.

    Everything else is out of your hands. When you accept that it’s a whole lot easier not to burden yourself with whatever they say.

  • Matthias

    July 19th, 2011 at 5:40 PM

    My question is how do we move forward and understand that our feelings come in at some point? We have to express ourselves but it is difficult if we think we are going to hurt the one we love.

    One of my bosses said something interesting one time, basically he said there are two types of employees: Cats and Dogs. The person who has the proclivity to be a cat really can take criticism and react to it they will also provide feedback. The person that is a dog tends to like positive reinforcement and will go out of their way to not hurt anothers feeling and to accomplish a task.

    Does this correspond the the same feelings that Marlene has, is she a person that really just wants to please? Are there techniques that Marlene can use to help with this situation?

  • Alexandra Reid

    July 19th, 2011 at 10:39 PM

    There’s nothing wrong with marching to the beat of your own drum. Marlene’s partner should remember that that’s what attracted him to her: who she was when they met i.e. her personality and outlook. To change that would lose not only a part of herself, but a part of the relationship’s foundation. I’m glad Ben saw the light and doesn’t expect that of her.

    I’d run a mile from any man who expected me to dilute myself just to make him feel good about every little thing he did. That’s not an equal nor honest relationship.

  • @li$ter

    July 20th, 2011 at 9:11 AM

    my ex-girlfriend was like marlene.she would never say anything hurtful.but whenever I disagreed with something she would simply agree! not that I was rude to her or anything but really, such people can be taken advantage of.and I think they are harming themselves with such behavior.

  • cody

    July 20th, 2011 at 5:42 PM

    even before I read the latter part of your post I had a thought that it must have something to do with Marlene’s childhood. Often times, things like these that go on to define the person are formed due to our experiences in childhood. I have had some things in childhood whose affect is still present in my life too.

  • elizabeth gibson

    September 25th, 2012 at 2:41 PM

    Very insightful piece as well as all of the readers’ comments. Thank you so much.

  • Pamela

    November 17th, 2015 at 12:34 AM

    My truth coach taught me a truth: “I am not responisble for others responses”

  • DC

    December 27th, 2015 at 5:01 AM

    I don’t know about this. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to it in many situations, but I’ve also experienced relationships in which one person is consistently abusive (not that they see it that way) and then, when confronted, turns it around on the other person by saying, “It’s not my fault you feel that way; you need to go to therapy and work on your issues.” Sometimes we ARE responsible for the way other people feel. To deny this is a form of gaslighting.

  • anon

    November 22nd, 2016 at 7:42 AM

    I think it’s just the difference between guilt and shame. The abuser you allude to feels neither guilt nor shame. It would be appropriate to feel guilt when you have done something that upsets another person, it would not be appropriate to feel shame. I.e. you’re not a bad person if your actions upset others; however, most are motivated by a sense of guilt or lost connection to try and find compromises where everyone can be happy.

    On the other side, it would be similarly abusive to always accuse others of ‘causing’ your feelings if it’s not strictly correct. That is the way in which Marlene’s mother is abusive. Marlene’s mother may have been upset that Marlene did not like her dress, but that’s not Marlene’s fault. Some people believe that all of their emotions are caused by others and cannot see the line where they are responsible for their own reactions.

    Basically, it’s not black and white. It is neither true that you are responsible for ‘always being ok even if others aren’t good to you’ (Marlene), nor are others responsible for making sure they never upset you (Marlene’s mother). It is possible – and more helpful – to express emotion without accusing the other of causing it:

    “It really upsets me when you say that”
    “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. What about it was upsetting?”
    Etc.

  • So Afraid

    July 31st, 2016 at 9:02 AM

    I think I’m alot like Marlene. In fact Im going to be seeing a therapist in a few days.
    My problem. …I have to break some bad news to my 18 year old son. His dad and I are divorcing. He doesnt know its to this point.
    I am so afraid to tell him. And his father is avoiding everything and is probably afraid too . I’m even afraid to go over what i will say to my son with his Dad. So afraid.

  • LB

    April 15th, 2017 at 9:40 PM

    I want to get help for my son who is 23 and has very difficult time saying no to people….and puts himself in harms way. My son is a recovered addict and is up for parole. He feels pain in ‘disappointing people’ and is non-confrontational even when it can put him in an unsafe position…making a bad choice and knowing it…to avoid hurting people….even people that do not have his safety or well being in mind. He needs to get through his parole..i want to help him find his confidence and selfprotection again… can anyone help?

  • I don't know

    May 1st, 2017 at 10:36 AM

    I think I’m like the girl

  • Sanny

    March 29th, 2018 at 6:34 PM

    I’m trying to do a bit of research on different phobias and anxiety disorders and such because I’m trying to figure out my own anxiety attacks and feelings. I found this page and found that Marlene’s feelings of guilt are the same as hers. I’m visiting a therapist soon so I’ll probably mention this to her.

  • Teia

    October 22nd, 2019 at 11:05 AM

    I struggle a lot with this. I’ve been feeling intense guilt and shame when I think I hurt people I care about for years. It’s gotten really bad lately and I’m definitely going to be seeing a therapist for it soon. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with my perception of the world, things that have happened in my life, and my anxiety. But it will be nice to talk about it with someone so I can work through these things. Sending love to everyone struggling with this and any other form of anxiety!

  • Root S.

    May 11th, 2021 at 6:57 AM

    been researching my psychology for the last year or so. Analyzing my thinking patterns and my tendencies led me to narrow down the reasons and logic behind my mental behaviour to a single root: I am afraid to hurt people. Anyone. It is the common denominator to all of my actions. It navigates my life. When I counter it, I feel off and guilty. Scrutinizing this belief led me to this article. and I have to say thank you. The story shared here made me realise something very similar to what Marlenne did about myself. and it is a great relief. I feel like a huge part of my inner world has been uncovered.

  • Victoria

    April 7th, 2022 at 10:21 AM

    I do think we as children can get conditioned to suppress our true feelings because our parents need us to approve of them. If they are struggling with their self image they look to us to affirm them. A pattern develops early in our life to hold back our truth because if we say the truth it meets with disapproval. Sadly we then can not be our authentic selves and sometimes we never discover who we were meant to be…..

  • Mary

    May 1st, 2022 at 2:39 PM

    This is so my situation right now. At 60 I’m only now starting to see things as they were and are. I’m trying to discover who I am meant to be still.

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