Even 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.
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