Make no mistake, words can hurt you. Despite the “sticks and stones” incantation that many of us hear from an early age, words can be lethal. People can and do say hurtful and destructive things. But to be effective any insult or put-down must find its mark. Even the most wounding remark is harmless until it finds its target.

As someone once said, “In order to get your goat they must first find your goat.” My advice? Move your goat.

Next time you claim that somebody upsets you it might help to consider these few points.

Whose Emotions Are They?

When we find someone’s behaviour upsetting it is easy to say “They upset me…”, but to paraphrase Eleanor Rossevelt,  no one can upset you you without your consent. It is common response to blame when we are hurt, but that just prolongs the agony and makes us feel worse. Our hurt can be triggered by someones actions but our emotional reactions are our own.

It’s easy to take umbridge

Of course insults can be intentional, but they can also be accidental. The curious thing about an insult is that you can take it without anybody meaning to give it to you. Even if someone sets out to hurt or insult you, refusing to play ball with them places you in a position of strength.

On the other hand, there are plenty of opportunities in life to feel insulted if you so wish. Some people even make a point of feeling insulted on someone else’s behalf! There is no shortage if you go looking for something.

Separate Impact from Intent

They probably didn’t mean it they way your heard it, and even if they did, it may not be vindictiveness but their own emotional stuff that’s causing the problem.

The chances are, if you are hurt by someone else’s remarks or behaviour, that your own perceptions and interpretations are contributing to your feelings.

The problem is that our pain is genuine, but the intent behind their remarks may not be intended to hurt. It may simply be that your are (mis)hearing their pain, hurt or insecurity. Don’t start analysing them, that’s just more interpretation. Instead remember the words of Epictetus who said People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.”

They don’t enjoy it either

Another common delusion is that some people enjoy hurting others; that they do their unpleasant behaviour because it gives them a buzz. OK, so this might be true of a (very) few twisted individuals. The truth is that most people don’t know why they act as they do.

Whatever you might think, you don’t know what the other person is thinking, or what motivates their behaviour, so stop kidding yourself. Ask them if you want to know, but don’t do it in the heat of the moment (questions are often used as accusations so if they are upset they’ll misunderstand your intent just as you are misunderstanding theirs).

When you have both calmed down, talk about it (How to? That’s a whole other subject, I’ll write a post another time).

But Beware

Part of the beauty of being upset is that for a time we can bask in the gloriously comfortable certainty of being right.  There is nothing like a bit of self-righteous anger to make us feel better about ourselves (and sadly, in some cases, to give us something to talk about). Of course they meant to upset us, and they probably did it intentionally, right? Please don’t take that away from me when I’m wallowing in it… Blah de blah…

Epictetus also said: “When you are offended at any man’s fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger.”

He was an old Greek philosopher and old Greeks are generally wise, I’ve heard. Nonsense perhaps, but no more than a lot of the stuff we preoccupy ourselves with.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.