Do you know what to do when you hurt someone’s feelings? When we hurt a loved one, we’re often at a loss for what to do to bring things back to how they were before. Here’s how a recent event in my life taught me how to be more compassionate and kind when I hurt someone’s feelings.
So a couple of weeks ago, I fucked up with a very close friend of mine.
Like a real, big, giant fuckup that made her not want to talk to me for days.
The moment I knew I had hurt her, my heart broke in two. It sucks to hurt people you love. I was distraught for days, looking for somewhere to hide, for a way to somehow make the bad feelings disappear right now.
But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t because I had hurt her really deeply, and a “oops, my bad, sorry” wasn’t going to cut it and make her smile again.
I’m not really happy with the expression “hurting someone’s feelings”. I hurt more than her feelings: I hurt her pride and her sense of self. What I did made her wonder all kinds of things about me, and herself: did I really think of her that way? Why would I think of her that way? Was she really that way?
The details of the fuckup are not really important. What’s important is what I learned from this situation, and how you can use what I’ve learned to better manage conflict in your own relationships, whether familial, friendly, sexual or romantic.
Don’t try to soothe your guilt
Once you’re aware that the other person is hurt, the first thing you’ll probably want to do is soothe your feelings of guilt.
Of course, guilt is terrible. It’s not something that you want to hold on to forever. But in the heat of the moment, guilt tells you something: it tells you that you’ve done something wrong. It’s an indicator, a marker that
- You’re a normal human being with emotions (i.e. not a psychopath)
- There’s an issue that needs resolving
Trying to soothe your guilt by making immediate apologies (“oh my God so sorry!”) is not going to work. Why?
Because in the moment, your apologies don’t mean much to the hurt person. They’re still hurting. And you can’t do anything to fix it right now.
We most often want resolution when we have negative feelings. We want to stop the hurt, we want to soothe the pain. But we often can’t, and we develop anger because of our inability to just sit with the feeling.
So the first thing you should do in this moment is simply acknowledge that you’re feeling the guilt, and that it hurts you. Look at the guilt. Sit with the pain. Let it tell you where you went wrong, and what you can possibly do, at least right now, to start working on solving the conflict.
Intentions don’t really matter
Okay, this one’s a bit misleading. Yes, intentions matter… but not right away. Not right now, when the person is at the deepest part of their hurt, they don’t.
Obviously you didn’t mean it. Obviously you didn’t wilfully try to hurt your loved one. The other person knows that.
But none of it helps when someone hurts.
Your reflex is probably going to be to start trying to explain yourself. You didn’t mean it, you say. There were circumstances. The other person misunderstood. They’ve got it wrong, you think. How could they get it wrong? You didn’t mean it! It should be okay, right? The other person should definitely stop hurting if you didn’t mean it!
This reaction is a way for you to try to soothe your feelings of guilt (see above). You’re trying to resolve your guilt by applying some instant healing words to the emotional wound of the other. Except it doesn’t work that way.
You should shut up, do what you can in the moment to resolve anything you need to resolve (in my case, it was removing a sentence from a not-yet-published article), and let it be. You’re going to be uncomfortable, but then you need to learn how to be uncomfortable, because we tend to do stupid stuff when avoiding pain.
It’s not okay
Things are not going to be okay for a little while. The other person is hurting. You’re hurting. There’s no way out of it.
One of the paths to wisdom, openness and vulnerability is to be able to sit with the “not-okayness”. When we don’t feel okay, we can lash out in anger or frustration. But if we just learn to be with the feelings, we can stop our mindless, unconscious reactions.
In my case, when things are not okay by my fault, I’m running around like a headless chicken asking “What can I do? What can I do?” But asking a broken plate “what can I do?” is not going to bring it back together. You know what you need to do: sit down with all the pieces and glue and build it back.
But until that’s done, things are not going to be okay, no matter how much you scream, cry, plead, or try to help.
Give it time
The best advice I have for you is: give it time.
Feelings have this nifty thing that they do: they die down. Once the sting passes, once you’ve had a night’s sleep, a good meal, maybe a drink, seen friends or done something fun, the hurt doesn’t seem as sharp. (Unless you’re the kind of person who holds on to grudges like a protective shield, but that’s another issue altogether.)
Your loved one needs time to process the pain and to re-evaluate their position. They probably need to not talk to you or hear about how much you’re sorry. They probably know that you’re sorry—but as I describe above, it doesn’t matter. You still hurt their feelings.
I waited a good 48 hours before I contacted my friend again. I gave her time to process and to breathe, and for her pain to feel a little less sharp. And it took even more time for us to see each other.
But when we did, it was with an open heart, without anger or resentment. We could talk openly without fear of triggering negative emotions that we’d then hurl at each other.
Approach with compassion
The thing is, when you approach the other person for apologies, do it with compassion. What does this mean?
Don’t make it about you.
You may be hurting too, but if you’re to blame, the other person probably doesn’t want to hear it. Being compassionate means taking ownership of your actions (“Yes, I did this”). It’s not about shifting blame or trying to justify your behaviour. It’s not about saying how something they did made you do it.
It’s just about saying “Yes, I did this.”
Yes, you did. I know it’s hard. We don’t like blame. Blame hurts. But blame is inconstant and fleeting. It’ll go away. So don’t try to avoid blame—just let it pass through you so you can learn from it. And acknowledging harmful actions is a good way to teach yourself that blame isn’t a thing we should run away from.
It’s not about you. It’s about them. As Pema Chodron would say, let go of your Very Important Storyline and try to read someone else’s story for once.
When you apologize, mean it
I’m Canadian. We throw “sorry” around like it’s Timmy’s coffee (well, not quite literally. Coffee is hot.)
For some people, saying sorry is really difficult. It involves admitting your fault (see above) and expressing guilt and contrition. “Sorry” is a promise that you’ll do your best not to do it again.
M. once criticized me for throwing “sorry” around without ever changing. (I don’t remember what this was about… maybe not doing the dishes the way he wanted me to or something.) I don’t think he was right, now—he was probably just gaslighting me—but it has stayed with me as a lesson.
There’s a difference between “oops, sorry!” and “I’m sorry.” Look in the other person’s eyes when you say it. Put all of your guilt into the “sorry” and give it to the other person to accept and release from you. You can only do that if you’re aware enough of your own feelings of guilt and self-blame, and if you trust the other person enough to at least see it.
Saying “I’m sorry” to a person who isn’t ready to accept an apology isn’t going to work. There will be no release, no catharsis. Sometimes, you can say “sorry” until you’re blue in the face and make no difference because the other person isn’t open to an apology.
Accept that things might never mend
And sometimes, that’s the rub: the other person is too hurt, too angry, too pained, to accept your apology.
Sometimes it means it’ll take time to mend the relationship; sometimes it means it might never mend at all.
If you approach the other person with compassion, you’ll see and understand that more easily than if you just try to soothe your own guilt.
Sometimes there’s just nothing we can do to mend a relationship. Sometimes even the most sincere apologies and promises to end the hurtful behaviour is not enough.
Sometimes, we break things beyond repair.
And that’s a hard thing to accept, I know. But just as with everything else, the pain of losing a relationship will subside with time. What you can do is learn from this moment and do your best not to hurt anyone else again in that way. The other person may never know it, but you owe it to them anyway.
But mostly, you owe it to yourself: we walk around the world causing harm with every step, every word, every gesture… every thought. If you can learn at least one way to reduce the harm you make in this world, it’s worthy of your effort. It might not mend this particular relationship, but it might help preserve others in the future.
It’s hard to know what do to when you hurt someone’s feelings. We’re caught up in our own stories, trying to avoid blame, trying to soothe our guilt. But having a compassionate approach to the other person and making a sincere apology that acknowledges your responsibility is the only way you can get out of this situation with some wisdom, and hopefully a mended relationship.