It’s not what we want to hear, but it’s true: you don’t get to decide if you hurt someone.
If someone opens up to you enough to say you hurt them – even if you don’t think it’s reasonable or fair of them – we have to respect that they mean it.
Even if you didn’t mean to hurt someone or you only did what you believe was 100% necessary, it’s up to you to accept that you really did hurt them if they tell you that you did.
Situations where we have trouble accepting that we’ve hurt someone
Unfortunately, there are many situations where many of us have trouble accepting that we’ve hurt someone.
As Sarah Davis of Florida State University writes, the comedian Louis C.K.’s quote that “when a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t” is an important lesson to learn.
For that reason, I’ve written this list of the top ten situations where you don’t get to decide if you hurt someone.
10 situations where you don’t get to decide if you hurt someone
Whether you like it or not you have to respect what someone says to you in these situations whether you agree with it or not and whether you think their feelings are valid or not.
Here we go.
1) When you break up with them
When you break up with someone you don’t get to decide how much it hurts them.
Or maybe it barely seems to affect them and you wish there was some sign that your time together might have meant more to them.
Too bad. That’s not in your control.
What is in your control is to accept that the person you were with has their own life and their own way of processing things, as well as their own way of remembering and valuing your relationship.
You don’t get to decide if you hurt someone when you break up with them. You do it as gently as possible, but at the end of the day some breakups are just going to hurt like hell, especially ones that bring up that torturous question…what if…
As Kirsten Corley writes about the pain of being broken up with in the Pain of Letting Go of an Almost Relationship:
“Even if it was temporary, there is no denying you fell in love with everything they were, even if part of that was a toxic relationships full of false promises and a life full of almost things that never came to be. You wonder if anyone could know you the way he did. You wonder when something really bad happens and you don’t reach for your cell phone to text him, as he was one of the few to really understand, can you handle that alone?”
2) When you insult their beliefs or values
Intentionally or not, insults to the beliefs or values of others can hurt them. You may not even be aware you are doing so, but the core principles and faith of those around you is a deeply-held thing.
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Especially if the person you have hurt grew up in a spiritual or religious tradition that is often ridiculed or persecuted it can hurt them deeply to hear you make an offhand joke or criticize what they believe.
It can also be something as simple as making fun of spiritual people or mocking meditation when your friend has just become enthusiastic about doing meditation.
Using blasphemy laws to make it illegal to criticize religion is bad idea that often leads to power abuses, so you should certainly be free to speak your mind on religious and spiritual matters.
But you don’t get to decide if you hurt someone doing so.
As author and Professor Arthur Dobrin writes:
“There are always differences of opinions and where differences exist over important matters, people are offended. Of course, those who criticize others deeply held beliefs should do so respectfully.”
3) When you disrespect their time
Some of us have issues being on time, I know I do myself.
But you don’t get to decide if showing up late, cancelling and rescheduling hurts someone or even leads to them not wanting to work with you or see you again.
Some people take punctuality very seriously and feel genuinely offended when you show up late or waste their time.
You may find that overly nitpicky or weird, but it’s not your decision how they feel.
It’s just your decision to accept that your time management has hurt and put off a person or people and to then do what you can to fix it in the future or go your own way.
4) When you offend someone close to them
Another situation where you don’t get to decide if you hurt someone is when something you say offends someone close to your friend or partner.
You may consider it crazy that your rant on politics or road safety or how to properly baste a turkey set off their friend at such a deep level, but you need to accept that for whatever reason it did.
Even if they are just giving you the evil eye all night for no apparent reason you can’t let the desire to either get back at them or blank them out take over.
The most important thing is not to lash out emotionally in return.
If you are having shade thrown your direction by the friend (or family member) of the person close to you then you need to be patient and as calm as possible.
As Cindy Anderson writes for Hope Springs Behavioral Consultants:
“Staying calm is one of the most important things that you can do. If you get defensive, or fight back, it will only escalate the conflict and make things worse. Don’t blame the other person, and don’t tell the other person that they are “overreacting” or “too sensitive.” Take a breath and let your body relax.”
5) When you betray them or let them down
There are so many possible ways – intentional or unintentional – to let down and betray someone’s trust that it’s impossible to list them all here.
But whether it’s your business or personal life or something else entirely, you don’t get to decide how this affects them.
Sometimes letting someone down will trigger off all sorts of deeply-held issues they have and feelings of low self-worth.
It might seem “over the top” to you that one action you do could set them off in such a way, but that’s their journey and your only job at that point is to accept that you’ve hurt them in this way and try your best to accept responsibility.
6) When your actions disappoint their view of you
You can’t please everybody all of the time, that’s just a fact.
But when you disappoint other people’s view of you it can be hard to accept because you yourself may feel offended or annoyed that they have a false image of you.
Why should you apologize or care that someone is upset that their false image of you has been broken?
In many cases, an apology won’t be your first course of action, but the key is to be understanding.
This person, for whatever reason, has clung to a glorified image of you. In some cases, it can even be an ideal for you to live up to.
Try to see the positive in that and accept that you falling short of that has hurt them.
7) When you look down on them
Whether you mean to or not, people are sensitive to how others perceive them.
If your words or actions cause someone to feel you have looked down on them it can hurt them a lot.
Often it’s hard to accept that we’ve hurt someone in this way, since we might respond: “OK, sorry, what am I supposed to do?”
This is where trying your best to notice the positive aspects of someone who you would normally dismiss or dislike can be a positive exercise.
Often, someone, we would normally look down on has qualities that are admirable despite other annoying or disruptive parts of their personality, and focusing in on those can help us avoid making them feel looked down on.
8) When you choose someone else over them
There are situations where you must – or prefer – to choose someone else than the person who was expecting to be chosen.
It can be a relationship, a business partnership, a friendship or even just a buddy to go on a weekend trip with.
This can obviously cause feelings of rejection in the person who wasn’t chosen, and they might resent you for it.
You don’t get to choose how it hurts them. You just have to accept that it’s the price of you choosing someone else over them in many cases.
9) When you blame them for something
Blame is toxic because blame creates a culture of fear and people dodging responsibility.
In fact, according to Dr. Charles Raison:
“Repeated blaming leads to decreased health and well-being. Blaming others and holding blame inside yourself creates a negative mental state. The data that negative mental states cause heart problems is just stupendous. The data is just as established as smoking, and the size of the effect is the same.”
Blame is basically a self-pity party where you go on about all the reasons why other people aren’t good enough or “wrong” but you’re doing your best and are “right.”
It’s a waste of time and a lot of people end up getting hurt in the process.
If you’ve blamed someone and hurt them you don’t get to decide how they react.
Many times they’ll blame you back or end up locked in a really unhealthy codependent spiral. It’s unfortunate and toxic, but in the future, you’re well-advised to avoid blame whenever possible.
Even when someone is to blame, try to sit on the desire to point fingers if possible.
10) When you reject them
Rejection can cause a lot of pain to someone even when it’s done as subtly as possible.
If you let someone down and reject them – whether it’s for a job, a relationship, a friendship, or even just not wanting to have a conversation with them – you don’t get to decide if that hurts them.
Rejection can hit us at our most vulnerable, bringing up deep traumas buried inside.
It can make it feel like the world is crumbling all around, and even cause physical pain.
Even if the way you’re rejecting someone is the best way you know how and it’s absolutely necessary, you need to accept that they may be deeply hurt.
As psychologist and author Guy Winch writes:
Rejection piggybacks on physical pain pathways in the brain. fMRI studies show that the same areas of the brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. This is why rejection hurts so much (neurologically speaking).
Why it can be hard to admit we’ve hurt someone
It can be hard to admit we’ve hurt someone because it requires admitting we’re not always in control.
We can’t determine how our words and actions will affect someone.
And sometimes they are going through something totally different and even a small issue from our side hurts them deeply. That’s life.
In addition, sometimes we try to “control” whether we’ve hurt someone as a way to dodge emotional responsibility and feel self-righteous.
Sorry you’re hurt, but that’s your problem. Sorry you’re so sensitive, pal.
As USC student Sloan Pecchia puts it:
Over the past couple of years, I have invested so much of my time in friendships/relationships that have been really complicated, to say the least. I have felt used, betrayed, taken advantage of, confused, and simply just hurt. Often when I have tried to be forward and have said, this is what you did and this is how I feel, I have been met with resistance which includes but is not limited to: “I would never take advantage of you.”, “I knew what I was doing, but it wasn’t with malicious intent”, or “I’m basing my decisions solely on my own experience”. Do these sound like cop-outs to you? They sure do to me. See these statements discredit the way I felt. They are saying, I’m sorry that YOU feel that way, but I didn’t do that, I didn’t mean it, and/or I don’t care.
The bottom line
If you want to reclaim your own power and become an effective, authentic person then you need to take responsibility for your words and actions.
That includes acknowledging that you don’t get to decide if you hurt someone.
If someone tells you that you hurt them, accept it.
Then do what you can to make the situation better if possible and avoid doing it again.
If the situation can’t be changed or you don’t wish it to change, such as in a breakup or a fundamental clash of values then just let the hurtful situation be what it is and apologize sincerely for the hurt it is causing to the other person.
You are not in charge of how other people feel.
While it is true you aren’t responsible to make sure someone else feels nice around you, you are responsible for listening and giving them the benefit of the doubt about the sincerity of how they are feeling and reacting.
Remember that even if you did do something wrong or hurtful, made a bad decision, or disrespected someone close to you in a big way, that does not make you “bad” and you are not defined by one or two mistakes.
Your power rests in coming back from the worst actions and replacing them with the best; your positive development to become a more authentic person lies in accepting where you’ve gone wrong, respecting others, and working to take ownership and responsibility for your situation.