Source: Oliver Gill, used with permission
By Melissa Ritter, Ph.D.
How many times have you felt hurt or insulted or shocked by what a friend, partner or family member has said or done to you? “How could they have been so insensitive?” “How could they have not known this would upset me?” “HOW COULD THEY?”
Well, there isn’t a single answer to this question—human relationships are very complicated–but there is a common error that does explain some of what’s going on: we often, mistakenly, attribute our own emotional reaction to the deliberate intent of the other.
You feel hurt; they have no clue
What we all fail to keep in mind consistently is that our sensitivities are as individual as we are. Even though it might seem glaringly obvious to you that what someone said or did was not OK, they may have no clue about their impact on you. They are behaving according to a different set of rules—they may have worries and ideas and a life history that has shaped their way of being very differently than has yours.
For example, you are waiting for a text about meeting up with a friend, one who, in your mind, should know that it’s important for you to keep an organized schedule. And then they don’t text. All of a sudden, you are annoyed, and maybe a bit concerned. Have they forgotten you? Are they being careless and/or disrespectful? Are you being ditched? Don’t they understand how irritating and hurtful this is to you?
The conviction that one’s experience is being disregarded, even attacked, is something with which we all struggle. The other person may not intend to hurt you at all; they may have no clue about their impact.
In the example above, the “offender” may have a different sense of time, be distracted, or feel anxious about texting for a reason you know nothing about. Additionally–and much to our disbelief and dismay–the other may not always keep our experience in mind with the vigilance we wish.
We are all the center of our own little universes. And our universes differ vastly.
Misreading someone’s facial expression or lack of response
This is another version of what I’m trying to get at. There you are, extremely distressed because your romantic partner didn’t do the thing you have asked them to do a million times—how could they not know how this is going to affect you? You confront them and they stare back blankly or make a joke. You assume they do not care.
But what you are witnessing might be a reaction to their fear and/or shame about disappointing you. They may shut down as a way to protect themselves; they may feel unable to respond because of who they are and how they function, not because they don’t care. But you feel exasperated and emotionally abandoned.
We cannot underestimate how little we know about others (and ourselves)
Each of us has an internal emotional world, one not visible to others, and necessarily only partially known to ourselves—much of who we are, what we feel, and why we behave as we do is out of our awareness. This idea is fundamental to psychoanalytic thinking.
So how do we get through the day, let alone life?
Often, we try to understand others based on what we do know about ourselves. That is, if it’s obvious to me that it would be presumptuous and insulting if I decide what we should do for dinner without consulting you, I assume you operate with the same premise. But you might believe you are caring for me, demonstrating love, by taking the initiative to make the plans for both of us.
The crossing of communication wires is surprisingly common. Both people feel misunderstood and poorly treated.
Why Doesn’t Talking About This Help More Than it Does?
Pointing out to someone that their way of doing things isn’t working for you, doesn’t mean that they can change at will, or that they really understand what you are talking about
Think about how hard it is for you to change to accommodate someone else’s idiosyncrasies.
If receiving a prompt text reply is not important to me—or is determinedly not important because, unbeknownst to me, I resent being “forced” to accommodate others—no amount of getting “talked to” is going to significantly shift my behavior.
Likewise, if someone is terrified of the anger and disappointment of loved ones, “confrontation” will only force them further underground. They may, quite literally, not be able to hear what you are saying to them.
What CAN we do?
We can repeatedly remind ourselves not to conflate—mix up—our reaction to what someone has said or done with their conscious intent. That is, we should not assume our feeling bad is the outcome the other person intended or was a consequence of their lack of concern for us.
Most people who care about us are doing the best they can. This doesn’t mean it’s always good-enough, or that folks need not try and change hurtful behavior. This is where therapy can be helpful; we can learn more about ourselves and why we do the things we do.
We should always ask ourselves—especially during those heated moments of utter conviction that the other has wronged us egregiously:
- How else can I understand what is going on?
- Might this person actually mean well, or be afraid, or unaware of my vulnerabilities?
- Could they be operating with a different definition of “doing the right thing”?
- Might I feel hurt because of my own worries and/or sensitivities and not because the other person wants to hurt me?
Taking a moment to consider alternative explanations isn’t going to rid our relationships of hurtful interactions. But it is the beginning of doing our best to understand the people we love, as well as taking responsibility for our own feelings.
Melissa Ritter, PhD, psychologist-psychoanalyst, is a supervisor and faculty member at The William Alanson White Institute. Dr. Ritter is an editor of this blog, Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action, and has written on topics including romantic love, interpersonal communication, sex, and female gender roles. She is the founder and former chair of the White Institute LGBTQ Study Group. For many years professionally active in child welfare, she now works with adolescents and adults in private practice.