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Why We Say Hurtful Things We Don't Mean

How some people reject our worst impulses.

Key points

  • Often, people will utter hurtful words to others with no motive. Or, their motive could be simply to relieve their own pain.
  • Remaining silent or strong-willed can be hard to do when one is taken by surprise by hurtful words.
  • The best way to handle being on the receiving end of hurtful words is to see through the anger to the deeper reason behind the statement.
Just Life/Shutterstock
Source: Just Life/Shutterstock

We sometimes do things we cannot undo. For instance, the few survivors among those who attempted suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate bridge generally say they regretted the decision to jump to their death immediately, on the way to the water. One of them says in an interview that what helped him survive was thinking that if he died, no one would ever know how he felt — that he had instantaneous regret and didn't want to die.

As with actions, so with words. Occasionally, we say things that we immediately wish we could take back. We feel we didn’t mean it. We don’t know where the words came from. It may even seem as though we didn’t say anything, rather, we heard ourselves saying this or that.

We are all aware of this phenomenon, which is why on important occasions, we may opt to write a letter or an email rather than to speak, because we want our words to match our intentions. But a letter is not always an option, and even if it is, an impulsively written letter may not be any better than an off-the-cuff utterance.

In some cases, the impulsive things we do and the hurtful things we say are truly unlike us — they are out of character, inconsistent with our values and beliefs. Where do they come from, then?

There may be no good answer to this question. Much the way there could be an unusually cold day in the summer or an unexpectedly hot one in the winter, our words and deeds can be an expectation-defying anomaly. We snapped. We were not ourselves. Such anomalies, depending on the context, may have good consequences but also terrible ones.

In other cases, there is a motive, but the motive is at odds with what we really want. That, I think, is the case with the suicidal people who at once came to regret the decision to end their own lives. They didn't act on a whim, but neither were they motivated by what they truly wanted.

Some of the hurtful things we say to each other fit these patterns. There may be no particular motive behind them, nothing more than an unrelated external irritant such as a delayed flight, say, that makes us snap, or there may be a motive, but it may have nothing to do with a desire to hurt the other person. The motive may, for instance, be a desire to relieve one's own pain that finds a very unfortunate expression.

What can be done?

It is not clear to me that there is a way to prevent uttering words that cause pain without meaning it, any more than there is a way to ensure we never act on an impulse. There are probably strategies that can help, such as cultivating the habit of remaining silent if we sense we are too agitated. But impulses may take us by surprise, confuse us — like seductive intruders — and persuade us, albeit temporarily, to embrace them and act on them rather than stifling them. Strong will usually helps only if you know you have to resist, and it is the nature of impulsive behavior that temporarily blinds us to the need to do anything different.

I wish to suggest, however, that there is a way to mitigate the consequences. It is difficult to do it for ourselves, but we may be able to do it for each other. We know that our words and actions can be anomalous. So we can accept that the very same may be true of other people. Others say things that they do not really mean either, and they even do it with a good deal of conviction, much like us.

We, however, can choose to remain unconvinced. Much as we may be unconvinced by hollow declarations of love that do not seem to stem from the other's core desires and cares, so we may reject hollow and untrue pronouncements of hatred or disrespect. (Interestingly, empty declarations of love are much easier to dismiss and disbelieve than hurtful words are. We want love to be perfectly consistent in order to believe it is real. By contrast, we may be inclined to believe a once-in-a-lifetime declaration of hatred.)

Some people are able to see through us and discern the deeper motive behind our hurtful words. Dostoyevsky describes a character like this, a woman named Liza, in Notes from the Underground. The nameless protagonist in the novel attempts to persuade Liza to leave the brothel where she works and come to marry him. He gives her his address and waits for her day after day. When Liza finally comes, he is suddenly rude to her. He has previously posed as a hero to her, but he is actually poor and feels ashamed that she should see his poverty. He tells her he will never forgive her the tears of humiliation he is now shedding and that he wants her to go to hell.

But Liza does not believe that he wants her to go to hell. She sees through it all – his weakness, his wounded pride. Dostoyevsky says the following of what happens next:

Liza, insulted and crushed by me, understood a great deal more than I imagined. She understood from all this what a woman understands first of all, if she feels genuine love, that is, that I was myself unhappy.

Liza then looks at the Underground Man with “sorrowful perplexity.” She goes toward him, embraces him, and they cry together.

I am by no means suggesting that we owe it to each other to take this type of larger view, the way Liza does. A person can be rightfully offended by the hurtful things we say however uncharacteristic those might be, and if that happens, it is generally our responsibility to ask for forgiveness and make amends.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that there is something generous, mature, and wonderful about having another recognize the inauthenticity in our temporary little madnesses and refuse to believe that we truly mean the hurtful things we say in a momentary lapse of reason, someone whose view of us is firmly anchored in our deeper, truer tendencies, and who continues to know us even when we ourselves forget who we are.

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