Thursday, February 25, 2016

How Do I Overcome My Hurt Feelings?

Dear Cyndie,

I’m having a problem with a person in my ward. This person has said cruel, manipulative and insulting things to me, lied to me, gone out of her way to exclude me from people and activities I enjoy, and been generally awful, all the while acting like I was the problem. It has been horrible. I don’t even want to go to church because I dread seeing her. 

I try to avoid this person, but she seems to be everywhere. I don’t know how to act around her or how to stop re-hashing in my head all the things she has done to me. For months, I tried being extra nice to her, in case there had been a misunderstanding, but that only made things worse. It doesn’t help, either, that she seems like a totally normal person on the surface.

I have never had a problem like this before, and it is consuming me. 

What should I do?

Dear Friend,

Your question is a good reminder that intense personal dramas and hurt feelings are not the sole province of overly-emotional teenagers. Adults are just as capable of cruelty, manipulation, selfishness, lies and unkindness. And although adults should, generally speaking, be able to roll with the hurly burly of life, in which potential offenses are legion, even reasonable adults can suffer offense and hurt feelings when people are cruel to them.

Your question is also a good reminder that not all hurt feelings arise from simple misunderstandings or personality clashes. Some hurt feelings arise when one person actually mistreats another person in a way that goes beyond the normal ebb and flow of human interaction. 

Interestingly, your experience also shows that approaching a person to resolve differences is not always effective. If one party is, in effect, abusing the other, no amount of talk is going to resolve the situation. As you found, treating this person with extra kindness only made the problem worse. Instead of bringing you together, it showed her that the worse she treated you, the more compliant and solicitous you were towards her. Ironically, your mature approach to a personal conflict actually made it easier for her to mistreat you further.

Fortunately, you have already taken steps to remove this person from your life. But the only way I know to feel permanently better is to forgive this person. That’s a tall order when she was horrible and your feelings are raw. So file it away in your mind as a long-term goal, which you someday hope to achieve. 

For the short term, I suggest you disengage entirely from this person. You need to get her out of your head and out of your life. As you are in the same ward, complete avoidance will indeed be impossible, but there are things you can do to put physical, mental and emotional distance between you.  

Here are four suggestions.

One, avoid and ignore this person as much as possible. Delete her from your social media and don’t read her posts. Develop friendships in social circles that do not include her. Skip book club when it’s at her house. When milling about the church lobby, stand so that you cannot see her.

Two, be scrupulously polite. Behaving well will always make you feel better than behaving badly. In the long run, anyway. So stow your temper and do not attempt to guilt trip her or tell her off. Why? Because (1) pointing out the bad behavior of others is bad behavior and (2) it won’t work. Anything you do will only cause a kerfuffle in which she will look persecuted and you will look unhinged. If she has lied to and manipulated you, she will lie about you in order to manipulate others. Don’t give her any ammunition.

Remember that polite behavior is not necessarily friendly or familiar. There is nothing rude about deciding not to socialize with a person who treated you badly. You don’t have to treat her the same nice way you treat your friends, or even with the normal warmth you show acquaintances and strangers.

But you should observe social norms. For example, “Excuse me,” and “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to come.”

Three, if you think you will be attending the same function as this person, plan in advance what you will say and do if you encounter her. This might seem like overkill, but having something polite and bland to say will take some of the dread out of seeing her at social and church events.

“Hello, Jezebel,” delivered in a bland tone with the minimal length of polite eye contact as you walk past her would be a good phrase to practice. You might also plan to sit in a different part of the room, to talk to people who are not talking with her and to get up and refill your plate if she sits down near you.

Four, if you catch yourself thinking about her, telling her off in your mind or mentally re-hashing what happened between you, replace the negative thoughts with something else. An uplifting hymn is a traditional choice, but you could also recite the Gettysburg Address, the periodic table of elements or irregular French verbs. Discipline yourself to switch gears immediately to your safe, replacement topic any time this person enters your thoughts.

In many ways, this is the hardest part of disengaging from this person, because letting go of your negative thoughts requires you to want to forgive her. It requires you to not indulge your anger or revel in your aggrieved party status. But if and when you can manage it, you will, in fact, start to feel better as you spend less and less of your mental and emotional capacity thinking about this person.

Finally, three thoughts. First, the next time you hurt someone’s feelings, even inadvertently, go and apologize to that person. Apologizing will salve hurt feelings and show people that you care about them.

Second, if this person has treated you this badly, it is likely that she has treated, is now treating or will in the future treat other people just as badly. If you see a situation unfolding in which you can tell that she is persecuting someone else, you should take steps to protect that person. Confronting this woman is unlikely to be effective, but you may be able to have a discreet but direct and helpful conversation with her new victim in which you can provide comfort, validation and advice.

Third, think of this experience the next time you hear that a person in your ward stopped attending church because his feelings were hurt, or because he was offended. We too often dismiss as immature the people who stopped coming to church because their feelings were hurt.

As your experience shows, it is possible for a reasonable adult to have his or her feelings hurt by genuinely bad treatment to such a degree that the experience feels all-consuming, and coming to church becomes difficult.

Further, to treat someone badly and then insist that that person is wrong to be so easily offended is manipulative and hypocritical.

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