I’m Powerless to Stop Other People from Disappointing and Hurting Me
The alternative is to become someone I don’t want to be.
I rarely get through a day without being disappointed with someone. On good days, the disappointments are minor things like a repairman who disconnected my cable before the big game, or someone at work not responding to an important email, or a friend forgetting to follow up on something they said they would do.
For most of my life, my default response to these slights has been to get angry and try to reassert control over the situation.
I’ve been arrogant enough to assume that I can always figure out some angle, exert some leverage, to manipulate the other person into doing what they said they would do, or what I think is the right thing to do. When someone cuts me off on the road, I still lean on the horn, delusionally believing that the excessive length of my horn blast will intimidate them into changing their behavior, only to watch them do the exact same thing a minute later. I’ve managed to keep this up for most of my life, primarily because I’m pretty good at it. I often surprise even myself at how often I can get customer service representatives to go the extra mile on my behalf.
While that strategy works pretty well out in the world, there are other times that I am completely defeated, when someone I care about very much hurts me so deeply that the pain seems intolerable, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, I can do to change what they’re doing or give me any relief from the pain.
I’m lucky enough not to have had too many of those experiences in my life (although even one seems like far too many), and I’m fortunate enough that after living for sixty-eight years I’m finally starting to understand that I’m powerless to stop other people from disappointing or hurting me.
My mentor told me a story about a well-known professor giving a lecture and being heckled by someone in the back of the room. The heckler was incessant and his jibes were cruel and very personal. The lecturer carried on for a while, but then he paused, closed his eyes and cried silently for what seemed like an eternity. When he was finished, he opened his tear-filled eyes and resumed the lecture. The heckler didn’t say another word.
That lecturer is my new role model for how to deal with disappointment and hurt. I want to learn how to stop trying to control other people and just let myself feel whatever I am feeling, no matter how painful that is. To be honest, I’m not excited about adapting this approach. Whenever I’m disappointed or hurt I still regularly have fantasies about how I can turn the situation around or prove to the other person that they are wrong. I don’t plan to abandon this strategy all together. I think it’s still a reasonable way to proceed with the cable guy. However, in intimate relationships, trying to deal with my hurt by manipulating the other person just seems to make things worse. If I’m clever enough or aggressive enough I might be able to force that person to behave differently, but in the end, they are who they are and eventually they will revert to being the same person who has already hurt me so badly.
Currently, the most popular strategy for dealing with painful interpersonal wounds seems to be to armor up, to build better defenses in an effort to prevent anyone from ever disappointing or hurting you again.
Any post on social media about the pain of being hurt by a loved one is bound to be met with strident advice from strangers to build stronger boundaries or even admonitions to cut that person out of your life, no matter how important they may be to you. In other words, the recommended response to being hurt is to emotionally kill off that person.
I think this is an over-reaction that stems from a misunderstanding of the difference between anger and abuse. You can’t differentiate anger from abuse based on how hurt or upset you are. Being more upset does not mean that the other person is being abusive (Schulman, 2016), and calling it abuse every time you are upset just creates another obstacle to working things through.
The distinction between anger and abuse should be made based on the intent of the other person. People get angry when they are unhappy with how something is going in their relationship with you, and their anger is their attempt to call attention to a problem in the relationship in order to make things better. The best response to anger is to listen more carefully. Something is going on in the relationship that is hurting someone you care about, and the most caring response is to set aside your own point of view in an attempt to listen to the other person in order to try and understand what’s going on. Abuse is also a response to someone not liking how things are going in their relationship with you, but abuse is not an attempt to make things better. Abuse is about revenge, it’s an effort to hurt you back for the hurt you have intentionally or unintentionally caused someone else. The healthiest response to abuse is to set clear limits and do what you need to do in order to protect yourself.
The problem with cutting off other people off to protect yourself is that those boundaries don’t discriminate. Once you build an impervious wall around yourself, those defenses will block out care and love from other people just as effectively as they block things that might hurt you. No one will ever hurt you as deeply as the people you love the most. It comes with the territory. Setting rigid boundaries and cutting off people when they hurt you risks turning you into a shutdown and closed off person. While you may gain some short-term relief, you risk trading the acute pain you are experiencing now for a lifetime of isolation. You risk doing to yourself what the other person was trying to do to you.
Excerpted in part from Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men’s Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships. (Weiss, 2021).
Schulman, S. (2016) Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. Arsenal Pulp Press.