Avoiding Hurting Peoples' Feelings - A Dangerous Idea To Teach Children?

by cazort

The idea of hurting someone's feelings is often emphasized to kids, but it can be problematic and leave people open to emotional manipulation

The idea of "hurting someone's feelings" is deeply embedded in our culture. When I was growing up, I got the message both at home and at school that it was bad for me to hurt someone else's feelings with my words and actions.

But is this really the best way of thinking about things? Here I explain why this way of thinking has some unhealthy ideas embedded in it, and can leave people vulnerable to emotional manipulation, not just as kids but even as adults.

Photo credit and license

The feature photo for this article was taken by Miika Silfverberg (MiikaS) from Vantaa, Finland, and was obtained from Wikimedia commons.  It is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

How do feelings really work?

The idea of "hurting someone's feelings" by acting or speaking teaches a misconception about how feelings actually work, ignoring that our actions are processed through others' thoughts and beliefs.

One of my main problems with the narrative that talks about "hurting people's feelings" is that it communicates a major misconception or untruth about the way feelings work.  Our actions do not directly generate an emotional response.

Rather, our actions are filtered through the other person's brain, which interprets our actions, shaping them, interpreting them through that person's belief system and processing them as thoughts, which then generate the emotional reaction.

A diagram illustrating that the brain interprets actions
A diagram illustrating that the brain interprets actions
Brain Illustration by Sue Clark, CC BY 2.0,
Just Because Someone Feels Bad, Doesn't Mean You Did Something Wrong

When we teach kids that it is wrong to "hurt people's feelings", we gloss over the fact that people can get upset for a wide range of reasons, many of which don't have anything to do with us doing anything harmful or disrespectful.

Examples of Other Reasons People Can Become Upset

  • Sometimes people mis-hear or misunderstand what we are trying to communicate, and get upset based on a misunderstanding.
  • People may have a hangup or emotional baggage connected to certain topics, and they may get upset when these topics are brought up, and it may have nothing to do with us.
  • Sometimes people get upset when they don't get what they want--and in some cases, merely doing something that someone else doesn't like may upset them, even if it was a choice that was completely reasonable for us to make, and we communicated it in a respectful way.
  • People may not always be thinking clearly, due to errors of processing or reasoning in their brain, and this can make their emotional reactions seem strange or out-of-proportion to what is happening.  This is most evident with people suffering from mental disorders, but it can happen to any of us, especially when we are stressed, frazzled, overwhelmed, making snap judgments, or are experiencing strong emotions.
This book, primarily a self-help book for depression, has an excellent exposition of the relationship between thoughts and feelings, and discusses how to set up healthy boundaries.
Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy

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"Hurt Feelings" and Emotional Manipulation

If we teach people to avoid "hurting peoples' feelings", this can leave people vulnerable to manipulation.

If you avoid hurting someone's feelings at all costs, it can leave you vulnerable to emotional manipulation.  People will be able to manipulate you simply by becoming sufficiently upset whenever you don't give them what they want.

This phenomenon can happen a lot in relationships, with sex.  People often pressure others into sex by getting upset at the other person when they say no to sex.  I believe that the things children are taught about "not hurting people's feelings" sets them up for having unhealthy or blurred boundaries about sex in relationships.

I think it is important to teach people that it's okay to say no to people, and if they get upset merely because you're not giving them what they want, it doesn't necessarily mean you've done anything wrong.

Depression and Anxiety

If people are depressed, anxious, or struggling with mental disorder, or even just temporary strong emotions, their emotional reactions may not be a good indicator of whether or not we've acted respectfully towards them.

Another place where the teachings to avoid hurting people's feelings can go wrong, is when interacting with people who are suffering from depression, anxiety disorders, or other mental disorders.  If someone is thinking rationally, the other person's feelings can often be a good coarse indicator of the respectfulness of your own actions.  But when someone's thoughts and emotions are distorted by a mental disorder, their reactions to you can be unexpected and seem grossly disproportionate to your actions.

As an example, if someone is depressed, they will be likely to put a negative spin on just about anything...so if you do something small that steps on their toes, they may blow it out of proportion and feel deeply hurt.  Someone with an anxiety disorder may do this as well.  Although depressed people usually direct most of their negativity at themselves, they can sometimes direct it at others, lashing out, or they may sink inward into a place of pain or despair.

In either case, the person's feelings may seem grossly out of proportion to what you did; it's good to be as supportive and positive as you can be, but it's critical to not let yourself get dragged down by the other person's reaction.  By not assuming that you necessarily did anything wrong, you will help keep your own head up.

Here is a video that I made on this topic.

Respect and Honesty: A Healthier Approach

It is important to teach children (and adults) healthy ways of interacting with people, so I am not suggesting to only throw out the idea of not hurting peoples' feelings, but rather, suggesting to replace it with a healthier, more robust way of thinking.  The way I like to think about these things involves honesty and respect.

I think that it is important to teach people to be respectful to all people at all times, and to be honest with them, which includes being honest about your feelings as well as honestly asserting boundaries.

Most of the examples that adults want to use with children, that involve hurt feelings, can also be addressed by talking about respect and honesty.  For example, stealing, bullying, or insults or malicious comments are all disrespectful.

I think honesty and respect make for a safer and more reliable moral compass than avoiding hurting peoples' feelings, because you can evaluate whether or not words or actions are respectful independently of how anyone reacted to them.

More About Related Ways of Thinking

I write a lot about healthy ways of thinking and communicating!
Why This Way is a consensus-based organization and belief system which may or may not be a religion, depending on your definition of religion.
I statements, or I messages, are a form of communicating with many benefits, such as conveying respect, reducing conflict, and being more persuasive.
Updated: 09/30/2014, cazort
 
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cazort on 03/28/2015

The "should" part of it also fueled this unhealthy state; when I believed that I "should" consider other people's feelings, but I plainly had not done so, I would then judge myself and beat myself up. I believed I had been "bad", and I would feel guilty and beat myself up.

So, if I were parenting, if a child were acting in harmful ways, I would try to comfort the child, like being affectionate with them, and I would ask them if they were upset about anything, and talk to them in ways that reinforced caring for others.

I also think kids frequently act in harmful ways out of anger, so I would want to figure out if the kid were angry, and teach the kid how to let go of the anger. I think that if you solve this problem, if it's the cause of the harmful actions, then the harmful actions will go away. Merely teaching the kids to monitor their behavior without teaching them how to work through anger can create its own problems. This is how I was taught as a kid--and I've struggled with anger for years.

I think this sort of thing is tricky. I made this page because I want to start hashing these things out, as a society. I think we do a lot of things that cause great damage to kids' psyche's, and I think a lot of this is because the cultural narrative about empathy and harmful behavior is in many ways, backwards. Like, there's this traditional narrative that I think stems from certain Western philosophical ideas, that people are inherently selfish or "bad" and need to be taught to be good. I don't buy it. I think people are inherently good and I think self-care is a good thing, and I think when people are in a healthy state they will naturally act considerately. We can help guide and clarify things to kids, to help them develop considerate and respectful and helpful behavior, but I think that the more important thing to do is to cultivate a healthy state of being for kids, where they feel loved and feel good and are able to act in loving ways to others, and are able to monitor and control their moods and let go of feelings like anger and stay in a more positive, empathetic mindset as much as possible.

cazort on 03/28/2015

I think there's an important distinction here, sheilamarie. I definitely agree that it's good to teach kids to consider other people's feelings. Is it something that needs to be taught? "Need" is a strong word. I've seen evidence that empathy is innate and doesn't need to be taught. But I do think it's easier for people to feel empathy in some mental states than others. Rather than "teaching" empathy, I see the adult's role as more of nurturing states of being in which the child's empathy is able to develop richly and fully, and steering the child away from states of being that hinder empathy.

As a kid, I don't remember being taught to be empathetic, I remember just feeling it. I remember it very distinctly at the age of 6. As a kid, feeling empathetic came naturally to me when I was in a happy state of mind. However, what I found did not come naturally to me was self-care and regulating my mood, keeping myself in a healthy mindset so that I can easily experience and act on empathy. This is something I've struggled with on an ongoing basis for years.

I also think that Western society heavily over-emphasizes ideas of right / wrong and the teaching of considering other people's feelings, and heavily under-emphasizes self-care and the nurturing of states of mind and state of being in which a person is naturally empathetic.

An example of a sort of behavior that I think is very common in our society is when a child is scolded, criticized, or punished for acting in a way that harms another child or an adult, and doesn't show empathy...but the response or punishment is one that actually reinforces a state of mind or being in which it is harder for the child to feel empathy. An example of this would be, if a child does something harmful, speaking harshly to the child and saying: "You're always so selfish! You should consider other people's feelings!"

This is the sort of thing that was told me a lot as a kid. I think it actually made it harder for me to feel empathy and act empathetically. Part of it is that it reinforced a negative self-image, i.e. it was telling me that I was "selfish" and I came to believe this. And when the idea that I was "selfish" became part of my self-identity, I actually came to act more in this way.

sheilamarie on 03/28/2015

Although I agree with much of what you say, I still feel that children need to learn to consider other people's feelings when they speak and act. Many kids are unaware that other people have feelings, as the tendency is to be rather self-centered when they are small. Learning to think of things from another person's perspective is important, too. Although you are right that sometimes people can become easily manipulated when they are too afraid of hurting other people's feelings, I think they can learn that respect for other people includes respect for oneself and what is right. It's not an either/or situation here, but a case of not focusing only on others' feelings but on doing what is right.

katiem2 on 01/31/2015

Ewe you make a very good point, I like the way you have processed this. I will not forget this very vital message. The thought that our actions hurt others feelings is a misconception in the means by which ones actions are processed or perhaps completed over looked or ignored all together by others. Great article. Brain storming, I feel, is something children should be taught more.

In addition, I have always interjected this statement into conversation with my children from the time we began talking when appropriate and ideas where shared. "that is one idea" My plan to make them aware there is always more to think about, keep your mind open and others have ideas that are valuable. I did not reject their ideas but made room for expanded thought and conversation, brainstorming, growth and development. It is always best to teach children all of us are smarter, stronger and better than just one of us integration is a good thing just because they have an idea it does not mean it is the answer the solution it maybe, but others can add and or incorporate making it better.

Libby on 01/16/2015

You are so right, just as we are to respect someone elses opinion, their feelings on any topic should be respected as well. It should also be taught that just because someone might be honest with you it does not mean that they are trying to be rude or disrepectful. An open conversion for both parties to understand each other should take place before one or the other storms off in a huff. As you pointed out it might just be a miscommunication and talking it out could make everything right

KAqua on 10/07/2014

I never thought about it this way, but you are so right! I cannot speak to a man's experience, but I know this kind of thing made me very vulnerable as a young woman. I did not want to hurt a man's feelings by "rejecting" him, even if I did not really like him very much. I ended up in situations I was not equipped to handle, because I was too nice.

I can also relate to what KaitlynDeMetro is saying about being taught to ignore mistreatment, and not speak up for myself. Writing this out makes me shake my head in wonderment. Where did our parents get their ideas? Just wow!

KaitlynDeMetro on 09/30/2014

I've also carried the "ignore it" rule into adulthood. It was how I was raised; I was told to ignore when someone is bullying me as to not rock the boat, because it could hurt the other persons feelings and suddenly you have confrontation and confrontation is a no no. Even in the work place, where there's cases of sexual harassment and people doing things that are negatively effecting my work environment, I ignore it because A) I don't want to cause a scene through confrontation, and B) complaining will more likely lead to MY dismissal under the pretext of "oh YOU'RE not comfortable here, this place isn't the best fit for YOU, YOU would be better suited for somewhere else, this is better for YOU." I've seen it happen more than once and it's easier for me to suffer in silence and go home with a paycheck than it is to worry about how my actions would effect everything, even though my actions would be justified.

KaitlynDeMetro on 09/30/2014

I saw this in your response to RuthCox, "I was bullied as a young child, at school, and as I got older, I was put in situations where people would be friendly to me, and I'd react negatively, often out of fear, because I thought they were teasing or taunting me, setting me up to then make fun of me, and I'd often close off or react strangely, even when people were just being friendly" I can absolutely relate to this. It was so strongly instilled in me not to hurt someones feelings, that I also didn't have a backbone, and I admit I kind of still don't. I was told to do nothing other than "ignore it" when being bullied. I'm naturally shy so of course I was a target because I didn't speak up or talk back. I remember one time in 9th grade when someone threw a marker at me to get my attention and I didn't even look up because I assumed it was just another person throwing something at me and I was to "ignore it" rather than stand up for myself.

cazort on 09/16/2014

Thank you!

happynutritionist on 09/16/2014

This is well thought out, I tend to be a sensitive person, so would read a lot into what people said or how they acted, and sometimes still do though not as much as I did when younger. Thanks for taking time to express this so clearly.


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