What’s your reaction when someone tells you, “You hurt my feelings”?
There could be two possible reactions: You’re going to be either me-focused or other-focused. That is, if you’re me-focused, you’re going to feel irritated, offended, angry, insulted or—this is the famous one—“picked on.” If you’re other-focused, you’re going to feel compassion for the hurt you may have inflicted on the other person.
If you’re me-focused, several things will ensue:
1. You will never, ever make the person you’ve hurt happy. On the contrary, since you don’t want to hear and deal with the complaint, you’ve probably already forgotten what the complaint was even though you’ve been licking your wounds for having been told you did something wrong. You certainly haven’t fixed the problem.
2. You, yourself will not be happy. By focusing on the pain you’re imagining you’ve received, you have to feel unhappy. By fashioning yourself into a victim, you have compelled yourself to remain unhappy. You may try to escape from that awful victim feeling, but you can’t get too far away from it. Every time you get happy, the little voice inside of you that wants you to remain a victim will be sure to remind you.
There it is: Unhappiness for the person you hurt and unhappiness for yourself.
Now, you can legitimately ask: “But what if I did not hurt that other person? What if she/he is the one that’s playing victim? Why are you making it my fault?”
If you did that, I guarantee you that you are thinking like a victim. A compassionate person would automatically worry, “What if I did hurt that other person? Gee, I better find out what the problem is.” A compassionate person, by definition, thinks—no, worries—about the other person’s feelings first. A compassionate person is other-focused. She or he doesn’t begin by assuming that she did not do damage, but instead takes a position of being open to hearing the other person’s side. No matter how stinging it feels to be accused of something, the other-focused person exercises compassion for the other person first.
If, after listening to what the other person says, the other-focused person really does not believe that he was hurtful, what does he do? Does he get offended?—No. Does he get hurt?—No. No need for all those victim-playing, non-productive feelings. The accused person listens openly and presents his side gently and with kindness. Simple as that.
This alternative is very challenging, very difficult, and rare. That’s because it’s a high risk business. It means taking the gamble of letting go of yourself and your self-created victimhood.
It Takes Courage To Listen To Someone’s Complaints
It means being willing to actually hear complaints and admit that you, perfect you, could have done something wrong. Wow. Imagine being so vulnerable. Imagine the low place you’d have to put yourself in to hearing—and admitting—that you made a mistake.
What did I just say? Low place? Not at all! Actually, facing oneself and being open to hearing ones’ mistakes takes guts. That’s a high place. Do you realize what you have to give up when you do that? No more wound-licking. No more “poor me.” But worse yet is that once you give up being the victim, the injured party, you’ll have to examine your behavior and—gasp—you might have to work on yourself. Whoa.
I asked my son the other day, “Why are you being so brusque with me?” I was in the throes of aggravation and frustration over my stupid computer and its stupid programs that don’t cooperate. He’s my knight in shining armor who rescues me and his father from our stupid computers. He heaved a big sigh. “Ma,” he said patiently, “when you’re aggravated with the computer, you vent it on me. I know you’re not angry at me, but it feels that way. It puts me on the defensive.”
Aha. The light has just dawned. It turns out I was brusque with him first and I didn’t realize the effect it had on him. Hmmm. I didn’t say another word, except, “I’ll have to remember that.” And I’ll have to. See, all of us have to watch out for playing victim.
The Payoff Is Happiness
I know; I know; I’m asking a lot. Like I said, it’s high stakes. You risk losing a very comfortable role that you’ve played nearly all your life, a role that does not require you do any introspection at all, a role that generates sympathy and goodies with no effort. In return, it asks for you to be reflective. Oh no, not that! Yup, that: being reflective, looking at yourself. It requires you to ask yourself often: Am I hurting or helping those I love right now? It asks you to be open to the other person’s complaints, to hear them non-defensively.
Like all high stakes gambles, there is a very big payoff. It’s huge, in fact: happiness.
Happiness, first, because you’ve made it right with those you love. You might have messed up; we all do, but you fixed it. The person you hurt is now healing. Trust me, when that person’s happy, you’re happy.
And, in doing that, you sincerely feel the pain you gave to somebody (that’s empathy, a close relative of compassion); you deeply regretted that; you asked yourself over and over how you could do things better; you searched hard for solutions; you even tried out the solutions; and you apologized from the heart. Your soul returned to the stance that it took when it was first given to you—it became pure, clean, honest, caring. So that’s your second reason to be happy: You’ve returned to who you really are, to your original goodness. It certainly feels good to be good.