Hurt, pain, and sorrow are familiar to most of us, and we will probably cross paths with them again. This is because life is littered with adversity which can, and often does invite hurt and sorrow. But what is adversity? Adversity is related to the personal self; it is something we experience as happening to us. But sometimes adversity is less to do with reality, and more to do with how we interpret situations.
The Role Of Perception
Yes, this implies that our beliefs about adverse treatment might actually be misguided so it is helpful to look for evidence that can either agree with, or deny perceptions. But this kind of checking is not the norm, so we should remember that when someone is hurt due to their felt sense of adversity, it has certainly been experienced as true for them, and therefore even if we do not agree, we should be careful not to invalidate the hurt that arises.
Indeed, when we feel others have treated us badly, we judge it as being unjustified and undeserved and this may (subconsciously) trigger sensibilities around power and our sense of control in the situation. We can also feel as though the other person in the situation is not as invested in the relationship as we are, that they don’t care about us the way we do about them. This results in injury to our sense of self-worth, and to our confidence. When we begin to unpack it in this way, a complex picture of hurt begins to emerge.
Let's Unpack This A Bit...
As a result of all that occurs internally, it is quite normal to unwittingly fall into a not so helpful way of coping with hurt, such that all objectivity is lost and we react defensively. However, it should be stated that hurt is a valid emotion, and although it may seem negative, it can exert its power in positive and healthy ways. But, a knee-jerk response to hurt often makes people feel worse, and influences the situation in a negative way. And yet, the energy derived from hurt and sorrow can motivate positive action and improve the situation.
Stuckness Or Progression?
For example, we might realise we cannot change the situation, and this kind of acceptance can help us move past the hurt toward progress. Of course, sometimes people experience something so traumatic that the hurt damages them. They become hypervigilant to it, becoming so afraid that they avoid situations or people and develop an unhealthy and negative response to hurt, one which results in a ‘stuckness’ so they are unable to move past the hurt and may not progress in areas of their lives. But how might we guard against such a debilitating outcome?
Going Deeper Still
In this article, we will explore what is happening underneath, in the mind, when we experience hurt and sorrow, and consider two very distinct ways of responding; the all too common and familiar unhelpful response, as well as an alternative, more helpful way. This will offer a conscious choice, so that the way you respond offers a sense of control. This also influences outcomes for the better, and prevents being blindly led by strong emotions, and reacting to them in unhelpful and possibly harmful ways.
So, what happens underneath to influence our actions in such unhelpful and unhealthy ways? It relates to our attitude about situations, essentially our mindset. According to esteemed academic and psychologist Windy Dryden, there are four attitudes or beliefs individuals may be holding which can cause a negative response to hurt.
1. A rigid attitude. This is when we believe things should or should not be a certain way, and so our preferences about how things should be override our ability to view things in more helpful ways.
2. The awfulising attitude. This means we catastrophise situations; “it is awful”.
3. The unbearability attitude. The situation is not merely unpleasant, it is unbearable, so we experience what Dryden terms ‘non-ego hurt’. This is when we feel sorry for ourselves because of the treatment we have received, rather than feeling sorry about the situation (“poor me”, rather than “what an unfortunate situation”).
4. Then there is the devaluation attitude. That is, the subsequent devaluation of the self, the other, and/or the relationship. For example, we may experience what Dryden calls ‘ego hurt’; when the hurt we experience negatively impacts our beliefs about ourselves.
The Vicious Cycle Of Unhelpful Hurt
Clearly then, the way we think impacts how we feel, but also how we behave, which in turn impacts what we think, creating a negative thought cycle in which we can become stuck in rumination. Our beliefs become rigid, we overestimate the unfairness of the situation, we may feel the offender does not care about us, or that they are indifferent to us. We can feel misunderstood and alone, and start to think about all the other times we experienced hurt, making the world seem like a very negative place.
This outlook can immobilise us, such that we do nothing to improve the situation because our outlook is so bleak and hopeless. We want and expect the offender to initiate reparative action so we do nothing to mend the situation. We can become so accustomed to our rumination that we even feel comfortable in our negative thought cycle, which as mentioned, makes us behave in other ways that keep us stuck. For example, we stop communicating with the offender, or communicate in a different way, such as minimising eye contact, sulking, or being passive-aggressive, not letting them know that they have upset us. And as stated, all of these actions are likely to make the situation worse.
...How About Trying Something Else?
The unhelpful response may sound familiar to you, but there is another, more constructive way. What does this healthier mindset look like? Well, for a start, it helps if individuals are able to hold a more balanced and realistic view of situations, even when it feels like adversity has occurred. In so doing, we stop ourselves from overestimating the unfairness of the situation and this may allow a more favourable response. This creates a less rigid thinking style, for example, rather than viewing the offender as wholly uncaring or indifferent, we see that in this instance, they have acted poorly, thus we are able to take things less personally.
A more balanced outlook also offers the ability to see the positive things we have going for us, for example we realise that although we are in an unfortunate situation, we still have people who care for us, rather than viewing ourselves as alone. It is still possible that we will think of other times when we felt hurt, however the more balanced mindset does not do this as often and the memories of past hurts do not feel as intense, and notably, we are actually able to think of times when we were treated well.
The Helpful Hurt Response
So what do we need to develop a balanced and realistic mindset? In short, flexibility. This contrasts with rigidity, the extreme mindset described previously. Dryden offers a deeper understanding of what this might look like:
1. When we hold a flexible attitude, we understand and accept that although we would prefer a particular outcome, this does not mean we will achieve it.
2. We also hold a non-awfulising attitude, essentially meaning we recognise that something is ‘bad’, but that this does not mean the sky has fallen.
3. A bearability attitude also helps, which is when we feel able to bear difficulties, thereby experiencing ‘non-ego sorrow’, meaning we feel sorry about the situation occurring, but not sorry for ourselves.
4. And finally, an acceptance attitude, this is the idea that we experience ‘ego sorrow’, that is, we do not let the ill-treatment influence our esteem, or diminish our self-worth, instead we can accept ourselves and the other as fallible. This response stems from a sorrowful place, rather than one of hurt, and can lead to more positive actions and behaviours. For example, we are more likely to initiate remedial interaction by communicating our feelings to the offender and ask to be treated in a fairer way.
Think about a time when you were hurt, and notice how you responded, was it helpful or unhelpful? What might you have done differently, what will you do differently next time? Holding a flexible rather than rigid attitude offers the benefit of keen sight and insight into situations, rather than the disadvantage that comes with tunnel vision. This is because we can step back and our lens pans out to see a fuller picture, we therefore take in more information and a more realistic and balanced view. This does wonders for how we think, feel, and therefore respond to hurt, offering a layer of protection due to the control we take by making the healthier choice.
Sometimes it helps to have someone to guide you along the way, if this seems like something that might benefit you, get in touch so we can discuss how we may be able to support you.
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