“It isn’t what happens to us that causes us to suffer; it’s what we say to ourselves about what happens.” ~Pema Chodron
I’ve never been much of a sun worshipper. I’m a pale blend of Irish, Scottish, and English, so my skin goes from alabaster to boiled lobster in about twenty minutes.
Once when I was a teenager, someone accidentally smacked me on my sunburned back. I was in tears. She was genuinely sorry and I said I was all right, but secretly I was angry.
Couldn’t she see how red I was? How slowly I moved? Someone with a sunburn gives very obvious signs, or so I thought. How could she not know I was in pain?
Now I can see how my signs weren’t obvious at all. Most of us are so busy rushing through our own lives that only the most astute person can see when someone else is hurting.
So, when someone accidentally aggravates my injury, who is at fault? Them, for not noticing I’m hurt? Or me, for not alerting them to be careful?
The answer, of course, is that nobody’s at fault. It’s an accident. Any mature person recognizes this and, instead of getting stuck in blame or guilt, takes immediate steps to make amends and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
This is especially true for emotional pain.
A friend used to hurt my feelings all the time. Accidentally. His actions were never overtly malicious. Yet he was as oblivious to my signs of emotional pain as that person who smacked my sunburn had been to my physical signs.
My emotions felt sunburned.
He knew about a relationship from a few years earlier that had left parts of me very raw. But the “clothing” of my naturally gregarious, optimistic personality concealed how sensitive I still was, just like the lightweight summer blouse had concealed the extent of my sunburn.
He didn’t realize that his perfectly innocent behavior triggered deep pain in me.
In my youth, I would’ve blamed him for hurting me. Thankfully, I was mature enough to realize that he wasn’t causing my pain; he was just accidentally irritating a tender spot I already had.
I’ve always been extremely sensitive, emotionally. I often lack the ability to articulate what I’m feeling, or what I’m sensing from others, but I feel it. Oh, boy, do I feel it.
Once I accepted that other people usually aren’t aware of my emotional sensitivities and how easily my feelings get hurt, I quickly developed a way to examine the true cause of any pain I felt.
I use these five questions:
1. Was it intentional?
Putting aside my pain for a moment, I look at the situation from the other person’s perspective.
Did she or he intend to make me feel this way? It’s rare when a good person is deliberately cruel, and it’s obvious when a mean person is bullying. When I trust that others aren’t trying to hurt me, I can take them out of the equation and focus on what I’m feeling.
2. What am I feeling?
When we’re in pain, blaming the person who hurt us is a natural defense mechanism. We project our pain outward as anger, rather than turning our attention inward to heal. Are we accusing someone of making us feel worthless? Stupid? Ignored? Embarrassed? Unattractive? Unloved and unlovable?
Naming the accusation lets us dig beneath it to find the sensitive spot it’s protecting, and see what’s really going on.
3. What’s really going on?
Once I identify what I’m feeling, I want to figure out why I’m feeling it. What am I really struggling with? It’s usually a repeating theme centered on my insecurities.
For example, if someone “made” you feel stupid, maybe you doubt your own abilities and intelligence. If someone “made” you feel worthless, perhaps you don’t accept your own value as a human being.
I often feel forgotten or ignored, because I’m an overachiever who struggles with feelings of inadequacy.
It helps to remember that other people can’t “make” us feel anything. They can only trigger feelings and opinions we already have about ourselves.
4. Where’s the relief?
Once you find where you’re sensitive, an emotional salve helps ease the sting. Maybe you need to be alone for a while. That’s okay. It’s also okay to ask for help. My favorite relief is spending quality time with friends, but I sometimes have trouble asking for that.
I used think that asking for help was a sign of weakness in me. When I helped my friends, I never judged them as being weak. They were simply going through a rough time, and I wanted to help make them feel better.
That’s when I realized that not asking for their help denied them a chance to be my friend. I now feel that asking for help is like giving a gift. I’m giving my friends something they want: a chance to be my friend.
Maybe I need a distraction, and we just hang out together. Maybe I need to talk through what happened, to figure out how to stop it from happening again. It doesn’t matter. I tell them what I need, they provide it happily, and we both feel better.
5. How can I prevent it from happening again?
Trust your relationships enough to talk with the person who hurt you about what hurts. Chances are, the other person has no idea you’re hurting.
This is the hardest part for me. I’m always worried they’ll think I’m whining or placing blame. Be clear that you’re not blaming them and don’t want them to feel guilty. You simply want to share the fact that you have a sensitive spot.
Together, figure out how to avoid irritating that sensitivity, and make a plan for how to deal with it if it happens again.
We all have our insecurities—our sunburned emotions. Accepting and caring for those oversensitive spots helps protect them until they heal. And they will heal, just like a sunburn does.
Surround yourself with supportive friends and family. It’s SPF for the soul.