Reacting to Hurt: A Decision Tool

Reacting to hurt - things to consider before responding to a prompting event

If you’re anything like me, when someone close to you does something that feels hurtful, there’s a strong urge (sometimes a very strong urge) to react in a way that’s driven by that hurt. That reaction isn’t necessarily appropriate or useful, though, and sometimes it can involve some pretty dumb shit. I came up with this decision-making aid after I had an unreasonable reaction to something a friend did (that I wrote about in Relationships Can Be Hard), in the hopes that I’ll refer to it in the future rather than simply reacting. It’s kind of like the dudgeon-o-meter, but for feeling hurt rather than being angry/offended.

i’m not a highly sensitive person in a sensory sense, but I’ve always been emotionally sensitive. That’s part of who I am, and I don’t see it changing anytime ever, so I’ve just got to work with what I’ve got.

Wise Mind

Wise mind: overlap between reasonable mind and emotion mind

Before diving in, I wanted to mention wise mind, a dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) concept. It refers to the area of overlap when both reasonable mind (your more logical thinking mind) and emotion mind are engaged. In terms of the brain, this would correspond to the prefrontal cortex (reasonable mind) and the limbic system (emotion mind).

Hurt gets emotion mind going full steam ahead in response to the perceived threat, and it’s easy for reasonable mind to get left behind in the dust. Systematically thinking through an issue can help bring reasonable mind back online to help pull you back towards wise mind.

Step 1

Is there any chance that it’s not directed at you?

Personalization is a cognitive distortion that involves making something about you that actually has nothing to do with you. In the incident that prompted this, a friend did action X. He could have done that for reasons A through F, but all I cared about in the moment was that emotion mind was screaming at me that he did action X to signal something to me, i.e. that he didn’t want to be my friend anymore. Later, I was able to recognize that the chances of it being about me were probably pretty low, but I really should’ve considered that when I was formulating my initial reaction.

Step 2

Could you be reading things into the prompting event that aren’t actually there?

This goes along nicely with personalizing. Action X is action X and nothing more, but it’s easy to start tacking on extra meanings, like action X was done with the intent of sending message Y. Message Y might actually be there, but it’s very possible that it exists nowhere except inside my head. All that is objectively there is action X, so I shouldn’t be reacting to whatever extra messages that I’m cooking up.

Step 3

Are there alternative possible explanations, even if they seem unlikely?

Occam’s razor essentially says that the simpler explanation is more likely to be correct than one that is unnecessarily complex. When feeling hurt, it’s easy to start concocting complicated stories around things. But what if there’s a simpler explanation? Or any other explanation, for that matter, like potential reasons A through F for my friend’s action? They may seem pretty unlikely when caught up in the moment, but that doesn’t mean that they actually are unlikely. Thinking up other potential explanation helps to engage reasonable mind.

Step 4

Would your interpretation change if the prompting event was directed at someone other than you?

It’s easy to get all worked up about things as they relate to ourselves, but what if we consider how action X might relate to somebody else, particularly a neutral person? Would it look different to you? If so, there’s probably some personalization going on.

Step 5

Might your reaction be influenced by any cognitive distortions?

We’ve already considered personalization. Catastrophizing is a go-to cognitive distortion for a lot of people. I started off by personalizing action X, and then I ran with it into catastrophe-land and interpreted it as a signal that the friendship was over. I was later able to recognize how far I’d run with it, but it would’ve been good to give more consideration to that before I got so far into out-there-land.

Step 6

Might you later regret an impulsive reaction?

Emotion mind can drive some pretty wackadoo behaviours. Me feeling wounded should really never be allowed anywhere near a keyboard, which I think my friend would very much agree with. When I found out about action X, there wasn’t much thinking that happened before I fired off an email accusing him of ending the friendship. A short while later, I sent a couple more snarky messages telling him to use words rather than hint at me; of course, the hinting was something that my head had come up with.

Later, I realized what a nincompoop I’d been (I don’t think that word gets used often enough) and wished I’d practiced a little more self-control. I think doing steps 1-5 might’ve helped with that and taken a little bit of control away from emotion mind.

Step 7

If there’s any doubt, wait at least 4 hours, or better yet, 24.

Is it likely that I’ll do this anytime soon? The chances seems low, but at least it’s something to work towards. I think I have actually made progress in shortening the delay until reasonable mind comes back online, but I need to work on pushing back that initial reaction.


How do you tend to react when you’re feeling hurt? Do you freak out and act impulsively? What’s your process for talking yourself through it?

43 thoughts on “Reacting to Hurt: A Decision Tool”

  1. Magda Regula

    Oh, I think I am quite good at being emotionally detached and I am not reacting impulsively even if someone does something hurtful. However, when the situation persists and nothing is done about it, but I realise tjings are supposed to be different, I may suddenly feel like I need to break away from it – I’m not interested on working on it, but then later I regret it, so yes, it is still being impulsive, just with a bit of a delay.

      1. Magda Regula

        Possibly, but I often see this as just not solving problems as they arise. Sometimes I may try but I’m unable to so I leave it, at other times I feel like I don’t care. I think I don’t really have the ability to solve problems where emotions are involved.

  2. This post describes me perfectly, as well. I’m very sensitive and a “mind reader” when it comes to peoples feelings and how they’re acting. So I definitely get it.
    Waiting 4 (or 24) hours before saying something you might regret is something I’ve learned is an invaluable tool.

  3. I read into things that aren’t true all the time. It’s a part of my illness experience. And it is tough. I do think you’ve got some very excellent tips here, that I’ve read but will reread again, to see how I might incorporate them.

  4. I flipped out and screamed at my daughter this weekend because she jumped up before I took the pic I wanted. It was scary how fast I went from having a fabulous time to becoming totally enraged. Of course I apologized etc., but I think the trigger was feeling unheard, which is huge for me. So many times, with almost everyone I know, I’m interrupted and not listened to. It’s been a problem since forever ~ yet I can step back and understand that this is simply the way people are now because of so many distractions. It’s not directed at me personally…

  5. This is such a refreshing thing. I like how you take a personal event, and use it to generate a step-by-step guide on how to get through it better next time. I think it will be helpful for others for sure. As for me: catastrophe-land is my go-to theme park in such cases. I catastrophize and dwell on it for too long. Fortunately, I’m only triggered by few people. Might try this guide the next time I feel triggered.

  6. I used to instantly snap some years ago, when anger arose for whatever reason. Since then, I don’t at people. I bide my time if needed, otherwise say nothing, which means it hasn’t bothered me or just gone over my head.

    The only one I am to stop, is anger towards myself. That still catches me out.

      1. Thank you. It is. Just myself that catches me out. Usually when I am either stressed or depressed. I can still be my own worst enemy.

  7. The best theme parks are those that give you something memorable to take home, like an oversized balloon, a fridge magnet, or a good old slap in the face! A reminder not to go there too often…

  8. Brilliant! I hadn’t heard of wise mind and the Ven diagram illustrates it so well. Love the thinking and wisdom behind this decision tool, Ashley!

  9. How do you tend to react when you’re feeling hurt? Do you freak out and act impulsively? What’s your process for talking yourself through it?

    Part of the diagnosis criteria of the person with BPD (borderline personality disorder) is “personalization”. If it isn’t, it ought to be IMO. I have a very hard time still (been working on this for eight years almost now) not doing it. A prime example is the very hurtful thing my family did to me at Christmas. (why do unhappy people always choose Christmas to shit on someone else? ((see?))

    My therapist ‘forced’ (not the best choice of word, but it’ll do) me to examine WHY I felt ‘hurt’ and what was behind being hurt by what they did, and to my surprise it was anger driving the whole thing. Que surprise.

    I was eventually able to put the scenario into perspective (somewhat, I’m still angry because IMO that act WAS personal as all hell). I then had to ‘put it away’ to deal with at some future time when I feel ready to do so..on my terms.

    Now there’s a far bigger cloud on my horizon, and something distracting like big problems tend to shrink even the most personal insult down to size. I’m shocked at how teeny tiny that slight was comparatively.

    Still why I do that? I spent a long time thinking about “why?” I came to this conclusion for my particular situation. I have some some deeply rooted need to KNOW WHY, what’s the motivation behind someone doing something as heinous as being that cruel to your own family. I’ve given myself permission to forget about it entirely and stop letting it bother me. They can do what they want, how I react is within my own realm.

    That’s how I get through such things now. And I do the 24 to week length time lapse between getting so upset and writing something vile (and yes they are, those words just after a bomb strike so to speak) and actually showing it to anyone else. I breathe. I meditate. I look at impossibly cute pictures of piggies and dogs. <3 I try to remember most likely it's not about me at all, it's the asshole who was mean. (didn't say I stopped regarding them as an asshole). Just saying.

  10. Whatever my reaction might be I keep it ‘inside’. Probably why I’ve always had stomach problems. Are my reactions valid? Who knows because no one sees/hears them but me. Or – I think in most cases I withdraw – yup, that’s what I do.

  11. I love this blog. I am very familiar with wise mind. Staying there is hard to do though. I find if I am calm and think the process through it can bring me to wise mind so that I can see ca little clearer.

  12. When I feel hurt, I tend to do pretty much what you do. How I describe it though, I’d say it was about being innocent until proven guilty. Like if I feel someone was saying something as if to take a jab at me, I’d tell myself it wasn’t, but then proceed to ask them if it was if it meant that much to me or let them know I’m about to interpret something in that way. If I feel I’m not in a sensible mood to ask about it, I try to calm myself down how I can before I express it or let it go altogether because sometimes I simply don’t know how to without making a hot mess out of it, then look a little further into what it means to be sensible about it, especially with that particular situation. It isn’t always possible, but I have gotten a lot better at it.

    Amazing post by the way. I often love reading many of the stuff you write about anyhow, but this more so than even that.

  13. I’m not outwardly reacting at the moment but I’m feeling quite hurt that people I consider close either haven’t responded to my efforts to contact them or tried to contact me given I had a new thing going on. I’m sad and need to not just think of them as firmer friends as I have had a tendency to do in the past. I do think it’s the whole out of sight, out of mind thing combined with busy lives. But it does make me reconsider the time and effort I put in to these relationships. Hurt is tricky to deal with…hopefully the decision tool helps.

  14. I really like step four in this process, as it was something I’d never considered and/or read before; and will be writing it down on a sticky note (and possible sticking it to Mitch’s forehead the next time I feel an argument coming on).

    Once upon a time, Mitch and I had a huge fight about the way I put gallon jugs into the refrigerator — he likes them handles out at all times, and I never pay attention because I personally don’t give a fuck about which way the handles decide to settle into the shelves on the door. When he stormed out of the house, I sat down and wrote out the literal things he’d said in one color of ink, and the things I “heard” (the sub-context my hurt and angry hamsters whispered between the lines) in another. I was amazed by how much the voices from my past had influenced my reaction to his simply stated frustration. He said something like, “How many times do I have to ask you to pay attention to this? The iced tea is not easy to retrieve when the handle is turned towards the door, and not facing out.” And I heard, “Why are you so stupid? Can’t you get anything right?” And that cognitive distortion caused an irrational explosion that led to a fight.

    I feel you on the waiting advice. In the Anonymous program, you’re told “pause when agitated”. It’s good advice, but it’s damn hard to follow when the fuzzy furballs in your head grab their pitchforks and light the torches.

    1. Those internal fuzzy furballs sure can jump on the warpath quickly.

      That sounds like a very good exercise to write down what he actually said and what the angry hamsters heard.

      1. If I did it consistently, I could probably change many things for the better… but (unfortunately), I usually opt for the warpath because it’s the easier (well, not easier… perhaps lazier is a better term) road to take.

  15. Love the Venn Diagram for Wise Mind….! Step 7 the waiting suggestion is excellent but oh so hard for me to do when I am in a sort of fixation mode with anxiety. Thanks for the post…

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