You Can’t Hurt My Feelings

Thin-skinned people irritate me. (To be fair, I bet I bug them even more.) You don’t “like” their every Facebook post, their feelings get hurt. In a casual discussion, you cautiously question an idea of theirs, and they are deeply wounded.

Sometimes I just want to say, “Forget it.” However, my sympathy grew last fall during one unpleasant week, when:

  • A long-term reader criticized my article as poorly written, irrelevant, and stupid.black-rhino-staffan-widstra
  • A close friend blatantly refused to help when I asked for the tiniest of favors.
  • I completed a two year service commitment, and no one bothered to thank me.
  • And those were the high points.

I thought I had the tough skin of a rhino. Turns out I have the thin skin of a peach. And my emotional life was in the pits. (Sorry. I didn’t even try to resist.)

Do you ever feel unwanted, see your ideas rejected, or get taken for granted? It ain’t fun. During that un-fun week, I felt used, abused, and confused. My motives were questioned, my ideas rejected, and my character assassinated. At least shot at.

I thought nasty thoughts about those villains; I considered them to be insensitive dolts. I was hurt. And a tiny bit pissed. I wondered if their parents had ever been married. As I pondered their questionable lineage, it struck me,

It wasn’t my feelings that were hurt—it was my ego.     

What do we even mean?

I want to outlaw the phrase “hurt feelings.” We say, “You hurt my feelings when you said that,” or “I don’t want to hurt her feelings.” But what do we mean? How can my “feelings” be hurt? Compare my hurt feelings to,

  • He cheated on his expense reports and his career was hurt.
  • She abandoned her family and her kids were hurt.
  • I banged my funny bone on the cabinet corner and my elbow was hurt.

An elbow (career or family) suffers a degree of damage and the result is a measure of pain. Something tangible is hurt and the consequence is a ration of suffering.

But when I say, “You hurt my feelings,” what tangible item is damaged? Sure, I feel unpleasantness, but what was hurt? The critique of my article that “hurt my feelings” really just wounded my pride; is it possible that my writing falls short of Hemmingway?*

Screaming elbows

Most of our body works just fine. Most of the time. And it goes unacknowledged. I’ve never exclaimed to a friend, “Look at my right elbow. It bends and straightens and twists. It’s amazing. What an elbow!” I rarely appreciate the wonders of my elbows.

But if I bang that elbow, it taunts me as I turn a page, type a blog (be it good or bad), or twist a bottle cap. My battered elbow shamelessly screams for attention.**

So do our feelings. We don’t think of them until they are hurt. Then we think of nothing else. (But remember, it’s our egos that are hurt not our feelings.)

When our elbow is hurt we nurse an injury; when our feelings are hurt we nurse a grudge. Hurt pride shouts, “What about me?” Then I ponder harsh thoughts about you.

Maybe you’re just a better person than me. You probably are. (Although admitting that doesn’t make me feel any better.) But nursing hurt feelings (ego and pride) never results in something good. We brood on our unjust hurts or we dwell on the evil in others.

What about Christians?

Christians should be the most immune to hurt feelings. But I think we are every bit as sensitive. Maybe more so. If our inner-strength comes from the promise of love from a faithful God, shouldn’t we—of all people—have the inner-poise to examine our hurts realistically and honestly?

Look at the critique of my article. It was either wrong, mean spirited, or accurate.

  • If it was just plain wrong, who the heck cares? Why should my feelings be hurt by somebody else’s folly?
  • If it was spiteful, why does the critic’s dislike of me outweigh Christ’s love of me?
  • If the criticism was spot on, why is my heart so wounded? Maybe (just maybe) my writing could improve. Do I really think I’m the living reincarnation of Lewis, Tolkien, and Hemmingway, rolled into one?*

What are we missing?

Paul wrote, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). He didn’t mean that no one will be against us. Quite the contrary. He meant, “Who cares!

When our feelings get hurt, the insult is more real to us than anything else. We lick our wounds and wallow in malicious thoughts about those critics (or neglectors or ingrates). Instead, let’s make the gospel more real. Jesus didn’t just suffer, he suffered deepest pains in our place, he took our suffering upon himself:

  • If you feel rejected, Jesus took your rejection so you are accepted forever.
  • If you feel neglected, Jesus was overlooked so you will never be forgotten again.
  • If you feel unwanted, Jesus became undesirable so you could be his beauty.

I know what you’re thinking

Some are thinking of an uber-sensitive spouse, friend, or pastor. (You think they need this lesson.) Remember, I thought those same thoughts (of the weakness in others), right before my week from hell. Avoid that path. Think instead of your own “touchy” areas, and why you are so sensitive there.

Some are thinking, “If I can’t hurt their feelings, I’ll say anything I want.” But hurt pride hurts no less than hurt feelings. Let’s not use this message as a license to be a jerk.

Christians should be the least delicate—yet most sympathetic—of all people. The pain of hurt feelings may be the very medicine we need to rid our hearts of soul-killing pride.

Besides, who is more fun to be with, the thin-skinned, easily wounded, nursing-hurt-feelings narcissist; or the self-effacing, you-can-tell-me-anything, self-forgetter?

(Just don’t tell me my blog sucks.)

Sam

* A long term reader pointed out that I misspelled Hemingway (I used two “m’s”). Rather than correct it, I’ve left it misspelled, proving that I not only can’t write like Hemingway, I can’t even spell his name.

** I heard this elbow metaphor once and I never forgot it. But I forgot who said it.

See also, The Cowardice of Christian Niceness

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26 thoughts on “You Can’t Hurt My Feelings

  1. Thanks, Sam. Your reflections remind me of a slightly different take on this question that I’ve pondered whenever I see someone saying, “That offends me.” For the same reasons you highlight here, I’ve wondered, should a Christian ever take “offense” at anything? Say we see a movie or an magazine article or a piece of art that denigrates Christ or the Christian perspective in some way. Are we really taking offense for the cause of Christ, or are we taking offense because the offending article disagrees with our (read “my”) worldview? It’s worth at least asking myself.

    • Hi Brooks,

      I’m so glad you brought up this topic. People today use offence (and also hurt feelings) as an insidious way of controlling others.

      They (we?) prohibit genuine authenticity by restricting conversations to issues that hardly matter. We avoid real issues with the sharpened barb of “that offends me.”

      It’s weird. Our culture today treasures authenticity. Hate those hypocrites. But then we’re offended if someone believes something contrary to our beliefs.

      Honestly, I don’t mind if someone says they think Christianity is stupid. Of course they do if they don’t believe it. Why should I be shocked or offended? And at least it gives us a chance for honest discussion.

      Let’s not use “offence” as a weapon that fights authentic interaction.

      But, like hurt feelings, let’s not be jerks and just offend (or hurt feelings) simply because we are insensitive dolts. It isn’t a license.

  2. You’ve provoked my thoughts this morning! Thank you.

    It strikes me that hurt feelings are symptoms, just like pain of any kind, and that nursing them is an attempt at symptom management, like taking aspirin for a headache. But if one has persistent headaches, it isn’t wise to address them by repeatedly treating the pain alone. One needs to follow the trail of the symptoms, discern the problem and treat that.

    So the problem is the ego. But paradoxically, the treatment for a wounded ego isn’t really patching it up. It’s killing it (theologically speaking). But at this point we’re approaching ontological concepts that are supremely challenging to talk about. Death to self is a mind-blowing concept, entirely scriptural, essentially Christian—and yet to understand what it means is a lifelong journey.

    On my own journey, I have certainly come to see the attraction of self-forgetting, as you say. Oh, to interact with God and my fellows without the troublesome filter of self-consciousness! Feelings occupy a different place there…

    I think they move to the servants’ quarters.

    • Martha,

      You nailed it when you said, “It strikes me that hurt feelings are symptoms, just like pain of any kind, and that nursing them is an attempt at symptom management, like taking aspirin for a headache. But if one has persistent headaches, it isn’t wise to address them by repeatedly treating the pain alone.”

      Yes, hurt feelings are symptoms. Let’s examine them seriously, as a good doctor would examine all symptoms to discover the real problem.

      But then let’s treat the real problem. No more bandaids and aspirin for broken limbs.

  3. Sam I’m confused does mean when I’m offended I should bury my head in the sand or shout Glory To God he called me an idiot!

    • Pat,

      As always, I love your comments.

      No, let’s not ignore what we feel by burying our head in the sand.

      And, frankly, let’s be willing to admit when we’re acting like an idiot (we all do all the time–come on, let’s be honest!).

      Let’s not stop at hurt feelings; and let’s not stop at admitting we just acted like an idiot. Let’s ask, “Why?” Why did I let that hurt my feelings, and why did I just act like an idiot?

      And now we’re getting somewhere.

      • You do know my question was loaded to give you the opportunity to answer in a way I was praying you would.

        Thanks sorry about setting you up guess that makes me an idiot with my head in the sand. 🙂

        • You teed it up for me, and I appreciate it.

          With such a brilliant “tee” job, you can’t have an idiotic bone in your body. I doubt you’re head is in the sand either.

          Thanks,

          Sam

  4. Hi, Sam –

    Thanks for your writing. Here’s another take on the dynamic that you were addressing.

    What I’ve found tremendously helpful is the distinction Paul makes of old man vs new man vs flesh (primarily in Romans 6&7).

    The old man is both already crucified with Jesus and already buried with Jesus. These verbs are in the aorist tense, which (you probably know) carries with it the connotation of being once-and-for-all done. The old man is dead and buried – twice removed. The old man isn’t even a reality anymore.

    The new man is the new me that has a good heart, a born-again spirit.

    The flesh is the old man’s ways – not the old man himself – but the old man’s habits, trained responses, default mechanisms related to selfishness, sin, etc.

    After I had an amazing breakthrough experience the morning after my first Heart Revolution boot camp (Sept.2006), I found myself largely (but not perfectly or totally) not reacting in my “usual” way to the hurtful things my wife Sarah did. We were in-house separated, and she wanted out of the marriage then – she’d say something hurtful, and I would have this… this presence.. by which through (at that time) no effort of my own – it had to be the Spirit – instead of going to anger or hurt, I would go to the question, “Jesus, what do you think of me?” or “Jesus, where are you right now in this situation?” The Spirit got me through a number of situations like this during that awful, heart-wrenching year. We’ve since been reconciled and are doing better than we ever did before.

    But my point here is not about some sort of super spirituality, of I’ve-had-this-and-you-don’t. That’s not what I’m saying, because since that very trying time, I’ve found that I have to be more intentional in finding that reality that was so vivid that year.

    With a lot of Bible reading, prayer, and reflection, I think this is what was going on that year and what I’m able to appropriate more regularly. I think the key has been the distinction between living out of my good heart/born-again spirit vs living out of my flesh.

    An example: about a year ago, one of my adult sons was being especially candid about some of the character defects and personality shortcomings he saw… in me (!). As he began his elucidation, I very intentionally asked myself silently, “Who am I going to live from right now: my good heart, or my flesh? Can my good heart and born-again spirit take this candid feedback?” [To ask the question is to answer it: yes, the good-heart me, the born-again me, the seated-at-the-right-hand-of-the-Father me can handle this.] We finished the conversation pleasantly – no hurt feelings on my end – and went through the rest of our respective days.

    That same night, I mentioned to Sarah the conversation with our son, and she said that she agreed with him and mentioned a few more character defects I had. We were sitting next to each other on the couch, me facing her, and as this began to unfold, I realized that everything they were saying they didn’t like about me was true (!) – true of my flesh – but not true of the real me, the good-heart Bob/Dad, the born-again me. So as she continued her own (albeit gentle but still candid) elucidation, I again asked myself silently, “Can my good heart hear these truths about my flesh without getting defensive or mad?” – and I realized I, the real me, the good-heart me, the born-again me, the seated-at-the-right-hand-of-the-Father me could hear these truthful descriptions – because what she and my son were describing was that poser me, that phony me, that fleshly me. That poser me isn’t the real me.

    Afterwards, when she was done, I explained several things to her. First, I owned what I had done. It was my responsibility for the rude thing I said – I didn’t go to a Flip Wilson the-devil-made-me-do-it defense. It was my responsibility, and I blew it. It’s still proper to ask forgiveness.

    Second, I explained how the distinction between flesh of a believer and the good heart of a believer is eminently real to all concerned – even her and my son. I pointed out that everything my son (and she) loved me for and admired about me was that good-heart-me. At the same time, each thing that they found irksome or irritating or bothersome was most probably from my flesh – from that poser, from that phony, from that insecure fake.

    Sam, this was so vividly real that night. What I’m finding is that as I go on, this dynamic of living out of my good heart (vs living out of my flesh) is not at all automatic but is something I have to be intentional about – it usually doesn’t come automatically (although it sometimes does! – praise God). My old man’s habits – my fleshly ways – do come naturally, more automatically, way too often. And too often, I don’t even have to try – all of a sudden I realize I just said or did that selfish, petty thing out of my flesh. My flesh and its ingrained lifelong habits are insidious, sneaky, bold, unrelenting. The old man is already crucified and buried, yes. But the flesh is alive and kicking. God crucified my old man (and yours). I’m supposed to crucify my flesh daily, saying no to its ways. I don’t do this anywhere near perfectly. But I’m learning to recognize the distinction between the desires of my good heart and the desires of my flesh.

    But my point here is that there is hope – and freedom. I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced, I’ve tasted it. It’s usually not automatic – although sometimes it has been. Moreover, Sam – my wife has seen it in me too. She says, “Yes, you’re different. You usually don’t react like you used to – especially in those hurt ways, those pout-y ways you used to usually do.”

    Of course, the utterly perverse thing is that there are times when I realize that I could ask that question (“Do I want to live out of my flesh or out of my good heart right now?”) – and I refuse to even ask (!!!!), although I hasten to add that when that happens, even there – that’s not the real me refusing. It’s my flesh rearing up its ugly head and exercising its considerable influence.

    Anyway, that’s what came to mind as I was reading your blog, Sam – I kept thinking about this distinction of flesh vs new man.
    blessings –

    Bob Hazen

    The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will one day open at last.

    • Wow Bob,

      Great thoughts. I love your genuine inner reflection on why you act or think or feel a certain way. If God has made us new creations, why are we acting like the old one?

      In some way, the truth of the real gospel is not ‘real” to us in the moment.

      Thanks!

  5. This is a toughie for me. Abused emotionally, sexually and physically as a child, I developed a protective lifestyle that I stayed in for 50 years. Even now, it is very difficult for me not to feel rejection from those I love if certain things are said or the “good” things about me are taken for granted. Don’t have much trouble with people I don’t know well, probably because I let so few people get anywhere close to who I really am.

    • Hi Cindy,

      Thank you for your honesty. We are all honored.

      I think the phrase “hurt feelings” is abused in two opposite ways. The first is the topic of this article, that is people who use it as a weapon to stop others from speaking truth. The magnify their pain by claiming it it hurt feelings when it is really hurt pride.

      But the other misuse of the term is reflected in your situation. I think there are monsters (that is what they are) MINIMIZE their actions by saying, “I just hurt their feelings.” NO! When these monsters act as they do, they are tearing at the very substance of our our souls, the fabric of our hearts.

      One use of the phrase is manipulative (you’ll hurt my feelings) and one use is an attempt to rid the monsters of unspeakable horror.

      I can only imagine what you have suffered, and I can only say, God genuinely can heal even the most monstrous of wounds.

      Thank you again for your personal and gracious comment.

      Sam

  6. Sam:

    Your article doesn’t suck. As always, you provide a refreshing perspective that teaches your readers to observe the issues in their Christian lives from new perspectives. On the whole, this article rightfully calls us to examine our “feelings” and name them for the pride that they are. Nonetheless, I believe there are points of emotional woundedness we can acknowledge in a biblical and legitimate manner.

    Let me cite a personal account first, and then follow with some Scriptural examples. Several years ago I lost my first wife to cancer complications. My church was unable to offer any comfort, so when a coworker and her husband invited me to their church, I welcomed their invitation. The opportunity offered a brief period of anonymity and, I hoped, the depth that a sermon from a larger and more organized church would bring. I needed to seek God’s face with tears.

    The Sunday that I visited, however, the pastor was on vacation and the assistant
    pastor/music leader had the helm. He led several praise choruses, and then cleared the stage for a mini-drama that he had written. A young woman came on stage and began to soliloquize about the hymns and how much she missed them. In the middle of her delivery, however, a man entered, rebuffed her, and said that the church was going to do new, relevant music from that point on. The mini-drama ended there.

    The church did one more praise chorus, and then the assistant pastor came up to do his sermon, a defense of praise choruses. The numbered points below summarize the sermon points. They reflect the content of the sermon.

    ·
    1. People criticize the worship because they can’t sing the old hymns. They argue that the choruses are lacking in content when compared to the old material. But people said that centuries ago when newer hymns began to replace the old hymns.

    2. We need to ask more direct questions. Was the worship pleasing to the Lord? The speaker did not state the answer, but his context indicated that it was yes.
    ·
    3. Therefore nothing was wrong. In so many words he told his audience that the new program was praise music, and they needed to fit into the program.
    I could not sing the praises, and wept through many of them. I felt brutalized and wondered why. I remember thinking that as an older and presumably more mature Christian, I should not have felt so victimized. I left the service without saying anything to him. I wondered whether pride had caused my deepest need to be for longing rather than praise. Was I at fault because I was dissatisfied?

    From a more neutral perspective ten years after the fact, I know the answer to that question. The guy had an agenda.

    But let us look at the question biblically. The psalms of lament address the question about feelings directly. Many of David’s psalms are extremely relevant to this topic, particularly when he is going one-to-one against another person. For example, Psalm 7 is a lament “concerning the words of Cush, a Benjamite” (Psalm 7 Superseription, ESV). David addresses his feelings by writing, “O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge…lest like a lion they tear my soul apart / rending it in pieces, with none to deliver” (Psalm 7:1a, 2). This is clearly a picture of battered emotions resulting from slanderous words.

    Similarly, Psalm 109 describes “wicked and deceitful mouths…against me….They encircle me with words of hate” (Psalm 109:2a, 3a). The middle section of the psalm, which calls for divine retribution, shifts from they/them to he/him (verses 6-19). David clearly has a ringleader in mind and singles him out for God’s justice.

    Psalms 41 and 55, both betrayal psalms, depict similar scenarios–many people involved but with the deepest emotional wounds resulting from personal actions (Psalm 41:9; 55:12-14).

    Anyway, you get the point. I agree with what you say, but I also believe there is another dimension to the issue.

    Blessings, Doug

    • Short & sweet. Your blog does’t suck and your authenticity is fresh, real and whether we always agree or not, you ARE the real article (pun intended)… Love your heart, love your writing (including your new book) and love your authenticity! Be who HE designed you to be and we are all blessed!

      • Randy,

        You make me laugh. I loved the pun. (But I love all puns.)

        I hope you know I wasn’t trolling for compliments with my closing comment. I was just trying to be lighthearted.

        But I think you know that.

        Thanks,

        Sam

    • Hi Doug,

      Thanks for your great response. You said so many things so well, I don’t want to simply repeat them. But let me say these things:

      1. Yes, that speaker had an agenda, and frankly it sucked. He didn’t make it a reasonable discussion; he manipulated by misusing the beauty of story. Let’s use story to illustrate, but not to “prove”–which is little more than manipulation. The topic is worthy of discussion; not worthy of a bully-pulpit answer.

      2. I do not mean to disparage emotions. Our emotions (mad, sad, glad, scared, ashamed) are responses to real life. If we don’t respond with anger at injustice or with joy at justice, there is something deeply wrong with us. David lamented at betrayal, longed for connection with God, and had job in the presence of God.

      That is right, good, proper, and the way we are made.

      My objection is to people who misuse emotions as manipulations.

      3. The Psalms you quote are great examples of what to do with our emotions. Liberals say, “Vent your emotions;” conservatives say, “Stuff your emotions;” (I’m stereotyping here) but scripture says, “Pray your emotions.”

      Let’s take the cry of our hearts and take it to God.

      Thanks for your GREAT response.

      Sam

      • Thanks for the reply, Sam. I agree with your point that we misuse our emotions. Trust me, I needed to hear what you wrote. As always, your insights dig beneath the skin, and I need that.

        You’re right–emotions are God’s gift, and we use them best when we take them to the throne.

        Keep up the great work,
        Doug

  7. I just started reading your blog and I have to say that it definitely doesn’t suck! I understand the point you’re making about “hurt feelings” and I totally agree – I have been in many situations where God wanted to teach me and I was just “offended.” I’m sure that you’ll agree with me, though, that “hurt feelings” and real emotional pain are not the same things, but can be easily confused by people who think that they have “thick skin.” An example of this – I am a sensitive person with a gift of compassion. I have been fighting this gift all of my life because I thought it made me weak, rather than running to God and allowing Him to be my protector. When I became a missionary, I went to Belgium and worked in a Christian camp for a week. I had been in Belgium for three months at that time but still had a minimal understanding of the language (French). The time at the camp was the most painful, horrible time of my six-month mission. I felt attacked spiritually and emotionally – the camp was grueling, the teenage campers were unsympathetic and even if they were, I understood little of what they said, and the rest of the leadership team was completely un-supportive. No one understood the intensity of the culture shock I was undergoing. I was crying all of the time – I should have been sent home, but I survived the week. Afterwards, what was I told by my supervisor? “I asked around and all the other Belgian pastors say that their American missionaries cry a lot too. It’s normal.” Thanks a lot. I beat myself up over it because I shouldn’t have been such a wussy. Thankfully I no longer see it that way now, though. Honestly, to this day I look back and ask myself why I cried so much, but I know that it wasn’t because of hurt feelings. I suspect that it was because of an utter lack of grace. Perhaps it was because rather than say, “Hmm, she’s crying, perhaps her heart is in pain?” They preferred not to ask questions. It was the not asking questions that I think hurt the most. I absolutely agree that “hurt feelings” are often a case of ego, but we must be very careful not to assume that every time someone feels broken that their ego has been hurt. Sometimes you’re right, as a friend used to say, we should “suck it up and deal” and accept constructive criticism. But sometimes we need to ask ourselves, “Did Jesus ever say that we have to have tough skin?” What about that whole hearts of stone being transformed into hearts of flesh thing? As you’ve showed in your other blogs – it’s all about grace.

  8. Thanks. I am too sensitive, and I find your points about criticism very helpful. (It’s wrong, spiteful, or accurate.) I want to remember that next time I feel someone is critical of me.

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