Whether it’s a family member, a co-worker, or a stranger, chances are that you’ve had someone say something hurtful to you. Here’s how to deal with it.
How many times have you been having a perfectly uncontroversial conversation with someone when suddenly, they say something that just strikes a nerve?
Whether the rudeness comes from your closest friend, sibling, boss, or perfect stranger, chances are that you felt rattled by what happened.
And here’s the thing: Rudeness is contagious.
So how should we react to not make things worse?
If someone says something that upsets you, take a moment before you react. It’s important to consider the larger picture — and your relationship with the person who made the comment.
“Even if the behavior is completely uncalled for or inappropriate, perspective-taking helps us to understand a person’s actions instead of internalizing them,” explains Leah Aguirre, a licensed social worker and practicing therapist in San Diego, California.
“This does not justify the behavior or action but can help us to create some distance.”
Dr. Kendal Cassidy, a psychologist based in Tacoma, Washington, agrees.
“Humans have a tendency to commit the fundamental attribution error, which means that we assume someone’s poor actions are due to their character and not their circumstance.”
For example, if someone on the road speeds and cuts you off, you might assume that they’re being rude. But it could be that they’re rushing to the hospital with their partner who’s in labor.
“So before you respond, ask yourself what might be going on that would cause that person to say what they did,” Aguirre says. “Having this awareness and empathy might help you soften first before responding to them.”
Why you don’t have to answer the commenter
Some people just aren’t worth the emotional effort or work that goes into responding, especially if they haven’t invested in your relationship.
Raven Solomon, a speaker, author, and researcher in Charlotte, North Carolina, brings the point home: In order for someone to have the “right” to an opinion about you, they have to have built up a rapport with you — or built up a “credit” in your relationship — before they get to make withdrawals from you.
Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, echos this sentiment. She says that you should consider your relationship with the person who made the comment and how much time and energy you want to invest in the relationship.
If you decide you want to respond, there are a few ways you could do so to protect yourself and articulate yourself productively.
1. Pause to regroup
When someone says something hurtful, consider taking several seconds — or longer — to breathe, feel your feelings, and consider your response.
“When we respond out of impulse, we’re typically not thinking or acting with reason,” explains Aguirre.
“When we pause versus react, we give ourselves the opportunity to be more objective and see things for what they are. Once we’re regulated, only then can we truly be intentional with our words and have productive conversations.”
“If the question or comment is intentionally antagonistic or disrespectful, don’t take the bait — disengage,” says counselor Shemiah Derrick, author of “The Words Between Us: A 30-Day Journal for Couples to Get Closer and Communicate with Love.”
“Your restraint shows more growth than trying to prove a point.”
Plus, some people thrive on conflict. They may have said the hurtful thing to engage you and pull you into an argument. If you resist this, it will help you deflect some of the sting from their words.
3. Advocate for yourself
Advocating for yourself can be a powerful way for you to feel validated and give the relationship a chance to heal from the exchange — if you think the relationship is worth preserving.
“I would recommend the use of ‘I’ statements,” says Aguirre, as it makes your response less of an attack.
“For example, say ‘I feel invalidated when you call me lazy because I work so hard and it makes me feel under-appreciated,’ or ‘When you use foul language with me, I feel disrespected and no longer want to talk or work with you.’”
4. State your boundary
“People understand boundaries best when they are clear,” says Cassidy.
“Think of a fence. It’s a clear line that shows where your neighbor’s property ends and where your property begins. You would never go to your neighbor and explain the purpose of a fence — you would just build it.
“The same holds true with boundaries,” Cassidy continues. “You don’t have to overly explain why you’re drawing a boundary; you just need to clearly state it. A good boundary is clear, such as ‘Please do not ask me that question again’ or ‘In the future, I will walk away if you make comments about that again.’”
5. Don’t waste your breath
Sometimes, “we cannot reason with individuals [who] are not open for discussion or willing to take accountability,” explains Aguirre.
“So while it is important to express ourselves and assert our boundaries, it is important that we remind ourselves that this person might not be receptive to feedback or wanting to engage in a discussion at all.”
If this is the case, there’s no point wasting your breath. Instead, Aguirre suggests, focus on what you can control, like limiting your interaction with them, ending the relationship, or even consulting with HR.
6. Leverage nonverbal cues
Sometimes, the best response for a situation might not be verbal. Instead, you can try to make them see how their words made you feel.
For example, you could try shaking your head, stepping or turning away, leaving the room, or even showing your hurt on your face.
7. Flip the script
If the direct approach makes you uncomfortable, you can also try a different approach: Ask a question. A “what” question shifts the dynamic and forces the offending party to think or rethink.
“You can respond with a question of your own that highlights the absurdity or tactlessness of their words,” explains Lurie.
“In doing so, you might also just prompt them to consider their intention and the harm caused, even if their intention wasn’t to cause harm.”
There’s no perfect way to respond to someone’s rudeness or hurtful comment. What’s “best” in that situation depends on your relationship with the person, your comfort level, and what you think would make you feel better.
Just remember, “If you later find yourself regretting how you handled a situation,” says Cassidy, “have self-compassion and remind yourself that you did the best you could at that moment given the resources and information you had.”