In a healthy and ideal relationship, when you tell someone they hurt you, they own their mistake and apologize. Or they communicate openly and honestly to clear misunderstandings and reach common ground.
But why do some people get mad when you tell them they hurt you?
There can be many reasons behind this behavior:
Your accusatory tone
When you believe someone has hurt you, it’s normal to feel anger and accuse them of hurting you. The problem with that approach, though, is that you’re purely acting out of your feelings.
Your feelings may or may not be warranted. You may have assumed things. You may have been triggered. Or you may have a genuine reason to be hurt.
The point is: At this point, you can’t really know whether your anger is justified. Them hurting you may just be your perception. So, accusing them of hurting you is you acting based on minimal information about the situation.
No one likes to be accused by people they care about. So, your anger is bound to make them angry.
When you accuse someone of hurting you, you make them look bad to themselves and others. They’re put in a position where they’re forced to defend themselves.
Some people carry internalized shame which gets triggered when you accuse them. So, your getting triggered may lead to them getting triggered. This dynamic is usually what escalates conflicts.
Projection is another way an attacked person defends themselves. When you confront them with their mistakes, they project their anger onto you instead of getting angry at themselves.
Lack of empathy
Narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths lack empathy and are surprised when you call them out. For them, getting mad at you for you being mad at them is likely a manipulation technique. They’ll gaslight and punish you for voicing your concerns so that you may keep your future concerns to yourself.
They perceive your expression of concerns as a threat to their control and authority over you.
There’s a subtle difference between this and the previous point.
A person may not lack empathy, but they still may not understand your situation. They simply can’t comprehend how their actions could hurt you. When you tell them their actions hurt you, they put themselves in your shoes and still can’t see how they were being hurtful.
Even if you’re highly empathetic, you’re still living in a world that is different from the worlds of those around you. Your different perceptual world or your unique psychological makeup has been shaped by your unique past experiences.
So, it can be tough to see things from others’ perspectives. This makes people believe that others are overreacting to the situation- that their anger is disproportionate.
Who decides whether a reaction is disproportionate or not?
The answer: No one.
We all have our own yardsticks for proportionality and disproportionality of reactions based on how our psychology has been shaped.
How to deal with this situation?
Someone getting mad when you tell them they hurt you is a tricky situation to be caught in. You can’t control their behavior, but you can control yours, so let’s start there:
1. Use a non-accusatory tone
Okay, they did something, and you felt hurt. Fine. Your feelings are valid, but they may not be justified. You have minimal information about the situation right now. You may have made a couple of assumptions.
So, it’s a good idea to approach the person who hurt you in a non-accusatory manner. You’re only perceiving one slice of reality right now. You need to hear their perspective so you perceive the other slice too.
And you won’t get them to share their perspective if you immediately accuse them and put them in a defensive mode.
You can only reach common ground after you’ve allowed them to share their perspective and you have a clear understanding of what happened.
2. Tactical empathy
Say it’s too late, and you’ve already accused them. Now they’re mad at you for being mad at them. What do you do?
Let them vent. Validate their feelings. Acknowledge that you might have accused them unfairly. Show willingness to reach a common ground.
Once you’ve let them vent, they’ll likely let you vent. Your empathizing with them encourages them to empathize with you. Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, called it tactical empathy in his book Never Split the Difference.
3. Assertiveness always wins
When you feel attacked, it’s tempting to attack back. It’s what humans do. The whole thing is a game of emotions. When you realize there’s a difference between feeling attacked and actually being attacked, you create room for assertiveness.
Your feelings are not always in alignment with reality. It’s a 50-50 thing. Half the time, your feelings are justified; half the time, they’re not.
So, it’s wise to calm your emotions and explore the situation further. Assertiveness is all about communicating how you feel in a neutral, non-accusatory manner.
It doesn’t come naturally to humans, but you can learn it with practice. It can help you change the frame of a conflict from “You vs. Me” to “Us vs. The problem”. No one feels attacked when such a frame gets set, and the two parties are likely to reach common ground.