The Courage to Express Hurt

When someone says or does something that hurts you, how do you react? Do you immediately get angry? Do you silently close your heart, outwardly appearing like nothing happened? Do you immediately go unconscious, and not even notice that something happened to offend you? Or do you take the uncommon but courageously honest approach and communicate the hurt feelings without putting the person down?

Let me share an important lesson from my own life. My father, although often a loving man, was prone to noisy outbursts of anger. As a child, these “temper tantrums” affected me deeply. To cope, I learned to tune out the abrasive yelling, to not even hear it on a conscious level. It was my way of protecting my sensitive feelings.

This coping skill got me through my childhood, but no longer served me as an adult. In my relationship with Joyce, if something I did upset her and she expressed her anger at me, my lifelong skill of tuning out and thus not hearing her, was anything but skillful. It only provoked her into more upset and anger. So, with Joyce as my teacher, I have been learning to overcome my fear of strong emotions, and to healthily express my own anger.

But I didn’t stop there. I knew it was even more important to practice showing my hurt, the vulnerable feeling that precedes anger often by mere milliseconds. As I started showing my hurt to Joyce, the safest person in the world for me, I realized my next step was to show this to my own dad. So, in the early autumn of 1994, with my parents’ annual Thanksgiving visit approaching in November, I entered training with Joyce as my feelings coach. I knew with absolute certainty that, at some point in the visit, my dad would inevitably explode into some degree of a temper tantrum. I committed myself to be prepared to vulnerably express my hurt. I had learned to confront him with my anger, but this was not my highest truth. It was still a cover-up, keeping me protected. Sometime before the Thanksgiving visit, I finally felt ready.

When my parents arrived, I felt just a little bit awkward. A day went by without a blow-up, then another, and I wondered if I would have an opportunity to put my training into practice. On the third day, my mom, dad and I were in the kitchen preparing a meal. I noticed my father was starting to get stressed about not finding the right ingredients for a dish he was preparing. The tension was building like the pressure of magma in the core of an ancient volcano.

He finally blew. He started yelling at my mother. My stomach tightened in the all too familiar fear of my childhood. But instead of tuning out, I noticed and felt how much my dad’s yelling was upsetting me. I knew my time had arrived and I had to seize the moment. I ran across the kitchen and stopped two feet in front of my dad. I reached out and lovingly but firmly took his shoulders in my hands, looked into his eyes and said without anger, “Dad, your yelling is hurting me very much.”

I will never forget the look of utter surprise in my dad’s face. Then, to my own astonishment, he replied, “Barry, the last thing I would ever want to do is hurt you.” Soon there were tears in both of our eyes and we hugged each other close. In that moment, I felt closer to my dad than I had in a long time. I also felt victorious. I had been able to express my hurt without anger or blame.

I expected to have to do this several times during the visit. But I never had to do it again. It was a great visit after that confrontation.

Then, a year and a half later, my dad died suddenly. What comforted me most in my grieving was that experience of being vulnerable with my father. I am so grateful for the opportunity to break out of an unconscious pattern from childhood.

Today, it’s still not easy for me to vulnerably express my hurt. But each victory gives me courage, hope, and a more fulfilling relationship. May it do the same for you.

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