How to Deal With Unkind Comments

Most people encounter at least some uncomfortable, hurtful or rude responses from others, such as their parents, siblings, friends, strangers, spouses or even their children who may utter insensitive or callous words. Feeling hurt, discounted, disrespected and even devalued are common emotions during these occurrences. How can we learn to process these words in a non-wounding way and effectively respond to damaging messages?

The natural reaction to the hurtful discounts is to feel wounded, withdraw or reply in an equally hurtful and shaming way to ease our pain and restore our emotional balance. Regrettably, this method does not quell the pain of degradation, shame or self-loathing or reduce the contempt for the hurtful speaker or the instinct to retaliate in kind.

Since most individuals do not fully appreciate their worthiness they may regress to younger years in their lives when they felt powerlessness, inferiority, insecurity and self- doubting and respond in a new shaming, belittling or hurtful way. Sadly, many couples resort to these exchanges when they feel insecure, unappreciated or unloved.

In “Combatting Destructive Thought Processes in Couples” Dr. Robert W Firestone’s “Separation Theory” is explained as both partners “listening to the dictates of their own respective “voices” to justify their anger and their distancing from one another. Often they project their own specific self–attacks on one another and respond as though their are victimized and depreciated by their mates.” His “Voice Therapy” encourages clients to verbalize their negative thoughts toward themselves in first person and toward the mate in third person and formulate plans for behavior change. These techniques reduce anxiety and allow closeness and love to emerge.

Another way that we can ameliorate the sting of the insult is by validating the demeaning individual. For example, saying, “I am surprised that a kind person like you would say something that unkind.” The listener who has begun a war expecting retaliation is often caught by surprise, absorbs the appreciation and softens his/her next response, occasionally apologizing or rectifying the original insult.

In “Why We Love” researcher and author Helen Fisher, Ph.D., wrote, “often, it’s the sensitive people who save the day by saying exactly the right thing.” I found that it requires not buying into the shame inflicted by the speaker and visualizing having stepped away from an approaching dagger.

It is my experience that responding with an appreciation for the verbal attacker often brings the individual to the present, helps fade his/her original trauma and restores his/her esteem enough to realize that shaming is unproductive and untrue. Being appreciated shifts the attacker from a past powerless state to a state of present calmness, safety and even gratitude.

Deal with the unkind comments:

  • Understand that the “attacker” is feeling disempowered and unworthy as he/she berates you.
  • Accept that at the moment the shaming person feels the insults as occurring to him/her.
  • Reject all the harsh statements as truly depictive of you.
  • Compassionately validate the individual as you guard your safety.



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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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