You can’t hurt somebody else’s feelings (Episode 40)

Have you ever heard, “You can’t hurt somebody else’s feelings,” and then did a double-take? Because there’s no way that could possibly be true, right? In this episode, Kay Coughlin explains why it actually is true and how this knowledge can help you get free from worrying about hurting somebody else’s feelings.

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Transcript: You can’t hurt somebody else’s feelings (Episode 40)

Hi there. I’m your host, Kay Coughlin, and you’re listening to “From One Caregiver to Another.” This is episode 40.

Before I get started today. I just want to do a little bit of housekeeping. I’m going to be taking a break from the podcast for a few weeks. I’ve realized that part of me being the very best entrepreneur, caregiver, wife, and mother, I can be means scheduling time for rest and restoration. In fact, as a caregiver and as a parent, I have learned that scheduling rest is the only way it will actually happen for me.

So season three of the podcast will be back towards the end of July. In the meantime, I will be doing webinars on Human Giver Syndrome because I’m just really so passionate about raising awareness about it. As of the date that this episode is released, the next webinar is scheduled for Tuesday, June 22nd.

So go to my website to register for that, and you can see what else I’ve got scheduled around Human Giver Syndrome. And while you’re there, you can download my guide on Human Giver Syndrome and you can find all of that at slash learn more. And I’ll put that link down below in the show notes too.

So let’s get right into this today. I’ve spent a lot of time this season touching on this idea that you can’t actually hurt somebody else’s feelings. It’s probably the number one thing I say that clients push back against over all the years I’ve been saying this to people. I’ve really come to expect the disbelief and sometimes even anger that I get in reaction when I say it, and there’s even this predictable progression of facial expressions and body language that I see, and it goes like this.

And in fact, if this is one of the first times you’re seriously considering the idea that you can’t hurt somebody else’s feelings and nobody can hurt yours either then you’re probably going to be having this reaction in your body and in your mind. So don’t worry. It’s totally normal. So here’s how this reaction goes.

Here’s what I see first. There’s this startled look that comes across somebody’s face. Then there’s going to be this leaning forward to catch the words one more time and I’ll repeat it. And I usually have to repeat it because it’s just so startling the first time you hear it. And then the next thing that happens is there’s going to be this leaning back.

And it’s a surprised look that I see, because what I say just goes against what we’ve all been taught. And then there’s this confusion and that looks like a furrowed brow, the corners of your eyes squeeze just a little and the mouth gets really tightened up in heavy concentration because what you’re probably thinking, what I see a lot is people think that just can’t possibly be true, but it is true.

And that’s what I’m going to dive into today so that I can explain what I mean when I say it to people, when I say you can’t hurt somebody else’s feelings. Because it comes up so much. And I mean, it might actually come up with my clients more than any other belief or thought that they have in common.

It’s this concern that you might hurt somebody’s feelings. And it’s the number one reason that people don’t want to say no to other people and that they don’t want to set or enforce boundaries. I understand all of this. I’ve done this myself throughout my whole life, but understanding that you can’t actually hurt somebody else’s feelings is key to being able to get past this.

So this is the phrase that people say, but I don’t want to hurt their feelings. We tend to say this in response to a lot of really common and very human situations, things that are going to come up a lot when you’re interacting with other people. I’ve heard it said about setting limits on times to check email, whether that’s work or personal and about asking someone to take their shoes off when they come in your house to repair something, you don’t want to hurt their feelings by asking them to take their shoes off.

I’ve heard it said about when your mom offers to cook you a meal that you don’t want to eat for any reason, whether you just don’t like it, or it’s not something you want right now.

And I’ve heard it said about asking to change to a new doctor or a new hairstylist when you don’t like your current one. And I could just go on and on and on the list of situation this applies to is quite literally endless.

Before we talk about why it is that you can’t hurt someone’s feelings and, and nobody can hurt yours, I want to take a minute here to really pull back the curtain on what we are taught about where our feelings come from. It really helps to understand where this thought originally comes from, how it was planted in your brain.

From the time that we are very small and I mean, toddlers, maybe even younger, we start to hear phrases that sound something like this.

You have to share your toy with your sister. You don’t want to hurt her feelings. Or we hear, you have to play with Jimmy at the playground. Otherwise you will hurt his feelings. Or even worse, we hear you can’t tell him not to touch your hair, it will hurt his feelings.

Or even when it comes to the way children relate to adults, we’ll say, you have to let your grandmother hug you if she wants to, or else it will hurt her feelings.

So we are trained to think that we can hurt somebody’s feelings and that we have the power over another person’s emotions. That also means we’re trained to think that other people have that power over our emotions.

We hear this message nonstop across our lifetimes. And it’s one of the earliest lessons that we learn about how relationships work. Now I’ve heard it for my entire life as well. I’m a wife and a mother of two teenage young men. And now I’m the primary caregiver for my mother. So believe me, there are plenty of people who will still warn me not to hurt another person’s feelings.

Now, of course, some of us do take this more seriously than others, but in general, it’s just really common. And there’s just a little side note here thinking that we can or will hurt another person’s feelings is one of the root causes of human giver syndrome. When we are told that it’s our responsibility to give other people what they want in terms of emotions, even when it violates our personal boundaries and space, and when it goes against our better judgment. Now you know where this thought comes from originally and why it is just so common in our culture.

It’s at this point in my explanation that most people begin to see just how many times they have heard someone say to them, oh, you don’t want to hurt her feelings.

So now it’s time to talk about just exactly why this is a rubbish thing to say to someone. Now I have to warn you that I could end up getting a little bit ranty here, because this is really important to me. And it’s such a massive misunderstanding about how emotions work and it’s really a foundation of my life and of my coaching practice.

But the more I dig into why life can be so challenging for caregivers. And the more I learn about human giver syndrome, the more I want to rant about this to anybody who will listen. And so podcast listener, you’re here. So you get to hear it now.

Okay. There are two things to understand if you’re going to be able to make the leap to knowing you can’t hurt somebody else’s feelings and nobody can hurt yours.

These two ideas right here, they’re kind of like the cliff notes version of this episode. So if this is all you get out of this, that will be great. The first idea is that emotions are generated by your thoughts. And the second is that because of the first one, nobody has the power to create any emotion in anybody other than themselves.

Here’s the full explanation. And we’re going to start with that first one, where your emotions or feelings actually come from. And this applies to me too, because I’m human. We’re all human. And in humans, emotions start inside of our bodies. Emotions are like sadness, anger, joy, love, excitement. Those are all emotions.

So those start inside of our bodies and then they move outward and they become facial expressions or words, or they show up in our energy or our physical movements. And I say this because I want to distinguish sensations from emotions. Sensations start on the outside of our bodies and move inward. And usually show up that you know, something like pain or pleasure from a massage.

So those start on the outside and they move in and that’s like stubbing your toe. And that is not the same thing as an emotion at all. That is caused by nerves on the outside of your body being stimulated. That’s a sensation. We are creating our emotions within ourselves.

And that’s the key to understanding that emotions don’t spring up out of nowhere and nobody can create an emotion for you and force you to feel it. Here it is. Emotions are created by the thoughts in our minds. Now some of those thoughts and some of those thoughts are actually beliefs. They’re going to happen very quickly and some of them will release chemicals and hormones into our bodies and that’s like adrenaline and cortisol.

And I’d like to encourage you to listen to episode 36 of this podcast if you want to learn about why your brain typically reacts the way it does. But the short version of it is that you are not at the mercy of evolution or of your brains habits.

You can learn to choose because a hormone or a chemical flooding your body is not the same thing as an emotion. This is hard to distinguish, but what actually happens is that when there’s a release of a hormone or a chemical, you’re having a physical reaction to it. It’s a drug that your brain has just injected into your bloodstream and you’re going to react to it.

But the way this happens, the sequence, is that first you have a thought. Or your mind taps into a belief that you have, which is a specific kind of thought, and then you have an emotion and this can seem like it happens automatically or comes out of nowhere, but that’s not actually true. There’s always going to be a thought that triggers it, even if it’s happening so fast that you can’t catch it. Over time, you can learn to catch the thought that’s causing those emotions.

There’s a really deep and beautiful quote from Victor Frankel about the time between stimulus and response and choice. And it goes like this: “between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”

Now, if you want to get a graphic of that quote, you can go to my Instagram account. There’s a link in the show notes to pick up the graphic that I actually run fairly often, because I think the quote is so beautiful and really life-changing.

But what that means is that you do get to choose how you respond to anything. It’s complicated, but you can do it. So even if someone walks up behind you and shouts, “boo,” your emotion, isn’t just appearing out of the blue, especially with things like fear. That’s an emotion that can come up so fast that it seems instant, but it’s not.

Someone saying “boo” is going to make a lot of people jump. So that’s happening very fast, but I’ve also seen someone react to that by laughing so hard that they might actually start to cry. And that’s a very different reaction and it’s caused by the different thought patterns in that person’s mind. One person is frightened, but the other person has a totally different thought pattern and they think that saying, “boo” is a funny thing to hear.

This is how I know that the second idea that I gave you before, the idea that nobody can make somebody else feel something. That’s how I know this is true. Once you understand how your brain works and how emotions work, it becomes clear that you are creating your own emotions with your thoughts.

There is just not any person on the planet who has so much control over another person’s mind that they can create emotions in another person. Now it is possible to train or condition someone to react to a stimulus, and that’s done by reinforcing behavior over time. I have definitely seen a person who cowers and tries to make themselves small when someone, they fear walks into a room.

And I’ve done this myself, and I’m thinking of a specific instance that was with someone who was so nasty to me that over time I became conditioned to fear them. But the person who walked into the room wasn’t creating my emotion of fear. I was doing that all on my own.

One of the things that I’m not saying here is that we are to blame for our emotions. If you are in an abusive situation, that is not your fault and you are not to blame. And I’m going to talk about that more in a minute.

Emotions are really complex and over time we all pick up these habitual emotions, these patterns of emotions.

We pick these up over our lifetimes of learning, how to react in situations and in certain relationships. Now I know from personal experience that you can over time change which emotions are connected to a certain stimulus, even when you’re in a heated situation. I know because I’ve done it.

And I have to give this to you as an illustration here. 

I mentioned that years ago, there was a person who I was scared of and I could feel myself cower when this person came into the room, this person actually happened to be a manager of mine at work. This person got in my face several times and really tried to intimidate me with every trick at their disposal.

You know, they raised their voice. There was this angry red face they got. There was a finger pointing into my face and waving at me and wild hand motions. This was all meant to scare me. And the first couple of times it happened, this manager of mine got the reaction out of me, they were looking for. I did become afraid and I started to run around trying to do what they wanted from me, which was, make them happy and do what they wanted because I was hoping I could get them to stop trying to intimidate me.

But then something interesting happened. I figured out what was going on. I stepped back and I observed it and I could see it. And I also knew that it would happen again. So I started practicing the scenario in my mirror at home and during my commute in my car. I decided to react differently to change my emotions.

And that’s what I practiced. And the next time it happened, this person expressed the same fury with me, the same level of intense anger with me and the same physical tactics of getting in my face. But I was different the next time. I could still feel my fear start to rise up, but I understood what was going on within me too.

I responded differently because at that point I had taught myself to respond differently. So instead of cowering in fear, I very calmly replied, “I don’t think this is going to be a very productive discussion. So I’m going to leave the room now. And when you’re ready to discuss this without yelling, I’d like to talk again and I’ll be around for the rest of the day.”

Now I’m not going to tell you that the person who was intimidating me responded well to that. But I responded well to it. I was so proud of myself. And I have to tell you, I think it remains one of my proudest moments to this day.

And the followup here is that if I’m being honest, after that particular encounter, after that adrenaline and cortisol flushed out of my system because even though I did something differently. It was still very difficult to do. I felt like I was going to throw up that’s the truth. And I cried. And then I had to take a walk to release that stress from my body.

And then I did decide to look for another job, but I managed my emotional response to that situation, even though the other person had not changed at all and had previously worked hard to condition me to react in fear.

In the end, my manager didn’t have any more control over my emotions than I had over theirs. It was very hard for me to do that work, to change myself and manage my response in that situation, but it worked and it was worth it.

And that’s how I know that it can be done. And this is the truth, or it can be the truth, no matter what your relationships look like, or your living situation or your work circumstances. There is quite literally no way for somebody to make you feel something.

And you can’t make another person feel something either.

Just to be clear about this, I want you to know that I am talking about adults in adult relationships here. So when it comes to children and adults with different capacity, maybe somebody with Alzheimer’s or a person who has a cognitive impairment, I believe that we have a somewhat different responsibility.

You still can’t make them feel anything, but their capacity to understand that is going to be different. So your approach may need to be one that’s more gentle, maybe more patient, more like a teacher. That is not my area of specialty. So if you are curious about that, I recommend talking to someone who really does have that expertise.

And there’s another thing that I want to be clear about here. And I mentioned this a minute ago. I’m not talking about abusive situations. If you are in a situation where someone is constantly saying things to try to make you feel bad or feel powerless or who is in other ways trying to harm you emotionally or physically, if someone is actively trying to condition you to feel bad about yourself, please know that is not your fault.

You haven’t done anything wrong. I want you to know that you still do have a choice about how you feel about your emotions, even abusers can’t make you feel anything, but when you don’t feel safe, safety has got to be your first priority. Get safe so that you can get the help you need for yourself.

Everything else can wait. You can work on managing your responses to situations changing or emotions, if you want to, after you are safe. This is not my area of expertise either, but if you do need help, please reach out to someone, you know, or you can reach out to me and I will help you find someone to help.

Also, please remember this. If you do need help with your emotions. Please get help, whatever that means for you, therapy, or coaching, maybe there’s medication that you need, get the help you need. There is no shame if you can’t manage your emotions, even once you understand that emotions are generated by your thoughts.

We humans carry around a gigantic lifetime of being taught confusing things about our emotions and we’re taught contradictory things too. So it’s no wonder that we run around being confused about this.

My hope and what I’ve tried to do with this podcast episode is give you a little more understanding about your mind, especially the connection between emotions and thoughts, so that you’re going to be able to get some relief by knowing what you do and do not have the power to do. But you don’t have to do that by yourself, get the help you need.

There is no shame or blame in asking for help. Getting help is one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself.

I also want you to know that there is another way to be responsible with this knowledge about where emotions actually come from now that you have the information and it’s this. Be responsible and don’t be a jerk, unless that’s what you want to do.

Knowing that you don’t have the power to make anybody feel anything else does not give you a license to be mean and nasty, unless that’s what you want to do in this world. You still have to choose how you want to be in this world with other humans. If you want to use your position or rank or your physical strength to try to control or manipulate or intimidate somebody else into doing something you want, that’s up to you.

I can’t force you to use this awareness about emotions in any particular way. We all, every one of us as humans have to get up in the morning and make choices so that we can live with ourselves. What I know for sure is that you can learn to manage and even change any emotion you want, even the way you respond in emotionally charged situations.

I did that with my manager all those years ago. And when I did it, that was long before anybody ever told me how emotions actually work. I was just so desperate for relief from that person’s actions that I kept trying new things until I found a solution that worked for me. And even though I figured it out for myself all those years ago, I think that was the hardest possible way I could have done it.

I just didn’t have any help. There was nobody telling me how it worked, but you don’t have to do it alone. As I always say, you can learn to observe the emotions you’re experiencing now, and you can do that quite well by yourself on your own, but get help with figuring out what you want next, whether what’s next for you is managing your thoughts or changing your emotions or changing your situation.

Changing and growing is hard. I wish I could say it was easy, but it’s not, but you don’t have to do it alone. So find a therapist or a support group, or call me to set up a time to talk about what it is that you want out of life.

And remember the two things that we talked about, your emotions actually come from your thoughts. And no matter what anybody else tries to tell you, you can’t actually hurt somebody else’s feelings and nobody else can hurt your feelings either.

If you’re looking for a first step to see how much this is coming up for you in your life, try to notice it. When you say it out loud when somebody says it to you, or even when you just have the thought in your head and it’ll sound like this, I don’t want to hurt their feelings or you shouldn’t hurt their feelings.

That’s what it sounds like. If you can notice when it’s coming up and if you can stop repeating it to yourself, or even just notice when other people are saying it, you’re going to give yourself the very best chance of being able to manage your emotions or even change your emotions over time, if you want. Because you’ll be able to see the thoughts that are causing them.

Thank you so much for listening today, you can learn more about me and about this That’s facilitator on And there’s a lot of good stuff there for caregivers, including links to my book and a link to learn more about human giver syndrome. I wrote a guide on that and I also do webinars on that.

If you want almost daily doses of straight talk for family caregivers who want to dare to live their own lives. Please follow me on Instagram. And there’s a link for that in the show notes. If you liked this episode, please leave a review because that’s going to help other caregivers find their way here.

And please recommend the podcast to a friend who also happens to be a caregiver. I can’t wait to be here with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another.

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Kay Coughlin, CEO and Chief Facilitator of Facilitator on Fire, has a dream to create a world that is generously inclusive of all adult generations. The best place to connect with Kay is on Instagram or in the "From One Caregiver to Another" boundaries discussion community.

"Caregiver Coaching" is for family caregivers who want to dare to live their own life. Facilitator on Fire's "Building Trust Across Generations" seminar helps leaders and managers build amazing teams that are attractive to people of all ages. Kay's keynote address, "Top Myths of Leading Generations," helps businesses see the hard costs of miscommunication between generations.