Silver linings only belong to storm clouds

How hard do you try not to hurt people’s feelings?

We hurt stranger’s feelings unintentionally, I am sure. We hurt some feelings intentionally from time to time, I bet, too.

But when you really try to do it all right… when you think about all the options and all the possibilities to your best ability so you avoid causing problems… and it still manages to result in hurt feelings, what do you do?

Recently I became aware my actions hurt someone for whom I care very much.  I had debated the possible actions and choices for months, and I knew that my options guaranteed some or all parties might be displeased. In the end I chose one version of happiness, and in turn created unhappiness. Days after learning of the damaged feelings, I am left feeling conflicted, sad, dismayed and confused. I know what it is to be hurt, and would not wish it on anyone. If I am supposed to learn from this – what is the lesson? Is it that I just cannot make everyone happy no matter the effort expended? Is it that my happiness must always fall second place to other people’s happiness when they are in conflict?

When left with these questions, I feel as though no matter which way I turn, I lose. My head spins with possibilities, and not one is a clear winner:

  • OPTION 1: Don’t worry about making other people happy.  Take the risk that your actions will cause discord and focus on your own happiness first. Problem with this: must deal with the aftermath of appearing “selfish.”
  • OPTION 2: Worry about what will please others, because bringing them happiness brings you happiness. Problem: This simultaneously brings the stress of anticipating the needs of those silent masses of people who matter in your life. This can create enough anxiety to eliminate any happiness you gain in considering their happiness in the first place.
  • OPTION 3: Realize you can’t win either way. If you focus solely on making others happy (preemptively) you lose your happiness (because you won’t be honoring any other need but the desire to please others). And if you focus on your happiness only, you degrade the happiness of others because you are not considering anyone but yourself. And trying to balance the two is like an endless process wherein one is trying to balance scales while gravity shifts under the seismic instability of emotional reactions and uncontrollable social variables. In other words: a futile effort.
  • OPTION 4: Exclude people from your life and decision-making so you eliminate the need to please them. But in the process solidify your sadness as you effectively make yourself an island.
  • OPTION 5: Accept their negative emotions (even though it is made difficult by your frustration at having tried so hard to avoid a negative result). Do you take ownership over their emotions? Do you assume responsibility for producing them? Or are we all the sole owners of our emotions with nowhere to place blame but within? To the contrary, if a person is brutally assaulted, their feelings of pain and anger are not entirely their responsibility and are certainly significantly the cause of the assailant. But in day to day social situations, to what degree are we responsible for the feelings of others? There seems to be no good answer. Do we simply allow the emotions to exist in the air that cushions our relationships, unresolved and untended?
  • OPTION 6: Rest knowing you had the best intentions. Rely on the fact that emotions are complex. Solutions are rarely cut and dry. Choices are often presented as a utilitarian balance of what is necessary and what is desired. This balance is tinged by the external variables in the moment, and – when taken out of context – may not seem like the best solution at later date. So again, trust in one’s decision is essential; confidence that we do the best we can at the time is an imperative. 

If the hurt is unintentional – if we truly believe we did the very best we could with the information and influences available at the time of our actions – then perhaps the best we can do is acknowledge the pain and express regret it occurred.

What saddens me, is that hurt feelings exist at all in these circumstances. Because even with the best intentions and the best efforts, the knowledge that we hurt someone unintentionally can in turn hurt us to a significant degree. It seems that hurt, no matter our efforts, is a driving force in our lives. It must often uncomfortably exists in our days, an ever-present reminder that maturity and wisdom are gained not only by the triumph of logic, nor the thoughtful assessment of pro’s and con’s, but also by the visitation of discomfort, sadness, and disappointment. Perhaps in coming to peace with this fact, one might finally achieve the most realistic sense of satisfaction.