Everywhere you go, you walk on eggshells. You censor each thought, editing your words carefully. You overthink your every move, questioning yourself over and over again. Somehow, your interactions with others never go smoothly, and your conversations always seem to take more effort than they should. That’s what it’s like to live in fear of hurting others. It’s hard to be yourself when you’re constantly worried about how other people will perceive what you have to say and do. When your fear of hurting someone else’s feelings is stronger than your desire to bring who you are and what you think to the surface, life becomes a whole lot tougher.
It’s understandable and commendable to care for others—to be mindful of how you treat the people you care about. But it becomes an issue when your sensitivity to what others want makes you suppress what you truly want. Do you find it intolerable to hurt someone you love, even if it’s unintentional? Do you experience shame, guilt, or concerns about being a bad person? As a result, do you avoid saying what’s on your mind and push away your own feelings? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re probably suppressing your true self. This can be bad for your relationships and can create chronic anxiety in your life.
Jennifer came to therapy feeling anxious in her daily life, and she identified her marriage as a main source of this chronic anxiety. She felt like she couldn’t be herself around her husband, Jonathan. On the rare occasion that Jennifer would express what she wanted, Jonathan would get upset with her if it didn’t align with what he wanted. She explained to me that he would make her feel guilty and selfish, telling her that she made him feel distant and unloved. She took this personally and began to believe that his hurt feelings were all her fault. It was common for her to be the one to apologize, even when she really didn’t do anything wrong.
This way of thinking spilled into many of Jennifer’s other relationships, which resulted in her keeping her true thoughts and feeling to herself. Jennifer had chronic anxiety; she tiptoed around her husband’s feelings, knowing she couldn’t live like that forever.
Jennifer explained that after much thought and reflection, she knew she needed to work on her inability to tolerate hurting other people’s feelings.
While Jonathan might be more sensitive to feeling hurt, Jennifer’s unwillingness to hurt him also contributed to their relationship difficulties. When I gathered more details from Jennifer, I realized that in most of her relationships, she struggled with worrying more about how she affected others than about her own feelings.
Jennifer had never considered that we all unintentionally hurt people, even those we love. She couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that it’s impossible to be in a relationship with someone without hurting them at some point.
However, she would rather have suppressed her true intentions than see someone she loved in discomfort. As we spoke some more, I got curious about what made it so hard for Jennifer to consider that something she said or did had the unintended consequence of hurting someone she cared about. I asked, “Where did the idea come from that it isn’t acceptable to hurt someone you love?” We also explored Jennifer’s exaggerated idea that when people feel hurt, they are actually deeply wounded.
Jennifer brought up that her father would get so hurt for the smallest things. She had one memory in which her father started to yell at her and tell her how hurt he was when Jennifer didn’t like that he made fish for dinner. She recalled that her father told her how much she hurt him; he asked how she could fail to appreciate all the time, money, and effort it took him to feed her. Jennifer remembered how scared she was when her father was angry and how much humiliation she felt about not liking the fish he had cooked. She became angry with herself for not liking fish, and she’d eat it just to appease her him.
Jennifer began to make the connection between how she was raised and her sensitivity to hurting another’s feelings. As a young girl, she didn’t realize that she didn’t have to internalize her father’s overreactions. She always believed that it was her responsibility to make her father happy, so she’d work hard to avoid making him angry. As Jennifer became aware of this, she also began to realize that her strong need to keep her father happy and avoid his anger trained her to overlook her own needs and wants—especially when they didn’t align with what she knew her father would want.
When Jennifer spoke about forgetting her own needs and voice, she started to see how she was recreating that relationship with Jonathan. Her anxiety around hurting Jonathan when their desires didn’t align strengthened her belief that she shouldn’t voice her opinion. She finally realized that Jonathan’s reactions were not as intense as her father’s. She realized that she isn’t responsible for other people’s feelings; it isn’t wrong for her to speak up about what she wants; and she has the right to use her own voice.
By working on becoming more comfortable expressing her own thoughts and feelings—and dealing with the impact of this on the people around her—Jennifer was able to bring her true self to life. When this happened, her chronic anxiety slowly started to subside. She became a pro at dealing with conflict, and she began to worry much less about being a bad person.
When we become overly involved and anxious about the effect we have on others, and we alter our behavior to make sure we don’t hurt their feelings, we suppress our true selves. Holding our true selves back and silencing what we think and feel puts us at risk for chronic anxiety. If we can become more at ease with how we affect others, and realize that we are most powerful when we speak our truth instead of trying to control the feelings of others, we can nourish the development of our true selves.
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