How to find the hidden meaning in hurtful words

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Have you ever been hurt by something your loved one has said to you? Have you ever hurt someone with your words?

Sadly, the answer is “Yes”.

I wish this were not true but we all get hurt and hurt others with our words. I promised you that I would write about how to translate hurtful words into our intention or real meaning behind our words.

I’m not referring to emotional and verbal abuse, threats or intimidation. I’m referring to the comments we make during an argument and then say:

“I was angry – I didn’t mean it”

There is truth in that statement – However

“There is something that you are trying to communicate to your partner”

This is an important statement because all too often I read articles describing things that you should not say to your partner, many I will discuss. If you and/or your partner have communicated in this way, it can lead you to feeling that you are in a bad relationship which is probably not the case. The work is to try to unfold what you are trying to communicate. The challenge is to reflect on your thoughts and feelings so that you find purposeful and meaningful words to communicate to your partner.

When we are hurt, we tend to communicate with hurtful words. Also, we tend to use hurtful words when we do not have, or cannot find, the words to clearly express our needs, frustrations and so on. As a therapist working with people in relationships, I sometimes feel like a language interpreter.

I realize that while you are reading this you will be reminded of hurtful words that have been said to you and hurtful words that you have used. I know that pain might be remembered and felt again. I am hoping that this blog will take something hurtful and turn it into something purposeful and meaningful. Again, I would ask you to please remember – I am not referring to emotional abuse, threats and intimidation.

Example from a couple that I counseled:

A wife accidentally breaks something that had sentimental meaning to her husband. She did not have any idea that it was important him – he never said anything. He is very upset with her for breaking it. She expresses extreme remorse. He continues to bring it up in a very hurtful manner toward her for weeks. At one point he said to her:

“I want you to feel hurt and shame for what you did.”

During our session, I asked him what he needed from his wife – he said “Empathy”. But he realized that he had never shared the meaning of the item with her, so she had no idea that he needed empathy. And at this point, his wife was now very hurt by his comment.

So, the real meaning in the comment was: “I want you to understand my pain and the only way I know to do that is to make you feel pain too”. Of course, that is not the way to elicit empathy from your partner, but at that stage he had no idea that was what he needed from her.

By identifying what he needed from his wife in that situation, he also realized that he had never learned how to express his pain. His life experience had taught him that you hurt others when they hurt you. Now, however, he has wonderful new tools and is learning to not only communicate more openly, but understand himself more deeply.

A few commonly made statements interpreted into true meaning:

Angry statement: “You never spend time with me anymore – you don’t care about anyone but yourself!”

The Real Meaning: “I miss you and sometimes I feel unloved & lonely when we don’t spend time together”

Said with frustration: “Calm down”

Real meaning: “I’m at a loss, I feel inadequate because I have no idea how to help you”

Said with hurt: “I’m done – I want out”

The real meaning: “I don’t want to be hurt anymore and I’m at a loss as to how to make things better between us”

Said in exasperation: “Get over it and just deal with it”

Real Meaning: “I am frightened by the place you are in and I have no idea how to help you”

Hurtful words said by those we love have a powerful & lasting impact on us

What to do differently:

Try to reflect on what it is that you are really trying to communicate to your partner, or anyone really! What is your intention with your words? During conflict we sometimes say hurtful things to one another without revisiting the conversation and asking our partner what they really wanted to communicate with their words. However, it is often the case that we don’t know. This is when the work is very challenging. Reflect on what you needed from your partner, what you were feeling and were any painful triggers opened up.

The biggest challenge of this work:

The most challenging part of doing this work is – vulnerability. We use hurtful words because we are in a defensive posture. Expressing our true thoughts and feelings in a vulnerable way can be frightening. If our partner responds with lack of understanding, without empathy or validation, or even worse – it they respond poorly with blame and accusations – you will feel the hurt more deeply because you are in a vulnerable place.

If you want to approach your partner to gain an understanding of the true meaning behind their words or if you wish to better express the true meaning behind your words – timing is important. Both of you need to be in a ‘softened’ state before expressing vulnerability. Expressing that you wish to share with someone places you in a vulnerable place. You can share with your partner that you are vulnerable and you are doing so in an attempt to move toward healing both of you and your relationship.

Why do this work?

Because when we hurt each other we need to repair the hurt that both of you have endured. This work aids in building trust in your relationship. I have worked with couples who have been so terribly hurt by things that they have said to one another. Sometimes these things are said in the heat of the moment in our session together. However, when we examine what the person is feeling and what they want to communicate to their partner – it is ultimately something that their partner can hear. Hurt is then minimized from the original statement and translated into meaning.

“When hurtful words are not explained and repaired – it can and will most likely chip away at your feelings of love for your partner”

I know that what I am suggesting is not easy.  But hang in there – if you can communicate true meaning to your partner – you will have a healthy and happier relationship. And the bonus is – you will feel good about the way in which you use your words toward those you love. Know that you will make mistakes in your attempt to communicate with meaning and intention. Always remember, when you do this hard work, do it with compassion toward your partner as well as self-compassion. It will make this work a tiny bit easier.

Thanks for reading!

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If you want to learn more about relationships – I wrote this for you “Ten Essential Things I’ve Learned About Marriage & Relationships” I’ve included the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope you find it helpful. Let me know!

And you can keep up with my writing on relationships, random thoughts and more by subscribing here.

One more thing… I really would love for you to share your thoughts with me. I know it is not easy to do! I understand because it took me a long time to work up the courage to begin blogging! But I want to get to know you. When you feel ready, please feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comment section. And, if you would like me to blog about a specific topic – let me know! 

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Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.

Photo Credit: Kumars

How to find the hidden meaning in hurtful words
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How to find the hidden meaning in hurtful words
Have you ever been hurt by something your loved one has said to you? Have you ever hurt someone with your words?
Sadly, the answer is “Yes”. I wish this were not true but we all get hurt and hurt others with our words. I promised you that I would write about how to translate hurtful words into our intention or real hidden meaning behind our words.

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  1. Anne  October 4, 2016

    Pam – I really like your post – so thoughtful and caring and empowering. Thank you for taking the time to compose and share it.

    • Pam Fullerton  October 4, 2016

      Thank you Anne! You’re so wonderful. 🙂


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