The Psychology Behind Saying Hurtful Things We Don’t Mean
“When my wife asks me to do something I don’t want to do, or when she gives me constructive criticism, I turn things around on her, [and] say [stuff] I don’t mean. I [do] apologize later, but I know I hurt her feelings… How do I stop doing this to her?” an individual lamented, seeking advice online. The remorse that follows things said out loud in anger is a fairly ubiquitous experience. And given the remarks’ propensity to inject bitterness into otherwise cherished relationships, it makes the regret pernicious too. Yet, so many of us find ourselves unable to hold back during heated arguments — raising intriguing questions about the intricacies of human emotions, cognition, and social dynamics.
“In a perfect world, you don’t want to say hurtful things to your partner. But love isn’t always rainbows and butterflies… Sometimes, people say things they don’t mean out of anger,” explains Travis Atkinson, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist. “99% of the time, they are the manifestations of an intense emotion: anger, [which is brought about by] stress from work, frustrations in life, and even hunger.” Even climate change is making us irritable.
This is based, in part, on the theory of emotional hijacking, which suggests that intense emotions — like anger — can temporarily impair rational thinking and decision-making processes in our brains. The amygdala — the brain’s “integrative center for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation” — is involved too. More specifically, a process called “amygdala hijack” kicks into gear: when the amygdala becomes hyperactive and triggers the fight-or-flight response, it leads to narrowed focus. This in turn causes a lapse in good judgement, prompting a flash of anger. It culminates in statements that are driven more by emotional surge than by genuine thoughts or beliefs.
“When someone is already angry before getting into an argument, it is easy to lose control and say the meanest of things,” Atkinson adds.
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This indicates that the source of the person’s outburst might not even be at the root of their anger. Perhaps, they were angry about the way their boss treated them at work. They may not have been able to retaliate then, but the anger they’ve held on to since can topple over at the slightest disagreement with the friend they were catching up with at dinner. The release of anger thus, can be cathartic, many psychologists argue. Here, instead of reflecting an individual’s deeper convictions, an outburst acts a means to cope with the emotional turmoil that’s haunting them in the moment.
Others, however, believe an outburst can rouse us further, being counterproductive instead. “You have the sense of immediate improvement, but it’s only a sense,” says Jeffrey Lohr, a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. But here’s the thing: it is, perhaps, the pursuance of that temporary respite — even if it wreaks more havoc — that prompts one to lash out. Lohr doesn’t endorse outbursts as a means to mitigate anger, but he isn’t in favor of repressing acrimony either.
His solution: expressing one’s anger without giving in to the urge to inflict wounds with one’s words. But emotional regulation isn’t a cakewalk, and impulse control isn’t an easy beast to tame. “Trauma and many mental illnesses may cause people to have impulsive, emotional reactions that they cannot necessarily control. Sometimes, the words may come out of your mouth before your conscious thought processes have time to realize what you’re about to say… Then you realize it when the other person is looking at you with a hurt expression or after comprehending your words,” notes Jack Nollan, a mental health writer. “Conflict can put people with mental health challenges into a more negative head space than most. Their response may be overwhelming because it is amplified by their trauma or mental illness. They may lash out hard as a defensive mechanism to keep from being harmed again.”
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Interestingly however — irrespective of one’s emotional health — lashing out is a manifestation of our defense mechanisms with evolutionary underpinnings at its core. “Our limbic system is designed to ready us in the presence of perceived threats and danger — both the physical and emotional kind. It makes nano-second quick assessments with the limited information it has and sends an unmistakable battle-station cry to the rest of our body… If the limbic system sat around waiting for the rest of our brain to be one hundred percent positive about whether something in front of us was a real threat, we wouldn’t stay alive very long,” explains an article by the Colorado Counseling Center, adding that, unfortunately, “the tendency for our limbic system to play things ‘safe not sorry’ often puts us on the defensive… in this defensiveness, the words that come out are actually evidence of fear or lack of safety, not of the true needs or feelings in our heart.”
The fear could, however, be based on poor self-esteem and a sense of insecurity, too. By launching into a verbal tirade, one aims to shift the focus away from their own vulnerabilities, regaining a sense of control over the conversation, in the process.
Individuals with poor self-esteem may be prone to angry outbursts for yet another reason: self-sabotage. It serves as “a way for the person to push their partner away. They can then point to the failed relationship and say, ‘See? This person who claimed to love and care about me ended up leaving me because I’m not good enough,'” Nollan illustrates, adding: “This type of behavior isn’t necessarily a conscious choice. Sometimes it’s just a reaction to the discomfort that a person with low self-esteem may feel when with someone who loves and cares about them.”
While this doesn’t absolve the harsh words that our loves ones might’ve hurled at us simply because they were hurting, it also suggests that — as always — there might be more to things we witness than what catches our eyes.