Papercut Hurts Shouldn’t Hurt

The big things in my life that have hurt seem to be the kind of things that everyone accepts and recognizes as difficult and challenging.  But what about the little, everyday papercut hurts?

They’re the ones people snicker at if you acknowledge your hurt to them.  A look, a tone of voice, one little comment that’s insensitive or inconsiderate?  Afterward, they can leave your brain in over-drive trying to figure out what to do.

I met with a friend for dinner a number of months ago.  She’d talked about how she was doing and then asked me how I was doing.

I said that I’d had a hard day.

There was a meaningful moment I’d had in working with a child and her mother.  The little girl had been recently physically abused by a step-parent.

I didn’t talk about the girl, or further details about what happened to her.  I expressed my sadness for what such a beautiful, bright almost kindergartner had gone through.

I wanted to express how grateful I felt for being with them and helping the mom, who felt so helpless and angry, be able to hold her child and tell her daughter that it was not her fault.

I got maybe about a sentence into what I’d started to say before the friend stopped me.  She said “I don’t want to hear about it.  I don’t want to hear about anything that isn’t about you.”

Her tone of voice was sharp and final.  And then she went on talking about something else.  Papercut hurts shouldn’t hurt, but they do.

What she failed to recognize, is that it was about me.  It was me being vulnerable and sharing how I’d been touched by this girl and her mother.  It was me feeling outraged and saddened that anyone could be so cruel.

And, at the same time, it was me seeing hope in the connection and love between a mother and her hurting child.

Even now, as I write this, tears come to my eyes.

In the moment, I almost felt like a child being reprimanded.  I was so shocked and hurt that I did not say another word.  Heat raised in my chest, and I couldn’t respond because I had no words.

I shook my head and said “mmmhmm” at the right times, and got through the dinner.

Afterward, I wondered if I’d done something wrong.  I went over and over it in my head.  Should I confront her or just keep it to myself?

Even though I’d brought up some things with her in the past that I didn’t like or that had hurt, I had already chosen to keep a number of things to myself.

I knew that she was trying to protect herself.  She is very sensitive, too.  I knew she hadn’t intended to be hurtful to me.  And if she hadn’t intended to hurt me, then maybe, I thought, I should just keep it to myself.  She is a good person.

And away I went justifying why she said what she did.  By doing so, I devalued my own experience and needs.  I rationalized to myself why what she said to me and I how I felt shouldn’t be a big deal.

Ultimately, I decided to tell her that I’d been really hurt by our exchange because I’d valued her friendship.

She explained to me how she couldn’t hear what I had to say.  For her, what I’d wanted to talk about wasn’t about me, so she didn’t want to expose herself to someone else’s pain.  Her response let me know that what I wanted from her she could not give.

I haven’t really ever talked with her again since then.  Some might call it an INFJ door-slam.  Some might call it avoidance.

But, really, it was a clear decision to not that kind of treatment of me into my life.

Even if she had good and legitimate reasons, I was still hurt.  But that decision didn’t come easily and didn’t happen overnight.  It was a loss of a friendship I had enjoyed.

It came down to the fact that our needs collided.  She couldn’t give what I needed, and I couldn’t give what she needed without sacrificing a part of myself.

And I need and deserve to have friends who can really listen to me–in the way I need.  Or, at least be able to communicate that they aren’t able to do it in that moment or in that way without striking out at me.

Even though this exchange was the tipping point for me, it had been building over time.  I needed to be able to be me, not a version of me she preferred.

I think papercut hurts are just as hard as the big ones because they build up over time.  They don’t seem like they should hurt.  But they do.

And that’s probably what actually makes them hurt so much–it’s hard to acknowledge the way they impact you in the same way as the “big” hurts because you can rationalize them away easily.  Papercut hurts seem like they’re superficial cuts, but really they can touch you down to your core.

It’s harder to take action on the little ones until they build up to a breaking point.  Often times, they’re so little that you’re not aware of them.  And then when you do become aware of them, it’s all too easy to tell yourself “it’s really not a big deal.”

But then they become the unsaid things that tear relationships up from the inside out.  The longer they go unsaid, the more they shut you down, make you doubt yourself, make you question the trust you felt with that person.

The longer the papercut hurts go unsaid, the harder it is to say them.

Worse, papercut hurts start an ugly chain of events in your head.  Do I confront her?  Do I “let it go” and just keep it to myself?  Do I walk away completely from him, or just minimize my contact?

I’ve struggled with this one quite a bit.  It’s hard to figure out the right answer to these questions.

But at a certain point, I realized something.  I was not only asking the wrong questions, I was skipping the most simple (not easiest) first step: acknowledging my own hurt.

If you tend to people please, it can be hard to recognize a papercut hurt.  If you’ve tried to “turn off” your feelings to get “tougher skin,” it can be hard to admit a papercut hurt.  Depending on the situation, I’ve done both.

Either way, I’ve found for myself that the first step is to recognize and acknowledge to yourself that you’re hurt–listening to you makes the hurt real and legitimate.  I think that probably the most important part about it is that it is you telling yourself at your deepest levels that you matter, and that your needs matter.

Acknowledging your own hurt is a way to practice accepting yourself as a highly sensitive introvert.

Ok, this might sound stupid, or even ridiculous.  The way I started was just to have a word or a movement that “marked” the hurt in the moment.  Just as if I’d scraped my knee, or gotten an actual papercut on my finger.  It’s like emotional first-aid.

For me, it was as simple as saying “ouch” to myself.  Or, even putting my hand to my heart–a silent movement, but one that acknowledged how I felt to myself.

Sometimes, it gives you the space to be able to say, “hey, you know, I need a sec, I’ll be right back” or “it’s hard for me to hear you right now,” or even, “it doesn’t feel like you’re listening to me when you keep asking me to come over, and I just don’t have it in me today.”

More often, just saying “ouch” or putting your hand to your heart (or whatever works for you) gives you a “marker” to come back to later on, if it’s too much to say or do anything right then.

If my brain froze, or I wasn’t able to say or do anything in the moment, I write or think about the situation afterward.  I focus on using my sensitivity as a tool to understand exactly what hurt.  This helps me be more articulate and sure of myself later on if I decide to talk to the other person about what happened.

When you set that “marker” it gives you a clue of what exactly hurt you at what point during the exchange.  Was it the words, the tone of voice, an assumption, an expectation of you, a disregard of specific needs you had?  Did it remind you of other situations or people?

Either way, the practice of acknowledging your own hurt sets you up for the next step: deciding how to respond in a healthy way.

In my experience, it’s difficult to “let go” of the papercut hurts.  Letting them sit unattended or ignored makes them hurt more.  There are so many different ways you could respond.  Practicing this first step helps you be prepared to ask yourself the kinds of questions that get at what’s most important for you.

This clarity helps guide your decision to communicate with the other person, or take any number of other actions that help you take good care of yourself as a highly sensitive person.

How do you practice acknowledging your hurt (or how could you)?

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Eva Rubin, MPH/LCSW

Hi! I'm Eva Rubin, LCSW. I study the psychology and the art of how to live well as an introvert and sensitive person so that I can learn and share it with you.
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