I have finally figured out this week why the words “I never meant to hurt you” are so infuriating and frustrating.
(I’m a slow learner!)
“I never meant to hurt you” or its close cousin, “I never meant to cause you pain” are words that center the offender in a hurtful relationship and attempt to erase the experience of the one harmed. They are passive aggressive phrases that pull the energy and truth of anger out from under the hurt person and deflect the conversation.
They are silencing words that demonstrate a disregard for the difference between intent and impact.
“I didn’t know any better at the time” (What someone knew or didn’t know in the past has no bearing on someone’s current trauma).
“I didn’t mean you to feel this way” (That isn’t a response. The person DOES feel the way they feel. This is an attempt at denial and often a gateway remark to gaslighting efforts).
“I was so young” (Stating the obvious isn’t a response to pain that remains across time and well into adulthood).
“I was just doing what everyone else did” (An admission of cowardice and moral failure in the past is not sufficient for accountability to someone’s current pain).
“I hurt about this, too” (A manipulative deflection intended to coerce emotional caregiving from a victim).
These are all “I” phrases, did you notice? I. I. What they really mean is: I don’t want to feel guilty. I don’t want to think about shitty acts I committed. I can’t tolerate feeling like less than a good person. I don’t want to be in the same space with someone who has emotions I don’t approve of. I do not want to examine my power to harm. I do not want to be held accountable in relationships. I don’t want to have to accomodate the messy emotions of other human beings because it inconveniences me and interrupts my inner narrative about who I am.
“I never meant to hurt you” is a shut down.
Here are some other ways we can choose to respond when someone tells us they have been harmed by us. These are responses that create respect in intimate relationships, social relationships and restorative justice work:
This is upsetting. I’m a little shaken but I am willing to hear more. Let’s make time to have a conversation.
I am truly sorry that this hurt is still real for you. I wasn’t aware of that, and caught off guard. Is there something you think I can do that would help?
It’s really hard for me to be the object of your anger but I recognize that I am responsible so please, let’s see if there’s something we can do together to work it out.
These are strong emotions and I have strong emotions about this, too. Could we find a way to work through this together with a counselor or facilitator? It seems important to do that.
Sometimes there is genuinely no relationship between the aggrieved and the supposed abuser. In that case, it’s fair to say “I hope you get the support you need in dealing with your pain” and to step away from the shooting range.
Some people are perpetually hurt and wounded and need somewhere to project their insecurities. These are people with poor boundaries who want apologies for motives they ascribe to others. There’s mostly nothing that will truly work to repair relationships in these situations, but “I never meant to hurt you” isn’t the proper response, either. It’s still a deflection. A more respectful response is an honest conversation about projections, which are a challenge to all human beings (with the possible exception of the Dalai Llama). If possible, we can love each other enough to work through projections together and recognize our mutual craziness. We are all expert projectors. Let’s go in there together when we can –when we go in as comrades in the human struggle, it can be a truly bonding experience.
“I never meant to hurt you” is not a loving response. Unless those words are followed by, “… but I believe that you ARE hurt, I am sorry about it, I want to know what I can do to support you because you mean a lot to me,” they’re empty and cowardly.
Here’s to the human struggle.
And to all of the Northwestern University alumnae who are grappling together right now with the truth about the rampant sexual misconduct at the theatre department in our era: thank you for your honesty, for your willingness to confront the gross abuses you suffered by guru-like professors who still hold some alumnae in their thrall, and for inviting me into an honest accounting of my own remaining pain about an abusive relationship I was in at the time.
To our healing.