Spaghetti and Hurt Feelings

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Spaghetti and Hurt Feelings

I am a pretty clumsy person. Like a keep-an-eye-on-me-around-closed-sliding-glass-doors, probably-should-never-eat-spaghetti-without-a-full-apron-on kind of person. Suffice it to say, my childhood nickname lauded my propensity to accumulate minor bumps and scrapes through incredible feats of un-coordination. I won’t tell you how old I was when I nearly broke my glasses walking into the corner of a doorway instead of through the doorway - although, to be perfectly clear, it was part of the transparent wall of a racquetball court…and that was the problem: it was perfectly clear.


Anyway, as my luck would have it, I’m also a pretty relationally-clumsy person. At times I completely miss that I have caused emotional discomfort or harm. I put my foot in my mouth routinely enough that I’m surprised my shoes don’t stay more clean. Then again, I tend to have a pretty high center of gravity, which probably makes for tripping and scuffing my shoes quite often.


In other cases, I deny or ignore that I have wronged another, hoping that if I avoid it the pain and shame of the whole thing will just go away. “Walked into a wall? What wall? What are you talking about? You walked into a wall!” And yes, in more instances than I would like to admit, I deliberately cause emotional pain, only to instantly regret it and find something or someone else to pin the blame on.


As embarrassing as this is to admit, I suspect that I’m not the only one. I don’t think I am alone in causing (intentional or unintentional) emotional harm to others, and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels some sense of shame (ex: “I am a bad person”) about that. In fact, I’m willing to bet that if you have ever raised children, have had an intimate partner, are in therapy, have had a deep friendship, have a complicated relationship with your family of origin, have ever caused or experienced disrespect or humiliation in the workplace, ARE A HUMAN, then, like me, you know something about the experience of a relational rupture.


Regardless of the particular relationship we are talking about, the general shape of a relational rupture is strikingly similar.


Relational Rupture


1.  We are going about our life, interacting with another human being.

2.  At some point, in some way, we perceive* that something important to us is threatened.

  • We might sense a threat to our freedom, our authority, our sense of worth, our self-image, our emotional or physical safety. These perceptions of threat don’t have to be accurate (in fact, in many cases they are not).

3.  Without thinking**, we allow our (wonderfully, beautifully adaptive) nervous system to respond (as intended) to keep us safe.

  • We might react by running away from relational interaction, “exploding” in an emotional outburst, or shutting down or numbing out in a variety of ways - everything from the silent treatment (classic!), to resuming Hulu or doom scrolling, to getting conveniently lost in an “important” task.

4.  Although not our primary intention (which, remember, is safety and survival), the offended party feels the hurt of being rejected or abandoned, which in some cases may be an experience of profound shame and self-blame - even though the rupture was actually our fault to begin with!

5.  For some of us, we as the offender avoid confronting or acknowledging the harm done (because that would require confronting our own shame about our behavior). We often call this avoidance “letting it blow over” or “sweeping it under the rug”, which unfortunately just leads to:

6.  a cycle of shame and defensiveness, and

7.  …rinse and repeat.


If you are like me, right now you may be reflecting on an experience of rupture you had in the past few days with someone who is important to you. It’s a sickening feeling to face these moments (particularly as the relational offender), because if we are able to separate from the memory of our overwhelming or disturbing reactions of irritation, anger, pride, sarcasm, disgust, or, we can’t help but notice the insecurity, guilt and shame lurking underneath our behaviors. It’s no wonder we often choose to ignore the incident.


Before I continue, I should note: I am largely referring to ruptures that occur as a result of what Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell call “oscillating disconnections,”common misunderstandings due to miscommunications that tend to be no one’s fault, and “limit-setting” or boundary-setting ruptures, which occur as each party seeks and negotiates autonomy and a healthy level of control (2014, p. 216). Toxic ruptures” tend to have more to do with the relational history and internal emotional landscape of the offender, who then allows the offended party to suffer for the offender’s own emotional burdens. While toxic ruptures can be repaired, it takes both serious introspection and genuine humility on the part of the offending party. The one on admit responsibility, seek support to change.


Please understand that by writing about the power and possibility of relational repair, I am not attempting to advocate for a survivor to return to a perpetrator of harm or accept abuse within a relationship. In order for a relational repair to take place, the offender has to be willing to acknowledge the pain they have caused as well as their internal shame and avoidance of the harm, and take responsibility to make it right. A pervasive pattern of toxic ruptures” that are not sufficiently repaired by the offending party may become the shame-burden of the offended party (ex: a survivor might come to believe “I must have done something to deserve this”). This sort of pattern may indicate the presence of an abusive relationship. If you or someone you care about are struggling with memories from past abuse or are feeling trapped in a current harmful relationship, please seek the support of a licensed mental health professional.


The Hope of Repair


With that said, the fact is: everyday misunderstandings, hastily spoken words, and hurt feelings are unavoidable. The problem is when we view ruptures as signs that we are defective or hopeless. “I don’t know why I keep reacting like this, I guess I’m just a bad friend/partner/parent/_____.” “I just wish I could go back and do it differently!” “If we just don’t talk about it for a few hours/days, maybe things will go back to normal.” We can get so stuck in this way of thinking that we are too ashamed to even consider making things right.


I know this might come as a shock, but there really are no perfect relationships - only good enough ones. “Even the best of relationships follow a rhythm of attunement, mis-attunement, reattunement, and repair, and…no one can or needs to be perfect” (Steele, Boon, & van der Hart, 2017 , p. 93). I love the insight of therapist and podcast host Justin Sunseri (see The Stuck Not Broken podcast) who hopes that parents will aim for (and not necessarily always attain) “B+ parenting”…after all, that’s still above average!


Some researchers even argue that when a relationship goes through natural rhythms of rupture with consistent, adequate efforts at relational repair, the relationship shows signs of being stronger than if the misunderstandings had never happened at all (Tronick & Cohn, 1989). Allan Schore (2019) similarly notes that when stressful moments of relational misunderstanding happen in the therapy office (yes, they absolutely happen to us!), if appropriately mutually acknowledged, collaboratively explored, and interactively repaired, these experience lead to key moments of change and progress for clients.


For all of us humans here, this should be really good news! I believe this truth applies across the spectrum of human connections - whether family relationships, friendships, workplace relationships or otherwise. If we can learn to acknowledge and face the pain we have caused or experienced and cooperate in order to repair the damage, it is possible to come out on the other side with a stronger connection and trust in one another.


So what does this mean for the next time you drop the ball or flip your lid and hurt that person’s feelings? When people like you and I do the relational equivalent of dropping a nice big glob of spaghetti sauce onto the off-white dining room carpet, how do we make it right? The suggestions below are largely drawn from Siegel and Hartzell’s Parenting From the Inside Out (2014), and I’ve adapted them slightly to apply to a variety of relationships (and please don’t blame them for the Rs…that was all me). I hope they can provide the relational equivalent of vinegar and baking soda for that spaghetti stain (wait, no, that’s for pet accidents, isn’t it? …my bad. Sorry about the carpet).


The RRRRRRs of Repair (“Matey!”)


1.     Remove yourself

  • If you’re still in the moment of rupture and haven’t already taken some space from the situation, ask for it. It’s important to not give the impression you are abandoning the other person, so maybe try a variation of the phrase like “I need to take a timeout to cool off/get my head on straight” or “can I have a few minutes to sort through whatever this is that’s going on in me?” Take the time you need to switch gears, move your body, regulate your breathing and body temperature, etc.

2.     Reframe the shame

  • Acknowledge to yourself that the emotional blow-up was rooted in a perceived* threat that (while probably inaccurate) was followed by your nervous system’s response** (while definitely overblown) to keep you safe. You might have enough awareness of your life story to understand why this specific scenario was so triggering to you, or you might simply be helped to acknowledge some variation of “My brain and body were acting to keep me safe.” And now that you know you are safe, you can choose differently. By the way, Justin Sunseri’s podcast Stuck Not Broken is a great place to start learning how to feel safe in the moments of conflict themselves.

3.     Recognize the pain

  • A good rule for knowing when you are ready to attempt to engage in repair is when you can make some reasonable assumptions about how the other person(s) were impacted by/responded to your behavior without judging or critiquing them or further shaming yourself. This means you will understand if they aren’t ready or willing to attempt a repair.

4.     Reconnect

  • Check in with that person. Let them know you want to own your responsibility for how you reacted, maybe even offer a small insight into the reason for your reaction without excusing your behavior, and tell them you’d like to hear their side of things if/when they are willing to share. Again, be prepared to not get a yes.

5.     Relate (Ok, sorry my “R-literations” are getting out of hand…)

  • Hopefully, given time, you both get to share at least something of your experiences without judging or shaming self or the other. If so, take time to affirm the safety/survival responses in the other person (“it makes sense that you did/said that when I had that scary/out-of-control emotional outburst”). This may also be a time to create a plan for how you can communicate your emotions in a more loving and constructive way next time, with you making a commitment you can show tangible evidence of following up on (“I am going to take time to breathe and center myself the next time I feel stressed getting home from from the store/work, etc.”).

6.     Remember (Last one, I promise)

  • But seriously: remember that this process, engaged in sincerely and repeated over time, can actually lead to a stronger and more positive relationship.


You might be wondering: why does the rupture/repair cycle tend to strengthen relationships when engaged in well? Wouldn’t it be better to just never hurt another’s feelings in the first place? Fair point. And I don’t have a definite answer for you on that. But my personal opinion? When one or more people choose the (often painful and embarrassing) road to right a relational wrong, they are communicating the value that they have for the relationship. When repair can be accomplished with mutual honor and respect, I think it gives each individual involved a greater level of confidence in the strength and mutual importance of the relationship. If it wasn’t important to one or both parties, it probably wouldn’t be worth making the choice to change.


As one of my favorite songwriters penned, “When we first met, love was a feeling. But making it last? That’s a decision…a good decision.” (Andy Gullahorn, 2009)


Relational rupture is inevitable. Relational repair is a choice. What will you choose?




*actually, in general, we first neuroceive the threat, which is to say our nervous system is aware of the threat before we have conscious, explicit knowledge of it…but that’s a topic for another article entirely! I mention this here because if you’ve ever felt frustrated after having a big, defensive reaction for no obvious reason, neuroception is a wonderfully refreshing concept which offers hopeful pathways to change. If you’re interested, see The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe by Stephen Porges.


**our survival-based reaction to perceived threat (often referred to as “fight, flight, freeze/shutdown”) can best be described as a function of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) - the brain and body’s way of responding to keep us safe. If you’re open to learning more about how this super important protective system can make imperfect human relationships difficult for us, I highly recommend at least the first few episodes of Justin Sunseri’s podcast Stuck Not Broken.


 Nick Burner, LLC



 Porges, S. W. (2013). The pocket guide to the polyvagal theory: The transformative power of feeling safe. New York, NY: Norton.

 Schore, A. (2019). Right brain Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Norton.

 Siegel, D. J., Hartzell, M. (2014). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children that thrive.

 Steele, K., Boon, S., & van der Hart, O. (2017). Treating trauma-related dissociation: A practical, integrative approach. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

 Tronick, E., & Cohn, J. (1989). Infant-mother face-to-face interaction: Age and gender differences in coordination and miscoordination. Child Development, 59, 85–92.