The Difference Between Hurting and Harming
If I had a dollar for each time a person has said to me “Oh, I couldn’t do that. It would hurt her!” I would be a very wealthy woman. Most of us were brought up to be aware of other people’s feelings and to avoid hurting other people. And overall, this is a very good thing. Being aware of other people as individuals with their own feelings and goals, feelings and goals that deserve respect, is one marker of good psychological health. But sometimes concern about hurting others leads us to support someone we care about in unhealthy choices. And sometimes concern about hurting others leads us to hurting ourselves and our own feelings and goals. That’s when it’s time to start thinking about hurting vs. harming.
What’s the difference between hurting and harming? Hurting someone is a short-term proposition. The pain is real, but it isn’t going to last long. Harming someone is a long-term problem. There may not be as much pain initially, but over a period of time the other person’s well-being is damaged. Doctors in training have to learn that distinction rapidly, as frequently medical interventions are painful but necessary to avoid harm.
Here’s an example: I broke my ankle recently and it wasn’t splinted well in the urgent care office I went to that night. The technician on duty was very sweet, but she was worried about hurting me and so she didn’t get my ankle into the correct position for healing. A few days later in the orthopedic surgeon’s office she reset my ankle and splinted it correctly. It hurt, badly. But she put it into position so that it will heal and work well in the future. Of these two women, the orthopedic surgeon definitely hurt me. But the technician, in her desire to avoid hurting me, almost caused me serious long term harm.
This dilemma between hurting and harming happens in every day life as well. I think it is especially common in parenting. Another example: My daughter asks for my attention while I am in the middle of a task and I drop everything to play with her. She is happy right now, but she hasn’t learned to tolerate frustration and delay. If I keep doing this, then I’ve harmed her by not giving her a chance to develop these critical skills. Another mother is worried about her daughter getting good grades, so she keeps track of all of her daughter’s school assignments and checks each one carefully to ensure it is perfect. Her daughter gets A’s in school, but never learns to be responsible for her own work. In college, without her mother there to organize her and check her work, she gets C’s and D’s. Her mother kept her from being hurt by bad grades in high school, but in the long run has harmed her.
The most dramatic instances I have seen center around problems of addiction. A wife addicted to alcohol wakes up hung over and still partially intoxicated in the morning before work. Her husband calls her boss and reports that she is ill. Perhaps he protects her in other ways too. He gives up his own free time and accomplishes the household tasks that she drops. He ensures that the family has enough money to live on and health insurance despite her declining work performance. He makes excuses for her with their friends and stops accepting social engagements so her alcohol problem won’t be exposed. He is keeping her from being hurt, but in the long term he is harming both of them.
Unpleasant natural consequences are one of the ways we all learn. If you do something and it has a painful result, you modify your behavior the next time you are in that situation. I’m not advocating that people should never be protected from the consequences of their actions. Some consequences are just too severe, and poor decision making should not carry a death penalty. For example, I would never allow my daughter to run in the street and be hit by a car – the severity of that consequence is too awful. But I will give her a safer, substitute consequence, even though it hurts her feelings, so that I can protect her from harm in the long run.
If you are doing something (or not doing something) to avoid hurting someone, I challenge you to ask yourself these questions: Why am I doing this? I am concerned about hurting or harming this person? What am I going to give up to avoid hurting them? Is that appropriate? Am I preventing them from experiencing the natural consequence of their actions? How severe would that consequence be if I didn’t intervene? Am I impeding them from learning? If I chose to intervene because the consequence is severe, is there something I can do to provide a safer substitute consequence? If you have spent a lifetime taking care of others, it will require some practice and effort to stop jumping in there and saving people from being hurt. But you may be able to avoid doing a world of harm.