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The Difference Between Hurting and Harming

Updated on February 19, 2013

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.


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    • profile image

      Elang 3 years ago

      Well i kinad of had the same problem. My girl(now ex)sent soenmoe to tell that we aren't together anymore. I was hurting. And it added to all the rage I had already inside, wanted to kill myself, i wanted to hurt people really badly, and throw things. So it added to it and today she was next to me, and I hit her, and she wanted to hit me too but she left. And at the last period, I cried. I've hurt soenmoe I really like and love. I didnt even want to hurt her I just wanted to talk to her, and makes things clear, but instead I had to hurt her. I dont know what going to happen, and I'm afraid to go up to her to say sorry maybe she'll hurt me too.

    • Rose Anne Karesh profile image

      Rose Anne Karesh 5 years ago from Virginia

      Thanks for the feedback RTalloni. I do think that there is often an imbalance between deciding from thinking and deciding from feelings - neither one alone works out as well as using both together. I am not sure how this has come about or how to fix it, except bit by bit, person by person. I also think it can be difficult for people to take a long view rather than a "right now" view, which is unhealthy when the long term perspective requires some discomfort right now.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      An interesting post on thinking through the issues of what it means to truly help other people. Not a bad idea to think these concepts through when we are dealing with ourselves, actually. Thanks for a neat read.

      I've been thinking through some ideas regarding general society's definitions of what is right and wrong, and how the concepts have deteriorated due to humanistic thinking. Even while complaining about the consequences of redefining what is right and wrong that communities now face, people generally don't see the relationship between wrong definitions and consequences that are bound up in the concepts you've about written here.

      The "why" behind why people don't "get it" is at the root of the problem. No amount of explaining the "why" can dissect the issues for people who are 1) more concerned about how they feel when they see someone hurting, or 2) more concerned about how others may see their actions (including the person who needs help) than whether those actions are truly beneficial rather than simply meeting a perceived need/want.

      Posts like this one have the potential of helping people stop and think, giving them a chance to decide to at least try to get to the root of problems so they can begin to be solved. Good stuff here.