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Learned Helplessness

Are Your Relationships Trapped by "Don't Hurt Me" Responses?

"Don't hurt me" responses project weakness to avoid direct communication.

Key points

  • In contrast to genuine expression, "don't hurt me" responses serve the purpose of getting out of something.
  • "Don't hurt me" responses are damaging to our relationships and foster a sense of helplessness.
  • Psychotherapy can help individuals who struggle with this habit.

Relationships rely immensely on effective communication. None of us has an immaculate communication style, but some customs can be especially harmful. We can strengthen our relationships when we recognize these patterns, both those that serve us and those that don't. One common but little-known communication difficulty is the "don't hurt me" response.

The term "don't hurt me" response comes from Radically Open Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (Lynch, 2018) and describes a strategy in which someone avoids unwanted feedback or other endeavors by projecting a sense of weakness. This sends a message that they can't handle a given situation and that the person sending the feedback or making the request would be cruel to continue. Of course, sometimes we all need a break or experience genuine pain, yet in contrast to an authentic expression, a "don't hurt me" response exists for the pure purpose of getting out of something without direct communication.

"Don't hurt me" responses could include suddenly discussing a difficult time from the past or illness when a difficult-to-discuss topic arises. This pattern can also show up non-verbally by putting one's head on a table or speaking in an artificially labored voice.

It's essential to note here that oftentimes, we are not even aware of our "don't hurt me" responses. The rejoinder can become second nature and is not always done in a deliberately manipulative way. Still, it can be challenging from both sides of the interaction.

In the short term, this strategy can be effective for avoiding feedback. Yet, when done repeatedly, it damages relationships. When someone habitually displays "don't hurt me" responses, people around them often start to avoid deeper interactions in fear that they can't handle it and may withdraw. Friends and family might feel like they have to walk on eggshells so as not to disturb the 'fragile' person.

Over time, "don't hurt me" responses can also foster a sense of low self-worth and learned helplessness. This practice blocks someone from being able to directly or effectively communicate.

If you recognize these descriptions in yourself, know you are not alone. Almost everyone does this from time to time, and it is only truly concerning when it becomes a problematic routine. It's a habit we can break. Similarly, it can be helpful to identify this pattern when it comes up.

Breaking a habit of "don't hurt me" responses starts with catching it and then acting in the opposite fashion by embracing our strength with direct communication. Rather than saying, "I could, but I've had such a long day today, and I'm exhausted. My back hurts, but if you need it..." when asked if you want to pick up food (something that could be a "don't hurt me" response), you could say "I am not going to get us food tonight. Would you like to cook? Or should we order something?" The latter response is a clear answer and doesn't hinge on capability/incapability. It also seeks to collaborate in solving the problem of what to do for food.

If you notice yourself falling into this habit a lot, psychotherapy can help. Radically Open DBT (RO-DBT), in particular, focuses on identifying patterns like this and adapting more skillful responses. More centrally, RO-DBT helps people work toward building stronger relationships and a sense of social connection.

Other psychotherapies, such as interpersonal therapy and mentalization-based therapy, address interactions like these as well, with different focuses. Interpersonal therapy focuses on navigating one's social circles as a whole. In contrast, mentalization-based therapy zeros in on the attachment pieces.

Which approach might work best for any given person depends on several factors, including personality, time available to dedicate to therapy, and goals.

Effective communication is the cornerstone of healthy relationships. Noticing and changing this pattern can make a great difference.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Lynch, T. (2018). Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Context Press.

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