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When You Say the Wrong Thing

The minute it’s out of your mouth you wish you could take it back.

But words are like toothpaste squeezed out of the tube.

Once it’s out, it’s out.

Sometimes, when the stakes are low, you end up with just a slightly awkward or even humorous interaction rather than a damaging one.

Never Assume

When Mike and I were first living together, I found myself being uncharacteristically careful to wash dishes promptly and put them away after Mike had cleaned the kitchen. I didn’t want to ruin his handiwork.

The same thing was true all over the apartment; where Mike had cleaned, I felt like I wanted to keep things the way he’d left them.

I wanted to tell Mike how inspired I felt whenever he cleaned.

So one day I approached him, as he was setting up the vacuum in the living room, to tell him how inspiring he was.

I said, “Do you know what you do when you clean?”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I wanted to start over.

Mike froze, wide-eyed, as though he’d been caught doing something wrong.

“I make an ASS out of U and ME?” he guessed (citing the correct answer to the question, “Do you know what you do when you ASSUME?”).

At this point there was nothing to do but laugh. I’d missed the goal of communicating my inspiration but unwittingly created an enduring “couple memory.”

That’s an example of saying the wrong thing when it doesn’t matter much.

But sometimes it does matter, and feelings are hurt.

Unintended Sarcasm

When I was in college back in the 19[mumble-mumble]s, I was being helped by a cashier around my age who was obviously brand new to her job.

Whatever she was doing took an inordinate amount of time, and the help of a supervisor, to finish.

Finally, after much ado, the transaction was done. Wanting to convey that I was okay with the delay and that I appreciated her efforts (but not knowing quite how to do that), I said, “Good job!”

She took this as pure sarcasm and gave me a look of hatred that paralyzed me. I was unable to say, “No, wait, I really meant it.” Instead, I slunk away.

Talk It Out or Leave It Alone?

Sometimes it’s the words you use, as with Mike and “Do you know what you do when you clean?”

And sometimes it’s context or timing that distorts your meaning and makes things go haywire, as with the struggling cashier.

But sometimes you just say The Wrong Thing and you wish like crazy for a do-over.

When that happens, you have two choices: Address it or leave it alone.

If you choose to address what you said, think first about why you said it. That way you can be honest, and if you’re going to say anything about it at all, honesty is the best policy.

  • Was it true, but you didn’t mean to say it out loud? E.g., Did you blurt “Because I don’t want you there” when asked why the person wasn’t invited? This could open the door to a broader conversation about the relationship … or close the door once and for all. (Either could be overdue.)
  • Did you say it on purpose just to hurt the other person? Were you feeling hurt yourself? See above.
  • Were you simply being thoughtless? You’re only human, and we humans don’t always keep others’ feelings top of mind when we’re yakking. It doesn’t mean you’re a thoughtless person in general.
  • Was it a genuine slip of the tongue? Did you accidentally say, “You suck” when you meant to say, “You rock”?

Once you know what really happened, you can decide what needs to happen next. Go easy on yourself; these things happen to everyone.

Thanks for reading this post! You suck!

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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0 Responses to "When You Say the Wrong Thing"

  • Peggy
    March 12, 2014 - 12:17 pm Reply

    I think being human sometimes a quiet “sorry I didn’t mean it that way” What I meant was it takes courage to do new things. Another thought… we all have bad things happen to us, how we react is completely up to us. Thanks again Tina.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      March 12, 2014 - 12:23 pm Reply

      I agree with you to an extent, Peggy. How we literally act, i.e., behave in the face of of negative events IS up to us, but I don’t agree with some people who claim we can choose our emotions surrounding those events.
      That’s why it’s important to recognize the difference between what we do and how we feel; we can allow our emotions to be exactly what they are even as we choose our behavior carefully.
      Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment.

      • Peggy
        March 12, 2014 - 1:51 pm Reply

        You are right emotions, feelings are on the inside. The world doesn’t see them. We still have to control them, so they don’t get out of hand and cause damage to someone else. That’s where professionals like you come in, or should come into our lives. Mental health needs more attention in our culture. We all need people to talk with and work out issues in our lives. It’s so complicated. I agree 100% about excepting our emotions, they are who we are individually. Only time can change them.

        I appreciate your attention to my thoughts, that always amazes me. Thanks Tina.

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