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I was working as an independent marketing consultant. I’d completed a highly original and very valuable study for a major international corporation. They were delighted and launched a North American subsidiary on the back of it.

I thought I could apply the same study model to other prospective clients.

Another good study?

Another good study?

I took a carefully prepared copy, complete with all its tables, spreadsheets and detailed business development options, along to an old friend who was in a position to create new opportunities. I thought it could be both interesting and profitable for both of us.

He didn’t open the carefully presented ring binder but simply weighed it in his hand: “Good study,” he laughed, “At least eight pounds!” And he put it aside.

I was deeply hurt. This was my precious work that he was dismissing and degrading. We didn’t do business together and our friendship gradually ceased as well.

In retrospect I was probably demonstrating a typical gifted characteristic: hypersensitivity. In fact, he wasn’t dismissing my work. He was merely making a comment based on his understanding of our marketplace: the mass of a study was an essential sales quality. Its content was arguably of less significance but in any case he knew that anything I produced would be of high quality.

So he didn’t really need to look at the study. It was me that needed him to. I wanted him to be astonished and delighted by what I’d done.

In his brisk way he may even have been congratulating me on my perception of the market needs. But I was too hurt to even think about asking what he meant.

Acute sensitivity of the gifted and creative

Gifted and creative adults tend to be acutely sensitive. Or maybe that should read “sensitized” because our rawness results from ceaseless abrasion from an early age.

As a result, we have a tendency to experience insult, whether mild or serious, where none was intended. Perhaps someone turns away from us while we’re talking to them. Or makes a joke about a piece of our creative work.

Can you imagine how Leonardo would have responded if a monk had nudged him after he’d finished the Mona Lisa, whispering: “Looks like she bought her gin from old Paolo down the canal!”? And if that had happened, would Leonardo have laughed uproariously at the jolly fun of it all? I rather doubt it. Creative artists put themselves on the line when they make manifest their visions and deserve respect for their courage, not humor.

However, the written words alone aren’t sufficient to tell us whether Leonardo should respond with a tired smile or an angry retort. That’s because the words alone cannot reveal the monk’s intention.

Hostile or only clumsy?

This picture shows a broken ornament. But the picture can’t show whether the ornament was broken by clumsiness or or aggression.

Is this the result of hostility or clumsiness?

Is this the result of hostility or clumsiness?

Now imagine that the ornament represents you and me when we are hurt. How are we to know whether the hurt was an accident or intentional?

I abide by the general idea that there’s no such thing as an accident. However, it’s certain that some actions are more consciously intentional than others. It’s the nature of that conscious intention that I’m seeking to identify correctly.

It takes only one thing for us to feel hurt: the perception that we’ve been slighted, attacked, insulted or injured in some way.

This perception is trained from an early age. According to Kathleen Stasser Berger, in “The Developing Person Through Childhood”, there are two types of children who are more likely than average to perceive another’s action as a deliberate attempt to hurt.  She classifies both as rejected but in different ways:

  • aggressive-rejected, which means they’re rejected for their antagonistic, confrontational behavior.
  • withdrawn-rejected who are rejected because of their timid, withdrawn, anxious behavior.

These apparently different types are actually similar in several ways:

  • They misinterpret social situations.
  • They dysregulate their emotions.
  • They are likely to be mistreated at home.

The social cognition of gifted and creative  individuals

To take just the first of this list, our ability to interpret social situations accurately  is known as social cognition.

In general, social cognition leads  contented and averagely well-liked children to assume that social slights – from a push to an unkind remark – are accidental and not intended to harm.

Therefore a social slight does not provoke fear or self-doubt in them as it does in a withdrawn-rejected child who might lie awake at night wondering why it happened. Nor does it provoke anger, as it might in the aggressive-rejected child, who would respond with the reactive hostility that opens the door to an escalation in aggression.

Many gifted children fall into one or the other of these two categories. Their chronic sensitized state leads them to feel attacked by the rough clumsiness of ‘normal’ life.

Hostile or just plain clumsy?

Hostile or just plain clumsy?

Worse, their own sensitivity where others are concerned further encourages them to believe any social slight must be deliberate. This is because they know they would only have said such a thing if they’d intended to hurt.

Of course, gifted children become gifted adults and may, because of their confusion around social intention, slowly begin to avoid social situations.  They may even experience themselves as clumsy, awkward, hostile and inept in a group.

Learning to tell hostility from clumsiness

In order to proceed with confidence into social situations – whether at work or elsewhere – it is clearly important to be able to read the signs of intention accurately.

Sometimes it’s obvious. If someone greets you with an expletive or a punch on the nose it’s safe to assume they’re being hostile.  It is when an action or statement is ambiguous that we may have more difficulty. Here’s a checklist of hints to help you make accurate assessments:

  1. Give them the benefit of the doubt. The average person is amazingly tolerant and/or sloppy by the standards of a gifted perfectionist. They don’t mean anything by it.
  2. Ask. If you know them you can say: “Ouch. That hurt. Did you intend it to?” If they are quick to say sorry or to deny any hostile intent, accept their word for it. If they do it again, you have reason to start to wonder.
  3. Learn to listen to apologies. This is hard for gifted adults because they become so used to listening to themselves and making their own assessments they can forget others may actually have something relevant to say. By listening to apologies you will learn to discern the difference between the false and the sincere even when both are clumsily expressed.
  4. Ask yourself how well the person knows you. If the answer is “not well” then even if they are showing hostility it can hardly be aimed at the real you. Rather, they are insulting some image of their own that they have projected onto you. This can happen quite a lot because gifted individuals can sound very authoritative and can thus stir up all kinds of anti-authority stuff.
  5. Ask yourself whether you feel hostile – contemptuous, scornful,  dismissive etc – toward them. If so, your own judgement may be coming back to bite you. So try to foster a state of benign compassion toward all.

And above all, try to see that normal social discourse is not unlike trying to find your way out of a packed subway car. You’ll be pushed, elbowed, impeded and possibly cursed. But casually, without malice. And you will find your way out onto the platform. At the right stop, too.

Good traveling!

2 Responses to “Ouch! but was hurt intended?”

  1. Graham COULSON says:

    Dear Christopher,

    I found your site quite by chance and quite by chance also is the coincidence of our same surname! Distant cousins, perhaps?

    Seriously though, I found this particular article you have written not only very interesting but more importantly extremely helpful. I’m not what you would call gifted by any manner of means, but I am creative by nature and admit being hyper-sensitive to insult and injury. At age 65 (in 2 days time), I have now totally withdrawn from social situations (not difficult to do as I now live in France and find trying to improve my French very difficult owing to hearing damaged in Army service and Tinitus) and I can’t stand the French anyway! Your advice on distinguishing gauche clumsiness from outright hostility is utterly brilliant and I shall do my level best to follow it as faithfully as I am able from now on.

    I’ll also keep a note of (“Bookmark” is the modern term, I think) your blog site and much look forward to reading your next article.

    Meanwhile, from one Coulson to another, keep up the good work!

    With kind regards,


  2. Dear Graham,

    Thank you so much for your warm compliments – and for the information on your intriguing situation. I know from my own time living in France that the natives are extremely wary of extending social opportunities to newcomers. In fairness, this does seem to apply to French newcomers as well as to us ‘etrangers’.

    As for being cousins, if you can trace your line back to Nancy Coulson, listed in 1861 as a charwoman of Bridlington, Yorks, then we’re definitely related.

    Bonne chance! Christopher

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