I like this book a lot, and today it’s 99p on the Kindle.
I honestly can’t remember if I’ve written about this before, or even if I put it in “Trauma Aware Self-Defence Instruction”. If I haven’t, that was a really bad oversight on my part. If I have, I didn’t realise how important it was when I was writing it.
If you have triggered somebody, for whatever reason, in whatever way, you may not be the right person to help them get through their reaction. That’s just one of those things. It doesn’t matter whether you meant to do it or not. It doesn’t matter that you feel terrible. It doesn’t matter that you want to help. The person who has been triggered may need time and space to recover, and that quite possibly means time and space away from you.
If you really want to help them, you will prioritise their needs and feelings over yours. I know that you feel terrible, but they probably feel worse. Your need to put things right does not outweigh their need to recover. And anyway, if getting the hell out of their way helps them recover, you are doing your bit, even though it doesn’t look like it and it may not feel like it.
…and that’s all very well and good in theory; in practice, not so much. How does it work in a class with one instructor? You can’t just walk off and abandon your students. How does it work if you’ve triggered your loved one, and you have nowhere to go and stay for the period of time that it will take for them to recover? (Note: we could be talking days here, not minutes or hours.) How does it work if you’ve triggered a minor in your care, and you just can’t leave them unattended?
Most interestingly (or horribly, take your pick), how does it work when one person’s trigger triggers the other person? A lot of children who grew up in abusive environments have a need to Fix Things. It’s not a rational need – it’s a visceral, triggered reaction to a stimulus. Seeing someone upset plonks them back in that mental/emotional space. They could be catapulted back to being two or three, having to calm down the adults in their life, Or Else. Being the cause of that upset can trigger them even more intensely. So you can end up with a triggered person who desperately needs to be left the fuck alone, and another triggered person who just as desperately needs to put things right, and the second person can’t do the one thing that would actually allow the situation to slowly defuse.
This has all come to me because I’ve found myself in a similar situation a few weeks ago. I don’t have an answer to how to resolve it, because every resolution I can come up with is predicated on the people involved not being triggered. Maybe if you practice a scripted response to that kind of situation time and time again, it would still work when triggered, but I’m not sure. Maybe you need to talk about the whole thing with the people involved, so at least everyone knows what the hell is going on even if your strategies fail; but that only really works with people you’re close to. (Seriously, kids, don’t go telling people what triggers you unless you know and trust them. There be some bad people out there.)
I also want to say “if you have been triggered, remember that other people around you may have been triggered, too, and may have needs that conflict with yours.” But I don’t think that would work – or rather, it would only work when you are not triggered, and you can think these issues through. In the moment, forget about it.
So, yeah, dunno. If you know, tell me.
I’m one minor annoyance away from writing a booklet about how to behave on the ‘net. I don’t mean an etiquette guide (not an expert) or a cybersafety guide (ditto). What’s really starting to get my goat is how people treat cyberspace as if it were an alternative reality with its own rule, and cast aside their values, standards, and boundaries as a result.
I guess I got lucky, because I was born at the right time: I grew up without the internet, and particularly without social media, but I came to it all early enough to incorporate it usefully into my life. If you took the interwebs away from me, I’d be lost; I use them for all of my data gathering and approximately 90% of my communications. But I have lived almost two decades without them, so I entered the web with a well-developed set of personal values, rules, and habits governing how I run my interpersonal relationships. I wouldn’t do something on cyberspace that I wouldn’t do “in real life”; in fact, to me that distinction is meaningless, because I only have one life. The experiences I have on the internet may not have the potential to result in broken bones, but that doesn’t make them less real to me. If you wanna get technical, online interactions have been proven to affect our brain chemistry, but I personally don’t need scientific data to support my choices. I care about my happiness and well-being; and the quality of my interpersonal relationships and experiences has a huge impact on those, regardless of whether they take place in-person or on the web. A shitty half-hour of my time is a shitty half-hour of my time, regardless of where the shit came from; and, once that time is spent, I can never, ever get it back.
The interactions I have on social media use up my time and affect my mood. Hence, I’m going to make damn sure that they add to my life rather than take from it. Before embarking on a ‘net experience, I’m going to apply the same set of criteria I use to decide whether to give “irl” people or spaces my time and energy: is it useful? Is it going to educate me, entertain me, or enlighten me? Will it make me a better person, or help me live in a better world? If it won’t, then why do I want to give it my time? Once I’m in there, my usual values and boundaries still apply. This sounds like a giant case of “duh” to me, because why the hell would I behave any differently? However, recent experience has suggested that’s not the case, that many people legitimately apply much lower standards to their online interactions, or are willing to give up their standards altogether and embrace those of groups of virtual strangers. I am willing to bet that there is an increasing number of people for whom the transfer is happening the other way round: they are picking up social rules on the ‘net, and transferring them to their “irl” interactions. And that wouldn’t be a problem, except that the standards for behaviour on the ‘net suck so very badly and often entirely obliterate people’s consent, and do so by design.
I know that the principles of consent are usually only applied to sexual relations, but I firmly believe that’s bullshit. Hell, I believe that if we applied the principles of consent consistently throughout our daily life, that would ensure that they are firmly in place when we step into our bedrooms. If someone is trying to force me to put something into my body, it obviously makes a difference to me whether that’s a penis, rectally, or a chunk of marzipan, orally. I will be willing to use a different set of tools to prevent the former activity from taking place. However, it is just as important to me that both situations indicate that the people involved do not respect my agency; and, given that respecting my agency is one of my non-negotiables, I’m going to take steps to ensure that their participation in my life is either greatly curtailed, or ended altogether.
I apply the same criteria to my online interactions. There are things I do not want to do online; for instance, I don’t want to get pulled into fights with strangers, or to be pushed into providing counselling for at-risk people. The former isn’t my idea of fun, and the latter makes me responsible for situations I’m ill-equipped to deal with. I understand that those boundaries are utterly idiosyncratic, that other people may be perfectly happy to do that kind of thing; but they are still my boundaries. They are not negotiable. If I come up against individuals who don’t respect them, I will deal with them in the exact same way I deal with people ‘irl’: I will ask them to cut it out, because <insert reasons here>; if they don’t, I will tell them to cut it out, or <insert consequence here>; if they carry on, I will apply the consequence. As far as I’m concerned, this approach is both fair and effective, which is probably why it is also pretty much the industry-standard for boundary setting. You can also use it to train puppies. It’s simple. It’s nifty. It works.
It is also, increasingly, a giant internet no-no. It is treated as “flouncing” – a term originally designed to describe the act of leaving a group or thread with exaggerated drama – and often punished by public shaming or banning. Let me reiterate that: people on the internet are increasingly being punished for having standards as to what interactions they are willing to participate in, communicating those standards to other participants, and leaving interactions when those standards are not met. We are punishing people for doing on the ‘net what is a basic requirement for personal safety irl. If that’s not fucked up, then I don’t know what is.
The origin of the problem, as I see it, is threefold:
- the term ‘flouncing’ is vague enough to open itself both to contrasting interpretations and to straight-up abuse;
- ‘no-flouncing rules’, like all other rules, are tools, and only as good as the people who wield them;
- and, perhaps most importantly, the people and communities most likely to require you to defend your boundaries are also the people and communities most likely to punish you afterwards.
Let me make this clear: The Venn diagram of the people who don’t believe you have a right to have boundaries that thwart their wishes and the people who will flip their shit at you for enforcing those boundaries is a circle. I don’t particularly have a problem with that; it’s shitty, but that’s just how the world works. But I do have a problem when those people are allowed to weaponize social rules to hurt people. I do have a problem when that kind of misuse is increasingly enshrined in our culture. And I really, really have a problem with subcultures that elevate the theory of sexual consent to a religious dogma on the one hand, and resort to kangaroo courts to punish people exercising their social consent on the other. It’s unfair, it trains people to put up with harmful behaviours, and it punishes the most vulnerable people while empowering the most heartless, or downright abusive. Dunno about you, but I’m not gonna have any truck with that.
Yo. I’m thinking about organising some Creepology weekends from my place (Lincolnshire, England). The first one or two will be freebies, just to try out different ways of going through the material and see what we like best. It may be good fun, or a waste of everyone’s time ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Accommodation will be gruesomely Spartan, and dogs will be inescapable. If you’re interested, email or message me. I’m off Facebook at the moment so I won’t see comments to posts.
This blog is going to be peppered with parallels to problem behaviours up to and including various types of abuse, so all the content warnings apply. It’s also long as hell. Make yourself a pot of tea.
There’s a new breed of problem person around. I mean, it could well be that they’ve been common for a long time and I’ve never bumped into one because I live under a rock, but my first encounter with one was yesterday, and I didn’t enjoy it one bit. It was the kind of situation that escalates into a total clusterfuck in no time flat and it took me way too long to react to it, so the clean-up is ongoing and I’m as yet unsure of the fallout. I’d like to spare y’all the same experience; so, in the spirit of gift-giving so appropriate to the season, here are my mock-scientific observations based on a sample size of one, extrapolated from a situation I totally failed to navigate, and worth precisely what you paid for it.
Imagine the worst possible caricature of the entitled, self-centred, emotionally illiterate guy with no sense of responsibility or agency over his own internal states (I know, personality types are not an inevitable result of one’s gender, but our society raises people differently according to their gender, and this type of personality is most commonly fostered in guys). I’m talking about the kind of guy who cannot manage how he expresses his feelings, puts them ahead of everyone else’s, and believes that, when he feels bad, the world owes him a resolution.
In a sexual setting, their mental process goes as follows:
- “I looked at you and I felt turned on, hence
- You turned me on – you did this to me.
- I am now uncomfortable because my needs are not met, hence
- You owe me release, and
- If you don’t provide, you’re being unfair and actively hurting me, so
- You should either be made to give me what is owed to me, or, if I can’t get that, you should be otherwise punished.”
I’m not talking here about a situation where you flashed your bits at the poor dude while he was going about his business; I’m talking about the kind of scenario where you were going about your business – going to work, having an ice cream, just existing in a public place – and something about you activated the guy’s horn. Now, we could spend an unhappy eternity arguing over the acceptable length of miniskirts and the like, but that’s not really the issue: the main problem is the next step, the guy’s belief that his horniness is solely and totally your responsibility.
I have no idea where some guys derive their belief that they have no control over their internal states, but it’s a thing. Sometimes I wonder whether it feels nice, like shrugging off one’s responsibilities on someone else’s doormat. Sometimes I wonder whether it feels terrifying, like being the ball in a pinball machine, careering out of control and getting whacked from all directions. It doesn’t matter either way, because the result is the same: because of his belief in his lack of emotional agency, the guy firmly believes that you are responsible for his feelings.
Step three would be totally cool and uncontroversial as a stand-alone realisation. Hell, it’d be healthy: when one’s needs are not met, that causes discomfort, and realising that is the first step towards emotional self-management and, quite possibly, towards happiness in general. It is very useful indeed when people are capable of realising not only that they feel crappy, but why; it gives them the opportunity to work towards meeting their own needs, hence towards self-regulating their emotional states. Unfortunately, in this process step three and step four are interlinked. In fact, step four follows on so quickly that the two become an unholy mishmash.
The guy is turned on, hence you owe him release. As a syllogism it’s rather weak. As a belief, it can give people the impetus to do horrifying things.
Step five is an almost automatic reaction in our society. On the surface, at least, we hold the values of fairness and responsibility. If you are responsible for causing someone harm, it’s only fair that you should put that right; most people would agree with that, even though they may grossly disagree on the means and methods of achieving that result.
Step six follows in a similar vein, and would be fairly innocuous in a different setting. As a society, we have a ton of established systems for ensuring that those who cause harm are made to pay back for their actions, one way or another: suspensions, demotions, fines, community service, prison. We don’t have a problem with punishing the guilty (though we have no end of structural problems determining guilt and establishing fair punishments; but that’s another story). We embrace retribution, and so does this type of guy. Alas, he also embraces his right to set himself up as jury, judge, and executioner. When he is in conflict, he doesn’t feel the need to call upon someone impartial to help him navigate towards a solution; in fact, he couldn’t do that if he wanted to, because to him his feelings are central and absolute. Their primacy is unassailable, and their accuracy is a given. Anyone who doesn’t agree with how he’s feeling or what he’s doing about it is inherently wrong and should be ignored. Therefore, the guy is literally incapable of hearing anything that clashes with his feelings and beliefs.
Taken to its most extreme, this is the kind of guy who firmly believes that “cock teases” should be punished – and a “cock tease” is “anyone who causes him to be aroused and doesn’t fuck him.” He might not see anything wrong about forcing himself on his targets, because all he’s doing is taking what he’s owed. He isn’t causing harm; he is making the world a fairer place by taking what he’s due. If he can’t or won’t go physical, he might make your life unbearable in other ways – multi-platform harassment, doxxing, online identity theft, or simply poisoning the social waters you swim in. Or he might not to do anything to you, but he will add your conflict to a long list of slights committed upon him by people like you (e.g, all women), and slowly poison his own soul with the resulting bile.
I’ve used a sexual setting because it tends to make situations very clear-cut in our collective mind. Most of us believe that it’s not right for a guy to jump a girl just because he found her attractive. That’s an obviously fucked-up reaction, so it’s easy (though unpleasant) for us to walk through the process that led there and spot exactly where the problems are. The same kind of process applies to non-sexual settings, though, and it can be much harder to identify and navigate. There are guys who apply the same mentality to totally different emotional reactions, for instance:
- “I you said/did something and I felt angry (or I felt any kind of negative feeling that, due to poor emotional granularity, ended up lumped under “anger”), hence
- You made me angry – you did this to me.
The rest of the steps is exactly the same. You made the guy angry, so now you owe him his release from that feeling. Whether that involves him pasting you into the wall, trashing the house around you, screaming his brains off at you, or going off into a sulk, that will likely depend on what he’s been brought up to believe is acceptable, or what he thinks he can get away with. The underlying mentality is the same, though: you gave him a bad feeling, and now you are responsible for fixing it.
If you refuse to play your part in the resulting kabuki – because, for instance, you have an unreasonable aversion to getting your nose plastered across your face, or because you find apoplectic guys overly threatening – then you are compounding your sins. You made him angry, and now you’re failing to do your bit to put it right. That calls for a punishment big enough to atone for the sum total of your misdeeds, and that’s the recipe for a very bad time indeed.
In its most extreme manifestations, it can be relatively easy for us to evaluate this type of situation, but that clarity evaporates rapidly in less extreme settings. Most of us don’t believe that it’s ever right to punch our partner in the face, but what about raising our voices? Our biases and values will come into play here; for instance, we may hold the physically stronger partner to a higher set of standards, because their behaviour is inherently more threatening. Whether that’s fair or unfair on our part will call into play even more of our biases and values, until we can be so bogged down in our ethics that our ability to navigate the situation will be severely impaired.
For less extreme a situation, it can be hard to even establish what actually happened in step one. It is possible for people to upset people on purpose, and the resulting feelings of injury and unfairness would therefore be justified. It can be hard for us to begin to disentangle that. As outside observers, we may lack enough context to make an accurate call. Who started it? When did it even start; is this a one-off, or part of an ongoing pattern? As active participants, we can be even more clueless, because our own emotions may run so high that they override all other considerations. That’s why I jumped straight to a sexual setting: it’s easier for most of us to wrap our heads around that kind of situation, because we have some very clear-cut ideas as to what’s OK and what isn’t. Those who don’t share my ideas on sexual consent are most likely going to think that I’m totally full of shit, anyway, so nothing’s lost there.
That was just part one. Make yourself a fresh cup, if you’re still here, and prepare for things to get worse.
A second, separate component went into creating the clusterfuck I found myself embroiled in. It isn’t uncommon for people to pick up the jargon of a subculture or movement without having embraced the relevant ethics and values. This can be done on purpose, in order to infiltrate said subculture or gain cheap popularity points, or by accident. People are capable of some awesome feats of mental gymnastics, and that includes subscribing to the theory of something, or picking up its lexicon, without having embraced or even understood any of the underlying ethics. That’s how you get people speeding their Jaguars past the homeless camps so they can get to church and nod along to sermons about the primacy of Christian charity. Some people rationalise those contradictions, and some just block them off from their awareness. Some embrace them and weaponise them.
In my days, it wasn’t uncommon for a certain type of guy to declare himself a feminist, and then proceed to subtly violate women’s consent under the guise of helping them with their sexual liberation. Sexual freedom was taken as an essential component of women’s overall freedom, with the ability to empower women both as individuals and in their sexual and romantic relationships. I personally don’t have any problems with that; but I do have a problem with guys who use that rhetoric as a reason to try and talk their partners into sexual acts they’re not keen on. To put it very bluntly, I’m talking about the kind of guy who talks the feminist talk, but is constantly “encouraging” you to take it up the ass because it’d be good for you. You’d overcome your inhibitions. You’d be empowered. You’d probably like it if you gave it a fair try; really, you owe it to yourself to give yourself that chance! Don’t let the patriarchy deprive you of your pleasure! Cue endless circular arguments where your clear “no” is treated as a personal problem that your hero is graciously volunteering to help you overcome.
Some of these guys are straight-up abusers, using the feminist talk to gain access to their targets. Some are just as abusive, but not deliberately: they don’t mean to harm anyone, but they cause harm just the same. If you ask me, all are to be avoided; even if they’re not physically unsafe, they’ll fuck with your head.
The same kind of lexical hijacking can take place in literally any movement. Where there are words, there are people who’ll misuse them. Whether they do it on purpose or by accident can become a secondary concern in the moment, because you’ve got a real clusterfuck on your hands. You not only have to deal with the issue itself, but also with the confusion created by the misapplied lexicon. You’re fighting on two fronts, the personal and the philosophical, and the resulting strain can be severe.
That was part two. If are with me thus far, part three is gonna be a cakewalk: all you’ve got to do is combine the two.
Imagine a guy who is entitled, self-centred, and has no sense of responsibility or agency over his own internal states. He believes that any unpleasant emotions are the responsibility of external agents, that those agents are responsible for fixing them, and that, if they fail to do so, retribution is called for. Then give him the lexicon used by the subculture of your choice – for instance, the social justice movement. Teach him to use terms like “emotional labour,” for instance, but purely as words, rather than as concepts encompassing a set of values and ethics, and demanding a certain behaviour. What you can end up with, if you’re very unlucky, is a guy who:
- Believes in the inalienable primacy of his own feelings over anyone else’s;
- Believes that his negative internal states are fully someone else’s fault;
- Believes that, when he feels bad in response to what other people are doing, he is performing emotional labour for them; that emotional labour can mean simply having unpleasant feelings, rather than managing those feelings or their expression;
- Believes that, when he performs that “emotional labour” for you, you owe him; that if he has a feeling about what you did, then he has the right to emote at you in any way he chooses, until his internal equilibrium is restored;
- Believes that his emoting, regardless of its impact on you, is further emotional labour he’s performing for you, and adds to what you owe him;
- Believes that, if you refuse to play that game with him, you are being unfair and you should be punished.
From my point of view as someone who’s encountered the phenomenon a grand total of once, it’s doubleplusungood. It is always hard to try and defuse situations when your antagonist doesn’t have a handle on his emotions. It’s twice as hard when he doesn’t feel any kind of moral imperative to self-regulate or self-modulate. But when you add to that a lexicon that, on the surface, puts an inherent value on emotions, things can get really fucked up really quickly.
My go-to response to escalating situations I have no control over is to get the fuck out of the way. I really don’t enjoy pain, neither my own nor anyone else’s, so I’m all about damage control. Even if the situation doesn’t put me in danger, I am one of the elements keeping it going. I look at the issue as fire triangle: it takes heat, fuel, and an oxidizing agent to keep a fire going. If I don’t want that fire to grow ever bigger, I’m going to have to remove one of those elements. I can’t make situations less emotionally charged for someone else, and I might not have the power or right to remove a third party from a public forum, but I can remove myself (if I can’t, that’s a massive red flag). Unfortunately, backing out of this kind of situation is perceived as a grave offence by the guy in question: you’re backing out of a deal, after all. He’s given you his emotional labour, you owe him, and you’re trying to skip out on the bill. The more he emotes at you, the more he’s adding to that bill, but that doesn’t seem to register.
I don’t know whether you could adequately resolve this kind of situation (from his point of view, anyway) by sitting there and taking his shit until his mental colon is cleansed. I know, however, that I don’t want to do that. It smells too much like abuse to me. I also know, though, that an emotionally out of control person with a sense of thwarted entitlement and a grudge can be a powerful opponent; even more so when they are happy to use and misuse the lexicon of your tribe. Language is often link to values. When a community holds certain values dear, any claim that they are being violated can escalate into a community-wide clusterfuck. Other members will feel called upon to sit in judgement, decide who was to blame, and dish out the appropriate punishment. And when what they’re looking at is you trying to hold your shit together to the best of your abilities, and a dude who’s falling apart at the seams, it’s easy for you to look like the bad one.
So yeah, that’s probably my biggest lesson from last year – or maybe just the most vivid one, because y’all, it got REALLY BIG REALLY QUICKLY. I’m sorry it took so long to get through it, but I don’t at present have the words to sum it up any more concisely. Thank you for bearing with me, have a good New Year’s eve if you celebrate it, and catch you on the other side.
I recently got involved in an extremely interesting conversation about the role of affective empathy in social interactions and social change. Here’s my end-of-year take-home and plea to y’all:
Fucking give it up.
Seriously, don’t even try it.
Abandon all hope of being able to truly and fully understand anyone else. Accept the fact that you’re confined within the cage of your own skull, your own body, and your own past, never to fully emerge, and that the upper limit of your connection with other human beings amounts to squeezing a limb through the bars that trap you and hoping that someone does the same for you.
For a while, anyway. Or, like, you could sit enough zazen to realise that we’re all one, and learn to practice compassion “like reaching out for a pillow in the night.” I don’t care. I’m not your supervisor, and, if you travel down that road far enough, the end result is the damn same.
I’m fully aware that I come at the issue of affective empathy with a giant bag of biases. I’m neurodivergent, agender, acespec, and queer. I have cPTSD, and have struggled with social anxiety, generalised anxiety, depression, and gender dysphoria on and off all my life. I have rampant RSD (Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria) when it comes to the people I care about, and automatically “other” the rest of the universe. Due to my family situation, my life has been unconventional from the get-to; at times it has included elements that were so grossly disconnected that it has been very hard for me to feel that I was a unified ego. I have lived away from home from the age of 14, moved abroad at 17, and became a permanent expat at 19. The sum total of this is that I’ve grown up in the knowledge that what’s good for the goose may be good for the gander, but I’m a fucking raccoon so very little of that applies to me, and that the opposite is also true. I can’t put myself in other people’s shoes, intuit what they’re feeling, and extrapolate their needs from that, because our feet are not the same shape and we walk on different roads.
The same applies when other people try that with me. My main experience of people trying to be empathetic towards me has been a long series of train wrecks. The process usually goes as follows:
- I am experiencing a problem (or just going about my life in a way that NicePerson perceives to be suboptimal).
- NicePerson tries to empathise. The way they do this is by putting themself in my situation. They derive a set of Feelings&Needs as a result.
- They use those Feelings&Needs as a guide on how to interact with me. Often they give me SageAdvice based on said Feelings&Needs.
- I tell them that their reaction doesn’t work for me, because <insert reasons here>.
- They tell me that I’m lying to myself and double down on pushing their SageAdvice, because my denial clearly indicates that This Is Serious.
- I get fucked off and wonder off to do literally anything else, because, seriously, fuck this.
- Their feelings are hurt.
- Rinse & repeat.
The problem is that going in empathy-first only works when it works, kinda thang. You’re effectively building a model of the universe in your head, with yourself at the centre of an experience. That model will only be as accurate as your understanding of the experience, and that includes truly understanding what the experience means for the person affected by it. Hence, it only tends to be accurate if:
- You are interacting with people who are very much like you (e.g., with same life experiences, psychological make-up, wiring, resources, goals, etc.), or;
- You have spent a whole load of time immersing yourself in models you are unfamiliar with. Over time, you’ve trained yourself to switch mental gears so that instead of putting your feet into someone else’s shoes, you can accurately imagine being them. (The whole person, not just the feet. That’d be weird.)
I guess that if you’re mostly normal (neurotypical, straight, cis, in the same socioeconomic class as the majority of those around you, with no uncommon traumas, etc.) this is not an issue most of the time; your default model will be accurate enough often enough, so your predictions will be pretty good and your resulting reaction will be appropriate. And that’s fine and dandy for you and for those who are like you, but, and this is important, you have to believe that there are people utterly unlike you. You have to believe that the way you are and the way you connect with the world are not the only way people can be, and definitely not the only way people should be. You have to believe that some people, through their wiring or life experiences, are so unlike you that you can’t begin to comprehend what makes them tick. And you have to believe that that’s OK.
There are people out there who are so unlike you that they might as well be aliens in human skin…and now half my readership is yelling that no, humans have the same basic drives, and if we just dig deep enough we can find them, find the point at which we connect, and realise that we are all the same. And, alright, you can do that if it makes you feel happy, but you also have to realise that we are all different. You have to realise that, while those basic drives may be universal, the way in which they are expressed in the world can be wildly different, and you have to accept that. You have to accept that we may all need a sense of safety and belonging, but some people get that from living in the suburbs and driving a minivan, and some do by getting tied up to a rack at a public event in a BDSM dungeon. Until you can do that, your affective empathy won’t be effective, and it might cause you to fuck up a hell of a lot.
I’m not saying that it’s impossible to develop effective affective empathy for people unlike us; I’m saying that it requires practice. It requires a lot of time spent shutting the fuck up, listening, and believing what you hear. It requires accepting that you are at present underequipped to understand a situation, and being brave enough to admit that to yourself and others. It requires being willing to ask people “What can I do to help?”, or even “Do you want my help?”, and accepting the answers. It’s hard work, it makes you vulnerable, and it often doesn’t look pretty, but it’s the only way anyone’s going to learn to relate to the unrelatable. And, unless that work is done, cack-handed attempts at affective empathy are more likely to create a barrier than a bridge, because our own feelings and thoughts will fill up our minds and stop anything else from filtering through.
The funny thing is, you don’t have to do any of that. You don’t have to feel empathy for someone to care about them. You don’t have to care about them to take care of them. It is in fact possible for human beings to have zero understanding of wtf is going on with someone and to be effective helpers. All you’ve got to do is being willing to accept that someone is having a problem, decide that you’d prefer to live in a world where that wasn’t the case, and communicate with those affected to work towards the best solution. Accepting your emotional isolation and working together for a better world are not mutually exclusive. Get up, get on, and do the work you wanna do. Everything else is bullshit.
I don’t know about anyone else’s, but my hyperfocus works like a prize wheel. I can’t control what it will pick; all I can do is wait for it to stop spinning and hope that it comes up with something I want. I have learnt to trust the process, partly because not doing so makes my brain a very uncomfortable place to be, but also because it normally comes up with something I need, however tangentially. Even when the prize seems no prize at all (e.g., last year’s make-up videos phase), there is normally something about The Thing that meets a need I have and I often don’t even know about.
Last week, the wheel of hyperfocus brought me “Black Butler – Book of Circus*.” It is a particularly obscure offering because I don’t normally watch TV at all, and, when I do, it’s never horror. Horror, however mild, is just not a taste I enjoy in my brain. I don’t know what made me check out Black Butler and I’m genuinely staggered that I stuck with it to the end because, on the surface, it’s just Not My Kind Of Thing. Here I am, though: I’ve watched the whole series three times in four days, and it’s playing in the background as I type. I can feel the hyperfocus slip, so I’ll probably be on to something else shortly; but, for now, it is giving my brain the right thing to chew on.
Asking myself what the hell is going on, why I’m fixating on something I would normally not want anything to do with, that’s easy. The real trick is to make myself shut up long enough to hear the answer. I’ve been practising, though, so this time the message came through loud and clear. I watched Ciel, a small and rather fragile child, walk bravely and confidently into an extremely perilous situation. He wasn’t scared, but he didn’t need to be, because he knew that his demonic butler had his back. I chewed on that for a bit, and a thought struck me: maybe that’s what it’s like to grow up with competent parents. Alright, so your average parent can’t catch bullets, slay dozens of armed people single-handedly, jump to the top of buildings, and the like, but I’ve never needed anyone to do that for me. I have, however, needed adults to have my back in situations I did not yet have the resources to handle myself, and those adults weren’t there.
I needed someone to teach me how to stand up to bullies, to ensure that my teachers were treating me fairly, to help me get heard by doctors. I needed someone with a deep-seated interest in my health and welfare and the resources to guide me through processes I didn’t have the ability or the power to navigate on my own. There was nobody like that in my life, nobody both capable and willing to help. Worse than that, I learnt at a very early age that to call upon my family in difficult situations compounded my problems: not only I’d still have to deal with the issue on my own, but I’d also have to deal with the emotional collapse of my entire household and with the resulting punishment – because, obviously, to have a problem is to be a problem, and that kind of thing is punished. I didn’t need a supernatural murderbutler; but I needed competent adults to support me until I could support myself, and they just weren’t there.
I still have a few self-defence aficionados in my readership, so someone’s bound to say something about fostering self-reliance in children, promoting problem-solving, and the like. Helicopter parents stunt children’s development, right? Thing is, though, that there’s quite a large gap between obsessively protecting your children to the point that they grow up useless, or don’t grow up at all, and dumping them in the wild to sink or swim. I could bring up dozens of examples of situations I found myself in when adult help was more than called for, and just wasn’t available to me. To ask for help was to find myself in worse trouble, so I stopped trying. And yeah, that taught me self-reliance, but it also taught me that if I tried something beyond my capabilities, I’d most likely get hurt, and that if I got hurt, I’d be punished for it, so it was better not to try anything I wasn’t totally confident I could manage. It taught me that there was nowhere to get help or comfort. It taught me that I was chronically under-resourced. It taught me that if I got hurt, I was better off crawling under the nearest porch until I got better on my own. It taught me to despair.
It also taught me to say “fuck it,” and go for it. I’ve managed to do quite a bit over the years, and some of it was shit most people don’t go anywhere near. I’ve managed to survive all of it to date, though I’ve accumulated a few dents. Thing is, though, that I’ve not enjoyed the vast majority of it. I approached most situations as impending disasters; and, while that didn’t make me back out, it sucked most of the joy out of the experience. Even when I pulled through, I never got a sense of achievement out of it; I was just glad I got away with it. I don’t know exactly when I first felt overwhelmed – not overwhelmed by anything in particular, just overwhelmed by life in general – but it was probably in my crib; and, regardless of everything I’ve done in life, I still feel like that.
I’m all grown up now, and I don’t wish for a supernatural murderbutler; I’d like to be one, though. Seriously, just sign me up. Failing that, I’d like to be the kind of person who can look forward to challenges, and can trust that the people around them will catch them if they fall. I’d like to enjoy myself a lot more. Hell, I’d like the enjoyment I could have had in the last 40+ years and I missed out on. And, to be perfectly honest, I’m quietly raging at the bastards who took that from me. It’s probably not in the spirit of the holidays, but there you go.
*Please note that it’s just what I’m fixating on, NOT something I’m recommending everyone should watch. In particular, if you have body dysphoria or dysmorphia, I’d recommend you stay the hell away from it.
I’ve said it a bunch of times: unless you’re an asshole, most of your interpersonal problems will be with assholes, and you should take that into account when devising strategies and even more so when evaluating your own performance.
At the time, I was specifically talking in terms of routine boundary violations in a gendered setting: for instance, of the guy at work who constantly creeps into your personal space, even though you’ve made it clear that you don’t appreciate that. There is a tendency in the self-defence world to blame that kind of situation on women’s inability or unwillingness to express themselves assertively. Sometimes that may be true, but – and that’s a huge but – even if that’s the case, that inability or unwillingness come from somewhere. The guy who is happy to half-stroke your ass while you’re using the copier is also often the guy who responds badly when you ask him to cut that out. The kind of environment who facilitates his behaviour is generally not the environment who supports women who stand up for themselves. Women who do stand up for themselves may suffer as a consequence, either directly at the hands of the creep in question, or by being treated as the bitch-in-residence by their colleagues for the rest of their natural life. And if you think that neither is a valid concern, then you don’t understand uneven power dynamics and the impact of ostracism, and you might wanna get on that before hopping on any high horse.
That’s not what I wanna talk about today, though. It has come to my attention that the term “asshole,” although dear to my heart, is perhaps just a tad vague, and may be construed as a teensy weensy judgy. I want to try and expand on the same concept and see if I can make it suited to polite company.
Most of your ongoing interpersonal friction is likely to be caused by one of two situations:
1. Your basic values don’t match those of the person you are dealing with.
A very common question people ask me basically boils down to “how do I get this person to respect X issue?” And the answer is that, most of the times, you can’t, and that’s not because of any personal shortcoming on your part. It is simply not a thing that can be done. The best case scenario you can hope for is a situation where your boundaries are strong enough that said person won’t be able or willing to breach them; but the basic disconnect between you and that person will remain, because your values don’t match.
Here is an example: your aunt invites you for a family dinner every Sunday. You have some dietary constraints, whereby you don’t eat some foods. Every single time you go to dinner, there is a situation, because she cooks the food you can’t eat and insists that you at least try it. When you say no, she escalates, and the whole thing becomes A Situation. You are sticking to your guns and you don’t eat the food, but that’s not enough. You just don’t want these situations to happen, because they ruin the occasion and are starting to strain your relationship.
There are solutions to that kind of issue, but most of the time, they’re not pretty, and they only treat the symptoms. Assuming that you’ve expressed to your aunt why you can’t/won’t eat that food, the fact that she keeps trying to shove it down your throat indicates that she does not value that information coming from you. Maybe she thinks you’re factually incorrect, or making shit up to sound interesting. Maybe she believes that her rights as a hostess and your duties as a guest trump all other considerations. Without a crystal ball, you might never find out what’s going on in her head. The bottom line is that you can stop her forcing food on you (e.g., by saying that if she does that again, you’ll leave and not come back, and meaning it), but you might never get her to look at the issue from your point of view.
Now, if you’re into serious self-defence and you think this scenario is farcical: this is precisely the same situation countless women encounter when they don’t want to carry out a specific sexual act with their partner. Change “aunt” with “boyfriend” and “eat food” with “take it up the ass”, and the whole story gets a rather different feel; but it is, in essence, the same damn story. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t tend to have better outcomes.
You can’t force people to change their values. If they care more about their “rights” than your agency or bodily autonomy, that’s how it is. The best you can do is engineer your interactions so they will be forced to respect your boundaries, or else; but you can’t change the way they think and feel about the issue. And if your boundaries are ever lowered, for whatever reasons, you’ll have to watch yourself.
That kind of situation isn’t great, but it’s better than the other main option:
2. There is a basic inconsistency in the values of the person you’re dealing with.
On the outside, this situation can look very much like the one above, but there is an added twist: your aunt prides herself on being a kind, caring, considerate individual. Empathy is one of her core values. When she looks at your interpersonal difficulties, she literally can’t see that she is behaving badly towards you because She Is Not That Kind Of Person. She doesn’t do that sort of thing, hence that sort of thing can’t be happening.
If you wish to change her behaviour by changing her mind, you will need to force over two hurdles: she will have not only to change her values, but to change the way she sees herself. She may have to accept that she’s nowhere near as good a person as she prides herself in being. People are usually extremely resistant to that kind of blow to the ego. If you manage to pull that kind of thing off, don’t expect any thanks, and prepare for your relationship to be permanently altered, and not for the better.
If we want to bring this into the world of “real” self-defence: your boyfriend is pressuring you to take it up the ass, and he’s a self-declared feminist. He has built a cathedral of excuses as to why his insistence is not a consent violation (e.g., he’s trying to help you liberate yourself sexually) because of course he would never violate your consent! He’s not that kind of person! Therefore, chances are that you can get him to stop pestering you (e.g. by telling him that if he ever mentions the issue again, you’ll dump his sorry ass on the spot), but you will probably never get him to agree that what he was doing was shitty in the first place. He won’t see your point of view, he might resent you for being difficult, and, if you’re ever in a position where your inhibitions are lowered, he might take that opportunity to help you see that he was right all along.
I’m not saying that people don’t change; they do, all the time. What I’m saying is that you can’t force internal changes on people, particularly in the short-term. You can change how they behave by altering the risk-reward balance; but if your disconnect is at a value level, that will treat the symptoms of the issue, but not the issue itself. So if you’re having the same damn argument with the same damn person, it’s not necessarily because you’re arguing wrong; the issue is that you’re trying to fix the unfixable.
A lot of guides to allyship have been floating around. Some are good, some are kinda meh, and most of them will be ignored by the people who really need to read them. For the TL/DR crowd, here’s my Ultimate Guide to Effective Allyship:
Make sure that what you do lessens the load on the people you’re trying to support.
Seriously, that’s it for me. I may care about people’s motivations, actions, and results, but what I care about the most is whether overall they are saving or causing me work. Do their actions free up my time and energy? Do their contributions help spread the information I’d like to see out in the world? Are they helping my voice being heard, or saving me the effort of having to speak out? Does their emotional support enable me to take a break from being strong? Is the labour they are contributing more than the labour I’m having to put into managing them, or into rewarding them after the fact? Ultimately, are they a resource or a drain?
There is a lot more to effective allyship, but for me this is the very bottom line, because I’m fighting to live, not living to fight. Those whose support is a drain on my resources may mean well, but they are not helping me; and, when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of allyship, that ought to matter.
On offer today for £2.99 on audible. I liked it a lot.