Tuesday, 16 August, 2005

Emotional Terrorism

In his posting of August 1, Fr. Sam Bassett describes what he calls Emotional Blackmail--a whining "don't say that because it hurts my feelings" comment that one would expect from a 4 year old throwing a tantrum, but not from an adult who is participating in a supposedly logical and reasoned discussion.  If you encounter this behavior, your best course of action is to halt the conversation and walk away.  There is no reasoning with some people.

A more blatant type of emotional blackmail that I call emotional terrorism has bceome much more commonplace and even socially acceptable to the point where it's difficult to go through the day without encountering it.  I call it the "you made me" argument-- "you offended me," or "you make me feel as though".  These and similar statements are used, often unconsciously, to shift emotional responsibility from the person feeling the emotion to some other person or thing.  It's the adult equivalent of blaming and ranks right up there with "the devil made me do it" on the scale of credibility, and leads to comical incidents like this.  Or they would be comical if people didn't take them so seriously.

Social commentators often remark on the decline of personal responsibility for individual actions, but I never hear them mention the almost complete lack of responsibility for reactions.  It's as though emotional outbursts are forgiven or even encouraged and the person or thing to which the individual is reacting is somehow to blame for the results.  No, No, and No!.  We are responsible for our reactions just as we are responsible for our actions.  Emotions are supposed to be input to be considered, not triggers that precipitate immediate, unthinking action.

The key point that most people these days seem to be missing is that they have the choice to be offended or not.  It's up to the individual to decide if the weather, the stock market, or somebody's comment affects their happiness.  Emotional maturity, a trait that is sadly lacking in most adults, involves understanding that your happiness is up to you, that if you feel offended it's because you choose to feel offended.  "You made me..." becomes "I feel offended when you say that because..."  That places the responsibility for the feeling squarely where it belongs, and allows for reasoned discussion of emotional issues that otherwise would devolve quickly into screaming tantrums and physical violence.

Not so simple?  Try this exercise.  Picture yourself walking down the street, minding your own business, when a heavily tattooed individual who looks like a human pincusion with orange, pink, and green hair steps in front of you and says, "you're the ugliest person I've ever seen."  I'm betting that all but the most insecure of individuals would find that at least mildly humorous, and many of us would burst out laughing.  But now imagine your spouse saying the same thing to you in all seriousness.  Only the emotionally crippled would be unaffected by that.  The reason for the difference in reactions has nothing to do with what was said.  The responsibility lies within you, because you value one person's opinion and find the other's irrelevant.  I will grant that a spouse who says something like that is unimaginably cruel, but that doesn't shift responsibility for your reaction.

I'm not saying that it's easy.  It's difficult sometimes to accept the responsibility for the way that you feel and the way that you react to people and events.  But it's the only way to live in a civilized world.