Acknowledging Reported Emotions Before ‘Explaining’ Them

Suppose you say, “I’m <angry, sad, disappointed, anxious, irate,….> because of X <my neighbor’s behavior, my father’s letter, my mother’s language to me last night, my husband’s antics….>.” As an example, “I’m sad because  my brother ignored my birthday this year.” Now, suppose your respondent immediately launches into an ‘explanation’ of, or ‘apologia’ for, X: Your brother didn’t really ignore your birthday, it’s just that he was traveling and didn’t have WiFi, and so wasn’t able to call you on the day. Or something like that. This response by your interlocutor attempts to fit the actions or events that have caused you some emotional pain into a causal arrangement that makes your acquaintances’ behavior more explicable; it makes the case that the action was not personally directed, that it was not malevolent, and so on. Your interlocutors are attempting to defuse and remove the sting of the hurt; they are attempting a therapeutic maneuver, devising a narrative that will allow you–as if in the clinic–to tell a story that ‘works better’ for you.

This, more often than not, turns out to be a mistake; such ‘explanations’ and attempts to ‘mitigate’ the hurt, the anger, the pain, simply do not work; you remain as angry, perplexed, or irate as before; indeed, these emotions might have been exacerbated, and you might have an entirely new conflict, one with your interlocutor, on your hands. The problem, of course, is that the original statement has been misinterpreted;  it is a confusion to think these kinds of statements are attempts to assign causal blame; rather, they are reports of feelings.  When the person we are talking to starts to address the causal relationship they think they have detected, they have moved on past the original emotions that actually prompted the report. Contextualizing the reported emotion so that it fits into a wider nexus of actions and reactions and emotions is a worthwhile task; it may indeed make the sufferer feel they are not being persecuted, that they are not alone, and so on. But this sort of amelioration is best carried out after an acknowledgment of the feelings at play. These sorts of reports are calls for help; they report discomfort; they seek relief. But like any good healer, we must first make note of the symptom reported and only then attempt a diagnosis. To begin by offering apologia is a surefire method of negating and dismissing the initial report, which seeks, first and foremost, a hearing.

This kind of interaction is exceedingly common; I have participated in many myself, both as offender and victim. It is often reported as the kind of conversational play between men and women that sets the two genders apart distinctively i.e., men jump to ‘solving the problem presented’ while women ‘process the emotions reported’ (though I think gender lines cannot be so clearly drawn here; there are exceptions aplenty on both sides.) It derails more conversations than might be imagined; and it only needs the simplest of conversational maneuvers, an acknowledgment that we have been listening, to ameliorate it.

The Words We Mutter Under Our Breath

Some years ago, as I waited to be served food by a prickly employee of an eating establishment, I sensed my temper flaring. She and I had had run-ins before; she had always seemed unnecessarily querulous and brusque in her interactions with me; the  milk of human kindness seemed to have curdled long ago in her. I anticipated more trouble in this encounter; I was on edge, wondering which pronouncement of mine would be met with curtness or indifference. I wasn’t mistaken; a few seconds later, I was subjected to a familiar, rage-inducing rudeness. I placed my order, picked up my food, and walked away. As I did so, I muttered under my breath, “Fuck you, you fucking stupid bitch.” My short and bitter rant was loud enough to be overheard by someone–not a complete stranger–standing next to me, who promptly did a double-take and said something to the effect of “Wow, that’s harsh.” Now mortified, I mumbled something about having a bad day and walked quickly away. (I was especially embarrassed because I had just interacted with a service worker, someone who at the best of times is underpaid and overworked.)

It wasn’t the first time–and sadly, I don’t think it will be the last–that I will say something quite unhinged, in a hushed tone of voice, in words only audible to myself. On various occasions over the years I’ve deployed almost exactly that same line above on the conclusion of an aggravating social encounter–with ‘bitch’ replaced by some other derogatory term, sometimes racist, sometimes homophobic, sometimes sexist, sometimes fat-shaming. In the encounter I make note of above, I had been detected and called out; on most occasions, I am the only audience for these private expressions of my feelings.

I do not know if this history means that deep down at heart I’m a sexist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic person; I do know that I’m afflicted with many kinds of implicit bias, and they play a role in my understanding of the world and my relationships with those who inhabit it; I do know that being exposed to all those strands of thought as I grew up, and living in societies that still suffer from those afflictions predisposes me to fall back, lazily, in the cauldron of unfavorable circumstance, to those very same attitudes when I express anger. They suggest themselves to me as the right kind of ammunition to deploy against my imagined foes, the only balms that will assuage my psychic wounds. (Conversely, with probability one, someone has referred to me in precisely the terms above after an aggravating encounter with me, with their favorite prejudiced expression for folks of my ethnic persuasion inserted into the schema above.)

These are not flattering reflections on oneself; my utterances are only partially excused by being made in a fit of anger. Perhaps I can congratulate myself on having found a ‘safe outlet’ for my frustrations; after all, all I did was rant a bit to myself. My words did not lead to prejudiced action or violence or politics or some form of systematic discrimination against those who, unknown to themselves, had been subjected to abuse my me. But perhaps that lets me too easily off the hook; and perhaps it lets off our societies and our times too easily as well.

On The Dissolution Of A Personal Boundary

One of my favorite pastimes when visiting my in-laws in Ohio is to borrow one of the family cars and head to the local cinema to catch a matinée show; it’s how I catch up on the big-screen action I miss out on here in the Big Apple. The tickets are cheaper; the audiences are quieter; and there are enthusiastic babysitters to be called upon. Thanks to these various facilitations, a couple of winters ago, I was able to view Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in its appropriate environment (i.e., not at home on a much smaller screen.)

I returned home just a tad deflated. Interstellar had been a dud: overly portentous, tedious at times, and much too enamored of its special effects. That was bad enough, but I had also noticed something peculiar about my viewing experience. A crucial component of my regular movie-watching at home had not been present: my regular partner in those adventures, my wife. I realized that built into my watching of a movie at home was her presence: when watching a scene on the screen, part of my reaction to it was caught up inextricably in a conscious and subconscious sensing of hers, whether horror, amusement, incredulity, and of course, sometimes, tears. (Sometimes my wife’s reactions are audible ones; sometimes, even as my eyes are exclusively trained on the screen, I find my thoughts turn to speculation about how she is responding to the same scene.)

That afternoon, as I had watched Interstellar alone, I found that my affective response to its offerings was curiously denuded; I felt as if they were lacking that part which was a sympathetic interaction with what would have been my wife’s responses to the movie. Somehow, over the years that my wife and I had been watching movies together, my responses to the movie-watching experience had started to include an interplay with hers. To watch a movie without my wife present was now to experience a peculiar sort of incompleteness in it. (There is also the small matter of how, once the movie was over, I was not able to engage in any kind of discussion with her about our respective takes on it.)

Such ‘boundary melting’ can be, depending on your perspective, frightening or exhilarating. Therapists ask us to be cognizant of the limits of our selves, to not let ourselves become subsumed in those of others; we worry incessantly about our ‘personal spaces;’ and of course, many couples are asked to ‘de-couple’ by counselors in an effort to get their personal relationships back on track. And yet, as the glories of truly rewarding sexual encounters remind us, the dissolution of our selves’ boundaries can be one of those rare moments during which non-mystics can have a quasi-religious experience.

A crucial aspect of the movie-watching experience at home was communication of a very particular kind, one that enriched my bare interaction with the director’s offering. That should be unsurprising, given that what we call our self arises precisely from a kind of inner communication within us.

John Dewey On The ‘Wonder’ Of Communication

In Experience and Nature (Chapter Five, ‘Nature, Communication and Meaning’) John Dewey writes:

Of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful….[its] fruit…participation, sharing, is a wonder by the side of which transubstantiation pales. When communication occurs, all natural events are subject to reconsideration and revision; they are re-adapted to meet the requirements of conversation, whether it be public discourse or that preliminary discourse termed thinking. Events turn into objects, things with a meaning. They may be referred to when they do not exist, and thus be operative among things distant in space and time….Events when once they are named lead an independent and double life. In addition to their original existence, they are subject to ideal experimentation: their meanings may be infinitely combined and re-arranged in imagination, and the outcome of this inner experimentation which is thought may issue forth in interaction with crude or raw events….Where communication exists,  things in acquiring meaning, thereby acquire representatives, surrogates, signs and implicates, which are infinitely more amenable to management, more permanent and more accommodating, than events in their first estate.

This morning, as I worked through this passage with my students, I tried my best to convey what Dewey was getting at in his quite-accurate judgment of communication being a ‘wonder,’ a secular miracle. And that is because communication is something quite fundamental, an almost constitutive part of ourselves. Transubstantiation merely transforms one substance into another; communication makes us who we are. If it is through civilization and society and politics we become ourselves, it is because all of those ‘joint activities’ rest on, and are made possible by, communication. (Language is not mentioned in the passage above, and yet it is present.)

For theorizing about the world is communication with others; thinking is communication with ourselves. (Recall that Dewey said elsewhere that ‘thought is intrinsic to experience,’ which suggests that communicating might be intrinsic to experience too.)  Through it–and its linguistic medium–we make a subjective world objective and receive confirmation we are not mired in a solipsistic maze. (As one of my students noted, the distinction between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ is one established by dint of communication.)  The world acquires meaning through our theorizing; through communication with ourselves and others, we are able to make ourselves into creatures of temporality, possessing both a remembered past–memory is a kind of communication with an older self, where we receive sensations and images as signals and messages of times gone by–and an anticipated future. We are no longer mired only in the present even as it is all we have at any given instant. The matters we communicate about, by virtue of being public and shared, acquire new meanings and shadings; they can be subject to different uses and experimentations to solve this world’s challenges as and when they arise to pose barriers for our intended projects.

The theorized world is really the world tout court, and it is so because we have communicated about it with ourselves and others.