Harmful Communication, Part Two: Emotional Auditing

[Trigger warning for harmful language, emotional manipulation, rape culture.]

The language of defensiveness, projection, emotional auditing, non-apology apologies, false choices, and magical intent is ubiquitous in social justice spaces—and pretty much everywhere else. This series is intended to really examine how this brand of accountability deflecting language manifests as harm in everyday interactions with the people around us. In the same way that discussions of consent as a broad concept beyond sexual interactions have inspired people to reconsider other consent issues, even something as common as posting photographs online, I hope that this series can make us more sensitive to what we're actually communicating when we engage accountability deflecting language, or what's being communicated when we're on the receiving end of it, and underline why it is inherently harmful.

In Part One of this series on accountability deflecting language, I addressed "Magical Intent," the principle by which someone who has said or done something upsetting argues that the person to whom they've said or done it has no right to be upset because their intent was not to generate that reaction, i.e. that intent is more important than effect.

The convention of magical intent first deflects accountability by seeking to make a harmed person responsible for our having hurt them, by asking them to respond to what we were thinking rather than what we were communicating. ("That's not what I meant; it wasn't my intent; you're taking it the wrong way; you're getting it all wrong.") It then asks them to accept that their feelings are irrational, because all that matters is what we intended them to feel.

That is Emotional Auditing.

Emotional Auditing manifests in many different ways, from dismissing people's responses as "oversensitive" to claiming ownership of people's emotions by asserting to know better what they think or need, but it begins with the presumption that we can control people's reactions. To be sure, we absolutely influence the way that our communication with others will be perceived: The language we choose, the honesty of our communication, the time and place we broach subjects, whether we engage in good faith, the medium we use to deliver information, etc. all have a meaningful effect on how any communication will be received. Even the most casual of relationships exist on a continuum, and situational awareness—including being aware of past communication successes and failures, and being conscious and respectful of individuals' particular needs, experiences, triggers, boundaries, and sensitivities—is important.

But the objectives of being sensitive to other people's needs should be respect for the individual and clarity of communication, not an attempt to try to control other people's responses. In other words, we shouldn't seek to use people's vulnerabilities against them to try to manipulate getting a reaction we want.

Once the desired outcome is: "I want hir to respond like this," we're already on the road to a harmful communication, because to try to control other people's reactions is, in effect if not intent, an attempt to try to control the emotions underlying those reactions.

We cannot (neither pragmatically nor ethically) control other people's reactions—which should not be mistaken for an argument that every conceivable response is equally valid; abuse is always inappropriate. Here, I want to draw a distinction between drawing boundaries for oneself to set off-limits abusive responses, and marking out a spectrum of acceptable emotional response for someone else to set off-limits any and all responses that we wouldn't like. There is a meaningful difference between communicating, "You are not allowed to engage in accountability deflecting language (like 'Magical Intent') with me, because it's harmful," and communicating, "You are not allowed to react to what I said with hurt or anger or sadness, because negative emotions make me feel yucky."

Only the latter constitutes emotional auditing.

(Indeed, drawing clear boundaries about communication preferences is often a necessary response to emotional auditing and/or emotional manipulation.)

So: We cannot control other people's reactions, and to approach communication with some notion that we can, with some expectation that another person should respond in a specific way, with a strategy to elicit an expected and desired reaction, is an inherently harmful communication, because it presupposes there is only one "right" reaction.

We mustn't mistake a reaction we want for the right reaction.

There are certain situations in which most decent people will agree, and be quick to say, that there's no one right reaction. After the death of a loved one, after an assault, after an unfortunate diagnosis, after a job loss—most traumas are met with reassurances that there's not a right way or a wrong way to react.

Fewer people, but still a significant number, will acknowledge there's no one right way to react to things typically regarded as joyful events, either: Becoming a parent, getting married, graduating college, getting a new job. Not everyone is as undilutedly thrilled as we are expected to be in such circumstances, and, irrespective of the void of axiomatic reassurances that it's okay to have various reactions, it's true all the same.

And so it is in most situations: An unexpected reaction is not a wrong reaction.

(Again, to address a notable exception: Abusive responses, which include the disregard of previously communicated boundaries, are clearly inappropriate reactions.)

The ubiquitous urge to make other people responsible for our communication, however, makes most of us less inclined to give across-the-board application to the idea that there are rarely "right" or "wrong" reactions. That would, of course, steal a pretty useful tool out of the accountability deflecting toolbox.

And so instead, we learn how to respond to evidence that we've upset someone with: Don't feel that way. Or: You shouldn't feel that way. Or: I don't want you to feel that way. Or: It doesn't make sense to feel that way. Or: You're being ridiculous. Or: You're being irrational. Or: You're being oversensitive. Or: Your reaction is disproportionate. Or: You're looking for things to get mad about. Or any variation on: You are wrong to feel that way.

And/or an assertion to know another person's mind better than they know it themselves: You're really mad about something else. Or: You're really just trying to punish me. Or: Your hurt, anger, tears are an attempt to manipulate me. Or any variation on: Your emotions aren't authentic.

A healthy and productive reaction to someone expressing hurt or offense is not to audit whether that reaction meets our standards of acceptability (again, with caveat that no one is required to tolerate abuse), but to try to understand why it is that the person is reacting the way zie is. Empathy is the best response to causing unintentional hurt.

Naturally, there are people in the world who are manipulative, people whose perceptions can be affected by mental illness, people who overreact because they're having a goddamn bad day. But none of those are reasons to justify dismissing someone's reactions out of hand as illegitimate: Their existence is, in fact, an argument for the necessity of empathy.

To respond instead to evidence of our mistakes with emotional auditing can be profoundly harmful—and over the course of a relationship, holding another person responsible for our hurting them instead of owning our own harmful communication can cause irreparable damage: After someone communicates enough times that you're exclusively responsible for the hurt they cause you, the only choice with which you're left to break that cycle is to disengage.

Owning our fuck-ups is an integral part of stopping the cycle of harmful communication, not only because it allows for real accountability but also because making authentic amends depends on acknowledging responsibility.

Apologizing in a meaningful way necessitates viewing oneself as a complicated person, with virtues and flaws, good instincts and bad habits, the capacity for kindness and a reservoir of internalized ugliness. It requires fully embracing the idea of knowing and caring about oneself in all one's often regrettable aspects. It rests on the capacity to exist comfortably as a person with visible and acknowledged flaws.

To relieve oneself of the burden of trying to project perfection is to take the first step away from the reflexive use of accountability deflecting language.

And the failure to do so, giving oneself permission to prioritize being right over being compassionate, letting the instinct to say things like, "You're being oversensitive" and "I'm sorry, but…" linger, tends to lead to a cycle of abuse—because if we resist seeing ourselves as someone with flawed communication about which we need to be vigilant, we make the same mistakes over and over, then deflect accountability, again and again, with harmful language.

As I'm sure is evident by this point, a big part of avoiding engaging in harmful communication is being honest about how inclined we are to try to deflect accountability, about what less than productive, effective, and kind strategies we use ourselves, and about where we need to be vigilant and make changes. In other words: Being honest about who we are.

Which brings us to projection, and that will be part three.

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