Argue With, Not About, Emotion

Most couples will initially present relationship difficulty as “a communication problem.” Many workplace conflicts will be “resolved” by a commitment to better communication. Stacks of volumes have been written about communication in all sorts of relationships and settings. In this little postlet, I want to highlight the role of emotions in contentious discourse. Reversing course, let’s start with the solution.

compassion

Doctor Patient Partnership – Regina Holliday

  • Do not justify how you feel or that you have some right to feel the way you do. Your emotions are not debatable. They are your truth. They may spring from cognitively shaky ground; they may arise from outright delusions. Yet emotions are happening and they are part of, and sometimes most of what we simply call “experience.” Just report on them. Voice them. Wave your arms or shake your fists about them. Definitely make faces. Most importantly, own them. They are yours, only yours. Try to let go of the idea that something or someone “made you feel” this way, like you have no freedom. That you feel, however, is a simple fact and if somebody wants to understand your experience, s/he will accept this fact and look further. You cannot persuade a person of the nose on your own face. Do not try. It needs no justification.
  • Do not try to undermine someone’s emotion. Do not attempt to demonstrate or argue that s/he “should not” feel a particular way, that s/he has “no basis or right” to express this or that emotion, or how “nobody would” have such feelings. See the first point. Feelings are not right or wrong, just or unjust, deserved or undeserved. They do not exceed or fall short of some mythical standard of appropriateness. They are neutral information. You can either use the information or discard it. What part of his/her memory, which internal script, which cognitive construct leads to this emotion? What is its precise flavour (what are the lesser affects mixed in)? What was the trigger? To begin to answer these questions is called empathy and the sharp point of an emotion is a sign leading you in the right direction. The volume and intensity of the emotion is proportional to the visibility and urgency of the sign (from the smallest fine print to the largest neon billboard). Do not argue about the sign.

“Heated” arguments are fueled by emotion and become self-perpetuating and never-ending when the content becomes the emotions themselves. We assume that the negative emotions of others are direct messages to us conveying that we are doing or have done something wrong. Their emotions are heard as our put-downs. (Technically, this is shaming and therefore most verbal/emotional fights are shame battles.) Probably this interpretation is the strongest and hardest to counter in couples’ conflicts, because the stakes are higher than in all other relationships. To counter this offense, I attack what I see as the source, the other’s emotion. Your feeling is wrong! How dare you!! (express that offensive feeling with no justification). Your “behaviour” is totally unwarranted. I have just invalidated the other person’s experience. S/he will definitely not like that (also highly shaming). When I say “attack,” I of course mean with anger. Then the process reverses and we are in an infinite loop.

Arguments about emotions are false from the premise and so there is no winning. Each thinks they can win by a better justification of their feelings and a more effective undermining of the other’s feelings. Such a communication strategy only inflicts a mutual emotional beating.

The effective response to someone’s emotion is empathy. The better response is compassion. The best response is mercy.

Everybody Needs a Creation Story

For mental security, you have to know whence you came. In the disintegration of shame, in the free fall of self-worth, in the evaporation of self-confidence, there must be some kind of backstop, a place past which you can descend no further. Beyond the backstop is the abyss, a word used in ancient scripture for pre-creation (Gen 1:2). The backstop is thus creation itself and to make it real and “sensible,” you must have a story around it. Creation is a big deal, so your story must be grand.

The Creation of Adam (detail) – Michelangelo, c. 1512

Here is my creation story. I rely heavily on it.

My creation story is an appropriation from, and an expression of, my chosen spiritual tradition, which shares its basic outline (the philosophia perennis) with the mystical branches of most of the world’s enduring religions. Starting from Aristotle and continuing through Thomas Aquinas, I believe in the “ultimate source, first cause or unoriginated origin,” which has many names or no name, but which I will simply call “God.” God is infinite and ultimate. From these qualities we can distill the more practical values of goodness, truth and beauty.

God is abundant and overflowing. God wants to express Godself. The known and unknown universe is God’s self-expression. God speaks and creation happens, not just once but in every moment. Some call this God’s Word (Jn 1:1-3), but perhaps “encyclopedia” is also a useful term, because the universe covers all that God wants to say. Just on this planet we are amazed by the plenitude of flora and fauna. Occasionally there is a news story about some new creature discovered at some remote location. Another entry in God’s encyclopedia.

jelly-fish

 

Not just forms and species have entries in the big book. Every instance of every species has a separate entry. God’s expression has a different nuance in this jellyfish versus that jellyfish versus the one that lived a million years ago. And so it is with human beings.

Who are you? You are a unique expression of God. What God has to say in and through the totality of you has never been said before, is not being said elsewhere, and will never be said again. Even the human embryo that spontaneously aborts before the mother even knows she is pregnant was a unique, once-and-for-always piece of God’s self-expression. All of this, seen and unseen. And yet, the world is finite; the universe is finite; neither will ever fully express the infinite God.

Everybody’s default creation story is their family of origin – mom, dad, siblings, whoever your early caregivers were. The trouble with this story is that it is at best, wounding and at worst, toxic. We are all wounded by our families because they, like all people, are wounded themselves. In more severe cases, the wounding amounts to developmental trauma and chronic shame, causing significant personality and relationship issues in adulthood. How can you hold yourself together if your mother always tore you down or your father abused you?

Interestingly, adopted children, even those in best-case families, eventually want to know about their biological parents. They have an unshakable sense that a foundational chapter in their creation stories is missing.

The causality of how I got here obviously runs, in part, through my mother and my father. Maybe my “self” would not have existed without them and the random events that brought them together. They are my “entry point into history.” However, God was clearly going to express “me,” one way or another. God is intentional. Thus, I am not primarily my mother’s son or my father’s son, and my children are ultimately not all about me. The greater truth is that my father is my brother and my daughter is my sister, all gazing back to the One who speaks (more specifically, loves) us into existence.

“God does not love you because you are good. You are good because God loves you.” God, the infinite source of goodness, is the necessary and sufficient condition for your goodness. Contra Descartes, it is not “I think, therefore I am.” It is “God loves me, therefore I am.” This is what is means to be “created in the image of God.” If God doesn’t love you, you are not going to hell; you never existed in the first place.

A unique image of God, like a facet of an infinitely cut diamond, is your True Self – who you really are. We spend our lifetimes trying to buy into this ultimate reality. Our False Self, which is not bad (more like sad), seems to be both the means and the obstacle to our self-realization. We wrestle and struggle with it. Sometimes it feels like we are losing (the False Self feels more real). Compassion and mercy are always needed to cope with the low points. The question of your goodness, your worthiness, however, is a fake question if you have an adequate creation story.