This article is a sequel to On Physical Violence, and carries forward a lot of its themes. However, I think a lot of the issues around emotional violence are less clear cut, and so the intent of this article is much more speculative and investigative.
What is Emotional Violence?
Some examples of emotional violence are:
- making threats
- trying to incite feelings of guilt or inadequacy
- constant non-constructive criticism
- intentional public embarrassment
What do these actions have in common? They are intentional, and they are an attempt to elicit an emotion; and furthermore, the emotion is an unpleasant one.
However, I don’t think the unpleasantness of the emotion is the defining characteristic here. If you’re in a bad mood, and some horribly cheerful person comes up to you and tries to cheer you up, I think this falls under emotional violence as well — not as severe, certainly, but nevertheless unwelcome. I suggest that emotional violence be defined as intentional elicitation of undesired emotion.
In other words, emotional violence is what is commonly called emotional manipulation, but with the addendum that the manipulation be toward emotions that are not wanted by the victim.
Does this correspond in any way to physical violence?
Recall that I suggested that physical violence be defined as deliberate infringement on physical person or possessions. Emotional violence is similar in that the emotional state of the victim is being infringed in an unwelcome way.
Certainly not everyone will agree with my definition of emotional violence. If I’m right, then emotional violence is a lot more common than physical violence; and many people see nothing at all wrong with many forms of it. It is very common indeed in cases where one person has social dominance over another, or if they are engaged in a struggle for social dominance, as in the workplace or between adults and children. I have engaged in it myself — there are certain kinds of emotional violence that I find all too easy to engage in. But, as I’ll discuss below, I think it’s possible that emotional violence is even more serious and damaging than physical violence.
Why does emotional violence happen?
Like physical violence, it can arise from simple sadism. But it can also come from a desire to control — to manipulate someone. Emotions provide a point of leverage at least as potent as the physical body. It can also be a means to an end — to get someone to do something for you, for example.
Emotional Violence and Disciplining Children
Emotional manipulation of children is a particularly sensitive topic. Most people agree that physical violence against children is unnecessary, counterproductive, and cruel; but it’s much less common to see the same said about emotional violence. Threats, isolation, guilt trips, intimidation, and public embarrassment are commonly used as disciplinary tactics, and they are usually more effective than physical discipline. Whether they are better for children is actually an open question.
Imagine that a child, Susie, is doing something undesirable — say, sticking her tongue out at the table, especially when said tongue has a full load of cheesy noodles on it. Here are some disciplinary options:
- Smack the child: physical violence. The most likely effect is that Susie will remember the beating more than the lesson, and, depending on Susie’s personality, harbor resentment or fear against the adult.
- Threaten to smack the child: emotional violence. This will have pretty much the same effect as an actual smack, but may be less memorable.
- Force Susie to sit by herself (physical isolation): physical and emotional violence. This is usually called a “time out”, which makes it sound like a nice little rest. The effect here varies with the age of the child. Very young children are instinctively afraid of being alone, and view it as a form of rejection. Older children may realize they are not being rejected, but may grow bored and chafe against the physical restriction. The result is fear in the first case, and resentment in the second case. (And oh yes — I have used this many times!)
- Telling Susie she should know better, the parent is disappointed, etc. — i.e. attempting to elicit feelings of guilt or shame: emotional violence. If this works, the child feels guilty; though it may backfire and cause resentment. (And yes, I have done this a lot, too.)
All of these may work, but if what you want is a child who cheerfully changes her behavior, none of these are optimal. Other than outright bribery (which is unappealing for other reasons), what else could be done? I think it varies with the age of the child.
If Susie is old enough, she should simply be calmly presented with a choice: if she doesn’t stop, then there will be a consequence. The intent here is not to create fear or shame in the child, but to let them know why the behavior is unacceptable, and what will happen if it continues. The nature of the consequence is crucial; it should be matched with the misbehavior. For example, if Susie can’t act right at the dinner table, then a reasonable consequence is that she will not be taken out to restaurants in the future, since restaurants do not allow that kind of behavior.
If Susie is too young to appreciate this subtle logical consequence, then she may be too young to be expected to control the behavior. In that case, either she should not be expected to follow the rule, or she should be removed from situations which tempt her to break it.
The Big Dog
Other situations where we struggle for social dominance — such as at work — frequently present us with fewer options. Giving the boss a smack to get him to raise your salary is not generally advisable; and it may seem as if emotional manipulation is the only way to achieve our goals. However, it is worth thinking long and hard as to whether those goals are worth compromising the emotional well-being of others.
Is emotional violence ever justified?
Sometimes Spirit itself presents us with isolation, public humiliation, guilt and shame… And many times these situations are among our most powerful teachers. Is Spirit itself engaging in emotional violence? Not necessarily. Is Spirit really the cause of these situations? Or do we call them upon ourselves?
Perhaps there some people who cannot (at present) learn without fear. Does this mean that emotional pain is the only way certain lessons can be learned? Is this the only way Spirit can get our attention?
My intuition is that no lesson must be learned with fear or emotional violence, but subconsciously we may be demanding that Spirit teach us in this way. I don’t know why that should be, though.
The Effects of Emotional Violence
In the article on physical violence, I argued that since physical pain was temporary and short in the context of the many lives of the soul, that the self-defense of the victim was less important than the lesson that the perpetrator needed to learn, and that might be more compassionate for the victim to choose to accept — in fact, encourage — the violence.
However, I’m not certain that the same logic holds for emotional violence.
- The evolved and enlightened mind cannot be a victim of emotional violence, for no unwanted emotions can be elicitied in it. If you have sufficiently practiced your meditations against fear, no amount of threats, intimidation, isolation, or guilt-tripping will have any effect. No such impregnable fortress can be built against physical violence.
- But if emotional violence does work, its effects may last long after the death of the physical body. This makes it much harder to justify the pain involved to the victim.
It would seem, then, that self-defense is essential for cases of emotional violence.
What defense is there against emotional violence?
The simplest answer is just to eliminate fear. You are the one who decides what you will feel; therefore, if you decide to eliminate your fear, you are impervious to emotional violence. Training to be fearless is as long and arduous a process as learning martial arts or any physical defensive technique, but every bit of progress helps, and the rewards are immeasurable. I will discuss this more in depth in an article I’ll make available later this week.
Protecting others from emotional violence.
If you want to protect someone from emotional violence, there are only two ways to do it:
- Physically remove them from the violence
- Teach them how to defend themselves from it
Notice that if the person doesn’t WANT to be liberated, then the liberation itself is violence, and shouldn’t be directly attempted.
For example, if Frank is browbeaten by his father for smashing up the family car, and Frank feels like he deserves the guilt and shame his father is serving up to him, then attempting to cheer him up or teach him self-defense techniques is at best a waste of time, and at worst emotional violence.
The path to peace for Frank is not straightforward. His friends and spirit guides may help him work on some other area — say, his self-esteem — which will eventually change his mind about wanting to be browbeaten. Then — and only then — will he allow himself to learn the necessary emotional self-defense techniques.
So if Spirit does try to avoid emotional violence, this may partly explain the convoluted paths — the unlikely chains of coincidences, the years of uncertainty –that many sprit guides seem to use to teach us our lessons. They can’t just smack us over the head with the lesson book, because that would be emotional violence. Perhaps they have to lead us, step by step and crisis by crisis, to the point where we can ask for and accept the help we need.