There is a variation on ‘Not All Men.’
It is called ‘I Feel Bad When You Say That.’
My godson Kyle is six. He is fairly emotionally perceptive for his age, as his grownups have been working with him to create an emotionally responsible and self-aware boy who we hope will grow into an emotionally responsible and self-aware man.
He knows at six that when you hurt someone, you go back right away and own, apologize, and do repair. For him that can mean if he hurts his friend while playing, he (ideally under his own initiative) is expected to promptly name what he did, apologize sincerely and lovingly, and ask his friend what he needs, or how he can help make things right between them: a hug, a high five, an offer to play. He is taught to listen to the needs and feelings of the other and act in a responsive way.
He is being encouraged to develop and express his empathic capacities, capacities he will need as a man. Whether with his parents, his friends at school, or his baby sister who cannot even speak yet, he is being taught to hear and notice how other people feel, to empathize and connect, to watch cues, and to act like someone aware of and able to embody his relational responsibilities.
He is also being taught that he is not shameful.
When he does something wrong, his adults show him how to make it right and they also let him know they love him and he is good just as he is. He is loved and good, he did a thing that hurt someone, and he has to make it right. These are not mutually exclusive, but connected.
As he learns, sometimes he mixes things up.
Sometimes he can’t tell the difference between him feeling bad because he hurt somebody, and feeling bad because someone hurt him.
Kyle and his dad are at the table. Kyle is restless and grouchy about having fruit for dessert when he wanted ice cream. He is kicking. He is six, he has a lot of energy, when he gets frustrated he still sometimes flails and needs help knowing how to express his anger in good ways. His mum tells him, “are you feeling angry because you wanted ice cream? It’s ok to feel angry. I hear you. All of your feelings are good. It’s not ok to kick people, though. If you feel angry you can say ‘I feel angry!’ You’re always allowed to feel anything you want, but kicking is not ok.”
Kyle, still flailing, kicks his dad on the shin.
At the end of his rope – but still modelling for his son how to handle anger – his dad says “You know what Kyle, my feelings are hurt because you kicked me. I don’t want to sit next to you right now.” And he goes to a different room. Because this is a securely attached family, he is still available if Kyle wants him, and he is not going far and not going for long. Kyle runs off to his room.
Meanwhile, Kyle’s mum says “Kyle, you kicked dad, come back and say sorry and make it right.”
Kyle comes back to his mum, crying, and says very intensely, his cute six-year-old face expressive and utterly for real:
“You said I kicked dad! You’re saying I’m bad! That hurts my feelings! You have to say sorry!”
This moment is a kind of hilarious moment, for the adults. He is using precisely the language we teach him to use (name hurtful action, name your feelings, ask for repair), except…
It is a good learning moment, for Kyle.
We can’t laugh. It’s tempting, but we don’t.
This logic is impeccable. Impeccable like a… like something snarky I can’t repeat.
Let’s slow this down, sports-replay style:
Kyle kicks dad.
Parent says: “Kyle, you kicked dad.”
So far so good.
Kyle says: “You said I kicked dad!”
That hurts my feelings!
You have to say sorry!”
He is kind of getting the point? Except kind of not getting it at all?
He actually thinks that his bad feeling at being told he kicked his father is the same thing as the kick itself.
The thing is that Kyle is absolutely genuine in his distress, upset and crying. He really means what he is saying.
He hasn’t made this connection yet, and we have to make it for him.
He is glowering intensely, crying, genuinely needing to be heard and his great big eyes expressing his fury, fear, and confusion, as only a six year old can do.
What is the appropriate response here?
He is growing, and we guide his growing, like a young tree.
His mum, suppressing a mix of bemused laughter and exasperation, hugs him, and says, carefully:
“Kyle, it is true that we teach you no one is bad.
I love you and you are good.
But you did kick dad.
It is ok for you to hear that, and I do not need to apologize.
Now go say sorry and make it right.”
She is absolutely firm on this. She does not apologize for naming his actions or their effects, and she corrects his mixing up of one thing with another. He has to learn this at some point if he is ever going to be an accountable man.
What if Kyle had not had such emotionally skilled parents? What if instead, they had actually shamed him by telling him he is bad, as many of our direct ancestors often have done? What if they silenced him, or coddled him and gave in, or all of the above? Kids need safe, sturdy, unbreakable and loving containers to grow into in order to grow up whole, emotionally healthy and accountable human beings.
What happens if no one helps him grow out of this? He comes from a family of physically big men and he is already a head taller than the other kids his age. He will be full grown early, and he already is ‘big’ to the kids his own age.
What if he had made it all the way to adulthood with this confusion intact? This may sound absurd, but I see this same confusion play out among adults, particularly when we begin to pull back the veil of unearned privileges that mask power in our society. I see this play out in masculinity, in whiteness.
As a white person who does antiracism education in the university classroom I am not unfamiliar with this phenomenon.
My impression, based on what I have perceived directly and based on what I have learned over time from IBPOC organizers about what is seen and unseen, is that this same attack posture is present in most white people when we encounter the fact of colonization, race and racism, and our complicity in both of these.
If we cannot feel ‘comfortable’ while grappling with the reality of colonization, or if we cannot have our bubble of ego preserved and coddled while we learn the hard facts about racism, we expect that it is somehow normal that we can go on the attack, and expect the people experiencing harm to coddle and apologize to us, rather than being responsible for our own feelings and making ourselves accessible and available to finally come to hear and see things that are happening every day to human beings all around us that our privilege lets us ignore.
When Kyle is 20, or 30, or 40, or 60, and harms someone by action or omission, where will the ‘parent’ be who can say “you are good and loved and not shameful, and you did this thing, now stop acting like an ass and go make it right.”?
I ran into this again recently when a group of people close to me called in a man who was acting in psychologically abusive ways towards me. He recognized on some level he had done this harm, and expressed massive amounts of guilt that seemed to make him resentful and angry, but showed no empathy, and took absolutely no ownership or accountability. He left it up to everyone else to do his emotional work for him as he resentfully (and barely) went along. Instead of owning, apologizing, and offering repair, he continually centred himself and his intentions.
Stuck in guilt and resentment, he seemed to have no inner guide that would lead him to want to empathize with the person he had harmed, or to own, apologize, or make it right – all the ways we come back into alignment with our integrity when we have acted outside it.
Instead, after pretending to do process for a bit, sabotaging it by making it clear he was ‘standing near the exit’ about to bolt at any time, and didn’t really have any desire to hear, he went on the attack and told us all to stop talking, even to one another, or we would be “hearing from his lawyers.” Not because anything we had said was untrue, but because he “felt so bad” at hearing himself “described in this way” that when he could no longer control the narrative, he needed to silence the person he had harmed and all those around her. Never mind his lauded ‘ally’ identity and his many books about organizing: when push came to shove, he could not initiate or actively step in to wanting to do accountability simply because it made him too uncomfortable to try to understand or grow from what he had done.
There is a quality in guilt that paralyzes. Worse, it leads those who feel it to lash out, like pythons or like some kind of wild animal guarding a nest of self-loathing. Do not look at the man behind the curtain, says the guilt, or I will attempt to destroy you just to stop you from getting near the core of my shame.
This is the demon that I feel arising in my classroom around week three as we talk about the hard facts of colonization, of our collusion with it for those of us who are settlers, and that it has not ended but is ongoing. This kind of wild serpent of fear and danger arises in the back of the room and if I have done my job well, the students having these inner demons will come talk to me during office hours, saying wildly racist and historically inaccurate things. Even as I am on my own path of learning and unlearning, I listen and listen and try to help identify reality and where it diverges from their inner wildlings of shame. I do my best to siphon their demons out of the classroom but I am aware that depending on the topic at hand Indigenous or POC students in these classrooms are often asked to feel perpetually, extremely uncomfortable and to get traumatized by having to be in these spaces, just so white students don’t have to experience even momentary discomfort. I see it as part of my job to notice this massive discrepancy is happening, that it is naturalized. I see it as my job to empathize with, hear, and to the best of my ability guard the safety of those whom the classroom is not designed to serve and whose safety is structurally not seen as a priority. This is surprisingly challenging as my own subject position conditions me to notice the needs of the students from dominant backgrounds, who don’t even realize everything and everyone is centered around them.
I can do this with white people about racism or colonization because I am not paying the personal cost in my body of being attacked as they work out feelings of shame and guilt over beginning to learn about systemic realities that shape our lives. I can coddle and placate (cough… empathize) and then find their edge, what they are willing to hear, and then offer a wider lens, because I am not in my body personally bearing the brunt of the violence.
I cannot do it with men.
As a woman I cannot ignore my body’s deep, deep awareness of men’s potential to explode, attack, or flee if I pipe up about a thing they did that caused harm and that may as a result invoke guilt. I have been raised to sense that shit by the microsecond and act preemptively to coddle and placate and soothe the guilt before it can become a poisonous snake about to lunge at me, or an abandoning friend about to leave when I need them most.
The cost to my body of coddling a scary, angry, fragile ego – coddling it to make sure it does not attack or abandon me – is so incredibly great that I cannot do this kind of coddling any longer. I realize I have been doing it instinctively for a long time.
If you harm someone and then make it so that they feel afraid to tell you about it, be aware that women are likely coddling you constantly day in and day out in ways that exhaust them and that you take as normal and do not even notice. If you do this as a white person to people of colour, be aware of the same. As Black feminist thinkers such as Audre Lorde have long observed and articulated, it is so taken for granted in this culture that those who face systemic oppression will constantly placate those who are dominant that this is seen as perfectly unremarkable by those with more power, while those doing the placating have silence – and exhaustion, and trauma’s many bodily impacts – as their shelter and companion.
You can live your life unaware of this. But do you really want to continue to live so oblivious to the emotions and experiences of the people around you?
If you harm someone and then when they tell you about it, you are more focussed on the fact that your feelings are hurt than on the fact that you have caused harm, can you stop and ask yourself if that is an adult response? Do you have your own inner desire to understand when you harm others?
If your answer is yes, then what do you do to live that desire and make yourself available for it? Have you let those around you know how you would like to know when you have caused harm? Is the answer, I want to know in theory, because I like that people think of me as a great feminist, but I have not actually developed a good way to help people speak up or to hear it, in real life?
If you want a good concrete thing you can do right now, here is a wonderful Pod Mapping project from the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective. It asks you who your people are who you would want to call you on it if you behaved in an abusive way. If you can’t think of anyone you would want to call you on abusive behaviour, or your response is ‘I don’t need that, I would never cause harm,’ than this is for you. If you consider yourself a feminist, ask yourself why you haven’t already initiated something of the sort, and fill this out. Make it available to every ex you have, and to any current or future partner/s: https://batjc.wordpress.com/pods-and-pod-mapping-worksheet/
This is the meaning of the phrase “Your allyship is meaningless if it isn’t accountable.”
If you are the kind of person who likes to know when you have caused harm, then there are some valuable questions about how to make that real: how do you invite this information, how do you welcome it, how do you thank those who help you grow this way, if they have to tell you because you have not figured it out for yourself? Do you realize just how scary it can be to tell you, before they know how you will react? Do you mix up their fear of you for anger? Is their fear in any way justified? How can you make sure it is not?
If your focus is more on the fact that harm got named than it is on the harm itself, does this strike you as at all peculiar?
Depending on the severity and longevity of the harm, and the body’s silencing effects when trauma occurs, do you make it the responsibility of those you have harmed to tell you ‘in a nice way’?
Is it possible they have tried to tell you in a nice way, and you have clapped your hands over your ears or made it hard for them, and eventually they lose the capacity to be ‘nice’ while they are getting harmed? If you think back – really think back – how long were they trusting you and quietly asking you for help and empathy and support and compassion and honesty before they lost their buffer of capacity to speak kindly while drowning?
How long did you hear those requests and not-really-hear them? Imagine how it feels to speak and find it is as if you haven’t spoken. Not that people don’t ‘believe’ you but that they actually can not hear you, as though you are speaking gibberish or not speaking at all. As though in a nightmare where you ask for help and everyone answers as though you have said something else, where you say “ow that is injuring me stop” and those around you reply, “Oh, yes I see, I like oranges also, have a nice day!”
Put yourself in those shoes: how long, how many days and weeks and months, would you retain your sanity while speaking kindly and asking for harm to stop and having it seem as though you had not spoken at all?
Coming up from underwater into speaking up isn’t always pretty. What if one of the effects of trauma is that after naming and naming calmly without being heard for so long, or after having the words get trapped in the still waters of their body, they can no longer speak, and can only scream?
Just as Indigenous students and students of colour in literature classes are somehow expected to be quietly, constantly unsafe and deeply out of their comfort zones just to make sure white students do not experience a moment’s discomfort – while the white students think everyone is having the same experience they are and do not notice this is happening – if you make it hard for people around you to let you know you have caused harm, you’re going to invoke survival strategies in your friends and colleagues when you think you’re just having a regular hangout with your friend.
This is the block to accountability that leads many of us to quietly placate men in ways they take for granted and think are normal. With certain men who have not owned that this guilt or shame script is inside them, this placating others do for them is so continuous and so normalized that they seem to take as a given that women around them will handle their emotions for them, and they don’t even see it happening. I have recently understood that men I have to do this for are not men I can trust. Because if they harm me, they expect me to remain silent about the harm, and they expect me to remain silent about the fact of remaining silent, so that they don’t have to feel bad, so that I don’t feel scared of them. This is given as the normal state of affairs. As the saying goes, when you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
Here’s another example. When I was a little girl, my father would have random multi-hour rages for what he perceived as slights or insults. Later I learned there is a word for this, but at the time all I knew was confusion. Outside our family he could be charming, charismatic, friendly. He reserved his true self for behind closed doors.
An insult to him could be anything from how we sat in our chair, or how we moved our bodies, to not coming to the door late at night to greet him with a kiss when he arrived home, even if we were already in bed – or asleep.
He could feel personally insulted by things he witnessed between my friends and me while we were playing, that had nothing to do with him at all. What he would perceive as an ‘insult’ was completely random, and completely unpredictable.
He was a large man. Once he had been ‘insulted,’ he could scream, full volume, uninterrupted, for several hours. Sometimes two, sometimes four or five. Uninterrupted screaming. It was impossible to predict how long a rage would last once it began. His face bright red as he swelled up like an enormous, angry balloon.
While this was happening to us we had to sit perfectly still, not moving, not making any facial expressions. We did not go to the bathroom or drink water or eat while this was happening. We had to listen, and agree – but agreeing with a wrong facial expression, nodding the wrong way, could get him to expand and blow up further, so the safest thing to do was to stay perfectly, perfectly still, with the perfect neutral but agreeing expression, for however many hours until he was done. He did this regularly, all the years of my childhood.
I learned to keep a very smooth expression in his presence, to be very still, to have whatever body language or emotion he wanted. Mainly he liked when his daughter acted happy. His idea of how a girl ought to behave is pretty and happy and subservient and devoted.
If I felt afraid of him, he would scream he felt ‘bad’ that I was afraid. Somehow this was supposed to make him a good person.
There was probably guilt, in there, somewhere. Shame, certainly, deep down.
That didn’t help us.
Guilt is not empathy. Neither is shame. In fact, when people feel overwhelmed by their own inner feelings of guilt, they are more likely to attack the people around them rather than act empathetic. Feeling guilt does not make you a good person. Empathy and responsiveness make you a good person. Guilt blocks empathy.
Sometimes he would say he felt ‘bad’ that I was telling him he was a ‘bad father,’ and I had to say ‘no, no, you’re a wonderful father,’ to make sure he would not attack me.
He would scream things like “children all love me! I am wonderful with children!” or whatever other narrative he intended to terrorize us into accepting as real. And he was good with other people’s children – charismatic, playful, childlike. As long as he was having fun, and not responsible for their physical or emotional safety, he was good with children. Just not with us. But wait, no, he was. Or was he. I couldn’t tell. He terrorized us until we demonstrated complete internalization of his fantasy structure.
And we did. Whatever he said. His control over reality was absolute. I became foggy, dissociated, not-there, and whatever he needed me to do or feel, I did or felt until I could get away. But it was impossible to get it right. The paranoia over ‘insults’ was a thing in him. It had nothing to do with me. No matter how hard I tried, there was no way to get it right.
Afterwards we would hear that we are afraid of him, we hurt his feelings. He felt that we don’t love him enough.
I would have to find a way to ‘make it up’ to him. I would actually apologize to him for having felt afraid. Because my hurt and fear hurt his feelings.
In the world he created, his fantasy structure – loving, devoted, happy and well-cared for daughters – was the only one that was allowed, and deviation from that fantasy structure by any of us created terror and raging until everyone fell back in line.
I left at 20 years old and while I am close with the rest of my family, and tried for many years to set workable boundaries that he inevitably crossed, eventually I have had to accept that with him there is only the fragile narcissist’s ego, and there is no repair that can be done.
After explaining healthy relating to him for decades, I eventually had to accept there is no reasonable person in there who can empathize with another human being. I have had to accept that with him, I have left, and I have not looked back.
I can no longer manage or coddle fragile male egos. I can no longer come to the door to give my angry father a kiss, in my incredibly vulnerable white cotton nightie and my bare feet, the sleep half-rubbed out of my six-year old eyes, feeling the secret tremor of fear stiffen and shake my body as I paste a smile on my face (hoping it is convincing as my true self exits my body and floats somewhere up near the ceiling) and kiss his cheek, because if he notices my fear, if he feels disrespected, he could pull me out of bed in the middle of the night to make me demonstrate how much I honour him by screaming into my tiny face until I do.
I have run into this – ‘I feel hurt that you are scared of me’ – with cops, and it struck me how similar it was. At a demo about police brutality once where the cops were detaining people and beating people up, a cop in full riot gear, with his viser up, said to me ‘What about me? You hurt my feelings when you’re scared of me. My feelings are hurt. That is as important as your feelings, isn’t it?’ when I said he was scaring me.
How do we get here, with adult men unable to differentiate narcissistic injury from actual harm? How do we get here where an adult man – a lover, a friend, a parent, a partner – can cause serious harm, and when that harm is named, can clap their hands over their ears and say “I’m not listening! I feel angry because you’re saying I hurt you! It hurts me too much to hear what I did to you! Go away shut up stop talking La La La Not Listening!”
Thankfully, I don’t have to do this with most of the men in my life, the ones who take their ally work seriously and are thirsty to learn, the ones who understand what accountability looks like, and who make it their business and do not wait for others to drag them along into it.
I do have to do it with guys who have not taken ownership of their own reactions. If a guy has not realized that women are doing this emotional management for him, I no longer feel safe alone with him.
I have run into it when I said “I am asking for empathy” from the person who did this to me, in front of several of our mutual friends, and instead of acting empathetic, he glared as he said “I feel lots of empathy.” As though he was more concerned with maintaining a narrative of himself than he was with actually responding in an empathic way. Saying the words because you feel guilt over a missing capacity does not make the words true.
Empathy can trump guilt.
It looks like this:
Own. Apologize. Repair.
Say, “Here is what I did. I did this thing, and that thing, and this thing. They’re fucked up because …”
Imagine replacing guilt with curiosity. Imagine saying “wow, it is so cool to recognize what I did. I’m excited I can hear you and grow. I did this, I did that, here is why it is fucked up, I’m so excited to learn how to come back into integrity with you, I’m so happy I can do this, that it is ok to fuck up and say sorry and learn together. This owning warms my heart.”
Own. Completely. Do not hide what you have done. Then ask “Have I got you? Do I understand?” and let the person clarify. Mirror until you get it. Give this the time that the person harmed feels is needed.
Say, “Wow, thank you for sharing that with me. I know how hard it can be to share something like this, I’m really grateful you took that risk, and I’m taking it to heart. Here is what I’m going to do – concrete practical things – to make sure I get better about this in the future. Does that address the need?”
For some, empathy may take effort, focus, or concentration. True empathy is not theoretical or abstract, it is a physiological relating with other human beings, stepping fully and deeply into experiences that are different from yours. If you find that empathy takes focus, then accept that you may have to cultivate this capacity within yourself, and do not lay this responsibility at the feet of anyone else. You can own that your empathic capacity is currently still limited, and develop a daily practice of expanding it in demonstrable ways as part of being accountable to those you have harmed.
More by the same author:
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Hold me Tight, Sue Johnson
Wired for Love, Stan Tatkin
A General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon
Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks
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Addendum: Readers have asked if Kyle is being forced to eat the fruit, and/or if dinner was food that he liked. Nobody is making him eat anything here, just to be totally clear. He has dessert regularly and they have kid-friendly food he likes at supper. He’s actually a really adventurous eater with an amazing cook for a dad and he eats as much or as little as he likes as long as he eats something reasonably healthy. They offer him food he enjoys at dinner all the time. This is just a dinner where they’re not having ice cream for dessert because they are trying not to have sugar every day, and so sometimes dessert is fruit, sometimes it’s ice cream or other sweet things. (That’s how come he knows there is ice cream in the house! It just wasn’t on the dinner plan that day.) For those who wondered.
Have also had a bunch of questions about ‘why Gollum?’ The picture is so uncomfortable to look at. I think I was trying to capture the discomfort of shame. Gollum is a kind of shame-hobbit. He once was a hobbit, like any other hobbit, but his discovery of the ring changed him, and sent him underground to a watery cave where he lives in the dark, like a secret, living off greed, loneliness, and raw fish. He is often discussed as the mirror of the Hobbits, their secret shame, or what we become when we are, or feel, unloved.
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