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More PsychNotes: Communication

June 13, 2016       

When Emotional Reasoning Interferes With Having a Dialog About Micro-aggressions
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

one car saying to another "That hurts!"--the other responds "You're too sensitive!"
People have become polarized on the topic of micro-aggressions. In case you aren't familiar with micro-aggressions, the term refers to attitudes, behaviors, and comments that are hurtful and discriminatory but may be too subtle to clearly identify. Read my article 5 Common Micro-aggressions Against Those With Mental Illness for additional description.

Instead of looking reasonably at the issue and finding the common middle ground, this polarization causes people on both sides of the issue to react more aggressively.

On one side is: “This is ridiculous! People are too sensitive! I can't be aware of every subtle thing I do that could offend someone.”

On the other side is: “People choose to be unaware of their bigotry and hurtful behavior. They should be punished and maybe they'll be more careful.”

Instead, as I often preach, the answer is somewhere in the middle. Micro-aggression is a very real problem but people can go too far in their expectations. People do need to be more aware of how subtle behaviors and comments can be hurtful. However, the victims of micro-aggression need to examine their expectations of others and rather than being accusatory they might focus on educating people about micro-aggressions and developing more compassion.

Unfortunately, accusations and blame tend to create more polarization. People on both sides use the irrational thought process of emotional reasoning to justify their position. The emotional reasoning style of thinking is “If I feel something, it must be true.” Instead of evaluating an emotion for accuracy a person automatically accepts it as valid.

However, just because someone feels something doesn't make it true. For instance, sometimes we have certain emotional reactions due to past experiences that trigger a reaction in a similar, but not the same, situation. So if a person was sexually violated, that person may feel violated when someone brings up the topic of rape in a classroom. Or, if someone was mugged at gunpoint they may feel threatened by someone's discussion of gun rights. However, in these instances, the person was not violated by the discussion even though the emotion of violation was triggered.

On the other hand, when a person feels blamed and shamed by a discussion about micro-aggressions it doesn't mean that person has been targeted as bigoted or evil. It's possible the discussion might be about developing more awareness and compassion for people, not about trying to blame or control behavior. Their emotional reaction may be due to protecting the self-concept and not about any personal attack. Most people want to feel good about themselves so they try to protect themselves from seeing that their behavior might be hurtful.

So, to have a discussion on this topic (as is true of many topics) people need to move beyond the emotional reaction. The best way to do this is to examine your own emotional reaction. People are often good at examining others' reactions and telling others they are unreasonable and emotional. However, that is not effective for resolution of a problem. Alternatively, by identifying when you are reacting with emotional reasoning you can begin to listen and understand the other's point of view. In this way people can become less polarized and a reasonable discussion of micro-aggressions can ensue.

Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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