It was supposed to be a post on safewords and empathy and then I suddenly started to talk about bullying

What are safewords?

I think safewords are merely an explicit version of implicit clues which we all learn (or should learn) as kids. Safewords are a safety net which catches you in the case of empathy failures.

Most people only know safewords from a BDSM context. Think about this situation, though: Two kids are playing house, the “mother” tells the “kid” to go to bed, the “kid” doesn´t want to. “Mother” becomes all strict. “Yes, you go to bed now or you won´t get lunch tomorrow!” The other kid starts to cry and yells: “You´re stupid! I´m not playing anymore!”

That is a very explicit way of stating that you´re leaving one level of interaction and move on to another. Later, it gets more difficult. Two teens teasing a mutual friend should know where to draw the line between friendly banter and real hurt. If they do, that is: The friend perceives their teasing as good-natured and isn´t hurt, then they´re doing it right. Banter is some sort of play, as it is a playful fight. If it goes wrong, though…

The victim might feel hurt and at the same time deem it unwise to let it show. That´s very much me. One minute I´m on the same page with everyone, the next moment I don´t trust them anymore. I don´t trust that if I let them know they hurt me they won´t use this against me. Which might be understandable because it happened to me. I guess most people have experienced situations in which even crying didn´t make their opponent stop. Or maybe they haven´t? No idea. Maybe they were able to fight back, tell their opponent to fuck off or something.

The victim might also get angry, and this might make her friends angry because it seems unfair – they didn´t want to do harm, they didn´t mean what they said and one minute ago they had ALL been okay with this and now they look like complete villains. I´ve been in such a situation as well: You don´t want to invalidate the other person´s emotional response, but on the other hand you think it´s inappropriate to portray you like a villain. If you contradict, though, you risk becoming a villain. If someone is hurt, he´s hurt and there´s no point telling him he´s overreacting. It´s actually mean to do so. Still, if you didn´t mean to hurt him and didn´t expect something you did to hurt him, is it fair that you have to share his perspective on the whole thing? Should you have to think of yourself as a villain?

At best, you realize a change in the “victim´s” behavior before your banter becomes hurtful. You realize that apparently it´s getting too much and then you stop and show the other person that you don´t want to hurt her or mean anything you say before she explodes, cries or withdraws. I guess that´s how empathy works in real life. It´s impossible to have safewords in such situations. Safewords require a certain kind of meta-communication, where you talk about what level you´re interacting on. You don´t have that meta-communication with everyone. You need to read implicit clues, and that requires empathy. Empathy is what you need if you don´t want to become guiltlessly guilty.


If you give implicit clues of distress and people override them, what follows is inner conflict. You´re hurt, but you don´t know if you´re righteously angry because maybe they didn´t intend to hurt you? Still it hurts, so isn´t it normal to be angry? Do they have to be so insensitive? Still, haven´t you hurt people in your life? Who knows what you overlooked, who knows how miserable you´ve made people! But you can´t always walk on eggshells, can you? In that case, though, I can´t demand that other people do this. I shouldn´t react so strongly, why do I have to be so bloody sensitive?

This is what happens to me nowadays if someone hurts me. 1) I hurt. 2) I am angry. 3) I think I have no right to be angry. 4) I think that I´m being a doormat. 5) I crumble under a mountain of potential guilt. 6) I wonder if I´ll need to be hypervigilant in conversations for the rest of my life and always restrain myself. 7) I realize I can´t do this. 8) I think in that case I´ll need to accept that others hurt me.

If I look at it through the lense of different layers of interaction, this is a clear non-sequitur. I don´t need to accept that others hurt me. I can tell them they hurt me, though it might make sense to do so in a fashion that allows them to save face. I shouldn´t make them feel like villains because I don´t know yet if that´s what they are. If they signal that they didn´t mean to hurt me and that it dismays them they did, they´re okay. If they don´t care, I most definitely have a right to be angry. I guess that´s how I would ideally see it. It´s just that emotion-wise, it doesn´t work that way for me. When someone overrides my explicit clues of distress, I falter.

There is a good example in one of the diary excerpts I posted a while ago. Something Athena says makes me cry, she tells me my tears are an attempt at escaping, at deceiving myself, at pretending I´m a poor, suffering victim. My reaction was something akin to shock, and then heavy self-accusations. At first I couldn´t believe how she reacted, and then I grimly thought that I had to be one particularly soft, spoiled and childish piece of shit if I truly thought that crying could get me out of anything. Was I still stuck in the narcissistic phase? A little kid who won´t take responsibility? Was that Athena´s problem? No, she was perfectly right. My tears were just another proof of my weak character. My level of shock itself was ridiculous, it showed just HOW self-centered and naively demanding I was. But that was no surprise, I´d never suffered in my life because my parents had spoiled me to death, so of course now that I encountered real life I couldn´t cope with it. How embarrassing! How pathetic!

At the same time I knew contrary facts. I knew that my father had been the kind of person who, if faced with the smallest stressor, started to yell at people left and right. That´s not exactly what you call spoiling, or idyllic childhood. Neither were other experiences I´d had, though they had more to do with witnessing bad things happen to others. But somehow that didn´t seem to matter. I had a vague feeling that this was unfair, but maybe that feeling was just a sign of resistance? An expression of my fervent desire to somehow see myself as a victim?

When people override your explicit clues of distress, it´s scary to say the least. As a kid I once spend the night at a friend´s place, and when we were lying in bed in the dark bedroom, she suddenly started to parrot me. When I said something, she repeated it in a parody of my tone. At some point I said: “This isn´t funny anymore!” – “This isn´t funny anymore!” she replied. I tried various things. I tried to provoke her, I tried not to say anything for a while and then see if she´d reply normally if I said something, I tried to sound my most earnest. Nothing helped, and in the end I more or less begged her to stop. At that point I was already feeling first signs of genuine panic, otherwise I wouldn´t have been begging. It´s not like begging doesn´t hurt my pride, after all. I felt there was no way to remove myself from the situation without risking repercussions which seemed severe to a child. How would her parents react if I went to them late at night? How would my parents react if they had to pick me up? Would I be allowed to spend the night at hers again? Would she get into trouble and in turn be mad at me?

What was so bad about this was not that she parroted me. What was bad about it was my complete helplessness. There was nothing I could do about this. I think it´s experiences of helplessness that damage, not the circumstances in which they occur. When people override even explicitly stated distress and there is no way you can remove yourself from the situation, you´ll experience terror. I remember another situation with a different friend who was actually pinching me. When I told her to stop she pretended to stop for a while, then did it again. Again, I didn´t dare go to my or her parents about it. They were friends, after all. I´d be the cause of embarrassment. Someone would be bound to wish I didn´t exist, right? Could I really not take a little pinching? It might be a funny coincidence or a real connection, but I still can´t stand pinching. Well, sometimes I´ll take it for someone, but it freaks me out.

I guess someone who will ignore explicit clues of distress would also ignore a safeword – unless we´re talking about a BDSM scene where you have agreed that it´s okay to cause you genuine distress. I think psychotherapy kind of compares to staged non-con scenes: You kind of agree that it´s okay to deal with touchy subjects that might make you cry, or to use interventions which might make you want to run away or actively fight with your therapist. In order for this to be okay three requirements need to be fulfilled: You know what you´re getting into, you want to get into this, AND you know how to get back out there safely if you need to. And by getting back out there I don´t mean just quitting therapy. Getting back out there safely includes that within the therapeutic relationship there´s a level of communication where your therapist is straightforward, empathic and aiming to stabilize you. Where he aims for you to go out there feeling good about yourself. And okay with what transpired between you. And safewording should force your therapist to immediately switch to that level. After safewording, your therapist shouldn´t be allowed to keep on nailing you about your feelings on a touchy subject, or provoke you, or asking “why this is so important to you”. He simply has to accept it is important for the moment. And most importantly, he is not allowed to question your use of the safeword. No “could it be that by safewording you´re trying to run away from a difficult feeling?”! Some people might argue that this way patients can “abuse” their safewords to resist therapy, but the way I see it, you shouldn´t treat someone against his will unless his life is in imminent danger, end of. If they keep on safewording, then apparently the therapy approach in question doesn´t work for them. It´s better for them to leave and look somewhere else than to spend time and money (we´re talking years rather than months here!) on something that tortures or at least overwhelms them.

There´s probably a whole lot more to be said about nearly everything I wrote today, but I think that´s enough for now.










One Response to “It was supposed to be a post on safewords and empathy and then I suddenly started to talk about bullying”

  1. […] It was supposed to be a post on safewords and empathy and then I suddenly started to talk about bull… ( […]

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