When Discomfort Silences: The Importance of Owning Your Feelings

In Emi Koyama’s short and brilliant essay from 2011, Reclaiming “victim”: Exploring alternatives to the heteronormative “victim to survivor” discourse, she addresses the societal issue with the identifying as a victim.

Many people prefer the word “survivor” to “victim” because “survivor” feels strong and proactive. I understand that, as that is precisely how I felt for a long time also, but I am starting to think that we need to honor and embrace weakness, vulnerability, and passivity as well, or else we end up blaming and invalidating victims (including myself) who do not feel strong some or most of the times.

The society views victimhood as something that must be overcome. When we are victimized, we are (sometimes) afforded a small allowance of time, space, and resources in order to recover–limited and conditional exemptions from normal societal expectations and responsibilities–and are given a different set of expectations and responsibilities that we must live up to (mainly focused around getting help, taking care of ourselves, and recovering). “Healing” is not optional, but is a mandatory process by which a “victim” is transformed into a “survivor”; the failure to successfully complete this transformation results in victim-blaming and sanctions.

This is the so-called “victim role,” an extension of sociologist Talcott Parsons’ theory of “sick role.” The society needs victims to quickly transition out of victimhood into survivorship so that we can return to our previous positions in the heteronormative and capitalist social and economic arrangements. That, I believe, is the source of this immense pressure to become survivors rather than victims, a cultural attitude that even many feminist groups have internalized.

I have to be careful, lest I quote the whole essay because it’s all worth reading. So go read it.

The ONE issue I have with it that really needs to be addressed is in her final paragraph:

I argue that feminist anti-violence movements and communities must embrace unproductive whining and complaining as legitimate means of survival in a world that cannot be made just by simply changing our individual mentalities. We must acknowledge that weakness, vulnerability, and passivity are every bit as creative and resilient as strength and activeness.

A hearty and grand hear-hear to acknowledging the importance of weakness, vulnerability, and passivity. It is the idea, however, that whining and complaining are unproductive that needs to be addressed.

I argue that whining and complaining ARE productive. They ARE legitimate and important forms of emotional self-expression. Yes, people can seem to get stuck there for longer than we’d like, sometimes for longer than they’d like, sometimes they can be stuck there for the rest of their lives. BUT this essay is not about that; it’s about everyone else around them.

The problem with whining and complaining being seen as unproductive is that it shows that the listeners, the supporters, are NOT dealing with their own discomfort and are not taking ownership over their own feelings. What happens is that they then either blame the victim by telling the victim to stop whining and complaining because the victim is making them uncomfortable and that no one wants to hear it, telling the victim that it’s unproductive and that she needs to pull out of it and move on, or they begin avoiding the “complainer”, instead of doing the courageous thing of owning up to their own discomfort. Avoidance isolates the victim. Poorly handling your discomfort isolates the victim.

When we do not own up to our own feelings of discomfort and openly share where our own boundaries are, we do a great disservice to our friends (or clients) and to ourselves.

“I know you need to express where you’re at emotionally and I don’t want to silence you. I want to support you. I need to share that I’m having a difficult time with what I perceive as being whining and complaining and I’m stuck between wanting to tell you to stop and wanting to not be around you. I don’t want you to feel like you can’t talk to me and I also don’t want to abandon you. I don’t really know what to do about this, except to share where I’m at emotionally with what you’re sharing with me.”

Diligent care needs to be taken in situations like these because even in owning your feelings, you may come up against a response from your friend wherein she feels that your emotional expression is passive aggressive manipulation or blackmail or she feels shut down because you have a problem with how she is expressing her situation. There is no easy answer to this. There aren’t any magical formulas. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t own where you are. Please keep in mind, though, that owning where you are and expressing that to your friend-in-need are two different things. Ownership is recognition and acknowledgement that you feel a certain way because that’s how you feel, rather than putting the onus on others not to make you feel a certain way. No one has control over how you feel. Likewise, you cannot control how others feel.

When we fail to have good boundaries and when we fail to engage in the self-care of owning our own discomfort, we end up victim-blaming, isolating, and abandoning our friends who are looking to us for much-needed support.

They already feel the weight of shame and anger and violation and fear/terror and a host of other things they have a hard time dealing with. Do not dump your issues on them and make them contend with your stuff AND their stuff.

How not to say the wrong thing by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman shows how to deal with your own issues when tending to a friend in a hard situation: It works in all kinds of crises — medical, legal, even existential. It’s the ‘Ring Theory’ of kvetching. The first rule is comfort in, dump out. Read it. Deal with your own stuff as related to your friend’s difficult situation so it doesn’t make things worse for your friend. Take care of your own needs.

Why is it important to deal with your own discomfort? Because in whining and complaining, a victim is expressing and vocalizing her emotional perspective. When you tell her to move on or to stop being a victim, when you tell her to stop her “unproductive” complaining because you don’t want to hear it, because “no one wants to hear it”, you are contributing to her victimization by silencing her. Don’t do this. Victims are so often deprived of their voice. Be supportive as they work to take it back.