When crying in therapy is a red flag – and when it isn’t

I used to cry (I mean weep, sob, have tears in eyes) sometimes when someone said something that made me feel understood. I used to often cry in therapy sessions. I liked crying in these cases; I felt I was working through things. I can see how some therapists might feel that they’re being successful if the person cries. Sometimes it’s that way. But they shouldn’t just do whatever makes someone cry. That could be very bad, too, I imagine.
Yes. Crying, in itself, is not a red flag. Crying in therapy *can* be a good thing.
What’s bad is when a therapist pursues getting someone to cry as an end in itself.

Some things I think I know about dirty jokes

This post I think is not quite right. It’s something I know a bit about, but there are parts I don’t understand too. Anyway, here are some things I think I know about dirty jokes.

Jokes about the following subjects are usually considered dirty (some of these jokes are relatively innocuous):

  • Sex
  • Masturbation
  • Genitals
  • Breasts
  • Defecation
  • Urination
  • Vomiting
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Doing drugs
  • These jokes can be good or bad, it depends on the joke, and the context in which it is told.

Rude jokes that are dirty because they deal with impolite subject matter can be ok to tell in some circumstances, but not others:

There are three basic situations in which these jokes are usually ok:

  • People who are social equals and have an equal friendship, and both like telling rude jokes to one another, or:
  • People in a profession that deals with impolite areas, making trade-related jokes to colleagues (eg: people who work concert security making jokes to one another about bodily functions and weird things people do at shows)
  • When someone is doing a comedy routine and other people are listening to it on purpose

It’s almost always a bad idea to tell rude jokes to people you have power over:

  • Partly this is because it’s not ok to tell rude jokes to people who dislike rude jokes. And people you have power over might not feel comfortable or safe telling you to stop.
  • It’s also threatening in a few ways that go beyond this.
  • Telling rude jokes is a sign that you regard someone as a social equal, and emphatically expect that they share that view
  • This can be a sign that you aren’t willing to acknowledge the power you have over them. That’s threatening.
  • It can also be sexually threatening. The rules about dirty jokes are part of the rules about sexual boundaries. Telling a dirty joke in an inappropriate contexts is often the first step a sexual predator takes in testing someone’s willingness to enforce sexual boundaries. Even if you have no such intent, telling a rude joke, especially a sexual rude joke, can be seen this way.
  • That’s especially true if when someone objects to the joke, you tell them to lighten up because it was just a joke.

There’s also another kind of dirty joke: the hate joke. Hate jokes are about hurting people. Hate jokes say bad things about other groups, or express violent desires, then make somewhat more socially acceptable by phrasing it as a joke:

  • Jokes that contain slur words are usually, but not always, hate jokes
  • Jokes that rely on asserting that stereotypes are true are usually hate jokes
  • For instance, dumb blonde jokes.
  • Or “ironic” racism (eg: telling a racist joke, where the joke is that it’s so hilarious that someone who is so not-racist would say such a thing)
  • Some hate jokes are explicitly violent.
  • That kind of joke normalizes violence. The violent abuser in that joke is the sympathetic character.
  • Hate jokes are only ok when it’s actually ok to hate the people the joke is about. That’s almost never the case. But sometimes hate jokes about an abuser, or general hate jokes about rapists, can be ok jokes to make.
  • There’s a difference between telling hate jokes with the intent of harming members of the target group, and telling hate jokes without active ill intent because you think they’re funny. But it’s a difference of degree, not kind.
  • Sometimes members of target groups tell hate jokes as a form of self-hatred. That’s also a difference of degree
  • Sometimes members of the target groups tell hate jokes as a way of mocking the way people hate them. This is a difference of kind, not degree.

Basically, the bottom line is that it still matters what you’re saying if you’re making a joke while you’re saying it.

“I would never abuse anyone!”

This kind of conversation is a major red flag:

  • Bob: I’m going to go to the mall.
  • Stan: Don’t go to the mall. I want you to stay home.
  • Bob: Um, why not? I need new trousers.
  • Stan: Why are you taking that tone?! Are you saying I’m abusive? You wouldn’t be upset if I wasn’t abusive, so you must think I’m abusing you. I’d never abuse anyone! How dare you?!

Another version:

  • Bob: Could you not make jokes about my weight? It makes me feel bad.
  • Stan: I would never do anything to hurt you! How dare you call this bullying!

It’s especially bad when:

  • It happens every time Stan and Bob want different things.
  • Because it gets to the point where it’s impossible for Bob to say no without accusing Stan of being abusive
  • Or where Bob can’t express a preference that conflicts with Stan’s. 
  • This means that Bob has to always do what Stan wants, or else call Stan a bad person
  • This is an awful way to live

In a mutually respectful relationship:

  • People want different things from time to time
  • People hurt each other in minor ways
  • People make mistakes, and need to be told about them
  • Everyone understands this, and can accept that their friend/partner/whatever wants something different, or is upset about something they did
  • They understand that wanting different things, or being upset about something, is not an accusation of abuse.

If someone close to you claims that you’re accusing them of being abusive every time you have a conflict with them, they probably are, in fact, being abusive.

More on good therapy

A good therapist will be honest about their qualifications, and respect your expertise.

For instance:

  • A good therapist will not claim to be an expert in gay issues just because they are a good person and don’t hate same sex couples
  • A good therapist will believe you about religious conflicts, and won’t attempt to dictate to you how to resolve them (eg: If you can’t eat certain things, or need to wear certain clothing around members of the opposite sex, or can’t do certain things on certain days).
  • A good therapist will be honest about which conditions they do and don’t have experience treating

All communities have predators

No place is inherently safe; every space ends up having predatory people in it.

Well-run communities/organizations/schools/whatever have things in place for dealing with this. And, from time to time, abusers hurt people, and the communities actually use the things they have in place for dealing with abuse.

And they will be able to tell you what those things are.

And if the community has been around for a years, they will be able to tell you about instances in which that has happened. (In general terms; they don’t have to (and usually shouldn’t) reveal identifying details).

If a school or business or something gives a training on harassment, and they can’t tell you what’s happened in the past when abuse has happened, and they only say “we take that very seriously”, it’s a major red flag.

If a community/school/whatever tells you that abuse can’t happen there because of how great people are, or how much training there is, or anything like that – that’s an even bigger red flag.

The safest communities are those that recognize that no space is safe all the time, and that it’s always necessary to be on the lookout for abuse.

Noticing when someone is using your triggers to disorient and confuse you

When someone is using your triggers to disorient and confuse you, it’s confusing. It can take a long time to figure out what’s going on.

Here are some things I think are red flags:

If someone seems to like you more when you’re triggered than when you’re in control, something is seriously wrong

  • For instance, if a therapist only listens to you when you’re sobbing and otherwise acts as though you couldn’t possibly understand anything about yourself
  • Or when a friend suddenly finds you fascinating when you’re triggered and they’re supporting you through it, but they half-ignore you most of the rest of the time

If someone feels entitled to discuss triggering subjects with you (absent an immediate practical reason to), something is seriously wrong:

  • For instance, if you say that you’d rather not discuss dogs right now because it’s triggering and you’re close to the edge already, and they say “but I thought we were friends! How can you shut me out like that?”
  • Or if a therapist tells you that you’ll never get better unless you are willing to discuss once again, in graphic terms, the ways people abused you – and they refuse to say, help you figure out whether the medication you are taking is working, or whether the side effects are dangerous, unless you do this over and over

If you end up triggered every time you try to reject personal advice, something is seriously wrong:

  • For instance, if someone regularly wants to tell you how to dress, and every time you try to wear something different, they push you until you end up sobbing and apologizing, something is wrong
  • This is particularly the case if they’re always bringing triggering things into a conversation that didn’t need to have anything to do with them
  • Your desire to wear a red hat rather than the blue on they want you to wear is probably because you want to wear a red hat
  • It’s very unlikely that it’s because you have no perspective on clothes because your abusers damaged you
  • And even if that was the reason, it would still be ok for you to prefer a red hat, and wrong for someone to try to force you to wear a blue one by triggering you

Beware of folks who trigger others on purpose

There are people who like other people to be intensely emotionally dependent on them. They like to control people through this emotional dependence. And they like to think of this control and forced dependence as understanding the target on a deep level, rescuing them, and helping them to heal.

One way this happens is that the controller will deliberately trigger the target over and over. And then get really good at triggering them and then comforting them. And this can – in the short term, make the target feel safe and understood. Because having someone react in a way that feels comforting when you’re triggered can be really reassuring, especially when people have reacted with fear or contempt in the past.

And it can be really hard to figure out that someone is intentionally and repeatedly triggering you. It can be *especially* hard to realize they’re doing this if they also have some actual insight about the issues you’re struggling with. And it can also be harder to understand what’s going on if they’re also supporting you in other ways, like offering a place to stay or help finding a job.

And the longer this goes on, the more they know about you. And the more they know, the more power they have to trigger you at will. And when you show independence, or do something they don’t want, or do something on your own initiative rather than relying on their help, or say no to help they’re offering – then they don’t react reasonably. They use your triggers to disorient you. They convince you that you don’t really understand anything that’s going on, and that you are just reacting to past traumas. And that in order to approximate being a real person, you have to rely on their judgement rather than yours.

A wide range of people do this. Sometimes it’s a friend. Sometimes it’s a licensed therapist with a good professional reputation. Someone’s it’s a coworker. Sometimes it’s a social worker. Sometimes it’s a partner. It can arise out of a lot of different kinds of relationships. It’s always wrong, no matter what someone thinks their intentions are.

And it’s not your fault. If you’re in that situation, someone’s probably got you half-convinced that this is only happening because you’re broken and need help. But that’s not what’s going on; this is something someone is doing to you, not something that inherently happens to people like you. No one, no matter what problems they have, should ever be treated like this.

A red flag: I would never do something like that!

Note: This is a difficult post to write because it has phrases that are sometimes used by people who are blaming victims. I’m saying something else, but I’m not sure I’ve successfully expressed it.

So this is a thing that happens:

Someone does something bad while they’re angry/drunk/overloaded/sad/hungry.

And then they hurt someone doing that thing.

And then they want the person they hurt to pretend it never happened. Because the real them would never do something like that. The real them, when they’re not angry/drunk/overloaded/hungry/stressed, would never act that way.

And, the thing is… people are real all the time. People are their real selves when they’re in bad states of mind. Don’t try to separate. If you did something, you did it. Which isn’t to say that the reasons are irrelevant. They matter. But, they don’t erase anything. 

What you do when you’re drunk or overloaded or tired etc is also who you are. And the reasons matter, because they affect what the solution to the problems is, but you have to be willing to acknowledge that it was you who did it.

And, your desire not to have done the thing does not erase the harm done. And it doesn’t make you trustworthy. And it doesn’t obligate the person you did it to to trust you again.

An example of ways in which the reasons matter:

  • Jane demands that Isaac have an extended conversation with her, while looking her in the eye and holding his hands still
  • Isaac gets overloaded and starts screaming

In this case, the solution is that Jane needs to stop making unreasonable demands on Isaac, and Isaac may well not need to do anything differently at all. But it’s still the case that Isaac was a person he screamed. And trying to separate into the real Isaac and the scary guy who screamed leads nowhere good.

People are real all the time. Good interaction depends on interacting with the person who is really there, which means acknowledging that they’re real even when they do bad things. And that you’re real even when you do bad things.

Don’t confuse being on the right side with being trustworthy

One of my favorite things about the earlier Harry Potter books is the description of Professor Snape.

Because he’s openly and unapologetically abusive. And so the kids suspect, over and over, that he’s secretely in league with the bad guys. And he isn’t. He’s a bad person, and he hurts people. But he’s not on the side of evil, he’s not working to make Voldemort be in charge again.

And that’s so important, and so rarely depicted, especially in books for kids. It’s really good that it’s in Harry Potter (even though this was somewhat betrayed in the last book).Because people are complicated.

People on the side of good can be assholes. People with the right ideologies, and the right positions on certain life-or-death issues, can still be horrible and hurt people. Someone can get substantive and important things right, and still be an abuser.

Be careful who you trust.Don’t trust someone just because they are liberal. Or conservative. Or radical. Or the same religion as you. Or secular like you. Or because they make beautiful art depicting something important to you. Or because you know they fight against some evil things.

You have to know someone more personally than than to know whether they can be trusted.

A red flag: “I’m not that kind of person”

Any variant of this conversation is a major red flag:

  • Person: Please stop doing x
  • Other person: I would never x! I’m not the kind of person who does x!

Or this:

  • Person: I’ve had problems with x in the past. Please make sure not to x.
  • Other person: How dare you suggest I am the kind of person who would x?!

Or this:

  • Person: Please x.
  • Other person: Of course I’m going to x! How dare you say I wouldn’t?!

Here are some less abstract examples:

  • Person: Please stop pulling my hair
  • Other person: I’m not pulling your hair! I’m just brushing it. That doesn’t hurt. I’m not the kind of person who hurts people when I brush their hair.
And this:
  • Person: I’ve had problems in the past with roommates eating my food. Can you reassure me that you won’t eat my food?
  • Other person: I’m not the kind of person who eats other people’s food. Why would you say that about me?!

And this:

  • Person: When are you going to pay me back the money I lent you?
  • Other person: I’m going to pay you back! I’m not the kind of person who neglects to pay people back!

In all of these cases, Other Person is construing a conversation about a problem, or a request to solve a problem, as an attack on their character. Most people don’t want to attack the character of others, especially on issues that aren’t quite deal-breaking, and so often, this works and gets them to drop the issue and let Other Person keep doing the objectionable thing.

There aren’t kinds of people who do bad things, and kinds of people who do good things. Everyone does bad things sometimes; it is important to be aware of this and correct problems you cause. Making everything about whether you are The Kind Of Person who does bad things prevents you from seeing and fixing your mistakes.

Acting this way is *really nasty*.  Don’t do it, and don’t let others trick you with it.