"You're Delusional!"

Occasionally in arguments someone will say "you're delusional!". This is usually a rhetorical device that merely indicates that there is a basic flaw in some assertion of fact. The interesting thing about this argument is that it can always be symmetrical: the same claim can be made by the other party, creating an "is not! is too!" impasse.

The rhetoric of "You're delusional!" is particularly worrying because of the difficulty in actually resolving a genuine claim (which I get into later). Furthermore, attacking someone's very connection to reality in the context of some (usually minor) conflict is often a variation of an ad hominem attack - it's a more sophisticated sounding form of "You're wrong because you're an idiot." I don't deal with that usage in this post; I only deal with the case where the accuser genuinely believes that the accused is actually delusional.

So how does one breach the "is not! is too!" impasse that a genuine, heart-felt accusation of "You're delusional!" creates?

To find a solution, let's start with a hypothetical case of simple delusion. Let Alice and Bob be friends, and let Alice be delusional about the weather: it's raining and cold, but she keeps saying, "Look how sunny and warm it is!". Bob tells Alice, "you're delusional!" As expected Alice makes the counterclaim, "Bob, you're delusional! It's sunny and warm!" Assuming that Alice is an otherwise a rational person, can she be convinced that she is, in fact, the deluded one?

The answer is yes, but only with certain preconditions. The primary thing is that Alice needs to listen to Bob, and be convinced that, at the very least, he's not being malicious and actually trying to help her. She also needs to have an open-mind such that, no matter how ridiculous it sounds to her in the moment, that she may be wrong. Third, she needs to care enough about the assertion about the weather to take the (possibly substantial) time fixing the delusion. Fourth, in general, both parties have to enter into a symmetrical agreement to take the time to resolve the matter: Bob will get a chance to convince Alice, and Alice will get a chance to convince Bob.

Once these 4 preconditions are met, Bob begins. The first thing he might do is probe the limits of Alices delusion. For example he might ask her, "do you believe that when it rains it makes things wet?" This can eliminate misunderstandings with language and "common knowledge". He can then start verifying the commonality of their physical experience: he might ask "Is my hand wet? Is this ground wet?" He then needs to verify her ability to evaluate basic syllogisms: when it rains, the ground gets wet; the ground is wet; therefore it's raining." (That's not a very good syllogism, since ground can be wet for many reasons, but it's good enough for this example)

Presumably if Alice's delusion doesn't extend too far (for example, if she didn't except the existence of water, it may be hard to convince her of rain!) she may be convinced that she is delusional. Of course, once convinced of her delusion, she's bound to be genuinely puzzled and maybe a bit miffed. "I accept that it's raining, but why didn't I think it was?" she asks, genuinely perplexed. Good question, but the possible reasons for delusion are beyond the scope of this post. Maybe it was a bump on the head.

(It was fortunate that Bob went first; if he had gone second, it might have taken Alice a very long time to become satisfied that she could not get Bob to the desired conclusion, despite her best efforts. For this reason this process needs a time limit!)

Alice may go beyond being miffed and have an unhealthy reaction and become angry. She wanted to be right, and was proved wrong! It hurts the ego to admit "defeat". She's ashamed. Acting emotionally, she may be tempted to throw a wrench into Bob's program: she may "forget" one of the syllogisms parts, or suddenly reverse an earlier agreement, for example. If Alice does this, Bob either has to patiently wait for the fit of pique to subside, or he may just decide to walk away forever.

(This unhealthy response from Alice is even more likely if the delusion is about something she's attached to: the classic example is the mother clinging to her dead baby, hysterically claiming that it's asleep. Her mind cannot accept the reality of her loss. In this case, an intellectual approach is obviously wrong; it would require someone of great emotional skill and wisdom to find a solution.)

Assertions of verbal (or emotional) harm are very common, and very commonly defended against with some variation of the "delusion" defense. Let's create another situation: Alice and Bob have guests over, and during dinner Alice reveals that Bob has a hairpiece. Bob is mortified; he is very sensitive about it. He's vain, and he knows it, and so does Alice, but he can't help it. Alice, says, "Oh Bob, his hairpiece fell off the other day and he bought an expensive hat just to cover it up! He's so silly!" and has just shattered Bob's precious "natural hair" image in the minds of their friends, and Bob is crushed. Bob passes it off, but confronts Alice later on: "Alice, how could you reveal one of my closest secrets to our friends? I was deeply embarrassed and am very angry with you!" There are a couple of possible delusional responses from Alice: "Bob you heard wrong, I never revealed your secret!", "Bob, I revealed your secret, but it didn't cause you any harm!", or "Bob, I revealed your secret, and I caused you harm, but I didn't mean to cause you harm." In every case Alice's motivation is two-fold: first, she doesn't want to disturb the image that she has of herself as a good person (after all, Alice The Good Person would never harm anyone!), and second she's defending herself against Bob's anger by avoiding responsibility for her action, hoping to cause confusion in the mind of her accuser.

At this point Bob calls Alice delusional, (and, of course, because of symmetry, Alice responds in kind). Emotions are high, so it's not likely that such an impasse can be fixed immediately. But once things have cooled down, Bob confronts Alice again: "Alice, why did you hurt me like that?" (Why is Bob confronting Alice? In the first case it was out of goodwill; he wanted to "fix" his friend worrying delusion. In this case, he either wants revenge (unhealthy) or succor (healthier). Revenge is easy to understand; for succor he may just want Alice's acknowledgment of the reality of his suffering, an apology, and the small dose of positive feelings from Alice). Let's say Alice has also cooled down, but remains defiant: "I didn't hurt you. It's all in your mind, you're delusional!" This is a tough one because the fact of the harm really is only in Bob's mind. How then can he "prove" that her action caused him pain? The fact is that he can't! However, he might make a merely convincing argument. He might do so by describing a similar situation that she can relate to, or he might poll for a consensus view (e.g. ask a bunch of people if they think it's "reasonable" for Bob to feel harm). For the former approach, perhaps Bob knows some vain secret that Alice would not want revealed: Alice puts cheap wine into more expensive-looking bottles when guests come over. He might ask her: "How would you like it if I revealed your wine secret?" She may understand the analogy, or she may protest, "Bob, that's completely different." Of course, it isn't different, but if Alice takes this position, Bob might be able to break it down for her and show the similarities. It would require Alice to be quite calm, cool, and particularly self-aware. These are difficult attributes to have in the best of times, and more-or-less impossible to have in the heat of emotional conflict. The difficulty of obtaining the preconditions for conflict resolution explains why so many of these conflicts never reach satisfying conclusion and fester for years.

What should you do in this situation if you're the accuser (Bob)? What if you're the accused (Alice)?

From a practical point of view, if you're accused it's best to simply believe accusers who say they've suffered harm from you. You may not understand the precise mechanism; and the person harmed may also not understand it. But the harm exists. Sometimes it can come as rather a shock to realize you've harmed someone, especially if you have a particular view of yourself as a good, harmless person. (Of course, there may be some ulterior motive for a victim claiming harm; but in real emotional situations this is rare because admission of suffering harm is seen by many as an admission of weakness, and people when they lie tend to lie on the side of strength not weakness. Some passive-aggressive people make a big show of suffering, but that's less common than people hiding suffering.)

If you cause suffering unintentionally but you understand the mechanism of harm, what is the right course of action? In other words, what is articulatable solid nugget of wisdom that you can write down and remember for next time? If Alice says, "Bob, I'm sorry I said that, and I'm sorry I hurt you; I got caught up in our conversation over dinner and completely forgot that you were sensitive about your bald spot. Can you forgive me?" what does Bob say? This shows a lot of love from Alice to Bob; he gets his succor. It also shows that she's ready to accept herself as imperfect, AND to take responsibility for her imperfect actions and to strive to do better (in this case, to avoid getting so "caught up" in a social situation that she makes harmful verbal blunders.) And Bob? He might be gracious in response, "Alice, of course I forgive you; it was an honest mistake. Thank you for your apology; it's just what I needed and I feel better about the whole thing already. [laugh] Can you forgive me for being such a vain fool?" And the love flows once again.

If you suffer, and accuse someone of causing it, first realize that you will be revealing a weakness of some sort: if you didn't have the weakness, you wouldn't have been harmed! In Bob's case, his weakness was vanity, but it could be anything. Second, be clear on what you want from the accused. With verbal harm you probably just want the accused to acknowledge the reality of the harm, accept responsibility, and apologize, as in the above example. (However, you may want more, such as some sort of restitution. Be careful though and make sure you're not looking for revenge). Stay factual, and try to remain aware of the fact that you're probably accusing someone you care for and want to continue a relationship with (if you didn't you wouldn't bother accusing them!). Pay attention to the accused's face and see how they react to the accusation; expect hackles to be raised when their self-image is threatened. Recognize that accusation of verbal harm is never the ideal path; the act of accusation itself is always somewhat harmful to the other's ego. Recognize it has an imperfect request for a form of succor from the accused. Be careful that you don't use accusation as a retaliatory weapon; the accused will sense it, emotions will run hot, and no resolution will ever occur. If the accused uses the "you're delusional" defense, and you're not cool enough to handle it, have them read this post!

(It's not related to the "You're delusional!" topic, except tangentially, but it's worth noting for both the accused and the accuser: recognize those times when you intended to cause harm, and why. A lot of people in this culture rarely think that they intended harm. While it's true that confusion and thoughtlessness counts for far more harm than malice, the latter must be acknowledged. Be open-minded about your own capacity for genuine malice! I think that all too often in this "enlightened" time we're trained to forgive and ask forgiveness, even when we don't mean it. This helps us maintain our delusion about being "good". We are trained to deny our darker sides, and by ignoring the dark we let it flourish. The specific problem with "false forgiveness" is that the value of forgiveness is not only wasted, but then compounded and made worse with the lie, making it very dangerous. A repressed grudge is more deadly than an open one because grudges, like mushrooms, grow in the dark. They shrivel in the light. No grudge is best, but you don't have direct control over the growth of a grudge (and may you be blessed with mental soil inhospitable to grudges!))

No comments: