Emotional Policing

On Facebook Brad Warner asked a question:

Does anyone else routinely get people they don’t know at all complaining that they "lack compassion"?

My response was:

Yes. Emotional policing is a very popular pass time in the Buddhist community.

A whole bunch of people clicked like on Brad’s status and on my comment so I’m going to elaborate on my response a little more for those who aren’t on FB or who haven’t run into the term “emotional policing” before.

Emotional policing as is meant here, is usually done by strangers in a drive-by fashion on the Internet and occasionally even in person in a social setting. They’ve generally never interacted with the person on the blog, twitter or whatever, never tried to have a conversation with them nor are they likely very familiar with the body of work the writer has put out. They read one post (and badly read it generally) or heard one talk or more often go by innuendo spread by others, make a snap decision based on it and pronounce judgment due to their own discomfort with the issue, language, tone or content.

Here’s some examples of emotional policing:

  • “You need to spend more time on the cushion!”
  • “You’d get more readers if you were nicer.” (that’s the tone argument)
  • “Why are you so angry?” (ignoring content in favor of tone again)
  • “One word…loving-kindness meditation”, “One word…golden silence” (lol. not exactly one word.)
  • “I hope you get over your problem with people.”
  • “Buddhists are supposed to be compassionate.”
  • “If you can’t control your words better then you’re a Bad Buddhist.” (this is my personal favorite)
  • “You have serious issues.”
  • “You’re so insensitive.”
  • “I thought Buddhists were supposed to be serene.”

You get the idea. There are a huge number of fallacies and assumptions in those kinds of statements but I won’t go into that aspect here. Instead I want to write about the emotional part rather than the logical part.

There are a number of reasons people opt to emotionally police others. There are Psychological, Socio-cultural and Political reasons. I’ll give a brief overview of each of these areas.


Many of the reasons for emotional policing are related to psychological defense mechanisms due to a lack of adequate coping skills when something unpleasant or disturbing is encountered or when it invokes cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is when the outside world does not conform to our beliefs about it. That makes people uncomfortable and self-doubting, which is a state many are uncomfortable with and want to escape so they employ defenses against it. These defenses are unconscious or subconscious and are conditioned behavior learned in their environment. All of this is often used to reduce a person’s anxiety or to avoid confrontation and reality.

In many cases instead of reflecting, for even a moment, on why something read or heard is causing  distress, the knee-jerk reaction is to strike at the emotion that arises in them and try to deflect from feeling it. One of the most frequent combinations of defense mechanisms I’ve taken note of in Buddhist contexts is a combination of reaction formation and projection.

Reaction formation is when we feel an emotion and in order to not feel it we try to do the opposite usually in an exaggerated way. This is the realm of the Superman Buddhist who goes to the greatest lengths to appear holy, blissful, dutiful, pious, enlightened…the perfect Buddhist. It is often a place that is full of psychological self-loathing. It is also the basis for a lot of passive-aggressive behavior. It manifests like this (in brackets is the real feeling):

“I appreciate your sentiment here.(no I don’t) It’s not how I’d react (it is, if I felt I could but I don’t want to acknowledge that) but you have a right to free speech I guess. (but I wish you didn’t)”

“I’m really only interested in trying to help here. (I really have another agenda I don’t want to admit to) No need to get excited.” (I’m the one avoiding getting excited so I’ll project that on to you so I don’t have to deal with it)

“I’m just being honest! (I am really being aggressive so you be quiet) You don’t need to get defensive. (Comply with what I want)”

Reaction formation is a slippery beast in that it’s hard to pin down if a person is actually sincere in their remarks or are using it to deflect from or deny their honest reaction. When questioned on their statements, there tends to be a lot of over emphasis on the “goodness” or “rightness” or “innocence” of the person doing the emotional policing. That is one of the ways to differentiate.

Projection is when we feel something and attribute that feeling as coming from whatever upset us rather than within us. Here’s an example:

(after repeatedly provoking someone) “You’re irrational and maybe should get some help.” (trolls often use this one)

“You’re such a narcissist to always write about yourself and your own experiences.” (Why don’t you write about me and my life instead since I feel I’m so much more important than you.)

There is also the issue of displacement. The writer of a post or article may become a substitute (scapegoat) for someone else or for a situation in which it isn’t safe to express one’s hostility. For example in a scenario where a powerful figure has done wrong, those who blow the whistle on that behavior may be accused of wrongdoing themselves (usually via ad hominem accusations) in order for those in denial to avoid confronting the powerful figure or having to deal with the more serious problem and all the emotions surrounding that.

Rather than simply moving on from unpleasant material some people will engage in elaborate withdrawal rituals in order to solicit emotional responses. This kind of emotional manipulation is also a form of emotional policing.  One sees this on Twitter or Facebook quite often. “I’m not going to be your friend any more.”, “I’m immediately unfollowing you” etc. Withdrawal, also known as “the flounce” or “the pout”, is a passive aggressive dismissal and/or refusal to engage. It is generally a secondary defense mechanism after other defense mechanisms don’t bring about the anticipated effect or anxiety relief.  “I’m not speaking to you any more.” or “I’ll leave you alone to your echo chamber” are both dubious threats that depend upon their speakers believing their presence or engagement is actually of value or importance to those they direct it towards. It’s purpose in terms of emotional policing is to punish it’s recipient by denying them engagement, defend their own ego against upset and to coerce the recipient into some kind of penitential behavior like an apology, even if they are not in the wrong. It is a highly manipulative form of denial. It is different from simply needing time to emotionally process a situation or taking a time-out in a discussion, in that withdrawal as a defense mechanism tends to be highly dramatic and attention getting. Withdrawal is in part regression in that it can appear quite childish, in part acting out and in part a coercive attempt for a person to obtain compliance from someone else. 

Defense mechanisms can become weapons and if deployed by both sides can escalate a situation into something that is damaging and cruel. Those types of conversations generally occur between people who are more familiar with one another than just reading a few paragraphs on the Internet. But they can also escalate online as well in the form of flame wars. In the personal situation often the weaponization is engaged when one party begins a sentence with “Remember when you did…<whatever hurtful thing>”

There are all kinds of defense mechanisms and they work in many combinations depending on the unconscious intent of those enacting them. The whole point of acting out of defense mechanisms in a public sphere, and often in private too, is to shame the other party. Shame is all about social control and validating the ego and possibly the sense of authority of the shamer.

Don’t get the wrong idea about defense mechanisms as they have some purpose in our everyday close personal interactions until we can learn to cope in more useful and beneficial ways. Sometimes in a very vulnerable moment, we just can’t take being questioned on a certain subject by someone close to us so may invoke some of these. While not the best solution, learning coping skills is better, it’s completely understandable and completely human. People shouldn’t beat themselves up if they do this once in a while. Everybody does.

They become a problem when they become our only response, when we have no insight into why we react the way we do, when we feel we cannot choose to behave differently, when we cannot control our reactions or when we employ them on random strangers (like in air rage or as a screaming customer or drive by comment accusations or in scapegoating individuals or groups for social problems and so forth).

In the extreme, when these defense mechanisms can become habitual, sometimes to the point of obsessiveness, and are employed against strangers with whom one has little or no interaction or knowledge, and especially when someone has deliberately and repeatedly sought out these strangers, there is much more at issue. I could speculate at length about why someone would do that (mainly due to prior traumatization IMO) but suffice it to say some serious self-examination as well as possibly counseling might be in order.

You can read more about psychological defense mechanisms here in a brief synopsis 3 Vaillant’s categorization of defence mechanisms


There are also some sociological explanations for emotional policing:

1.) Privilege and Entitlement: Some people feel, by virtue of whatever privilege or sense of entitlement they have grown accustomed to, or through having a narcissistic personality, that everyone in their lives or on the Internet or in the entire world should treat them in a particularly good fashion, should cater to their tastes, should address them in a particular fashion, should place their feelings first and foremost in any interaction. This applies to strangers on remote blogs who have never heard of them, people in a coffee shop, family members, whatever. It really means “accommodate my preferences even if I don’t know you and you are in your own or a public space” or as one of the commenters put it on Brad’s original post, "please put up with my bullshit and tell me what I want to hear".

This kind of entitlement is often rationalized (another defense mechanism) on the psychological level with things like, “I’m only trying to maintain the harmony of the sangha.” (narcissistic distortion)  or “It’s only because I care.” (rationalization via reaction formation) when a question is put to statements of entitlement.

2. ) Overvaluation of positivity:

There’s a huge market for positivity. In the old days (like the 50s and 60s-watch some old movies, you’ll see it.) people would just say “We don’t talk about that” out of shame and things of a negative nature were never talked about. The 60s changed that mainly due to a lot of social activism that brought to light and really defined sexism, racism and a whole host of other things “we don’t talk about”.

With the cat out of the bag, new mechanisms of mass avoidance have become popular. There are many but one of the most prominent is The Positivity Movement which really got a kick start by psychologist Martin Seligman and his definitions of Positive Psychology. (Note he has backtracked on some of his more enthusiastic statements) It’s now a huge industry. From Oprah to Chopra, everybody’s effervescing happiness bubbles and in case they’re not there’s always sweat lodge camps you can go to and pills you can take to adjust yourself to that Zeitgeist. Nobody wants to feel left out, right?

The reality is, life is not always positive and happy. If we think it is or that it should be, we are setting ourselves up for major disappointment and cognitive dissonance and all the fallout that entails. We won’t learn appropriate coping skills and we won’t be able to cultivate empathy and compassion if we deny everything in life that is not of a positive nature.

I said the positivity movement was about avoidance. What is it that is being avoiding? Pain, sex and death mostly. But increasingly we are being culturally conditioned to try to avoid any sort of human discomfort at all. This is a fool’s errand.


Then there is the political element, which is rather involved to go into in it’s entirety here, but for now, a gloss.

Another commenter on Brad’s post wrote:

“I have strong opinions, but according to some people I’m not allowed to speak them because I’m Buddhist and there for not supposed to have an opinion and that I lack compassion and I’m thinking dualistically, us against them, when it comes to labor, race, class and culture and politics in general. And it’s usually from someone I don’t know. WATCH OUT FOR THE DHARMA POLICE!”

Having heard all of that kind of stuff myself, in response I graciously extend my middle finger to these privileged DHARMA POLICE wherever they are. Is that a little over the line? Good.

Here’s where we get into the policing and authoritarian attitudes that go along with it. As much as we don’t like to admit it the political does intrude on the personal. One is punished for speaking out in an “incorrect” fashion and rewarded for either following the script or remaining silent. That it happens with strangers is interesting because that demonstrates some amount of overlapping domains (individual psychology, social group and status within it, and a certain will to power or need to maintain a dominant position within the status quo aka political). When someone appoints themselves not only an authority but a vigilante who feels it is incumbent upon them to punish a stranger, ostensibly at the behest, and often with the tacit approval of the larger community (the power holders) we are definitely into the political realm.

There is a difference between policing peers, punishing subordinates and speaking truth to power. Differential power is the domain of politics. When we challenge authority it is always from a position of relative weakness compared to that authority and its privilege. When we police others of similar or lesser position (actual or incidental) we are simply bullies and enforcing our own dominance within the power structure.

There’s a difference too between policing, criticizing the issues of statements and asking questions. This often gets conflated. The power dynamics (politics of the situation) dictate which category the activity falls within. Policing is usually personal, deals with personal characteristics (“You’re not compassionate enough.”) and not institutions or groups (unless it’s one group policing another which varies the dynamics and is beyond the scope of this post) and the ultimate intent is to silence. Policing seeks to silence. Criticism, even negative, and questioning seek to elicit more information, such as a response by way of explanation/apology/acknowledgement of harm done/rectification, not less.

When we combine some of this we get a more complete picture of the complexity involved. For example here is a good explanation of some of the socio-cultural and politically repressive aspects of positivity and it’s relationship to power. Emphasis is mine.

" In particular, I am concerned with how the cultural demand for positivity in all aspects of life enacts a reciprocal prohibition on negativity. This prohibition extends to critical discourses from the Left as well. I consider negativity an indispensible aspect of any cultural endeavor that frames itself as “critical.” What is “resistance” if not a negative push against domination? Conversely, what shame-based system of domination does not associate its own power with goodness, pride and positivity? Like it or not, the language of positivity is infused with an ideological desire for power-sharing, and not actual divestments of power.

Such power-sharing is at the core of any humanist democratic project: the right to share in the privileges of others. Within such social contexts, dreams and hopes become culturally necessary points of focus. The optimistic desire to transform according to one’s longings becomes the only valid source of motivation for cultural transformation. We become culturally unable to sustain a sense of urgency rooted in the horror of material reality’s unbearable brutalities. People say, “That’s too depressing. Everyone needs hope!” It becomes “wrong” to focus wholeheartedly on simply stopping that which is no longer tolerable, and “right” to work for that which one desires. The stopping of violence becomes only seen as a side-effect of our pursuit of loftier objectives. And in this way, ultimately, positivity is a language of acquisition. It is a language of achievement. It encourages our moral ambivalence toward, and affirmation of, our own acts of conquest. It stops us from seeing how our desires emerge from the dominations of our current contexts. Our failure to continually and actively address the ways in which today’s dreams are both symptomatic and affirmative of today’s dominations is the formula which ensures Marx’s proverb that culture repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce."

~Terre Thaemlitz, We Are Not Welcome Here: Address for “Charming for the Revolution: A Congress for Gender Talents and Wildness

This means, enforced positivity does not address structural change since it does not address the whole of the structures in which we live. It dismisses and denies unpleasantness, which is the source of the misery that positivity advocates seek to escape. It is a massive contradiction that escalates. The more people escape into “positivity” the more suffering is borne by those who cannot access that escape mechanism. (It’s just like capitalism, which structure it emulates in many ways—that digression is way too long for this post too)

The psychological reasons for emotional policing arise from a larger socio-cultural context which is rife with behavioral rewards and punishments. It is the power structures (the political climate) around us which set the norms and provide those rewards and punishments for following or breaking those norms. We internalize those power structures when we learn our culture, go to school and interact with our families, which are also products of that structure, and society at large which maintains those power relations in the reward/punishment feedback loop. The more we enforce it the more we are apparently rewarded or being promised rewards at some future time (the rewards are actually illusory). This is the maintenance mechanism of the status quo.

The common thread through all of this is that policing is the desire to dominate and to control. That can be self-domination and control, including to escape, in terms of one’s own emotions, discomfort and anxiety, which manifests in the urge to dominate and control another in terms of emotional or tone policing. This can extend up to one’s group or society at large.

Domination, control, rewards, punishment—those all relate to the manipulation of power and that is the essence of politics.

How to stop emotionally policing people

I’ll just give a few points that come to mind. These may be kind of pointless in this section because those who emotionally police others with regularity generally aren’t interested in not doing it any more as it satisfies a psychological need for them. But I’ll give it a shot anyways.

  • Don’t react immediately when you encounter uncomfortable material. Wait a while, reread the material a little more carefully to make sure you understood it fully and weren’t just jumping to conclusions based on certain trigger words that jumped out as you skimmed.
  • Note your own emotional response. Make a bunch of statements that begin with “I feel…” to figure out where you’re at.
  • What did you expect from what you read? Why were those expectations not fulfilled? Why should they have been fulfilled? Is it your blog or something under your control? If you are placing your expectations before anything else then you’re probably off topic and into emotional policing.
  • Think of reasons you object to what you read. How many of them relate to the issue and how many relate to the person bringing up the issue or the tone they used and how many relate to your own feelings? Deal with the first ones and try to distance yourself from the rest in further discussions. If the tone is not to your liking you can have some influence on it by staying on topic. (not always but often)
  • Respect other’s boundaries and integrity. What gives you the authority to make that statement? What is your evidence?
  • Develop empathy. Ask yourself, “How would I like to be on the receiving end of this?” when you are commenting to an individual. Consider the individual’s relationship to you, not only in that space, but in larger socio-cultural terms.
  • Ask questions rather than make statements, especially general statements that have no specifics. “You lack compassion.” means nothing, whereas “Did you mean that statement to come across as callous? Were you snarking or being sarcastic?” gets to specifics.

How do deal with being emotionally policed

(this all depends upon the circumstances)

  • Acknowledge to yourself that their comment made you uncomfortable
  • Did their comment give you the sense that they wanted you to shut up or to give them an explanation and more information? If the former it’s likely policing and in the latter case maybe not
  • If possible ask them for an explanation of their remarks. If not possible then “accept the things you cannot change” and move on.
  • If it’s a purely ad hominem attack like “You aren’t compassionate enough” by a stranger, it really has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them overstepping boundaries and having some kind of distorted filter of the situation. What is “compassionate enough?” According to whose rules? How is compassion supposed to be expressed? What are the grounds for their complaint? What evidence? There’s so many questions left open by such a statement that it performs no function other than for some internal purpose of the commenter.
  • Is their criticism specific or general? If it’s specific then there might be some grounds to self-examine or discuss the situation with them. For example “Your anger seemed really explosive when you responded to my last comment” is a specific which addresses an actual situation, whereas “You’re an angry person”, a general statement, means nothing. (especially if it comes from a stranger over the Internet)
  • Sometimes people are not going to treat you the way you would hope, they are going to say stupid and hurtful things and often not even realize it and it’s not going to be fair. You have a choice as to whether you give more weight to the opinion of a stranger than that of all your friends, family and yourself.


The thing I find ridiculous about this whole situation is the statement that started it. What kind of an action is it to say to a stranger, particularly to a Buddhist priest of several decades,

“You lack compassion.”

It’s an accusation of the first order. It’s callous in any situation and could even be deemed cruel in this context. It basically implies that years of Buddhist practice have been wasted, that the person, in this case Brad Warner, has failed to live up to some Buddhist ideals and that he lacks the self-awareness, insight and intelligence to be able to monitor his own compassion levels or express them as circumstances he encounters require, and that he must rely on drive-by strangers to point this out to him.


With such a statement the question that is being begged is, “Who is it that really lacks compassion?”

4 comments on “Emotional Policing

  1. This particularly resonated for me:

    If the tone is not to your liking you can have some influence on it by staying on topic.

    I’ve found that it’s sometimes possible to turn around even threads that are 90% You-Are-A-Bad-Buddhist / No-You-Are-The-Bad-Buddhist by ignoring all that and addressing the substantive issue in neutral terms.

    • Thanks for your comment. I have found that too David.
      A lot of the good/bad Buddhist stuff seems to me like a script people are performing for some reason of their own (often to impress others in order to obtain validation) and when one doesn’t go along with that performance the script gets dropped (or people go away in a huff and look for somewhere else to perform).
      I have also found if I get bogged down in the emotional aspects of something (it happens!) that someone else with a steady voice helps steer me out of that and back to the situation with a little more clarity. That’s one of the things I wish we as a Buddhist community as a whole (locally, globally, on the Internet) would try and do for each other a little more often. It would be much more of a gesture of solidarity and be psychologically healthier than all the policing that goes on.

  2. Sticky attachments to stone Buddhas (AKA – Sticks & Stones). ;)

    I’m all for ‘on topic’ neutrality – but also enjoy detours/derailments now and then. I’m generally unconcerned with ‘tone’ unless it’s being purposely used as ‘Upaya” to unsettle some assumption/identification. I have noticed that for many though, any “neutrality” will be interpreted as negative or uncaring (or whatever they need to see to feel however they believe they need to feel). For those who take things personally, and take it upon themselves to share this energy, they will naturally see no other option, no way to realize the like it or not, all points. Their loss (perceived lack), but we have no choice but to deal with each other now (whether engaging or not), just as we are. This too shall pass…

  3. May I “speculate” that there are some Buddhist blogs that specialize in the generation of policing behaviors among their readers in order to justify and defend their own positions.

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