Why I’m Treating Emotionally Unconscious People Like They’re Literally Unconscious
Say it loud for the folks in the back: Unconscious people cannot give consent.
A few months ago, I had one of those little heartbreaks that really got under my skin. From the moment we met, I’d been completely open and honest with this man about what I wanted and needed in a romantic connection, what I expected and would accept, and asked for explicit, fully-informed consent. He gave it, and commended me for being such a conscious communicator.
Not long after, he rescinded all he’d promised. He wasn’t over his ex, he needed time to heal, he was heartbroken and distressed and overwhelmed and couldn’t be with me. He couldn’t communicate; he just ran. When I grew furious at him for violating what he’d explicitly consented to do, and for hurting me in the process, he grew defensive. He refused any accountability. How could I have expected anything of him? He was heartbroken! It wasn’t his fault he broke clear promises and violated my boundaries! Why was I being so venomous?
I stayed furious at the invalidation and injustice of the whole situation for months, until something clicked in me: this man did not know he wasn’t conscious when he agreed to my expectations, until he realized it later. He was heartbroken and the pain was skewing his perceptions and his decisions. He thought he was making promises he could keep when he made them. He did not know himself in the moment, and therefore, could not make a conscious choice. To put it in terms we are more familiar with: he was not fully conscious, and therefore, could not give consent.
When we come across someone who is emotionally unconscious, they are not aware of what they are truly feeling, and cannot take stock of the full truth of their needs when they act. They do not know themselves, and therefore, cannot always communicate what they need and feel. They are very apt to say things they don’t mean. As such, they cannot really give consent, and certainly not to a conscious person. In this way, they are similar to a person who is literally unconscious, or too drunk to give consent.
Unlike assaulting someone who is too drunk to give consent, it’s not quite as obvious when someone is emotionally unconscious. There is not that same expectation of “this person is clearly unconscious and I should know better than to take them at their word.” Most people aren’t that conscious. The whole wide world is run by and for unconscious people. Unlike assaulting a drunk person, we cannot just put all unconscious people to bed for the night until they sober up. To become fully sober takes lifetimes.
What I mean is: if you’ve been wronged by an emotionally unconscious person giving consent they couldn’t give, the pain is not your fault. All the same, part of the path of expanding our own consciousness is to become more adept at telling whether and in what ways someone is conscious.
In some cases, emotional unconsciousness is so extreme that it’s plain as daylight. In others, it is far more subtle. Someone who is, on the whole, quite conscious can experience a deep emotional upheaval that knocks them “off their A game,” so to speak, for a time. Grief, trauma, heartbreak, anger, shame, fear, abuse — everyone still has triggers that pull them out of consciousness and into reactivity. This is understandable. It happens to us all.
Sometimes, people who are authentically and enthusiastically on the path to consciousness can talk the talk of awareness and accountability, but cannot walk the walk. They might understand consciousness as a concept, or preach its virtues, but still aren’t embodying it and living it. Often, they aren’t even aware of the difference, because they’ve never felt the experience of living it.
Who among us cannot say the same about our own paths? I spent years talking about the shift before I even dipped a toe into making it. Like love, consciousness can be known only by being experienced.
It is not your fault if you expect emotional consciousness from someone who says they can give it but can’t. You had every reason to trust their honesty and sincerity. You communicated consciously. You assumed they were playing the same game, by the same rules. You were not at fault for the pain you endured, nor were you at fault for their pain.
But, like a literal unconscious body, an unconscious person cannot fully give consent. The difference in energy can be extremely subtle, sometimes outright invisible. The greatest self-awareness, emotional consciousness and authentic communication in history cannot always not stop us from suffering pain as a result of the connection. When we are hurt, we self-soothe as we heal. We must remember that, in such cases, the pain we suffered was not our fault.
And then — when we have enough distance, and have healed enough, we can begin to notice that guilt does not truly belong to the unconscious person either. We say they should’ve known better and been more conscious, but they didn’t, and they weren’t. Perhaps, like skinning your knee on a rock you never would’ve seen, such pain can arise without anyone to blame. It is simply another opportunity for healing, growing, increasing consciousness.
I will not tell you forgive anyone who wronged you. I think there is no utility in preaching “Forgive them, for they know not what they do!” to those who cannot forgive for very valid and understandable reasons. I can say, for myself, that this understanding has finally allowed me to forgive — not only in the example I gave above, but a lot of those who’ve caused me pain.
This forgiveness feels nothing like acquiescing to injustice; it feels like choosing a game with different rules that hurt less. It’s allowed me to forgive myself, that no amount of better words or more authentic communication on my part would’ve stopped my pain either, because I wasn’t conscious then either. But I am more conscious now, and consciousness is nothing more or less than the awareness of the ability to choose. I can choose now, in ways I couldn’t before. I cannot put that ability back in the drawer. I can only learn to choose wisely.