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12.14.2011

i'm in the sharing mood today. and i can't think of something better or more important than what follows...


my dear friend laura emailed this to me sunday morning. in some ways it took my breath away because i realize i too play into the female stereotypes--i am just as much to blame for perpetuating the notion that women are "crazy"--not because i am or how i act, but by paying lip-service to that notion. 

A MESSAGE TO WOMEN FROM A MAN: YOU ARE NOT "CRAZY"
Yahsar Ali

"You're so sensitive. You're so emotional. You're defensive. You're overreacting. Calm down. Relax. Stop freaking out! You're crazy! I was just joking, don't you have a sense of humor? You're so dramatic. Just get over it already!
Sound familiar?
If you're a woman, it probably does.
Do you ever hear any of these comments from your spouse, partner, boss, friends, colleagues, or relatives after you have expressed frustration, sadness, or anger about something they have done or said?
When someone says these things to you, it's not an example of inconsiderate behavior. When your spouse shows up half an hour late to dinner without calling -- that's inconsiderate behavior. A remark intended to shut you down like, "Calm down, you're overreacting," after you just addressed someone else's bad behavior, is emotional manipulation, pure and simple.
And this is the sort of emotional manipulation that feeds an epidemic in our country, an epidemic that defines women as crazy, irrational, overly sensitive, unhinged. This epidemic helps fuel the idea that women need only the slightest provocation to unleash their (crazy) emotions. It's patently false and unfair.
I think it's time to separate inconsiderate behavior from emotional manipulation, and we need to use a word not found in our normal vocabulary.
I want to introduce a helpful term to identify these reactions: gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a term often used by mental health professionals (I am not one) to describe manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they're crazy.
The term comes from the 1944 MGM film, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. Bergman's husband in the film, played by Charles Boyer, wants to get his hands on her jewelry. He realizes he can accomplish this by having her certified as insane and hauled off to a mental institution. To pull of this task, he intentionally sets the gaslights in their home to flicker off and on, and every time Bergman's character reacts to it, he tells her she's just seeing things. In this setting, a gaslighter is someone who presents false information to alter the victim's perception of him or herself.
Today, when the term is referenced, it's usually because the perpetrator says things like, "You're so stupid," or "No one will ever want you," to the victim. This is an intentional, pre-meditated form of gaslighting, much like the actions of Charles Boyer's character in Gaslight, where he strategically plots to confuse Ingrid Bergman's character into believing herself unhinged.
The form of gaslighting I'm addressing is not always pre-mediated or intentional, which makes it worse, because it means all of us, especially women, have dealt with it at one time or another.
Those who engage in gaslighting create a reaction -- whether it's anger, frustration, sadness -- in the person they are dealing with. Then, when that person reacts, the gaslighter makes them feel uncomfortable and insecure by behaving as if their feelings aren't rational or normal.
My friend Anna (all names changed to protect privacy) is married to a man who feels it necessary to make random and unprompted comments about her weight. Whenever she gets upset or frustrated with his insensitive comments, he responds in the same, defeating way, "You're so sensitive. I'm just joking."
My friend Abbie works for a man who finds a way, almost daily, to unnecessarily shoot down her performance and her work product. Comments like, "Can't you do something right?" or "Why did I hire you?" are regular occurrences for her. Her boss has no problem firing people (he does it regularly), so you wouldn't know from these comments that Abbie has worked for him for six years. But every time she stands up for herself and says, "It doesn't help me when you say these things," she gets the same reaction: "Relax; you're overreacting."
Abbie thinks her boss is just being a jerk in these moments, but the truth is, he is making those comments to manipulate her into thinking her reactions are out of whack. And it's exactly that kind manipulation that has left her feeling guilty about being sensitive, and as a result, she has not left her job.
But gaslighting can be as simple as someone smiling and saying something like, "You're so sensitive," to somebody else. Such a comment may seem innocuous enough, but in that moment, the speaker is making a judgment about how someone else should feel.
While dealing with gaslighting isn't a universal truth for women, we all certainly know plenty of women who encounter it at work, home, or in personal relationships.
And the act of gaslighting does not simply affect women who are not quite sure of themselves. Even vocal, confident, assertive women are vulnerable to gaslighting.
Why?
Because women bare the brunt of our neurosis. It is much easier for us to place our emotional burdens on the shoulders of our wives, our female friends, our girlfriends, our female employees, our female colleagues, than for us to impose them on the shoulders of men.
It's a whole lot easier to emotionally manipulate someone who has been conditioned by our society to accept it. We continue to burden women because they don't refuse our burdens as easily. It's the ultimate cowardice.
Whether gaslighting is conscious or not, it produces the same result: It renders some women emotionally mute.
These women aren't able to clearly express to their spouses that what is said or done to them is hurtful. They can't tell their boss that his behavior is disrespectful and prevents them from doing their best work. They can't tell their parents that, when they are being critical, they are doing more harm than good.
When these women receive any sort of push back to their reactions, they often brush it off by saying, "Forget it, it's okay."
That "forget it" isn't just about dismissing a thought, it is about self-dismissal. It's heartbreaking.
No wonder some women are unconsciously passive aggressive when expressing anger, sadness, or frustration. For years, they have been subjected to so much gaslighting that they can no longer express themselves in a way that feels authentic to them.
They say, "I'm sorry," before giving their opinion. In an email or text message, they place a smiley face next to a serious question or concern, thereby reducing the impact of having to express their true feelings.
You know how it looks: "You're late :)"
These are the same women who stay in relationships they don't belong in, who don't follow their dreams, who withdraw from the kind of life they want to live.
Since I have embarked on this feminist self-exploration in my life and in the lives of the women I know, this concept of women as "crazy" has really emerged as a major issue in society at large and an equally major frustration for the women in my life, in general.
From the way women are portrayed on reality shows, to how we condition boys and girls to see women, we have come to accept the idea that women are unbalanced, irrational individuals, especially in times of anger and frustration.
Just the other day, on a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a flight attendant who had come to recognize me from my many trips asked me what I did for a living. When I told her that I write mainly about women, she immediately laughed and asked, "Oh, about how crazy we are?"
Her gut reaction to my work made me really depressed. While she made her response in jest, her question nonetheless makes visible a pattern of sexist commentary that travels through all facets of society on how men view women, which also greatly impacts how women may view themselves.
As far as I am concerned, the epidemic of gaslighting is part of the struggle against the obstacles of inequality that women constantly face. Acts of gaslighting steal their most powerful tool: their voice. This is something we do to women every day, in many different ways.
I don't think this idea that women are "crazy," is based in some sort of massive conspiracy. Rather, I believe it's connected to the slow and steady drumbeat of women being undermined and dismissed, on a daily basis. And gaslighting is one of many reasons why we are dealing with this public construction of women as "crazy."
I recognize that I've been guilty of gaslighting my women friends in the past (but never my male friends--surprise, surprise). It's shameful, but I'm glad I realized that I did it on occasion and put a stop to it.
While I take total responsibility for my actions, I do believe that I, along with many men, am a byproduct of our conditioning. It's about the general insight our conditioning gives us into admitting fault and exposing any emotion.
When we are discouraged in our youth and early adulthood from expressing emotion, it causes many of us to remain steadfast in our refusal to express regret when we see someone in pain from our actions.
When I was writing this piece, I was reminded of one of my favorite Gloria Steinem quotes, "The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn."
So for many of us, it's first about unlearning how to flicker those gaslights and learning how to acknowledge and understand the feelings, opinions, and positions of the women in our lives.

But isn't the issue of gaslighting ultimately about whether we are conditioned to believe that women's opinions don't hold as much weight as ours? That what women have to say, what they feel, isn't quite as legitimate?"


29 comments:

HRCK the Herald said...

I've saw this this past weekend, and I'm still not too sure what I think of it. I'll be excited to see the discussion in your comments.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure this post describes my life in full. Thanks for helping me begin my unlearning process and put into words what I have never been able to give meaning to.

Tucker said...

i've got to say i think this is spot on.

in pre-marriage counseling (as was required by the church who married us) we learned a lot about this. And not that JB ever did it before but we learned about this gaslighting and it was like a light went off in his head how demeaning it is. how it does steal our voice. even though it seems harmless enough. I remember him asking if he did that to me and if he did he was so sorry.

i am sensitive in almost every aspect so when someone does this to me, it does hurt me. silence me. sort of creates a distrustful relationship where I (maybe not even consciously) don't feel like sharing with them any longer.

anyway, thanks for sharing meg! i can always count on you for thoughtful and excellent content!

Sarah said...

I am so so so happy I read this today. I am currently in a relationship where I get gaslighted quite often and it HURTS. I tend to say sorry too much and then end up unhappy because I don't get my feelings expressed.

Sounds like I might need to move on.

Irene @ Inspiration From The Little Things said...

Hi Meg. I have been gaslighted since my childhood. By my own parents and relatives. I also felt that I've gaslighted other people because of the environment I grew up in. Thank you so much for sharing this article. I'll be sharing this to help spread awareness. :-)

Jennifer Rod said...

wow! such powerful stuff. im sharing with all my girlfriends. thanks meg :)

Ro said...

this article is incredible. I always felt there was something wrong when I spoke up about how I felt angry because someone was late, or didn't do what they said they would, and the response I got was, "Stop overreacting, it's not a big deal" and in turn, I would apologize. It felt wrong to apologize, but I didn't know how to respond to "you're overreacting." Now I can see, expressing my feelings does not mean I'm wrong, crazy...I love this article!

hellodeer said...

Thanks for sharing. I was just "gaslit" this weekend after my friend stood me up. after he turned the tables on me & said "way to be dramatic", i conceded with "i know how pathetic". WELL. now that i've read this - i'm tempted to send him the article. but that would be me not letting the issue go...... hmmm so many things to learn/unlearn.

The Lewicutt's est 2006 said...

It's so true. It took me letting one man (I use that term lightly) gaslight me for 6 years to figure this out. But, the beautiful thing, is once I did, I did. Every guy I dated thereafter go the ax the first time he tried to dismiss my feelings. Because I learned that perception is reality and that my feelings are valid to me, and if a man didn't understand that, well, he didn't deserve my feelings. And understanding that and embracing it led me to my husband, who has never in 5 years gaslighted me. He's more sensitive than I am, and I wouldn't have it any other way. He acknowledges my feelings and works on his behavior if I'm feeling a certain way. It's a beautiful thing. We, and our emotions, are equally important in his eyes.

Jenn said...

I have had gaslighting friends and relationships - my current relationship isn't nearly as bad, but with overwhelming amounts of anxiety I sometimes experience, I *do* overreact. It's hard to identify (when you're anxiety-ridden and have a tendency to overthink) whether you're being gaslit or you actually *are* overreacting.

Nevertheless - great article. Thank you for posting this, it came up at quite the relevant time in my life.

xx

Anonymous said...

So happy to have come across this. It's funny, if you told a man never to respond to a woman with "you're crazy, over-sensitive, irrational etc." I'm pretty sure he wouldn't know what to say.
And no, I've never gaslighted a man.

Jayda said...

Thanks for sharing this-- I was nodding my head the entire time I read it.

Chicago girl moves on said...

when i found this on huff post a few months ago, i just kept nodding and shaking my head as i read it. as my friend molly so eloquently put it, "that is devastatingly accurate."

Chicago girl moves on said...

such an important piece.

thanks for sharing.
-rhiannon

Megan said...

So here's my issue with this. What about the people who truly are dramatic? What about the people who are a little emotionally unbalanced? How do you account for honesty with them?

I am a woman, and I manage a group in which 60+ people report up through me. I will tell you right now that women are more emotional and more sensitive (not that I think you don't know this). I will also tell you that they often lose focus that decisions are business driven and not people driven. Not that we all want to or enjoy being heartless and saying I don't care that you have XYZ personal issue, just do your job, but ultimately you are paid to do a job, and if you are not doing it, that is an issue. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to have conversations with women that report in to me in which they tried to manipulate the situation through emotions or feelings, so honestly I can't say I'm 100% on board with this. I try to be as empathetic as possible. I try to be as fair as possible, however there are times when I have to tell female employees they are being unreasonable or overreacting. On the flip side, I would never say something like "Why did I hire you?" or "Can you do anything right?" I agree that demeaning comments are never appropriate.

I agree that no feeling is invalid, and that it should be heard out, however I don't know that we can blanket all statements and say that I can't tell my friend she's acting crazy, irrational or dramatic...if in fact that person is being unreasonable.

Also I have no problem expressing my emotions, but I also wouldn't care if someone called me crazy. Because I know I am not.

Brittany said...

i don't think that I knew this was an issue until i read it and identified with nearly every point the author made. i guess i just didn't have the words to express what i see happen all the time. i think some women are more vulnerable to gaslighting and it's hard to realize what's happening until after the fact. i do think that the way men and women react and respond to things is different and if we try to make them the same, that's silly. it's wonderful and amazing and thank goodness that men and women are not exactly alike. we women do have quick emotional responses and on occasion, do overreact. we aren't exempt from that. but in no way does that mean we should allow ourselves to be manipulated and mistreated.

nancy said...

this disturbed me greatly. I sent it to my partner and to the women most important to me. wow.

Toni said...

I've read a couple of his articles and they're all amazing. It really is something everyone should read! Men and women!!

Kate said...

Huh, I've never really thought of that before. This makes a lot of sense.

Abi said...

my sister just sent this to me a couple days ago. it is so true. i am sick of stereotypes. ever since this article i have started standing up to boys, especially since i'm in high school and i need to teach them the proper way to treat women. if they start saying something gross like boys do, i just say, "i don't like it when you talk like that." and you know what? works every time.

Thao said...

This is wonderful, Meg. I'm so glad you shared it. If it weren't in completely bad taste, I would send this to an ex-boyfriend guilty of some intense gaslighting. But for now, I'll just resolve never to dismiss myself again.

Brittan said...

I really, really love this.

It kills me to hear my female friends say, "Oh, I'm probably just being crazy," or something to that effect.

The most frustrating part about this is that you can't really stick up for yourself in a situation where you're gaslighted. Often the person you're defending yourself to just continues to treat you like you're crazy and overreacting, or they get defensive, and the more you discuss it, the worse it gets. That's one of the few things that makes me shed anger tears. I really wish I knew how to better handle those situations.

I'm really glad I read this and I think it's a good conversation to have before I get married.

lib said...

Thanks so much for sharing this article - this year I found myself in a relationship where gaslighting occurred all the time - so much so that I started restraining my emotions and censoring myself around him. He recently broke up with me because he didn't like how I was when I'm upset. I was obviously very hurt by this personal stab and am struggling to get over it (especially as I've never been broken up with before).

However, I've started thinking, you know what? If men can't handle it when we get upset about them treating us badly (prime example in that article - being half an hour late without a call or an apology), then they don't deserve us when we are happy either. You can't take one without the other and that is something that I am trying to learn, even though my first instinct is to blame myself for being too emotional. (I have been known to call myself crazy as well, after years of bad reactions to my feelings).

Keep up the insightful and soul-soothing posts! The ones you pass on are amazing, and the ones you write yourself are even better.

Jane said...

What a thought-provoking article! I'm so thankful you shared this! :-) I allude to this topic all the time but hadn't thought of it as succinctly as it is summed up here. It's so true - we put up with so much from men all in the name of the peace and harmony that most of us were brought up to to sell our souls for. And over and over again, so many of us do it. Until we're so used to being in that position that we don't even realize we're allowing ourselves to be dismissed in such a manner.

I can be so passionate about this when I'm empowering women to follow their own dreams and live their own lives, without this catering to men that so many of us get caught up in. The I'm sorry part - so that we don't rock the boat, the happy face when we finally muster up the courage to call them on something, because we don't truly know our worth and believe we are everything we ever need to be just by being ourselves. We don't realize it's our very birthright to stand up and speak for ourselves. To tell our own equally valid truths. It's all so sad, but true.

Until we gradually wake ourselves up and realize what's really going on and choose to do things differently. The awakening begins and only gains momentum as we see the light clearly, some of us for the first time.

We just need to retrain our men. Because they don't know either. They're playing by the rules they were brought up with as well. And that's why it's exactly about how we raise our children. And why who we choose as our partners is the most important thing we can do to change the world. Because how we treat our children is the basis on which they learn about the world. And about how we treat each other. We have so much power to illicit change and yet most of us don't ever know it.

How refreshing to find your blog today, Meg - I'm looking forward to reading more. :-)

Britti said...

Thanks for sharing this.

Lottie said...

This happens to me all the time and sadly by those that are supposed to be my friends be it a little comment like "I don't thijnk you are quite right, think you got the wrond end os the stick" or "all you know about is tv and celeb gossip". It is these comments that make me feel so low and make me wonder why I am still friends with them especially when I bring it up and ask them they just say I am being sensitive.

it is nice to know that I am not being overly snesitive and that there is a proper term for it.

And hopefully now I will have the strength to do lead the life I want and not back down next time.

Thanks Meg for this amazing article...you're so wise!

Johanna Koivunen said...

This came in such a perfect time. I'm all up in how women are perceived in society and how we are taught to be a certain way and how damaging it is.. Thank for sharing! You really should see Miss Representation, a movie about representation on women (in media). It's horrible and so true and it makes me so aware - just like this make me more aware of how I act and why.

Cassie said...

This is perfectly written. Thanks for sharing. Now I must pass it along. X

Jennifer M. said...

Wow. I've had this happen to me so much but I didn't know there was a name for it. Even other women have done this to me. When I recognize it (which sometimes takes some time), I try to distance myself from that person, but it's crazy that it happens at all. Do they not realize what they're doing or how it can affect the other person?