YOU'RE OVERREACTING: on gaslighting
“Women have been driven mad, “gaslighted,” for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience.
Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.
We have a primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each other’s sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other. When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” Adrienne Rich
YOU’RE OVERREACTING: on gaslighting
Recently I accused a person in my life of gaslighting me. As might be expected, this accusation was unwelcome.
I could see they were confused -- this person loves me, how could they have done this heinous thing so often associated with abusers and sexual predators?
I find it hard to explain that most gaslighting is unintentional. We do it to others because we do it to ourselves, and we especially do it to women because we’ve learned to distrust emotion.
Like any form of aggression, most gaslighting is subtle and unconscious. Rarely does a person set out to be sexist or racist -- usually, they are simply acting out unconscious beliefs that they themselves aren’t even aware of.
So when I say that someone is gaslighting me, I don’t mean they are intentionally deceiving me. What I mean is that they are telling me I’m not interpreting reality correctly. The unstated implication is that their perception of events if more accurate than mine.
I want to be VERY CLEAR about what this actually sounds like:
-- You’re overreacting
-- You’re making things up
-- Why are you so sensitive
-- My ex is crazy
-- You’re being unreasonable
-- You’re too emotional to think clearly
-- Stop blowing things out of proportion
-- Why can’t you just be cool
-- You have no reason to be mad
-- Women are always freaking out
GASLIGHTING & GENDER
It isn’t just men who gaslight women. Women and people of all genders can gaslight one another. But historically, women are most likely to be accused of being crazy.
Because women are expected to cultivate emotional awareness in a society that discounts emotions, we are automatically suspect. Much of the time, our social roles literally require us to remain emotionally-attuned to others, and yet when we use this same framework to interpret our experiences, our credibility is called into question.
As stated by Rich, this also causes women to gaslight each other.
Denial is pesky and insidious. If we ourselves are in denial about the way we’re being treated, we’re going to tell another women who is being similarly mistreated that “it’s not that bad”. We automatically offer others the same lies we’ve fed ourselves because it helps us hold our worldview in place.
In general, though, we gaslight because we’ve internalized the belief that emotions can’t be trusted. The irony is, because men are taught to repress their feelings, they often go blind to their own emotionality. Most women (and even other men) can see how emotionally-driven a man’s decision-making may be, but out of shame he may have convinced himself that he’s motivated by pure logic.
Spoiler alert: there is no such thing as pure logic.
THE RIGHT TO FEEL
We don’t get to tell others how they should feel.
There is no such thing as a correct response to a given situation; White people don’t get to tell POC that they are too upset about microaggressions, men don’t get to tell women they are inventing things they when they feel slighted or misrepresented.
We do each get to have boundaries around how much responsibility we will take for resolving other’s emotions, but we don’t get to tell them their feelings are wrong.
The real wound gaslighting reveals is how ashamed we are to feel anything. Because we don’t trust feelings, we can never really trust ourselves. And to some degree, many of us fear that we really are crazy.
But we couldn’t live without emotion.
Emotions are a primary way our bodies have evolved to make sense of the world and our place in it. Emotions are not against logic, they are a form of logic. They are not extraneous, they don’t come out of nowhere, and they aren’t any more unreliable than thoughts. They aren’t even separate from thoughts; thinking and feeling work in tandem with our other modes of meaning-making.
When we routinely throw ourselves under the bus by dismissing our intuition, we are training ourselves to discount others in this same way.
In an effort to work against these habits, I advise people to “candidly and fully” discuss their experiences with others. When we do this, we often hear people reflecting back to us that we’re not crazy after all -- that they have had the same experience and felt the same way.
As Rich states, women especially have a duty to work against these implications. We get to talk with our friends about the experiences we have behind closed doors, either at home and at work. We get to express the full intensity of our feelings. We get to stand in the confidence that we are trustworthy witnesses to our own lives.
And we have a duty to affirm these things for each other.
THE ELEMENT OF SECRECY
One important way gaslighting is perpetuated is the demonization of open discussion.
Gossip is a negative term used to discount the act of women talking to one another about their experiences and observations. At its core, gossip is just sharing information; it is a survival tactic which has been used by humans to protect one another and hold members of their community accountable.
Gossip is the original Yelp, allowing us to alert one another to who is or is not truthworthy in our communities.
It is not petty to share with others what we have witnessed and experienced. In doing so, we are often affirmed that our feelings and intuitions are justified. What is petty is using gossip to harbor secrets and perpetuate misinformation.
The toxic element of gossip is not the discussion of our perceptions, but the secrecy.
The irony, of course, is that gaslighting necessitates secretive gossip because it discourages us from speaking openly. For this reason, most people who speak out against gossiping are the ones who gossip most. The cycle is self-sustaining.
We can end this cycle. We can refuse to keep secrets about our experiences.
In order for gaslighting to persist, women (and others) must remain silent about their experiences, suspicions, and observations. When women talk to one another “candidly and fully”, we quickly realize we’re not insane. Often, we recognize that our feelings are justified after all.
It is worth noting that there is a difference between privacy and secrecy. When someone tells us about an experience they’ve had which feels tender and challenging, keeping that information private is an expression of our care for them.
But if someone expects us to be secretive about the experiences we share with them, this is a red flag.
If someone treats us one way in private and a totally different way in public and does not address the discrepancy, they are asking us to keep a secret. And if we share this concern and are told that we’re overreacting, that’s gaslighting.
Gaslighting has a massive impact on mental health. If a person loses faith in their own internal reliability, their well-being can be fully compromised.
The distrust of emotion and subsequent belief that some of us are not qualified to make sense of our own experiences is hostile and damaging. We have a duty to protect one another from this form of torment, and we must always begin by trusting ourselves.
Every time we stand in our truth, we work against a culture that tells us that someone else is the authority, not us. Every time we have faith in our own inner knowing, we make a little more space for truth to rise up around us.