You are crazy. He said it so many times I believed him. I had to. It was the only explanation that made sense. The alternative – that he was a charismatic psychopath hell-bent on destroying me – was too terrifying to be considered. And so I believed him when he told me that I was “making a big deal out of nothing” when I freaked out after finding him throwing mice at the side of a dumpster and then lighting them on fire. I believed him when he told me that he was only choking me to “help me” overcome my fears. But the worst one was when he showed up at my roommate’s wedding the day after he sexually assaulted me, acting as if nothing had happened. I finally approached him as he sat, nonchalantly eating cake, and choked out, “What happened last night… it can’t happen again.” And then he looked up at me and said, “Nothing happened last night. You’re worried about nothing.” When I contradicted him pointing out my torn clothing (holding the physical evidence in my hand had made me strangely brave), he shrugged and said he’d give me a few bucks to replace them, no big deal, and went back to eating cake.
The thing is, I wanted him to be right. I wanted it to be nothing, to be no big deal. In hindsight, it seems totally reasonable to be upset over someone abusing animals, choking me, and worse, but at that moment I would have preferred believing I was crazy to believing I was the victim of an assault. Because being assaulted requires action – at the very least dumping him – but being crazy requires nothing, nothing at all. Crazy is floating like a leaf over a waterfall, knowing that even if you go over you’ll be fine because you were too inconsequential to exist in the first place.
According to Harris O’Malley, a dating coach, on the Huffington Post, ” ‘Crazy’ may well be the most insidious one of the four [deadly words] because it encompasses so much. At its base, calling women “crazy” is a way of waving away any behavior that men might find undesirable while simultaneously absolving those same men from responsibility. Why did you break up with her? Well, she was crazy. Said something a woman might find offensive? Stop being so sensitive. The idea of the “crazy” woman is so vague and nebulous that it can apply to just about any scenario.”
O’Malley adds that calling someone crazy is tantamount to “gaslighting” them. Gaslighting, if you’ve never heard the term, comes from the iconic Ingrid Bergman movie Gaslight and is a form of emotional manipulation or abuse. It describes the process of giving false information with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and even sanity. “Gaslighting — minimizing their feelings, reframing them as being unreasonable — is classic abusive behavior. It’s telling someone that they don’t have a right to the way they feel because what they’re feeling is wrong. Their feelings or their concerns or behavior isn’t “rational.” Once you take away their right to their feelings, it’s that much easier to manipulate a person into the way you want them to behave.”
My ex was a master at gaslighting and his coup d’etat was during the court case five years later when he took the Alford Plea – a legal arrangement that allows the person to avoid pleading guilty by saying that they acknowledge the State has enough evidence to convict them but they don’t admit to actually committing the crime. It essentially allowed him to plead guilty – and get a plea bargain – without actually admitting guilt. This should have infuriated me but instead it made me feel guilty. Maybe he hadn’t really hurt me. (Even though the evidence showed otherwise.) I wondered if I had been wrong all those years. I agonized over that.
Since the court case, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to validate my experience through other peoples’. At first, that meant talking to the other victims that testified (and some that didn’t) against my ex. Hearing the similarities in our stories reassured me I wasn’t making it up. I also binge-watched shows like Law&Order: SVU, taking solace in other survivors “appropriate” reactions and vicariously being comforted by the wonderfully kind (albeit wonderfully fictional) detectives. I devoured rape memoirs like Alice Sebold’s Lucky always looking for my own experience in theirs.
But it was never enough.
And today, after realizing that I was yet again being gaslighted – this time by a new acquaintance, I finally understood why.
Hilde Linneman, a bioethicist, writes, “in gaslighting cases…ability to resist depends on her ability to trust her own judgements [sic].”
Never have I trusted my own instincts and judgments. I’ve always wanted other people to tell me how to feel.
And it’s not just me. O’Malley writes, ” The trend of labeling women “crazy” is part of the culture that socializes women to go along to get along. When women are told over and over again that they’re not allowed to feel the way they feel and that they’re being “unreasonable” or “oversensitive,” they’re conditioned to not trust their own emotions. Labeling women as “crazy” is a way of controlling them. It may not be something planned or pre-meditated, but the ease with which men call women “crazy” says a lot about them. Calling a woman “crazy” is quick and easy shut-down to any discussion. Once the “crazy” card has been pulled out, women are now put on the defensive: The onus is no longer on the man to address her concerns or her issue; it’s on her to justify her behavior, to prove that she is not, in fact, crazy or irrational. Men don’t even have to provide any sort of argument back — it’s a classic catch-22: ‘The fact that you don’t even see that you’re acting crazy is just proof that it’s crazy’.”
As far back as I can remember, I’ve taken my cues from others – always watching their eyes, their faces, their hands, the tightness in their jaws. Part of it is, I think, a result of being an HSP (highly sensitive person). My emotions are so big, so outsized, so… scary, that I’ve always felt they were inherently wrong. So I’d decide to feel the “right” way by copying what others were doing. If my parents weren’t afraid to leave me with a babysitter then I shouldn’t be afraid for them to leave. If my friends weren’t scared of the haunted house then I shouldn’t be scared (even though I was pants-peeing-ly terrified). If my boyfriend said I wasn’t hurt then I shouldn’t feel hurt. And if this new acquaintance told me that I was being a jerk for not doing what he wanted me to and paranoid for doubting his motives? If he says I’m crazy and irrational then…
FULL STOP. No. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. (I’m allowed to invoke Nirvana in arguments – I’m a 90’s child!) I have plenty of friends who are not at all susceptible to gaslighting and they have a really hard time understanding how I could have believed all that revisionist history in the first place. And I’ve always thought that it just wasn’t in my nature to trust myself but today, finally being able to put a name on that icky feeling of unease that permeated all my interactions with this particular person, was weirdly liberating. I realized that the first step to stopping the gaslighting is simply learning to recognize that feeling when it’s happening. It’s not a fatal flaw, it’s a learned skill. And I did that! Success! (Not sure if you’re being gaslighted? Here’s a great article with a self-quiz to help you sort it out.)
So today, to help me remember what I’m learning, I wrote out a list of basic human emotional rights. My anti-gaslighting manifesto, if you will:
– It doesn’t matter how anyone else would feel or how you think I should feel in a situation. The only thing that matters to me is how I feel in that situation.
– My feelings are my feelings and therefore can’t be “right” or “wrong” – they just are what they are.
– I don’t owe you an excuse, a reason, an explanation or a rationalization for my feelings or decisions. I’m allowed to not like something for no other reason than “I don’t like it.”
– I do not have to apologize for feeling a certain way. I do not have to apologize for saying “no.”
– My feelings do not “make” you feel any certain way. I don’t make you angry. You choose to be angry.
– Saying “I’m not comfortable with this” is not an opening for bargaining. It’s a simple statement of fact.
– My tears are not a sign of weakness or tools of manipulation. I don’t cry because I’m trying to get something out of you or make you feel bad. I cry because I’m sad or hurt. I’m allowed to cry.
– You do not get to call me crazy.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not trying to turn the tables and say that my feelings and decisions trump everyone else’s and that everyone has to tiptoe around my sensitivities. I think it would be easy to read this and say that I don’t care what anyone else thinks or what their experience is – which couldn’t be further from the truth. I care deeply about what other people feel and I love hearing about their experiences. I just think there is a way for people to own their own feelings without pathologically forcing me to agree with their version of events. Stating my feelings does not mean you have agree with me nor does it mean yours are “wrong” and mine are “right.” All it means is that you don’t get to control me. I’m not writing this to lash out at one particular person but rather because I have a life’s worth of history of believing other people’s feelings are more valid than my own – and it’s hurt me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I’m posting this to remind myself that it’s okay to trust my gut – and to remind you that it’s okay to trust yours too!
Plus, in the end, I think gaslighting is a lazy emotional shortcut. I don’t think gaslighting serves either party – if their goal is to have a healthy, productive interaction.
Have you ever found yourself being gaslighted or do you see through it pretty easily? Anything you would add to my manifesto? Have you ever been called “crazy” and if so, how did you react?? I’d love any advice you have for me!!
Note: I realize that all the examples I’ve used have been men gaslighting women but this type of abuse can definitely work in both directions! I think men perhaps are socially conditioned to be more resistant to being gaslighted (at least it seems that way to me) because it’s not against their gender norms to be assertive, aggressive or blunt but all the same I have got a few e-mails from men over the years who’ve shown me that it’s possible for men to be gaslighted too. And perhaps in those cases it’s even more humiliating because they’re “supposed” to be immune to it.