This post was submitted anonymously.
[Trigger warning: rape]
Why is gaslighting – even the minor kind – such a powerful trigger?
I didn’t know there was a word for gaslighting until recently. I’m so relieved that there is. You know when I am upset, or triggered, or insulted, or angry about something, and you tell me I’ve misunderstood it? That my feelings are wrong, that my experience is wrong? Yeah, that makes me pretty mad.
Some gaslighting is done out of habit (“but it’s just a joke” is like a bloody knee-reflex for some people), sometimes out of laziness or avoidance (“I’m sure he didn’t mean to touch you, it was probably an accident, let’s not talk about it anymore”), and sometimes it’s out of an insecure need to prove that you’re intelligent enough to play devil’s advocate (“I’m the sort of person who sees everything from both sides, I’m just objective and open-minded I guess”). Sometimes it’s out of clumsy attempts to help (“You don’t need to be angry. This is what really happened. This is why he did it.”). I’ve been told by friends that they say these things to ‘calm me down’, which makes me feel like I’m a rabid animal that needs taming, and I can’t tell you how charming that is, but I do know they mean well, these friends of mine. I can see how, when you see me getting distressed, you might instinctively want to explain to me why I’ve misunderstood whatever it is that upsets me so much. Hell, that’s what a lot of CBT seems to be about, in a roundabout way.
Now, if you’re a dickhead who pushes my trigger buttons on purpose, because you think it’s a game, go away because this isn’t about you and I don’t care about trying to educate you today. But if you’re a well-meaning gaslighter, then I’m going to take the time to try and help you understand this part of how I function. It’s not about you. It’s not even really about me, either.
As an example of the kind of company you’re in when you do this, let me tell you about some incidents of gaslighting that were not well-intentioned.
There’s the time a man I worked with told a colleague, right in front of me, how he’d hired someone “because she was fit,” yet when her poor performance was raised it was heavily implied that other women in the office were just jealous of the successful candidate’s looks.
Then there’s the time I mentioned to an ex-boyfriend how bad it made me feel when he repeatedly put me down in front of his friends and compared me to other women. He said I must be projecting my insecurities on to him and suggested I’d been so mentally damaged by being unpopular as a teenager that I was simply jealous of good-looking women.
And once, when I said I didn’t like being grabbed in intimate places without my consent in clubs by strangers, a woman I didn’t know very well dismissed it because, she insisted, it hardly ever happens, and anyway, most women like it, unless they are man-hating sex-hating feminists.
Here’s one more. A few days after my sixteenth birthday, I was in a crappy place, emotionally. I was angry, anxious, and suspicious, from years of incessant school bullying. I was in pain and desperately didn’t want to be. I drank more than I should have done in those days. Sometimes I would hurt myself physically – never a lot, just enough to make the pain simpler. And on this afternoon, in the bright, summery sunshine, a nineteen year old stranger was flirting with me, so I flirted back. He shared some vodka with me, he shared some weed. He wanted to go for a walk. I could hardly stand up so he carried me part of the way. Then he did this. He took me behind some bushes in a public park and he did something that I did not want him to do. He decided to have sex with me.
What did I feel? I felt like I was being torn in half. I felt sick. I felt angry. I felt nothing but terror. I felt I felt like I was being raped. I was shrieking in agony, in fear. He did not stop. Instead he said this to me:
“Shh. People will think you’re being raped.”
And I tried to be quiet. I felt terrible. I didn’t want to get him into trouble, just because I was being silly and overreacting.
That may sound really silly on my part, because it’s obvious, when I read this back, how ridiculous that is. And I know, now, that if I’m not consenting then it doesn’t ‘feel like’ rape, it is rape. But I did not call it rape. I still struggle to call it that. When I try to articulate that word, even to myself, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for overreacting. I feel guilty for being in so much pain. I feel guilty for hating him. I feel guilty for being so angry at him. I feel guilty for thinking of him as a rapist.
Because I believed him, for so long, when he said my reaction was wrong. I believed him that if rape wasn’t what he called it, then it wasn’t rape. How it impacted on me was less important than his intentions.
I couldn’t figure out what my problem was. Why was I so uptight that I actually felt traumatised by it? I couldn’t understand why I felt so sick and upset.
I still can’t understand it. Why won’t this memory just bloody stop? Why does it come back to me in waves, out of nowhere? Why does it make me feel so sick? As if it’s still happening, now, as if he’s still in me? Why do I have nightmares, why does the sound of footsteps or an unexpected hand in my personal space still make me stop dead in panic?
I couldn’t understand why it felt so much like rape.
But as I’ve tried to slowly, slowly, build up my self-esteem, it occurs to me that none of this is happening in a vacuum. What he said never would have made sense if I wasn’t already convinced my own judgment was less valid than his, my own mind less rational than his, my own experience of the world less ‘real’ than his. I already knew, all too well, at sixteen, that my entire sense of self was wrong.
The bullies at school, they engaged in a sort of group gaslighting: they’d torment me then torment me further for my reaction, be it tears, anger, or silence. Bullies love playing reaction police, because they get to minimise their behaviour, then use your apparent overreaction to it to justify more of it. It becomes your own fault: if you react you’re asking for it and if you don’t then, well, you need to stand up for yourself better.
It isn’t always gendered, of course. But what makes this such a problem for women in particular is that our reality is always ‘other.’ Male anger is rational, natural, just. Female anger is hormonal, irrational, and funny. We misunderstand their rape jokes or banter or constant objectification of us and our feelings, and they get upset. They tell us, shh. People will think I’m sexist. Shh. People will think I’m a bad boyfriend. Shh. People will think you’re being raped.
It would help me enormously if you could understand that’s what I hear when you tell women not to make a fuss about harassment because that guy, who is really nice, and good laugh down the pub, might lose his job, or when you say the coverage of Steubenville wasn’t that bad because the rapists did have their football careers spoiled, and it must be hard on their families. It’s what I hear when you say maybe that joke about rape being a funny compliment wasn’t sexist, I just didn’t understand it, maybe he didn’t mean to put his hand on my breast, maybe he didn’t mean to use the words dumb bitch slut in a sexist way. I have to see it from his point of view because maybe he had good intentions.
I hear it, too, when you decide making a joke about how volatile I am, or about how I get all offended over any little thing, is an endearing, funny thing to do. You are telling me my reactions are irrational. You are telling me intentions matter more than impact. You are telling me I shouldn’t trust my own judgment because nobody else does. You are telling me there’s more of you than of me.
You might think you’re telling me something useful. But all I hear is, shh. People will think you’re being raped.
So if you want to be helpful, stop it. Stop it right now. Stop telling us we need to be less sensitive, or need to learn to take a joke. Stop explaining abusive behaviour to us. Stop implying feminists like being offended. Stop telling me you’d listen to women if we weren’t so angry.
Because I am angry and I’m sorry if anger makes you uncomfortable but for me, it’s a relief to realise after years and years of being quietly defeated, just how angry I now find I am. The anger reminds me that buried beneath the worthless, self-loathing teenager who whispers “it wasn’t rape,” whispers that I misunderstood, and that she will protect me by staying invisible, there’s another voice. That voice is tired of being told to shh. She knows it was rape. She always knew it.
That voice is talking to you now. She doesn’t blame you, or hate you. She just wants you hear her. She isn’t an angry person. She’s only angry when you tell her to shh. She is angry at me too, because I have been telling her it for a long time. But I am stopping now.
Your gaslighting may be to ‘calm me down’; to defeat the anger, because, to you, that’s helpful. I get that. But my anger is not what needs defeating. My resigned, depressed apathy does. The anger is valid. The anger is me knowing I did not and do not deserve it. Don’t you want to help me be that person? It might be disquieting for you as I grow into it, but the alternative is that I stay as the person who believes it was not rape. That is the person who tells herself, every day, when she feels like fighting back to anyone or anything at all: shh. Be quiet. Don’t make any noise. Don’t make any fuss. People might think you are not okay with being raped.