A post on HuffPo Women from a few months ago is making the rounds again. Author Yashar Ali’s article A Message to Women From a Man: You Are Not “Crazy” makes some excellent points on the ways that some men use accusations of craziness to control women:
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.”
As Ali points out, this sort of behavior is “gaslighting,” a term which comes from the 1944 film Gaslight. In the movie, a man manipulates his wife into thinking she’s crazy by making small changes to things in order to make her doubt her senses. When people deliberately provoke a reaction and then tell the person that it’s just a joke or to not take it so seriously, that’s gaslighting.
But I think that Ali makes a mistake when he conflates gaslighting and something that may be more common in male/female relationships: men telling women that they’re too sensitive because the guys don’t know how to handle big emotions.
Just to be clear, I’m not denying in any way that this is a form of emotional manipulation. I know full well that it can cause the recipient to doubt themselves, and that it can make a bad situation worse. I’m not making excuses for it. Instead, I want to suggest that the reasons for men doing this are more complex than Ali describes and I think we need to look at them more clearly if we want to change things effectively. So let’s leave aside the men who are purposefully using phrases like “don’t make such a big deal about it” in order to abuse someone, I want to take a look at what might be going on when it’s not a deliberate act.
One of the common challenges in m/f relationships is that, generally, boys and men don’t have the same tools to talk about emotions that girls and women often do. While girls are more commonly taught how to navigate the sometimes-rough waters of feelings, boys are usually denied these skills. In fact, boys are often shamed for any expression of emotions in order to force them into the Act Like a Man Box. As a result, lots of them grow up into men who have little capacity to make room for strong feelings (theirs or other people’s). When women express big emotions, especially anger, many men feel anxiety because they don’t know how to respond. Or they might feel shame as a result of past experiences that have bound that feeling up with other ones. Or they might feel anger, whether that’s in response to their anxiety or shame, feeling like they don’t have any control over the situation, feeling blame from their partner (or self-blame), or for a number of any reasons.
Given that these guys are in this place because they don’t know how to manage emotions, it’s easy to see how this can spiral out of control. Some men will try to avoid that by withdrawing. (Can you say man cave?) Some will attack and blame in order to deny responsibility for the situation that has resulted in their discomfort. And some will try to control their partners’ emotions by minimizing them, shaming them, or denying their importance.
Without excusing any of these forms of manipulation in any way, I think it’s important to recognize that most people have done something along these lines, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. I know that when I was younger and less practiced at juggling big feelings, I tried to get other people to “not feel bad” because I didn’t know any other way to make my discomfort stop. While I didn’t ever tell anyone that they were being too sensitive (as far as I can recall), I know that I tried to minimize the impact of whatever it was that had bothered them, especially if it was something I had done. I wasn’t doing it in order to make them think that they were crazy. I was doing it because I felt fear and wanted to make it stop.
Of course, it’s much more effective to learn how to work with those uncomfortable feelings. It’s much better for the relationship to find ways to hold space for those difficult emotions and listen to what they have to say, rather than running from them or trying to control them. And it’s also unrealistic to expect that someone who has been denied those skills and/or has been shamed away from them will be able to use them. Further, when someone doesn’t think that they have the capacity to deal with what feels like a scary situation, it’s unrealistic to expect them to not try to change it. You can call it “manipulation” if you want, but I think it’s fundamentally different when it’s a defense reaction than when it’s an act of abuse, even if they look superficially similar.
None of this changes the fact that women have often been trained to respond to accusations of sensitivity by silencing themselves. Nor does it deny the impact that has on women’s well-being or on male-female relationships. I think that Ali hit the target when we wrote:
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.
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.
At the same time, I think that our strategies for dealing with these behaviors need to reflect the fact that the underlying causes can be more complex than we often acknowledge. The difficulty, of course, is that assuming good intentions that don’t exist is a great way to get stuck in an abusive relationships. But assuming bad intentions that don’t exist doesn’t create the kinds of change we need to see in the world.
I learned a useful tool for this sort of thing from Thorn Coyle: don’t coddle weakness. We can confront people who act in ways that harm themselves or other people (including emotionally manipulating them) and look for a good faith effort towards change. If we don’t see it, we can set boundaries or disengage from them. We can even support them as they move through whatever changes arise, if we want to. But if we don’t create the opportunity for them to start that process, we can hardly be surprised if they don’t. I find that bringing some fierce compassion to the conversation can help, too.
Since lots of boys and men are stuck in these cycles, simply because they don’t know how to get out, here’s some language that I’ve found helpful in situations that feel like they’re bigger than I could handle:
Instead of saying “don’t make such a big deal out of it” or “you’re being too sensitive,” try saying something like “Your feelings are bigger than I know how to deal with. I need to step back for a moment so I can keep from feeling overwhelmed.” You might even add, “I want to be able to focus on what you’re saying and my feelings are getting in the way. Can I have some time to calm them down?” You might move across the room while maintaining the conversation. You could step out of the room for a couple of minutes, calm down, and then return. You could even take a break for an hour or two, a few days, or even longer. The important thing is that you’re taking responsibility for your reaction, you’re communicating about your needs, you aren’t disconnecting or attacking, and you’re coming back to finish the conversation.
And guys- no matter how much it might feel like it, you aren’t going to drown in someone else’s emotions. You can learn the skills you need to make room for them and for your own feelings without getting lost. You’ll need to let go of the idea that that’s for women and sissies. You’ll need to get over the idea that emotions are a sign of weakness. I strongly suggest that you get some support for the from someone who isn’t your partner. Lots of men have been trained to get all of their emotional needs met by their girlfriends or wives, which can be a disaster when we’re struggling with issues that relate to them. Get a therapist, find a men’s group, talk to someone else. Take off the armor and learn to open up.
Maybe if enough men can let go of the defensive reaction that prompts them to tell women to stop being so sensitive, the men who are doing it in order to abuse won’t be able to camouflage themselves anymore. If the only men who are saying things like that are deliberately manipulating others, it’ll be a lot easier to call them out. To help make that happen, we also need to teach boys how to use their words when they’re experiencing big feelings. Adults of all genders need to model it so that kids have role models and they can learn to manage their own emotions.
The more we can each take responsibility for our emotions and our reactions, the more graceful our relationships can become. And the payoff from that is well worth the effort it takes to get there.