Gaslighting and Emotional Manipulation
When someone talks about the woman who he broke up with because she called too often or seemed get emotionally involved faster than he was comfortable with, because she got angry with him over the way he acted, she was always arguing with him about stuff or even that she wanted different things from the relationship, it’s not uncommon to hear “That’s why you don’t stick it in the crazy.” The man is absolved of any responsibility for the break up; it’s not because he was willing to pretend to be on the same page as her regarding the future of the relationship because it was convenient and meant that he could continue sleeping with her, it’s because she was crazy. It’s not because he was unwilling to discuss her concerns. She’s crazy, case closed, time to move on to the next woman without pausing to reflect.
By dismissing a woman’s behavior or concerns as crazy, we inadvertently take part in a behavior known as “gaslighting”. Named for the classic George Cukor movie, gaslighting is a term used by psychologists to describe abusive behavior where a person is made to feel as though their emotions and reactions are irrational, even (dare I say) crazy. By constantly minimizing and dismissing someone’s reactions, we make them feel uncomfortable with themselves and cause them to start to doubt their own feelings. If they’re being told over and over again that what they’re feeling is irrational or unreal, that what they’re feeling is somehow out of whack, then they start to accept that maybe it is.
Even when it’s not. Especially when it’s not.
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.
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.”
“What’s Your Damage?”
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. Their behavior – being assertive, even demanding or standing up for how they feel – becomes an “inconvenience” to men and they’re taught not to give offense and to consider the feelings of others before their own.
Casually, even reflexively calling women crazy and the stigmatization of “crazy” (i.e. inconvenient or uncomfortable) behavior has become a way of trying to keep women behaving in a very specific and limited manner. It perpetuates the madonna/whore dichotomy – that women are either submissive, demure and sexually restrained or irrational bitches on wheels, the emotional equivalent of riding Space Mountain after five shots of Mescal.
We may not intend to manipulate women this way – most of the time we’re not even aware that we’re doing it. Most of us are conditioned into it; it’s a part of the subtle background radiation that still teaches us that women’s desires and opinions are secondary to men’s. But the fact that we don’t mean to cause harm doesn’t change the fact that we do without even thinking about it.
As with other bad habits and acculturation, we need to unlearn this tendency to use “crazy” as a weapon. It’s only by recognizing this behavior in ourselves and teaching ourselves to avoid it that we can quit poisoning how we relate to one another and letting it hold us back from the relationships we all want.