Internalized gaslighting or, sorry I’m being so crazy.

“I don’t mean to burden you with my non-problems. I know you’re busy.”

I texted that last night to someone, as I stood on the verge of tears, the verge of smashing plates, and the verge of curling up in the fetal position for a while. I was about a minute away from a full-on hormonal breakdown, and I was apologizing for being an inconvenience. For being a burden. Because let’s be real, what I really meant was I’m sorry I’m having feelings.

In the wake of many really important posts that have been circulating the blogosphere lately about gaslighting and being a Crazy Girlfriend ™, I’ve come to realize that while I faced my fair share of gaslighting in the past, the biggest perpetrator of shitting all over my feelings is me. So often I’m so consumed with not making waves that I instead apologize for having any feelings at all.

“I’m sorry I’m such a mess right now” —  to a nurse about 5 minutes after finding out my mom died.

By 17 I had accepted the fact that I was the Crazy Girlfriend ™. Not because I was stalkerish or possessive, or because I was rife with jealousy (I am none of those things). Rather, I knew I was a Crazy Girlfriend ™ because I had to set clear boundaries when something made me uncomfortable. And because I cried sometimes. And because he told me I was. And because I knew that sometimes becoming overwhelmed by my teenage feelings meant that I was unreasonable and crazy and just, you know, one of those difficult girlfriends. I never once gave myself the space to just feel what I was feeling without apology or acknowledge the authenticity of my emotions, because every time I tried to, I was told I was overreacting. And while apologizing for my “overreaction” may have placated my guilt over being difficult, it certainly didn’t benefit me in any significant way long-term. I wasn’t able to explore my feelings or acknowledge what was going on, which lead me only to continue the pattern of letting people walk all over me, then apologize for my feelings once I finally spoke up about it.

“I’m sorry I like to spend so much time with you.” —  unsarcastically, all of the time.

I’m not afraid of having feelings themselves, but rather of “inflicting” them on others (ie. burdening someone with my love or inconveniencing them to listen to me vent about a bad day). I can’t remember the last time I felt intense emotions that weren’t accompanied by an apology. I’ve so internalized the messages I’ve received from people telling me that my feelings are invalid — whether it’s that I use my mom’s death as an “excuse” to have depression, or that my anger is an overreaction when I’m being talked over by men in discussions about feminism. I’ve so bought into the idea that my feelings are outrageous that I continue to apologize, even when (objectively) my feelings are valid and justified. And as far as emotional and mental health are concerned — that’s probably not a good thing

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem, and I do, but where do I go from here? It sounds so easy to say I’m going to own my rage and unapologetically cry whenever the fuck I need to — but I’m not sure it’s that simple. This goes much deeper than pride and ego; this comes from a place of being told my whole life that the most important thing was to be quiet, polite, and above all, to be a nice girl. Rather than authentically experiencing the range of human emotion, I find myself in a place of compartmentalizing “normal” and “crazy”, with any feeling (good or bad) rating higher than a five on the intensity scale quickly categorizing me as “crazy”. This feeling of being crazy in turn sets me on a path of guilt and shame. What does it even feel like to ask for a bit of emotional help without simultaneously apologizing for the inconvenience?

“I’m sorry if I ruined your night” — after experiencing an anxiety attack at a social event.

At the root of it all, I think this comes back to fallacy that good women don’t take up space.  Be it physically — with large bodies being seemingly and wrongly analogous to moral deficit in our society — or emotionally, where we feel the need to apologize for asking for time or attention from others to fulfill our emotional needs. Because traditionally, good women are happy, quiet, and complacent. Good women don’t tell their partners when their needs aren’t being fulfilled; they’re just happy to have a partner in the first place. Good women don’t stay in bed for 24 hours to watch Netflix and eat an entire box of cookies instead of keeping a spotless apartment. Good women, as the trope suggests, are more robot than human.

So I can’t promise that I’m going to magically and unapologetically start owning my feelings. I can promise to be gentle with myself and remind myself and the women that I love that we’re not robots. That humans — even the nicest, most independent ones — need to feel their feelings. And sometimes, feelings aren’t pretty or convenient or within the realm of social niceties — but if we’re going to be authentic, we have to ditch the idea of the good woman and just be entirely who we are.

11 thoughts on “Internalized gaslighting or, sorry I’m being so crazy.

  1. Love this! I can’t count how many times I have felt guilty about my emotions. My ex used to say that I was using my “time of the month” as an excuse to sin. Instead of holding me, promising me he’d stay, and telling me to feel whatever I am feeling, he made me feel like my feelings were something to be hid, denied, and abandoned. Thank you for writing this.

  2. This is positively brilliant. I know that I have been in this position, feeling the same feelings that you expressed without the structure that you have put them all in.

    Your post addresses a lot of issues all at once with once clear direction, and ya know you are right. We as a culture need to stop apologizing for having emotions, especially since we spend most of the day plugging in and pushing out content… whatever the job may be.

    I have started to fix my habit of saying I’m sorry for things out of my control. But it is the desire to keep everything content and pleasant that is bringing us all down.

    “or that my anger is an overreaction when I’m being talked over by men in discussions about feminism. ” that has to be one of my favorite lines in the entire piece, mainly because I’m most often debating with men who don’t recognize some of their behaviors. Anyway, great post! Keep the fight alive.

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  5. “I’m sorry I keep saying this or if it’s weird but I’m just so happy to have met you.” — to the I’d Tap That ladies.

    Ness! You’re the greatest. It’s outrageous how much I can relate to this post.

  6. Gaslighting is some bad gear, and it leaves some fairly rough scars and a lot of different behaviours, this one included.

    Internalised gaslighting really sells short your right to feel things, and generally it’s pretty unnecessary. Ironically enough, I find that most people are pretty accepting of other people’s emotions if they’re presented honestly and non-aggressively. When you prefix things with ‘im sorry for [feelings]‘, it impresses upon them that you’re wrong to have feelings, actually perpetuating the idea that it’s bad to have them. Secondarily, it actually creates more work for them by having to dig through that layer of your guilt to get to the real problem that they want to help with. Efforts to become “less work” make it more difficult. It really is super-important to not add a layer of guilt to your emotions, both from the perspective of you trying to work through them, and for the people around you.

    Conversely, it’s also important to note though that there are people out there who are bang-up irrational. I’m saying ‘people’ because I’ve observed it in both men and women, and the biggest offender in my life is a man. There is a danger in telling everyone their feelings are always okay, because sometimes they aren’t. A friend of mine spent a long time being gaslighted in a previous relationship and consequently as a snapback, he now thinks all of his feelings are justified and correct. The reality of it is that he’s being an asshole to a lot of people because he refuses to evaluate whether or not the things he’s decided and the things he’s feeling make sense.

    IMO the way to deal with this going forward is to not just blanket-approve or dis-approve of [feelings]. If everyone tried to better understand their own feelings, tried to think about them some more, maybe we’d have less people affected by gaslighting, because they’d know when they were justified. And when they weren’t, they wouldn’t provide ammunition for people to say ‘well you’re just crazy look how you acted when [event]‘. Let’s face it – sometimes we’re wrong. Sometimes being wrong makes you behave like an asshole. Gaslighting occurs when other people trick us into thinking this is happening every time we’re emotional. But we aren’t always right, and we aren’t always wrong. Maybe the right answer is to try to get to know ourselves better, so we can know the difference instead of letting other people tell us.

  7. “Resolve”, I can certainly relate to that. When we are self aware we can find a better balance for what is going on inside of us. We develop a feedback system that will give us direction, that says, “Got a little carried away just now!” There are many men (and women) who act like jerks because they have no clue what is going on with themselves, or with anyone else.
    I think women have a particular problem in that regard, not in acting like jerks, but by stifling their self awareness, because they don’t want to be inconvenient, or “make extra trouble”, and this is usually from long years of careful training. They routinely apologize for needing ANYTHING, let alone for needing to express the emotions they feel, or for feeling them in the first place.
    As a volunteer, I help women with breastfeeding. My phone number and email address are on the internet; my phone number is also given out locally by the hospital, health unit, baby stores, etc. Women call me and apologize for bothering me, for being inconvenient, when they are desperate for help and this is what I do for fun! (Yes, well, some people collect things, okay?) I have worked with women to help them get them in sync with their babies, when a big part of the problem is that they are trying so hard to please everyone that they don’t ask for the support they need.They feel ashamed to need help; after all, it’s only one baby!
    They would apologize for making a mess, if they were bleeding to death on the floor! “Oops, sorry! You’ll just have to step over me. Please don’t slip in the blood!” So yes, getting to know ourselves better is an excellent idea, because when we know what we need, we can get our needs met. Sure, we’re going to have unreasonable and sometimes crazy moments, but then so does everyone who is normal. We’re human, and women have the right to be human.

    • Very true Helen, all of it. Your experiences volunteering sound like they have put you on the front lines this behaviour. When people reach that level of being conditioned ‘not to be a bother’ they will apologise for nearly dying. I’ve seen people talk to EMTs this way after having an accident. Perhaps my end-goal suggestion only works when people are closer to rational – once someone’s reached that mindset perhaps the only way forward is an unconditioned ‘act on what you feel’ then trying to put brakes on it later on if it goes too far.

      I’d given up on comment threads as useless, thinking no-one ever changes their mind or learns anything, they just beat other people with their opinions, but I feel like I did both today, so .. thanks.

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