“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.” ~Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
We’ve just passed the year anniversary of an event that has greatly changed our country. The shock of the election results last year sent waves of powerful emotions rippling through our nation.
Personally, I felt the effects as intense and immediate grief. It was as though I had just lost my dearest companion.
I had days of shock, despair, feelings of intense cold with physical shaking and episodes of vomiting and nausea, followed by weeks of sleepless nights, spontaneous sweating, nightmares and feelings of imminent danger. Everything felt like a threat. Everything felt like an unbearable reminder. It was all so devastating… and so embarrassing.
I was ashamed of how deeply I registered the experience and found it difficult to talk about even with those I loved. I was confused as to why it felt so intense, why I felt choked when I tried to speak of how I was feeling, and assumed it was something wrong with me. I was the living example of the liberal snowflake.
As I began talking to others I realized that I was not alone in this experience, and I began to be curious as to why it registered so deeply with myself and some others, and yet did not in some of my friends who had similar political ideologies. They were still disappointed and disgusted with what had happened, but it did not register in such a visceral way.
Personal and systematic abuse shaped us all in invisible ways. The answers I found to why I related so physically to the event go back very far into my personal history, and if you believe in such things, my ancestral history also.
As a small child family gatherings held a sense of dread for my sister and me. While we enjoyed the food and presents usually involved, there was also the regular ritual of uncle Joe.
Uncle Joe would call us floozies and comment that our legs were too skinny, our knees looked like washerwoman knees, and no one would find us attractive.
There were also the sneak attacks of him grabbing us and holding us down and tickling us while we screamed for him to stop. It was always in the middle of the room with everyone watching, and him narrating the scene, saying how much we really loved it, how silly we sounded screaming stop because we were laughing, and everyone could see we enjoyed it.
At the beginning and end of gatherings he would demand a hug and kiss; didn’t we love our uncle?
I remember feeling helpless, humiliated, and ashamed for my tears. It was expected for us to swallow our feelings and put on a happy face. We needed to be polite.
If any adult came to our aid or defense I do not recall it, and I’m sure if anyone did they would have also been told that they were being too sensitive. He was showing his love for us, and why didn’t they appreciate it? We should feel lucky to have an uncle who loved us so much.
This kind of story is so commonplace, so ubiquitous, that many may read it and still question what was wrong with that situation. But this is how the very damaging abuse called gas lighting works.
The perpetrator takes advantage of someone weak or vulnerable. They deny the victim from having a voice in the story, then re-center the story to be about themselves, about how great and wonderful they are or, conversely, how they themselves are being abused in the situation. And they mostly are not even aware that they are doing it.
Even in writing this down I feel the tension in my body rise. I feel the tremors involuntarily start in my limbs, my breath gets shallow, and I have trouble even wrapping my head around the words to adequately explain the experience.
In Psychological Harm is Physical Harm Nora Samaran writes of how this kind of abuse shapes the brain and how someone can react to this behavior for the rest of their life. The systematic silencing of one’s voice and denial of one’s reality can cause someone to become incapable of talking about it.
Uncle Joe was not the only person in my life who behaved in this way. It was everywhere, from the doctor who told me that it didn’t hurt when he burned off my warts with dry ice, to my father who told me to quit crying or he would give me something to cry about, to the teachers who seemed to always ignore my correct answers, but hear the boy behind me who repeated what I just said as if it was his own idea. It was on television, in movies, in the music I heard on the radio.
I internalized the patterns and found myself over and over in the same frustrations, the same endless arguments, the same feelings of invisibility.
I sought out the dynamic in my relationships, sometimes in more obviously abusive partnerships, but often in the subtle and almost invisible forms of minimization. I felt like I was talking, but the people I was talking to didn’t seem to register what I was saying.
It was like being caught in a nightmare, where you are trying to speak but what comes out of your mouth is unintelligible. You know what you are trying to say, but what my partners heard was something altogether different. It was crazy making.
Because of the systemic normalization of minimizing and denying the feminine perspective, I came to deeply distrust my own mind.
I did not have to even be told my perceptions were not important; it was done in the subtle shrugging off of my suggestions, the deep sigh that made me feel my words were ridiculous, the automatic response of the males in my life to say “yes, but…,” “ I don’t think you get what’s going on,” “you are misunderstanding,” even when I was describing my own feelings or experience.
And the many years of work I did getting a handle on my own anger issues and automatic reactions made me super sensitive to the claims that I was the one being too aggressive, making too big a deal out of something, or just being mean.
I automatically took on the blame and responsibility of any argument. I was being irrational, I was not being clear enough, the words I used were hurtful; therefore, they were invalid.
Mathew Remski discusses this quite eloquently from the male perspective. He talks of the behavior of minimizing being so embedded in his make up that it takes continuous concentrated effort to even notice when it is happening. And that it also takes the help of his partner continuously pointing out when it happens.
It is a lot of work to be constantly vigilant monitoring our behavior, and it can feel almost impossible to overcome. I know because I, and most other people who have had the experience of personal or systematic marginalization do this every day with our own behavior. The constant rewriting of our own experiences to fit within a system that cannot accept our true feelings, which center the collective narrative on a cis, white male perspective.
When the campaign happened, the behaviors I had deep visceral reactions to became public. Instead of being hidden away in the most intimate relationships or invisible private conversations, they were being played out on a very public stage.
I felt myself reacting to them all as if they had happened to me personally (because they had, just not by this particular person).
When one of the most powerful positions in the world was given to a person who was so blatantly abusive and disrespectful, who openly mocked his victims, who rewrote every story so the blame was scattershot anywhere but his direction, who played out the usually hidden abuses so many of us feel intimately on a scale so huge it permeated the globe, it felt to me that the years of hard work I had done to reclaim my identity had been wiped out in a single night.
It validated the claim of every person who had told me I didn’t know what I was talking about; if I was uncomfortable it was because my expectations were not reasonable; if I felt abused, hurt, ignored it was hurtful and unfair to the person I was accusing; that pointing out my pain or the pain of others was downright impolite and my behavior. The mere fact that I had a perspective of my own, was intolerable.
I found relief through somatic therapy. Somatic therapy works directly with sensations of the body and translating them into the emotions that we may be storing there. It requires one to become present in the now, opening to the deeply buried layers that bubble up from the subconscious when we have knee-jerk reactions and strong emotions.
Translating the subconscious reactions we have into conscious and conscientious actions creates the space to make our hurt, and the hurt of others visible. To do this I had to dive into the depth of the grief to see where it stemmed from, not just place it was most recently triggered. This was a place that made every fiber of my being long to run away, numb out, cease to exist.
But the leaning into the pain instead of running away allowed me to recognize and accept my own feelings and reactions as tools of learning. I had to relearn to trust my instincts and see myself as a reliable source of information. I learned that I am valid, my feelings are important, and I have a right to be heard and to take up space.
I saw the ways I was complicit in my own harm. I had given up the right to my own perspective, internalized the doubt that my experiences are real, automatically responded to my strong emotions as unreasonable, and I had agreed that the feelings and needs of others were more important than my own.
When I saw that I had agreed to these things subconsciously, I was finally able to decide for myself that I did not want to do these things and could make the choice to stop.
It was and continues to be hard work. But now I listen when strong reactions come up, and instead of automatically silencing them I ask, what they are here to tell me? My anger, fear, guilt, depression, despair, all have a message they are desperately trying to get me to hear.
With deep listening my reactions can be transformed into conscious actions. Actions that let my voice be heard, centering my own story and needs, and allowing others to express what they need to express as well. It also gives me a very low BS tolerance threshold.
In claiming my own story I suddenly found it intolerable having it minimized in any way and could no longer be silent when it was.
This is a deeply inconvenient perspective to have. Going against the grain of society and allowing myself to be impolite while remaining as compassionate as I can muster leads to many awkward and uncomfortable conversations. It leads to conversations where I have to put my personal safety on the line in order to stand up for my personal integrity.
There is also the need for great delicacy and diplomacy. You cannot hope for others behavior to change when you make them the enemy.
We all have the capacity to hurt; we all have the capacity to heal. I am the victim of abuse in cases related to my gender, and at times, my age, but have also been the perpetrator in cases where my privilege, be it from my white skin, my middle class upbringing, my citizenship etc. have blinded me to the ways I have contributed to the minimization and abuse of others.
Learning to have compassion for myself and my own tender emotions also requires me to have compassion for those who have harmed me. In the cases of my intimate circle, these are people I love and respect, and I want to be able to still love myself and need to allow for others to love themselves. I see the great hurt many of the people who have treated me this way carry around, you do not abuse without having first been abused yourself.
Unfortunately the abuse of toxic masculinity (the culture of oppression, patriarchal values, or the many names this behavior is known by) has become so embedded in our culture that we do not even recognize it as abuse. It is the norm; it’s just the way it is.
It is invisible to the unconscious eye, until we make it visible. We are all damaged by it, but some are made to pay a dearer price, and some are allowed to gain privilege.
Those that gain privilege may have less of a motivation to change the patterns and a harder time seeing the ways they do harm and the ways it benefits them. It takes a lot of self-awareness and the ability to make yourself vulnerable. Accepting the responsibility of having harmed others and making amends is a very painful truth to accept, and so many will avoid this at all costs.
And this responsibility is passed down through the generations. If one generation cannot make amends for the harm they caused, the pain, guilt, and responsibility are handed down to the next; only the further it goes from its origins, the more subconscious it becomes, and the more difficult it is to bring the surface and recognize it.
But this is also the way it is healed, once and for all. It is not appealing work to dig deep into the ugliest depth of our suffering, to name the ways we have suffered, the ways we have caused suffering, the ways we have allowed both things to happen. But not doing it makes those parts of ourselves most in need of tender care the least visible.
So in this year when all I really wanted was for this guy, who made all my alarm bells go off, to shut the hell up, I was moved to look at all the ways I had let this weak and damaged person, and so many others like him, convince me I had to shut the hell up. I lovingly listened to my own story and convinced myself to speak up instead.