My boyfriend upset me the other day.
It wasn’t anything major, but I have a relationship history littered with gaslighting, manipulation, and passive-aggressive maneuvers, so I’m on ultra-sensitive alert for anything that could possibly be considered a red flag.
I admit I freaked out a little. Or a lot.
But the great thing about this particular event was that it led me to a revelation.
I woke up early that morning and my boyfriend was gone. I checked both bathrooms, the couch, I hunted for a note and found nothing. His car was gone. I sent him a text, “Where are you???”
As the minutes ticked by while I waited for a response, my mind went into high gear, hunting for an explanation that wasn’t available to me. We’d been butting heads a bit lately, but not fighting or even really arguing. Maybe he needed to drive off somewhere to blow off steam. He’d been hit hard by allergies and was snorting and snuffling pretty bad the last few days. Maybe he went to the hospital because he was having trouble breathing?
My thoughts spiraled into more and more unrealistic stories as I attempted to understand, but the biggest theme I noticed was that most of my positing was based around the assumption that I had done something wrong.
I rewound and replayed the tapes in my head of every recent conversation and engagement of ours, searching desperately for a clue to where he’d gone and a reason he would leave without a note. What had I said that might have been misinterpreted? What had I done that he could have blown out of proportion? I grabbed onto the blame and claimed it as mine.
Someone had upset me, and my automatic reaction was to wonder what I had done to upset them first. I was crying in the shower, not knowing what else to do with myself as I wallowed in my panic, when I was hit with this revelation. My mind cleared a little as I asked myself, “Why? Why is it easier to assume it’s my fault? Why am I so ready to take the blame and feel guilty, rather than owning my anger? Why do I feel I am not supposed to get angry in the first place?”
And then deeper questions: “Can I feel safe if I focus on my anger and my hurt? What does it feel like to switch gears and take that blame off my shoulders? How many other women have this automatic response like me? Why do we do it?”
I think the answer is, generally, that we take the blame because it’s safer than getting angry.
We take the blame because it puts the root of the issue in our own hands, and that gives us some semblance of control over the situation. It is a subtle and backward grasp for strength. If we speak up and express our upset, we risk reprisal across the spectrum—which could be anywhere from being called hysterical and irrational to actual physical harm.
By internalizing the blame we avoid the potential beat-down, and we are the ones who bring on the weakness we feel, rather than any outside force. This is actually a common psychological defense practice: hurting ourselves before we can be hurt by another, whether physically or emotionally, for the sake of feeling in control.
Perhaps we don’t realize this depth of root-reasoning behind such a reaction, but it is easy to see the conditioning of our children in this direction. Little boys run wild and get dirty and tug on pigtails, and we say, “Boys will be boys.” But when little girls play in the mud or shout and kick or get rowdy, we tell them that such behavior isn’t “lady-like,” and to “play nice.” We are discouraged from expressing such emotions from such a young age. It becomes ingrained in us. By the time we are adults we don’t know how to act any other way; and the women who do are often pegged as masculine, undesirable, and too much for a man to handle.
Let’s face it: historically, woman have been expected to be sweet, composed, and just plain nice.
“This quality of niceness, so often cultivated in girls and women, requires that they step away from their complete experience, negating the utility of genuine feelings when those feelings fall either on the negative side of the spectrum or when any emotions are felt too intensely. The outcome generally fosters superficial relationships in the service of being perceived as a Good Woman who is nurturing, caring and never angry. Being perpetually nice is a road block to self-knowledge and intimacy and ultimately may become a psychological defensive.”
~ Melissa Black, “101 Interventions in Group Therapy,” 2nd edition
“For women, getting angry is socially unacceptable, even when the anger is over violence, discrimination, misogyny, and other forms of oppression. Anger is unacceptable because angry women are women in touch with their passion and power, especially in relation to men, which threatens the entire patriarchal order. It’s unacceptable because it forces men to confront the reality of male privilege and women’s oppression and their involvement in it, even if only as passive beneficiaries. Women’s anger challenges men to acknowledge attempts to trivialize oppression with ‘I was only kidding.’ And women’s anger is unacceptable to men who look to women to take care of them, to prop up their need to feel in control, and to support them in their competition with other men. When women are less than gracious and good-humored about their own oppression, men often feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, at a loss, and therefore vulnerable.” ~ Allan G. Johnson
We see a theme here, a connection of the how and why girls and women are tucked neatly into the good-girl mold. A woman now can vote, can work any job, can hold political office…but God help her if she loses her cool over something a man deems unworthy of strong emotion. I can no longer find the video to cite, but I remember watching as a female host on a talk show was actually called hysterical by her male colleague, on air and in front of a live audience, for getting worked up over a horrific rape story.
This conditioning amounts to widespread gaslighting. The only way to keep a muzzle on a dragon is to make that dragon believe the muzzle belongs there.
It’s difficult enough for a woman to be taken seriously out in the world if she is not polite and yielding (more assertive behavior is considered bossy, or jokes are made that she must be PMSing), but it inevitably rears its head in our personal relationships as well.
Good and loving men, with no ill intentions and every desire to see their female partners grow and succeed, are seeing the repercussions of such conditioning. They watch their wives and girlfriends struggle, internalizing their anger so as not to fit the stereotype of “crazy b*tch”-—drowning in the depression and anxiety that comes from never feeling good enough.
We are not meant to fit that good-girl mold; we are not meant to compartmentalize our emotions and shut away the “bad” ones. And we are suffering and losing ourselves as we try to do so, without even realizing that’s what we’re doing.
So this is my call-to-arms.
To the men: help your female friends and partners and colleagues feel safe to express their anger and upset. Validate them and encourage them in this expression, and stop demeaning the women who are already comfortable doing so.
To the women: rise up and claim your own power. Stop holding onto blame like a security blanket. Put your foot down and shout! It is healthy to get angry: healthy anger facilitates change. Go for it. Take the muzzle off your dragon, breathe a little fire, and tell ‘em all how you really feel.
(And what was it, exactly, that happened with my boyfriend that morning? His muscles were aching so much that he couldn’t sleep, so he went to the hot tub at the gym and expected to be back before I woke up. Like I said: nothing major.)
Author: Justin Haley Phillips
Image: The American Girl vintage magazine cover
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren