Has gaslighting conditioned women into thinking they’re emotionally unstable? Yashar Ali thinks so.
You’re so sensitive. You’re so emotional. You’re defensive. You’re overreacting. Calm down. Relax. Stop freaking out! You’re crazy! I was just joking, don’t you have a sense of humor? You’re so dramatic. Just get over it already!
If you’re a woman, it probably does.
Do you ever hear any of these comments from your spouse, partner, boss, friends, colleagues, or relatives after you have expressed frustration, sadness, or anger about something they have done or said?
When someone says these things to you, it’s not an example of inconsiderate behavior. When your spouse shows up half an hour late to dinner without calling—that’s inconsiderate behavior. A remark intended to shut you down like, “Calm down, you’re overreacting,” after you just addressed someone else’s bad behavior, is emotional manipulation—pure and simple.
And this is the sort of emotional manipulation that feeds an epidemic in our country, an epidemic that defines women as crazy, irrational, overly sensitive, unhinged. This epidemic helps fuel the idea that women need only the slightest provocation to unleash their (crazy) emotions. It’s patently false and unfair.
I think it’s time to separate inconsiderate behavior from emotional manipulation and we need to use a word not in our normal vocabulary.
I want to introduce a helpful term to identify these reactions: gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a term, often used by mental health professionals (I am not one), to describe manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy.
The term comes from the 1944 MGM film, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. Bergman’s husband in the film, played by Charles Boyer, wants to get his hands on her jewelry. He realizes he can accomplish this by having her certified as insane and hauled off to a mental institution. To pull of this task, he intentionally sets the gaslights in their home to flicker off and on, and every time Bergman’s character reacts to it, he tells her she’s just seeing things. In this setting, a gaslighter is someone who presents false information to alter the victim’s perception of him or herself.
Today, when the term is referenced, it’s usually because the perpetrator says things like, “You’re so stupid” or “No one will ever want you” to the victim. This is an intentional, pre-meditated form of gaslighting, much like the actions of Charles Boyer’s character in Gaslight, where he strategically plots to confuse Ingrid Bergman’s character into believing herself unhinged.
The form of gaslighting I’m addressing is not always pre-mediated or intentional, which makes it worse, because it means all of us, especially women, have dealt with it at one time or another.
Those who engage in gaslighting create a reaction—whether it’s anger, frustration, sadness—in the person they are dealing with. Then, when that person reacts, the gaslighter makes them feel uncomfortable and insecure by behaving as if their feelings aren’t rational or normal.
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.”
My friend Abbie works for a man who finds a way, almost daily, to unnecessarily shoot her down and her work product. Comments like, “Can’t you do something right?” or “Why did I hire you?” are regular occurrences for her. Her boss has no problem firing people (he does it regularly), so you wouldn’t know that based on these comments, Abbie has worked for him for six years. But every time she stands up for herself and says “It doesn’t help me when you say these things,” she gets the same reaction: “Relax; you’re overreacting.”
Abbie thinks her boss is just being a jerk in these moments, but the truth is, he is making those comments to manipulate her into thinking her reactions are out of whack. And it’s exactly that kind manipulation that has left her feeling guilty about being sensitive, and as a result, she has not left her job.
But gaslighting can be as simple as someone smiling and saying something like, “You’re so sensitive,” to somebody else. Such a comment may seem innocuous enough, but in that moment, that person is making a judgment about how someone else should feel.
While dealing with gaslighting isn’t a universal truth for women, we all certainly know plenty of women who encounter it at work, home, or in personal relationships.
And the act of gaslighting does not simply affect women who are not quite sure of themselves. Even vocal, confident, assertive women are vulnerable to gaslighting.
Because women bare the brunt of our neurosis. It is much easier for us to place our emotional burdens on the shoulders of our wives, our female friends, our girlfriends, our female employees, our female colleagues, than for us to impose them on the shoulders of men.
It’s a whole lot easier to emotionally manipulate someone who has been conditioned by our society to accept it. We continue to burden women because they don’t refuse our burdens as easily. It’s the ultimate cowardice.
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.
They say, “I’m sorry” before giving their opinion. In an email or text message, they place a smiley face next to a serious question or concern, thereby reducing the impact of having to express their true feelings.
You know how it looks: “You’re late :)”
These are the same women who stay in relationships they don’t belong in, who don’t follow their dreams, who withdraw from the kind of life they want to live.
Since I have embarked on this feminist self-exploration in my life and in the lives of the women I know, this concept of women as “crazy” has really emerged as a major issue in society at large and an equally major frustration for the women in my life, in general.
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.
Just the other day, on a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a flight attendant who had come to recognize me from my many trips asked me what I did for a living. When I told her that I write mainly about women, she immediately laughed and asked, “Oh, about how crazy we are?”
Her gut reaction to my work made me really depressed. While she made her response in jest, her question nonetheless makes visible a pattern of sexist commentary that travels through all facets of society on how men view women, which also greatly impacts how women may view themselves.
As far as I am concerned, the epidemic of gaslighting is part of the struggle against the obstacles of inequality that women constantly face. Acts of gaslighting steal their most powerful tool: their voice. This is something we do to women every day, in many different ways.
I don’t think this idea that women are “crazy,” is based in some sort of massive conspiracy. Rather, I believe it’s connected to the slow and steady drumbeat of women being undermined and dismissed, on a daily basis. And gaslighting is one of many reasons why we are dealing with this public construction of women as “crazy”
I recognize that I’ve been guilty of gaslighting my women friends in the past (but never my male friends—surprise, surprise). It’s shameful, but I’m glad I realized that I did it on occasion and put a stop to it.
While I take total responsibility for my actions, I do believe that I, along with many men, am a byproduct of our conditioning. It’s about the general insight our conditioning gives us into admitting fault and exposing any emotion.
When we are discouraged in our youth and early adulthood from expressing emotion, it causes many of us to remain steadfast in our refusal to express regret when we see someone in pain from our actions.
When I was writing this piece, I was reminded of one of my favorite Gloria Steinem quotes, “The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.”
So for many of us, it’s first about unlearning how to flicker those gaslights and learning how to acknowledge and understand the feelings, opinions, and positions of the women in our lives.
But isn’t the issue of gaslighting ultimately about whether we are conditioned to believe that women’s opinions don’t hold as much weight as ours? That what women have to say, what they feel, isn’t quite as legitimate?
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This post originally appeared on The Current Conscience.
I dunno that I’d say it’s primarily a women thing. I mean, guys are often told to be relatively cold and stoic, which causes a lot of them to bottle stuff up til it comes out in unhealthy ways, or become emotionally numb or stunted. We’re painted as crazy emotional train wrecks, they’re painted as weak sissies who lose their man card if they even think about watching a romantic comedy. Isn’t that a very similar kind of effect – that certain emotions, thoughts, etc. are not valid for that person? I feel like they’re two sides of the same… Read more »
My gripe with this article is on the idea that women are taught to hide or ignore or suppress their emotions. Everything is connected to emotion in a woman’s world. That is how they interact and understand themselves and the world around them. This is not to say that a woman cannot use logic but that it’s not their natural inclination to do so. Of course there are women with male-oriented brains that are different but those exceptions prove the rule.
While we get to have & express our emotions (as opposed to men) we’re not allowed to do something with them ie; not taken seriously nor validated. So when this happens, our emotions ( justifiably ) become more intense. Thus looking like the “crazy” woman. What’s truly crazy about all this is we want to assign emotions strictly to women. But this is not to say that men can’t have emotional reactions too.
Great, so women have an excuse for for passive-aggressiveness, ghosting, and other toxic behaviors, because it’s caused by men! Must be nice to outsource personal accountability like that. Guess we should just ‘man up’ and deal with it, right? And what about all the negative emotional baggage that women collectively dump on men?
This is just as bad as the PUA blogs. Whatever happened to taking responsibility for how we show up in the world? Part of being an adult is owning up to your own behavior, and not blaming other persons or groups of people for causing it.
You’re absolutely right. The women in my life who, for example, nagged me all night about the amount of soy sauce I put on my Chinese food, nagged me countless other nights about other things such as typing the love story I’d written for her on a computer instead of handwriting it, tried to stab me, bit me, screamed at me privately or publicly, falsely accused me of abuse, had multiple personalities, and were completely impervious to logic were not crazy. Shame on me for thinking they were.
Have you noticed the name of the operation in which the uterus is removed? “Hysertectomy.” Now there’s a gaslighting term if I ever heard one.
Will you please lookup the etymology of that word before you make yourself look more stupid?
Thank you … very much.
I think i get it but i still dont get women. To me they are completly crazy. Like to me guys are mostly logical and womens logic never makes any sense at all. They are like aliens. -23 year old virgin.
I certainly hope this is tongue-in-cheek.
My ex boyfriend is doing this to me. Thank you so much for publishing this article. We were engaged to be married, but I have never apologized more for being myself over the last few months than I have done over my entire life. He can see other people, I clean up every day, I cook for him, I pay my way but whatever I do is never enough. All I want to do is meet him but he cannot meet me. I cannot wait to get away from him. I’m leaving him tomorrow. Thank you again.
Good for you. You deserve someone who understands and treats you well for all the work you do.
As a male raised by an abusive father, I used to get beaten for showing emotion. I have not shed a tear since sometime around the age of 6. I’ve held the hand of a dying relative as they passed, and felt nothing. I don’t “get” emotion. I’ve had to suppress mine to survive. I had to learn to think while in pain, to choke down rage and hold my hand steady while smiling and telling the person I despised that I love them too. You’re damn straight, if you come at an issue emotionally, I’m going to tell you… Read more »
That’s very unfortunate what you had to go through. I went through something similar with my dad as well, but older. And perhaps because I’m a sensitive girl, I tend to swing from cold, emotional shut down, to extreme emotional outbursts. And now I’m dealing with a man with the same issues as well. Who occasionally gaslights me. I’m still working on feeling things and for people normally, especially towards friends and family. But I understand that the emotional shut down was a coping mechanism that I’ve helped me, but is no longer good for me, and I have to… Read more »
Why is this article about men “gaslighting” women? Many women do the same thing to men, “I’m fine,” “ok,” “whatever,” “do what you want,” and then blame their subsequent emotional outbursts on the man they are with holding communication from. Surely it would be more constructive to write about healthy communication?
Interesting, you missed the point. While I can appreciate the frustration of hearing “I’m fine” when it isn’t true, the point is WHY women say things like “I’m fine,” “ok,” etc. in the first place. It’s after being trained NOT to express their emotions. In the past, they have been accused of being too sensitive, negative, “nagging,” and other defeating responses to their authentic expressions. Women learn to suppress instead. That is NOT gaslighting. If you want to argue that women are also manipulative, that’s a discussion beyond the scope of this article…though tangential references to this article might be… Read more »
Bob, they really need to change the name of this site to ” What women want: the wussification of men “
Submission Guidelines” Visitor put up by”
Thank you for writing this! It’s incredibly important to have men as allies on this issue. I read this post coming off the heels of experiencing gas lighting. But I didn’t have a good term to fully explain what was happening. This issue runs so deep in our culture and we all need to do more unpacking and unlearning to get past it.
Or hey, here’s a thought. Maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the fact that from the time we’re old enough to talk, males are taught to man up when we act like drama queens. We’re told to control ourselves. To be strong. To deal with what comes. And no one cries “emotional manipulation” when we do it, either. Because you know what the response to that would be, if a full-grown man, after over-reacting man said “stop that, it’s emotional manipulation and I don’t have to take it? He’d be told to man up and stop acting… Read more »
My experience has been that men do indeed get emotional. They also behave in a dramatic manner at times when they are mad but we dont call them crazy.
That’s been my experience as well. Depending on what he’s doing, I DO call my husband immature or over-reacting or irrational.
No, that’s toxic masculinity.
The author isn’t talking about keeping your head under pressure. What they’re talking about is more like, someone expects they can do or say whatever they want to you, and if you make any negative or critical comment about it, you’re “crazy” or “overreacting”. It is indeed a way to control a person, though I don’t believe it’s primarily something done to women. Like, I had a roommate once that would often insult me, tell me I was being a manipulative b*** if I, say, pointed out that he missed taking out the garbage and suggested we switch chores, that… Read more »
This is real. I’ve lived it. This book explains it well.
This is all bullshit. Like Comedian Chris Rock said, “Whatever happened to Crazy!?!?? Did they just illiminate crazy from the dictionary all of a sudden!?!?!?”
In essence what Im saying is the “Gas Lighting” is simply excuses and “Word Play”. Being emotionally unatable or bi-polar is a disorder. “Gas Lighting” is simple word play and justification for ones emotional or mental instability or overreacting.
Its the equivilant of temporary insanity etc except on a way more frequent basis/level.
Just like a murderer can attempt to justify his behavior
Are you kidding me? So when people continuously undermine you, make negative comments about you and then write off your understandable and justifiable anger/upset by saying “You’re overreacting”, you don’t think that’s unacceptable?
Uh…no. Gaslighting is a real thing. It is validated in the psychological community and is the experience of most women and some men, so what you are saying just comes off as you admitting that you do this behaviour but it’s not your fault…it’s the women…which IS gaslighting.
Telling someone they won’t be accepted isn’t gaslighting them. It sounds like this goof heard a phrase, thought it was cool, and tried to make a blog about it. He’s not even getting basic terms correct.
Thank you for writing this.
I’d actually like to go so far as to say it’s not just men doing this to women. Many women will do this to “weaker”, more sensitive, softer and gentler women. I’ve discovered this is the reason I don’t think most of my emotional responses are valid: because I have been told my entire life that I was overreacting, I was being crazy, I was imagining things, etc.
What do you think this DOES to a person?
I don’t think it’s a case of one or t’other (those with emotions are being totally fine and people saying they’re too sensitive are gaslighting). Some people actually are too sensitive, and that in itself is a form of emotional manipulation (men and women both), and people who are inconsiderate are not necessarily manipulative, they might just lack empathy (which is not a deliberate act, as manipulation is). I just think it’s more complex than that. At the end of the day, everybody has a right to whatever emotions they are feeling – everybody, regardless of the emotion, regardless of… Read more »
I have been a victim of this and seen it happen around me a lot. However, I have also noted that my man is not guilty of this. Usually when I try to brush something off he actually brings it back to find out what the issue is. Especially if it is because of him.
It’s important to point out that men gaslight other men who step outside the “masculinity” box and women gaslight other women who step out of the “femininity box.” And there are female bullies who gaslight their male partners, too. The problem here isn’t “men” vs. “women.” It’s people who need to control, male and female, because they feel powerless. Dr. Robin Stern defined the dynamic well in her book “The Gaslight Effect.” Excerpts from her book, “Needing to be right in order to preserve your own sense of self and your sense of having power in the world. The gaslighter… Read more »
Two words: Zelda Fitzgerald
A good article in general and great advice, but I love how everything is man’s fault, becasue as I man I don’t have felings, and a women would never make any gaslighing comments.
Also becasue I’m a man I have never had anyone every tell me to relax or to stop showing emotions, except all of society of course, to the point where I can’t actually expess feelings to the peoeple I love which is a cosnstant stuggle for any long term relationship.
I’m so sick of sexist women!
This article is very anti-male. The sexes are unequal. Deal with it. Blame biology, not men. Women did not evolve to have to think things through using logic and rationality. They evolved as childbearers and nurturers of children. Men evolved to provide, protect, and plan. Every single fight I have ever had with a girlfriend, she has been thinking with her emotions and not with logic, and consistently insists that she is correct despite being confronted with evidence because for a woman “feeling = thinking.” You can’t really get mad at them, it’s just in their nature. Articles like this… Read more »
Thank you for this article. I have issues with my husband doing this to me, but I truly don’t think it’s an intentional thing. I’m trying (with the help of our family therapis) to help him understand how much it hurts to hear him say I’m “emotional”, “overreacting”, or “not giving him the benefit of the doubt” when something upsets me. When we have discussions about disciplining his son (my stepson), he immediately shuts me down and accuses me of making “emotionally-charged decisions”. Basically, if I’m more upset by something than he is, I’m wrong because I’m “taking the situation… Read more »