Thursday, September 01, 2016

On Gaslighting

Wikipedia has a pretty serviceable definition of gaslighting if you aren't familiar. But it wasn't until I read this that it really occurred to me that gaslighting can be an unconscious, unintended behavior.

The blog post linked, is interesting but not great (and I make no promises my own will exceed that benchmark) for one thing it's on a blog that is specifically for 'feminist men' so it focuses pretty heavily on men gaslighting women. 

Also in two of the examples the author writes the definitions get a bit broad for me, even though the result for the author was that she doubted her own perceptions. The tricky thing when talking about dysfunctional behavior and mental health is that rather than being binary, it's a matter of degree.

For example, we are all supposed to possess a kind of healthy narcissism, present in almost everybody in such mental quirks as illusion of control, optimism bias, illusion of superiority and positive allusions. Most people are slightly narcissistic, but very few people have a narcissistic personality disorder.

So a guy cutting off a conversation, and then explaining his rude behavior as being preoccupied with cooking only to later admit that he had a physiological response that made him feel like he couldn't handle the conversation is to me less gaslighting than a more garden variety form of telling a convenient lie to avoid responsibility. 

Also someone asserting their ignorant belief as fact to me is obnoxious behavior but not usefully described as gaslighting. It doesn't make it okay to call someone an idiot for suggesting they drive around to find 'rooms to rent' advertised in property windows, because everyone uses craigslist these days - but someone asserting that 'nobody uses taxis anymore, it's all uber' doesn't make me doubt the existence of taxicabs in the present day.  

I recently told my first conscious lie in some years under a situation of extreme duress (for me), through a failure of imagination my only two options were to publicly humiliate a person by expelling the truth or to shut down the conversation with a lie. Here's the lie I told: 'No.' In hindsight, I could have created space for myself by saying 'could I have a word in private' and then been able to tell the truth by saying 'As I told you almost a year ago, I'm not going to discuss such matters with you anymore.'

I'm confident though, that my lie was detected for what it is, as they usually are. Contextually though I would be amazed if she began to doubt her own reality and intuitions as a result. 

What of a situation where someone says 'I'm having birthday drinks tomorrow, you should come!' and the person they are speaking to says ', I have a thing on... I'm not sure what, but I committed to it, so I won't be able to be there... sorry.' It's a terrible excuse and almost certainly a lie, but it isn't useful to describe such behavior as gaslighting. (that blog post I linked, by the way, doesn't either).

But imagine now you say to someone 'I'm having birthday drinks tomorrow, you should come!' and that person just stares blankly and walks past you. Rude? Yes. But they heard my offer, maybe they just absorbed the information and will be there? But why not confirm that in some way? A nod of the head, or a 'that sounds great'? Did they even here me? Did I offend them because the invitation is too late?

Maybe... maybe, just maybe... they suffer from social anxiety and emotionally can't process the concept of a party. They shut down and had to retreat? 

Is this behavior a form of unconscious gaslighting?

Here, I should make clear my own biases. I have gone into psychotherapy because of someone else's behavior I now identify as unconscious gaslighting. I'm also very averse to what I call a 'victim mentality' largely because I feel that people who identify themselves as victims of something, often fail to realize that they and all victims can also be perpetrators. If you put the two together, I had to for my own self-assurance that I was sane, have a psychologist wield her authority to tell me I was the victim of something, though we never used the term gaslighting.

And I don't have any real authority to broaden or narrow the definition of gaslighting. So let's focus on the effect. 

I would hope it's the case of the above example, that everyone would consider it odd in a conversation for somebody to simply not acknowledge an invite to a birthday party at all. We'd generally accept that the responses to an invitation are pretty binary - yes or no. In certain situations where the time/date/venue are all or in part inflexible there may be sufficient grounds for it to be a yes, no, maybe triumvirate of responses. And there are certainly many ways to convey these three options - an enthusiastic yes, a non-committal yes, an explanation of the factors that make your attendance unlikely all the way through to a terse 'that sounds awful there's no way I'm coming, I hate you, never speak to me again.'

But translate this exchange to the medium of text-based communication and things shift. Take Aziz Ansari's experience with his friend 'Tanya' (real name changed) the opening and closing of this excerpt from his book 'Modern Romance'.

At no point do I think Tanya was aware of what she was doing to Aziz, nor does Aziz ever describe it as abusive. But problematically for me, Aziz attributes his frustration and confusion to not understanding the modern age we live in with technology integrated into our social lives.

This behavior is normal enough for multiple people with too much time and grandiose plans of making it big in the meme-scene to have created 'facebook seen' memes.

The thing is, Aziz outlines the stress and anxiety of waiting for a response, exacerbated admittedly by modern technologies capacity for instantaneous communication. You can expect a response as early as the time taken to read a message, write that response and then hit send. If the responses are going to be some variation of the 'yes, no, maybe' then expectation can arrive within a minute of sending your invite. 

I've recently read some love-letters from famous historical figures (read James-Joyce's with caution) and many of them (being mostly men, given their over-representation in historical narratives) express some frustration at not having heard from their lovers. But, if you are Napoleon Bonaparte camping in a warzone and reliant on mail being physically carried from Paris, over the Alps or around the coast into Northern Italy, it's going to be weeks before Paranoia sets in, and also far more likely that the mail has been lost in one direction or the other. To doubt whether your letter has been received.

But I would assume, its pretty commonly held, that not acknowledging someone is rude, and has been for centuries. Not that we have stamped rudeness out.

There's a simple fix seemingly, if somebody ignores your invitation to a date - assume it is a no. I have absolutely no evidence to support this conjecture, but I would say that most people do this.

Where it becomes gaslighting though is when Aziz runs into Tanya again and her behavior is not consistent with somebody that has rejected you. (spoiler alert, they hook up again) She offers an explanation for her past behavior, promises no more games, then repeats the exact same behavior.

Now, I believe that 'No means no.' For any woman interested in me that might consider it a clever hard-to-get-game and that you'll say no with your mouth but 'yes' with your eyes, that's dumb. I'm going to take your words at face value, even if my read of you feels it's a lie. Do not expect a second ask.

But I have had cause to actually say to problematic friends that 'nothing means nothing' a concept I feel not readily understood. 

I once asked a doctor I knew about having to tell people they were going to die, and what it was like. Unbelievably they confessed to me, that they try to avoid those patients when they can until their shift ends and they can sneak out. I was appalled by this, and when I challenged them they responded 'well how about how I feel?' 

I suspect that the prestige of being a doctor is part of what drives people so ill-suited compassion wise to pursue the career of healer, and I also suspect a similar self-centeredness to drive the 'seen' or 'no response' behavior. Hence my disclaimer of bias against victim mentalities and also why I believe that this form of gaslighting is unconscious, unintentional.

My friend (who possesses exactly as little authority or qualifications as I) once said: Narcissism and anxiety are two sides of the same coin, the coin being egocentricity. They are both all about you. And my own experience supports this (though I know far fewer narcissists than people who identify as anxious or suffering from anxiety) 

I have to imagine what it is like to have anxiety, because nothing I will describe in this speculation is remotely close to any experience I've had: but somebody you really like and have been flirting with and spending time with sends you a message asking you out. It's exciting but suddenly you feel really uncomfortable, and when you try to craft a response you start to feel really anxious. The anxiety feels aweful and even though you like this person whenever you think about going on that date you think of all the horrible things that could happen or fail, or be stood up or told they were just joking... it could change the friendship and then you lose that and the ability to flirt and to imagine what it would be like to date that person, and what if they or you don't live up to those expectations. You find the whole thing so uncomfortable to deal with, that in the end you resign to just don't. But you don't want them to feel bad, or to feel rejected or to stop flirting - so you just won't acknowledge that this ever happened.

If that describes the thought process of people who don't respond, it's an accident. I suspect it is quite an authentic description, because I literally can't imagine the circumstances under which I would ever choose to ignore somebody asking me out. This though, is the most charitable thought process I can conceive of for this behavior. (Albeit, I will concede that men do kill a lot of women, and a lot of women they claim to love or feel affection for - but I feel this is more an argument for letting a guy down gently than the crazymaking non-response)

I should clarify, if somebody reads an ask for a date and ignores it, and then when they see that person next acts in a manner consistent with rejecting them - that isn't gaslighting. If I ask a woman out, and she doesn't respond and then when I see her next she avoids eye-contact, distances herself physically, is luke-warm in interaction and generally it feels awkward. That's rude but fine. The extent of the inconsideration is that had you actually told them before you next saw them that you don't want to go out with them - they are mentally prepared for the encounter too.

But if your behavior is business-as-usual that's gaslighting, I can't see much difference between denying that a communication was ever sent and denying that the lights are being manipulated. Few, including myself are sufficiently capable of breaking social cues to say 'you know I asked you out and you ignored me.' if somebody is being perfectly pleasant and engaged, perhaps even flirtatious. Instead most of us tend to follow the behavioral norms, and go privately crazy wondering where we stand.

And that's the real insult of anxiety-based gaslighting. You are selfishly self-serving by choosing not to respond, to spare your own discomfort you are passing it onto somebody else, and in a way that will make them anxious - because you are fomenting uncertainty. 

All my first hand experience with anxiety is owing to it being the most contagious emotional state. Anxious people make me anxious, thereby the victims of anxiety can become the perpetrators or rather the perpetuators of it, by refusing to confront their own anxiety.

And that's what is tricky in dealing with this form of gaslighting - you'll notice (if you read the account) that Aziz and his friend he confided in made excuses for Tanya, like that she was busy - but Aziz found that she had posted content to instagram, which is surely a lower priority than responding to a date request. Even if you accept the later excuse Tanya made as a true and correct explanation of her behavior, until that was furnished Aziz was left wondering what the fuck was going on.

Now, did he miss the obvious solution of sending a message that says 'hey, I asked you out.' and so forth until she was compelled to actually respond. Let's remember how risky that is in the presence of doubt - if you actually do want the person to go out with you, you don't get to hassle them because that could turn a potential yes into a potential no, just because you were being pushy. 

Although it wasn't to me directly my psychologist has said that in most cases of rejection it indicates that the person isn't ready, not that you grossly misread the situation. I'm sure this doesn't apply to hitting on a girl you don't know walking home alone at night, or hitting on some stranger in the club. But in my experience simply knowing that I like somebody is not sufficient motivation to ask them out, I require some evidence of encouragement to make the ask. Generally I'm usually attracted to people who give me some sense that the attraction is mutual. 

So the simple act of rejection can in some sense, be a form of gaslighting, it would fit that blog posts broad definition any time somebody confesses ten years on 'I really did like you, I just wasn't ready' but too me again, is too broad to be useful.

Rejection itself is useful, even if (inconceivably to me) somebody rejects someone they feel they want.  I can act on rejection under the 'no means no' rule, and as a general rule I will not ask out somebody who has rejected me already, no matter how encouraging they seem at a later stage - partly because it is no risk for them to ask me out. Twice in my life I have hooked up with women that had previously rejected me, and they had initiated those hook-ups. 

When ignored though, it doesn't really work. I know a lot of girls who are greatly pained by wondering if they simply hadn't made their intentions clear enough - if we accept the traditional and still widely present gender roles, we can consider female flirtation by analogy - if a girl wants a boy to ask her out, she flirts with him to signal that he should. And he doesn't. Does this mean he doesn't like her? Or does she just need to flirt harder?

Even though it bears the risk of rejection, I consider the traditional gender role of men asking out women as part of male privilege because it has been so direct and clear. My experience of having asks ignored has been to question whether it was clear enough that I was asking them out.

But there are serious consequences to being accused of sexual harassment, so even though nothing means nothing, it's hard to then pursue an actual no or an unlikely yes (I say unlikely because someone who can't actually say 'yes' to something they want has deep emotional issues that are unlikely to change on any timeframe that will ease your own mental suffering). 

Consider that in (Australia at least) sexual harassment can include inappropriate advances on social networking sites, and unwanted requests to go out on dates. Cyber-stalking can include what Aziz did when he found Tanya posting to instagram. 

What is vague though in most information sites about sexual harassment and stalking/cyberstalking is whether it is necessary for the target of this unwanted behavior to ever communicate that it is unwanted. Obviously I do not for one second believe that you can't convict a man of rape if he manages to get chloroform over his victims mouth fast enough, or that an employee can 'test the waters' by offering a pay rise in exchange for a blow job, there are in the spectrum of harassment and abuse behaviors that need no confirmation that they are acceptable. 

But there is a large overlap of behaviors that are contextually acceptable or unacceptable depending on how we feel about that person. A wink from one man might stir your loins and from another man make your skin crawl. Is winking harassment? It depends. 

Asking someone out on a date, I would hope we can all agree, is not harassment. Asking someone out on a date that has already declined one - could be, and in most cases would be. 4 years may have passed and circumstances may have dramatically changed, in which case it's possibly acceptable depending on the prejudice with which you were previously rebuffed. You may have been furnished with an excuse, in which case it would not be harassment to try again, though if furnished with more excuses demands at some point you read between the lines.

If your initial request for a date was ignored however, and you just want to know where you stand, yes or no, 4 years is not the time frame you are going to have in mind for seeking that clarity, that closure. That's what makes this form of gaslighting so cruel.

I have, going back to my highschool days, an objective that everyone I know, knows how I feel about them. Another rule of thumb adopted later, to combat excessive pining, is that between realizing that I like someone and asking them out, I have a deadline of 3 months to ask them. That loose rule exists because it's better to know one way or another than to just live pining for your crush. It worked well until about 4 years ago, when asking someone out no longer brought clarity but evolved to bring very unsettling uncertainty.

Here is my non-compassionate proposal - if you suffer from anxiety, acknowledge that it is a debilitating condition for you and your foremost responsibility is not to expand the debilitating effects to others. You don't get to accommodate your anxiety when other people's well-being - perhaps even sanity and sense of self, is at stake.

My more compassionate and universal solution to gaslighting is this - be honest. Be honest and if possible, also kind.

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