They Lie So Easily

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Fall in New York City makes me forget all my troubles. The juxtaposition of red, orange, and yellow leaves over blue-glass buildings, the breezy weather, the yellow taxis pressing the leaves into the pavement, the splendor of the botanical garden I visited a few weeks ago–all of it sometimes feels like it was made just for me to wander through.

Today I walked almost five miles through Central Park. I had my headphones off, which I almost never do. Usually I keep them on, even if I don’t want to listen to music, so that I don’t hear the things men say to me. But I wanted to hear the sounds of the park.

I’ve wanted to see the Mall in autumn for a while now–you know, that walkway lined with American Elms that features prominently in When Harry Met Sally.

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Well, I saw it. And as I was seeing it, a man stopped me.

“Excuse me miss–”

“No thank you, I’m not interested.”

“Whatever, bitch.”

He started to walk away towards a couple sitting on a bench, but I whipped around like a woman on fire.

What did you just say to me?”

It’s happened plenty of times, but it still surprises me because it feels so far from where I’ve been. My voice came out clear and strong. I faced him, looked right at him, as the couple on the bench watched on.

“I asked if you’d donate to–”

“No, after that.”

“I said have a nice day.”

Sure you did.”

I walked away.

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What else can you do?

I thought about how easily he had told that absolutely blatant lie. He did not appear nervous. He did not hesitate. His voice was confident, casual. It’s nothing, just a little misunderstanding.

They all lie so easily.

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“I said have a nice day.”

“I never touched her, I don’t know what she’s talking about.”

“Of course I didn’t call you the n-word, I’d never do something like that, I’m not a racist, stop pulling the race card.”

“I didn’t sexually assault her; she got upset after I rejected her advances and falsely accused me.”

Despite a strong connection between us it became clear to me that our on-and-off dating was unlikely to grow into a larger relationship and I ended things in the beginning of this year. She was upset by this and sent me messages indicating her disappointment that I would not commit to more, and her anger that I was seeing others. After this, in the early spring there began a campaign of harassment, vengeance and demonization against me that would lead to months of anxiety.”

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It is not enough for them to simply say that we were wrong or misunderstood. They have to try to paint us as crazed, over-emotional, hysterical bitches, too.

Despite widespread belief that detecting lies is easy, research shows that people do barely better than chance at it. This man I encountered in the Mall was showing none of the signs associated with spewing complete unadulterated grade-A bullshit. Yet that’s exactly what he was doing.

It’s not just lying, either. It’s gaslighting, too. I’ve been through this many times. They try to get me to believe that what I absolutely just saw or heard did not really happen. Nothing to see here. Move along.

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It is difficult, nearly impossible, for a woman (or another person affected by systemic oppression like this) to relearn the skill of trusting your own perception. There are many things that have happened to me that I’m no longer quite certain happened simply because somebody told me they didn’t. Like an altered Soviet photograph with a space where some persona non grata used to be, these memories feel shaky and uncertain to me.

Not this time. This man called me a bitch. He called me a bitch because I politely said no. Never forget that. I will never forget that, no matter what anyone says.

I am sure that there are people who would find it easier to believe that I, a person without hearing impairment, who was standing at most two feet away from this man in a relatively quiet place, either managed to mishear “Have a nice day” as “Whatever, bitch,” or that I deliberately accused an innocent man of saying such a thing (Why? To what possible end?) than that a man might use a slur against a woman who refuses to give him her time or attention.

It’s not just that these things happen so commonly. It’s that they happen so commonly and yet people continue to believe them to be the fantastical inventions of some jealous/delusional/over-emotional/vengeful/uptight/slutty/prudish/ugly/crazy bitch. Instead, they propose explanations that are more fantastical by orders of magnitude, such as the idea that I could have somehow heard “Whatever, bitch” instead of “Have a nice day.” Or that someone could believe themselves to have been sexually assaulted when nothing of the sort happened. Or that they would willfully lie about it and have their names dragged through the mud in front of the silent, shrugging world.

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And I thought, too, about the couple on the bench, looking at the man and at me. Maybe they thought I was a crazy bitch. Maybe they knew exactly what was going on. Maybe they were confused and didn’t know what to think.

Regardless, I cannot concern myself too much with the opinion of the couple on the bench, because I will never see the couple on the bench again. I will, on the other hand, have to live as a woman in this world for the rest of my life. Talking back will not end sexism and it is not an option available to everyone. But it replenishes me. It is a power that I have. I know it is a power because if it wasn’t, men wouldn’t be so afraid of it.

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The photos in this post are all ones I took during that walk today. I included them here for a reason, and it wasn’t to show off my photography. It was to give those of you who haven’t experienced it a sense of that juxtaposition, of having almost every joyful, peaceful, meaningful moment in your life punctuated somehow by oppression.

I am not a happy person, not even when I’m not depressed, but I am a person who constantly marvels at the world–the physical world, the social world. Yet sexism follows me everywhere, taints almost all of my experiences and memories. I can’t get away from it, not even in the twisted paths and falling leaves of Central Park. I cannot escape it no matter where I go.

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Not three minutes after my encounter with the man who called me a bitch, another man approached me. I said the same sort of thing as I said last time, only my voice had gone cold and hard as the ancient boulders in the park. This man did not call me a bitch. He just said, “Have a nice day,” in the cruelest tone I’ve ever heard those words said. I thought, Too late.

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After that I put my headphones on, concluding that particular experiment. As the world around me went quiet, I felt those headphones like a shield around my mind. The singing birds, the fountains, the intriguing conversations all became dull and fuzzy, like the way your mind feels when you’re sick.

But I didn’t turn the music on. Instead I imagined my own music. Sometimes I thought of the Russian songs my parents and their friends and I sing around campfires. Other times I made up my own songs. It comforted me.

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I didn’t feel sad, exactly. I felt suddenly disconnected, like I was experiencing the world from inside a bubble. I felt very alone. I felt weary. I also felt grateful for the privileges I do have, without which this situation could so easily have been much worse.

But I thought about it for the rest of the walk, because it had lodged itself, as these things often do, in my mind like a splinter that itches and burns.

Central Park is a wonder this time of year. If you live nearby, I encourage you to visit it, especially if you, unlike me, have the freedom to be able to take your headphones off, let it fill your ears up with its beautiful noise.

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Depression and Self-Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a term you probably know, but if you don’t, it refers to the act of telling and convincing someone that their feelings or perceptions are not really true. In the context of interpersonal relationships, gaslighting is considered to be an abusive behavior, as it can render people incapable of trusting themselves and their own judgment, instead placing an undeserved trust in the gaslighter.

Cognitive distortion is also a term you probably know. It refers to a set of maladaptive mental habits that people with mental illnesses tend to have. (The Wikipedia list is useful, and I discussed some specific examples in this post.)

A cognitive-behavioral approach to mood disorders involves teaching the client the difference between thoughts and feelings. A lot of people will say things like, “I feel like a failure.” The therapist’s role is to remind them that “I feel like a failure” isn’t actually a feeling, but a thought. “I feel like a failure” is really “I think that I’m a failure.” The therapist may ask, “How do you feel when you have the thought that you are a failure?” The client may say, “I feel hopeless,” or “I feel miserable.” Hopefully, the therapist can help the client see that a lot of their thoughts are actually cognitive distortions, and that there are more helpful and realistic ways to think about the same things.

That’s the standard CBT frame that’s used in all the training videos I watch in school. But the reality, at least for me, is a little less tidy. Sometimes feelings come seemingly out of nowhere, and while I know there is a reason for them (and I usually know what the reason is), there was no proximal cause for the feeling. There was no maladaptive thought.

Sometimes I see a partner with someone else and I just feel awful. I don’t think, “I bet they’re going to leave me now,” or “That person is way cooler than me,” and then feel awful. I just feel awful. Is it because I trained myself to feel awful on cue, as a conditioned response? Maybe. Others would argue that feeling awful is a “natural” response to seeing a partner with someone else, though I disagree. Regardless, the feeling comes immediately and without any stimulus other than seeing the thing.

Sometimes I have to leave my family after a visit and I become extremely depressed. (I will have to do this in a few days. I’ve already had a few breakdowns about it.) I don’t think, “I WILL NEVER SEE MY FAMILY AGAIN” or, slightly more realistically, “It is Terrible and Bad that I have to leave my family.” I just think about the mere concept of leaving and instantly collapse in tears. (To wit: there is nothing less undignified than collapsing in tears while sitting on the toilet, but that just happened to be when I remembered about my flight home. It happens.)

Last year I wrote about some things I had learned from depression, including two slightly/seemingly contradictory maxims: “Not everything your brain tells you is accurate,” and “Your feelings are valid.” You can read that post to see what I meant by these things, but the jist of it is that depression can teach you to be more skeptical about some of the stuff going on in your brain, but also that you get to feel how you feel without passing judgment–or having others pass judgment–on it. Some would say that feelings can’t be “wrong.” They can be crappy, or not useful, or distracting, or whatever, but they cannot be empirically inaccurate or morally wrong.

However, this is where reality gets murkier than these convenient teachings. Feelings aren’t wrong, per se, but they can be premised on exaggerated or inaccurate fears or worries. I feel bad when my partners like people who I think are Better than me. But what is “better”? Can I really accurately say that someone is “better” than me, rather than maybe better at certain things and worse at others? And isn’t the whole point of polyamory that nobody has to leave anyone just because they’ve found someone “better”?

I feel depressed when I have to leave my family and go home to New York. But I know I will be just fine and quite happy when I get there. I know this because I’ve gone through it many, many times now. There is no reason to feel so depressed I can’t get out of bed for two days. Yes, it’s sad to say goodbye to your family. To me, personally, it is slightly tragic, even, that I can’t live close to them the way people usually do in our culture. But it is not that sad. It is not weeping-on-the-toilet-bowl sad. Few things in my life are objectively that sad.

These are far from the only situations like this that I experience; it happens all the time, every day. I get very frustrated. “No feelings about feelings,” a friend of mine says, not as a rule, but as an aspiration. I can’t make it work.

So I start gaslighting myself. “That’s not true.” “That perception is just wrong.” “That’s false and you know it.” “There is no reason to be upset right now.” “Your hypothesis that that person is somehow objectively better than you is premised on nothing but a pile of turds.” “THAT FEELING IS WRONG AND YOU SHOULD IGNORE IT FOREVER.”

Cutesy slang about jerkbrains and badfeels aside, what I’m now doing is very serious. Now I have abandoned a defensive stance and taken up an offensive one, with which I will battle the Wrong Feelings and vanquish them in a burst of light. Gaslight.

What happens when you teach yourself not to trust your own perception? How many toxic people become “just difficult for me to deal with because I’m so insecure and oversensitive”? How many untenable situations become marginally acceptable because “I’m only miserable about it because my brain lies to me”? How many injustices become annoyances to shrug at because “I’m just pessimistic about everything and don’t realize how good life is”?

People tell me that I’m so good at setting boundaries, but sometimes I wonder how much shit I have patiently accepted because I thought my brain was lying to me. In any case, I’m very glad I discovered feminism at the same time I discovered that I have depression.

Somewhere between “Your feelings are bad and you should feel bad” and “Your feelings are an accurate barometer of external reality” lies a vast unexplored land of feelings that are excessive but useful, of feelings that don’t make any sense but that alert you to an issue that needs to be explored, of feelings that can be discussed with a partner to build trust and intimacy, of feelings that have been spot-on many times before but have simply outlived their usefulness in this new and happier life you have built.

I wish I could really believe that feeling things is okay.