[blogathon] Female Bullying, Internalized Misogyny, and Challenging Cognitive Bias

This is the seventh post in my SSA blogathon. Don’t forget to donate!

I’ve seen a lot of great articles lately about women who don’t like women and don’t have female friends. One starts out:

For as long as I can remember, there’s been this sub-breed of girls and women who seem to think that not having female friends is a noteworthy, noble way to live. “Guys don’t cause drama,” they say. “Girls are catty/ jealous of me/ the devil,” they say. To those girls, I have a response: the problem is you, not every other woman in the universe.

And:

Coed friendships are great, I’m not knocking them. What I’m knocking is the idea that females are incapable of providing someone with the same support a male friend can provide. What I’m knocking is this notion that treating women like a bunch of catty chickenheads somehow makes you the one and only non-catty, non-chickenhead. Not every woman is dramatic. Not every woman is jealous. To say otherwise is to put yourself on a pedestal where you are the one true goddess, the one woman who “gets it,” the one woman who is unique and special and one of the guys and something no other woman can be. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t live up to that fucking standard. You couldn’t pay me to try.

I’ve heard this sort of stuff a lot, too, and I used to say it myself. Women are jealous. Women gossip. Women are boring. Women just don’t get it.

Of course, I was wrong. But I do think that these articles largely fail to explain the proximal cause of this distrust of fellow women (the distal cause being socially-sanctioned misogyny and devaluation of women’s friendships): bullying.

Most people are unwilling to express vulnerability in front of others. So I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these women who say stuff like “I just don’t trust women” and “Women will just stab you in the back” might be speaking from personal experience. A comment that puts it much more strongly than I would:

I think the article would have been much more honest if you could have conceded that these women might have at some point, been victims of “mean girls.” You just vilify a group of women who have most likely come up with this sad mantra as a coping mechanism because they’ve been rejected by women, and you don’t go into the potential causes of their attitude. You just paint them as two dimensional women-haters when that is most likely not the case. Most women who feel alienated from other women have mother-issues- their moms refused to bond with them or even were abusive, and may have treated them as “competition” as they got older; and/or they were subjected to “mean girl” treatment; targeted and bullied by a group of women at work or in school. This is phenomenon that has been well-documented, and unlike you, scholarly studies rarely point the finger at the victim.

I don’t agree with all of this comment and I think the part about “mother-issues” is a huge presumption. But there’s some truth in it, I think.

Of course, bullying isn’t limited to any gender. However, the type of bullying that seems to cause the most lasting insecurity when it comes to friendship is relational bullying, which (according to some of these “scholarly studies”) is more common among women. Relational bullying relies on psychological manipulation, which often requires close ties like friendship. (A lot of my perspectives on this are informed by Rachel Simmons’ book Odd Girl Out.)

However, consider the difference between women claiming to dislike other women and women claiming to dislike men.

Despite the fact that many women have been hurt by men–in many cases to a greater extent than they’ve been hurt by other women–it’s not acceptable in our culture to declare, as a woman, that you “just don’t trust men” or that you “just can’t get along with men.”

You might argue that this is because women are expected to want/be able to date men, but it’s not even okay to say that as a lesbian. In fact, some people still think that lesbians are just straight women who hate men and decided to play for the other team.

On the contrary, men who have been hurt by women face few social repercussions for claiming that all women are bitches, that you can’t trust a woman, and so on.

So I do think that sexism is at play. If it’s more acceptable to make generalizations about all women after being hurt by a few women than it is to make generalizations about all men after being hurt by a few men, it’s more difficult to let women off the hook when they claim that women just can’t be trusted.

On a psychological level, though, it makes sense. Gender is a very salient category for people and they can’t avoid perceiving it and thinking about it (as much as we may wish that they could). Sometimes when you get hurt by someone whom you have placed into a category that’s salient for you, you end up reflexively terrified or distrustful of others in that category. To make an overly simplistic analogy, if you encounter an angry dog that bites you, you might be scared of all dogs afterwards.

Is this rational? Of course not! But that’s how our brains are set up to work. And I think it’s absolutely vital to be mindful of this and to work to correct our biases, but I also think that this means we might want to be a bit more gentle with people who are stuck in this frame of thinking.

That’s why, as much as it bothers me to hear women say things like “I just don’t trust women,” I realize that it might be coming from a place of unresolved pain and unchallenged cognitive biases. As someone who is both a skeptic, a feminist, and a person who cares about helping people feel better, I think a bit of sensitivity is warranted–even if we acknowledge that statements like these are misogynistic at face value.

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Living With Depression: Trust

I’m going to do a series of posts on what it’s like to live with chronic depression, beyond the DSM symptoms that you always hear about. I want to help people understand.

I’m in a particularly good position to do this now because my depression is technically in remission, which means that I no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for it. I’m fine. I’m even sort of happy. However, the complex effects that nine years of depression has had on my thinking style, beliefs, and personality are still there, as are (probably) whichever genetic and neurological risk factors caused this whole mess to begin with.

However, not having a depressive episode means that my thinking is clearer and it’s easier for me to talk about this calmly.

A caveat–none of this is meant to generalize to everyone with depression. Don’t read this and apply it to your friends and loved ones who have it. Instead, perhaps, use it to start a conversation.

So, trust. In one way or another, it’s the backbone of all human interaction. You have to trust that your friends won’t share your secrets, that your partner won’t cheat on you, that your colleagues will pull their weight on the project, that your babysitter will take good care of your kids, that the clerk will give you the correct amount of change, and so on.

People who haven’t studied much psychology might think that trust is based on a conscious, logical appraisal of the person you’re interacting with. But in fact, trust is based on emotional responses to others, and a lot of the time we’re not even aware of those responses.

Although emotions get a bad rap for being “illogical” and for interfering with people’s lives, they–more so than conscious, “logical” cognition–are what help us make good decisions. Fear, of course, is the best example, since it helps people stay out of trouble. So does disgust.

But positive emotions are important in that way, too. For instance, we don’t really choose our partners based on how much money they make or how attractive they are or how many children they want to have; we choose them based on how they make us feel.

So, mood disorders like depression cause emotions to disconnect from experiences, so to speak. As Andrew Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon, “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”

When I was depressed–and, to a much lesser extent, now–feelings happened to me in a completely arbitrary way. The changing leaves made me feel grief. Being unable to talk to my family made me feel shame. Relatively minor inconsiderate actions, which would merely annoy a healthy person, threw me into a rage.

I learned not to trust my feelings. Often people made me uncomfortable and I’d chalk that up to depression, forcing myself to keep them in my life. This led to continued discomfort at best and abuse at worst. Then, infuriated at the situation, I would overcompensate and kick people out of my life who had merely messed up, as everyone sometimes does.

I learned not to trust others. Even the most well-intentioned person could–completely accidentally–send me into a depressive funk with a single teasing comment. Once a guy misjudged his feelings for me and led me on for a few weeks, and I was depressed for a year and a half after that. And I can’t even count the number of people who argued with me a bit too forcefully for me to avoid jumping to the conclusion that they must hate me from the depths of their souls, and so I cut off contact.

I can’t trust people anymore because I know that anyone–even the most kind, considerate, good person–can unintentionally make me cry for hours or hate myself for months.

And not everyone I meet is a good person.

I learned not to trust myself. If my brain lies to me all the time, how can I? Cognitive distortions make it nearly impossible to know when I’m thinking clearly and when I’m not. I used to keep a list of the most common ones in my binder to remind myself, but it didn’t really help.

Without emotions that are more-or-less based on reality, trusting myself and others is nearly impossible. I can’t tell whether a certain situation is bothering me because it’s a bad situation or because I’m freaking out over nothing. I can’t tell if I don’t want to get a PhD because I really don’t want to get one, or because I feel like too much of a failure to even try. I can’t tell if someone is really lying to me, or if I’m just assuming the worst because that’s what you kind of do when you have depression.

Difficulty trusting others is usually considered a character flaw or weakness. For me, though, it’s a symptom of a mental illness. It’s also an adaptation, because I’ve been too trusting in the past and I’d rather be safe than sorry–that is, than risk a relapse because I let the wrong person in.

The important thing to remember is that people who experience depression this way aren’t distrustful because we’re cynical or misanthropic. It’s because without healthy and adaptive emotional responses, it’s nearly impossible to know who to trust. It is also impossible to trust ourselves.