Gaslighting: What it is, and How to Recognize it

It wasn’t until after my first marriage that I first heard about the concept of “gaslighting,” and as soon as I understood what it meant, I thought, “Wow! I wish I’d known about that years ago. That perfectly describes my 6 years of marriage.” I’m hopeful that I can save you years of pain and frustration by sharing this information with you now.

The term comes from the 1944 black and white film, “Gaslight,” which I’ve actually taken the time to rent on Amazon and watch for myself. It’s dated, but still a wonderful psychological thriller, and I definitely recommend it. In the movie, the main character marries a man that seems perfect in every way. He’s charming, handsome, wealthy, and appears to be completely in love with her. After the wedding they move to his ancestral home where things slowly and insidiously start to unravel. The woman’s belongings keep going missing and appearing in strange places, and the gaslights (from which the movie gets its name) keep turning on and off at strange times.

When the woman tells her husband about these peculiar occurrences, he tells her that they aren’t actually happening and that she is losing her mind. He even goes so far as to get a psychiatrist to examine her and back up his claims of her insanity. His insistence on her mental instability is so pervasive that she actually starts to believe that she is going crazy until the big reveal in the end, when we find out what his devious plan was the whole time. I won’t spoil it for you.

“Gaslight” is a wonderful example of the slow, methodical and insidious nature of gaslighting. It’s a long game power play where the perpetrator slowly makes the victim question her/his own reality. The Psychology Today article, “11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting” by Stephanie A. Sarkis, PhD, describes gaslighting this way, “Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.” The slow and methodical nature of gaslighting is what gives it such power. Because of the steady and mounting message the victim receives that her/his senses can’t be trusted, it begins to feel like the truth.

11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting by Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D.

According to Sarkis, there are 11 warning signs of gaslighting to watch out for, and I’d like to explore them here.

  1. They tell blatant lies
  2. They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.
  3. They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
  4. They wear you down over time.
  5. Their actions do not match their words.
  6. They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you.
  7. They know confusion weakens people.
  8. They project.
  9. They try to align people against you.
  10. They tell you or others that you are crazy.
  11. They tell you everyone else is a liar.

Let’s explore these symptoms in more detail. I think that the first two make a good pairing. Gaslighters love to lie. They use it as a tool to confuse you. Even if you have a recording of them doing the thing that they’re lying about, they will continue to lie and tell you that it didn’t happen. They’ll do it with a straight face and belittle you for trying to stand up for yourself, truth and reality. Why do they do this? Well, because over time it makes you start to question the nature of truth and facts. It makes you think that maybe nothing in the world is certain, which is exactly what they want. When you no longer know the nature of truth, you are easily manipulated to believe whatever the gaslighter wants you to believe.

Number three, using what is near and dear to you as ammunition against you, is a potent tool. My ex-husband used to use my religion against me–attempting to control me based on religious beliefs about gender and relational power dynamics. I’ve worked with clients who intimidated their partners into staying with them by saying that they would take away their children if they left. Remember that this is a power and control tactic. It’s not based in reality, but because it touches on deep-seated fears, beliefs, or values it works to intimidate and control the victim.

Number four, “they wear you down over time,” is an important one. Gaslighters start out with a friendly and welcoming demeanor, and charm their victims into trusting them, and then over time begin to introduce their power and control tactics one subtle drop at a time. By slowly chipping away at the victim’s reality and relationship to truth, victims often don’t realize that their worlds have become more and more confusing until they don’t trust their own senses at all, which leaves them in the precarious position of looking to the gaslighter to tell them what to believe. This is exactly the outcome that the gaslighter wants.

Number 5 is probably the biggest give-away of a gaslighter. “Their actions don’t match their words.” They tell you that they are going to do something, and then they don’t do it. They tell you something was done, and you then find out that it wasn’t. They make promises that they don’t keep, and then they tell you that they never promised it in the first place. If you start to notice this trend, run!

Number 6, “They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you” works like this. The gaslighter has told you that you’re crazy and don’t know anything one too many times, and you’re starting to think this person is a bully and you need to get out of the relationship, leave the company, or even the country. Then, suddenly the gaslighter does something nice for you, gives you a gift or a compliment, a tax break, etc. You think, “well, maybe they’re not so bad. Maybe I was over-reacting,” and then the gaslighting resumes even stronger than before.

As the victim’s confusion deepens, number 7 comes into play, “They know confusion weakens people.” Our ability to trust our own senses and interpretation of reality gives us a rootedness in life. By eroding your ability to trust that you know what is true and not true, the gaslighter is literally cutting you off at the root, leaving you weakened and dependent on them for support. That is the entire point of the gaslighting process.

Number 8, “They project.” This one is super weird when you experience it. You confront the gaslighter about bad behavior, and instead of taking responsibility, they accuse you of doing whatever it was that they did instead. For instance, my ex-husband used to accuse me of being bad with money when I would talk to him about the fact that he had just emptied our bank account. Gaslighters do this because it distracts you from the reality of what happened and makes you start defending yourself instead.

Number 9, “They try to align people against you.” This tactic may or may not be reality.
Gaslighters tell their victims that others are against them, and that the only person that the victim can trust is the gaslighter. Remember that they lie, so they may be making it up, but they may actually go so far as to poison people against you. I had an ex-boyfriend who called me “psycho-bitch” to anyone who would listen. By making people believe that I was crazy, he isolated me from my support system in an attempt to make me more dependent on him. This tactic also served to make people question the validity of my statements, especially about him and the way that he treated me.

Number 10, “They tell you or others that you are crazy.” I touched on this earlier, but this one is super important and bears repeating. I find that the operative word tends to be “psycho.” If anyone ever calls you psycho, run. If they call their exes psycho, run. If they call their family members psycho, run. Don’t look back. This person is very likely a gaslighter.

Number 11, “They tell you that everyone else is a liar.” Your world is already on shaky ground. You don’t know what is real and what isn’t anymore. You’re not sure that you can trust your own senses or that you’re mentally sound. Then, the gaslighter tells you that your family, the media, your friends, other countries, or some group are always lying to you. Since you don’t know what’s true anymore anyway, this gives the gaslighter the power to shape reality to his/her own benefit.

Anyone can fall victim to these tactics. This isn’t something that only happens gullible people. It happens to smart, educated and powerful people all of the time. If you’re reading this and recognizing that there is a gaslighter in your life, don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. Don’t try to change the gaslighter or reason with them. It won’t work. Just leave.

It will take time for the world to start to make sense again after being gaslit, and that’s OK. Give yourself the patience and gentleness that you were missing with the gaslighter while you heal and find your footing again. The important thing is to just be with yourself as long as it takes to get to the other side of healing.

The Real Reason that Abusers Abuse: It’s Not Why You Think

One of my therapeutic specialties is helping people to work through abuse trauma. I honed my skills working in a domestic violence shelter, and also with Child Welfare Services, but I find that wherever I go, abuse trauma patients follow.

While there is endless variety in the types of abuse traumas that people have experienced, as well as the severity and duration of their abuse experiences, there always seems to be one underlying theme: a sense of shame and personal responsibility.

No matter how often I hear it, I never cease to be shocked by victims of sexual abuse who tell me that they somehow are to blame for their assaults, or the survivors of domestic violence who tell me that if they could have just been better spouses, their relationships could have been saved. These people tell me that their abusers must have seen that they were inherently flawed or unworthy, and that’s why they were chosen to be victims.

At first I would gently tell these people that they were mistaken, and that there was nothing wrong with them, but I quickly learned that the message that they were somehow to blame for what had happened to them was so deeply ingrained that they couldn’t take in any message that contradicted this belief.

That was when I had an epiphany about abuse. It’s not an action. It’s a process. Abuse is a process where the victims are slowly groomed to believe that they are at fault for their mistreatment. It’s an insidious message that starts out small, and grows over time. Abusers slowly push out other supports from the lives of their victims until the only message that can be heard is “You deserve this mistreatment because you are inherently bad and unworthy. If only you could be better, it would stop.”

Having victims who believe this message serves abusers in three ways:

  1. The victim is constantly trying to please the abuser. As a result, the abuser gets catered and deferred to. Depending on the type of abuse, the victim may also be afraid to contradict or stand up to the abuser, giving him/her the benefits of complete power and control over what should be a mutually beneficial relationship.
  2. It takes the blame off of the abuser for the abuse and puts it on the victim, so that the abuser can feel blameless and entitled to continue the abuse.
  3. It keeps victims from leaving because they truly believe that they are unworthy of respectful love, that they deserve the mistreatment, and that they are lucky that the abuser stays with them.

When people tell me now about the deep sense of shame that they feel about the abuse that they’ve suffered, I say, “Yes. That’s the message of abuse. Abuse says that you are somehow to blame for what has happened to you, and that if you were somehow better the abuse would stop. However, think about all that you did to try to be better and how none of it made the abuse stop. The message that you’re to blame is a lie that abuse tells.”

Usually, they nod and say, “Yes. It was just like that.”

Once they understand the message of abuse, I explain how it benefits abusers to get their victims to believe that they are the cause of the abuse. That’s when the healing begins.

There many of myths out there about abuse, and I would like to address some of them here:

  1. Abuse doesn’t happen because the abuser lost control of his/her temper. Abuse is a process. It is pre-meditated and thought through. Abusers behave the way that they do in order to get the benefits of abuse.
  2. Abuse doesn’t happen because of alcohol/drug use. Often, both victims and abusers will minimize abuse saying, “Well, he/she was drunk. He/she wouldn’t do that when sober.” Often in these cases the victim pushes the abuser to get clean thinking that will stop the abuse. If the abuser does get clean, the victim is often shocked that the abuse doesn’t stop. What they had failed to understand was that the abuser wasn’t abusing because of the substance. He/she was using the substance as an excuse to abuse and reap the benefits of abuse listed above.
  3. Victims do not enjoy being abused. They don’t stay because they like it or get some kind of thrill out of it. They stay for any mixture of the following reasons: a) They truly believe that they are bad people and nobody else will want them; b) They have become so isolated by the behavior of the abuser that they believe they have nowhere else to go; c) The abuser has convinced them that they cannot survive on their own; d) They are completely financially dependent on the abuser and cannot see a way to support themselves on their own. e) The abuser has threatened to kill them, take their children, or deport them if they leave, and they are afraid that he/she will follow through on these threats.
  4. Abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of race, socio-economic status, gender, education level or sexual orientation. It’s something that happens to people just like you.

If you’ve recognized yourself here, know that there is help for you. Even if you don’t have any money or any family or friends that you can go live with, there are shelters that will take you. The wonderful thing about going to a shelter is that they can connect you to a transitional living program. These programs are specifically designed to provide shelter, food, funding, and education for survivors of abuse so that they can rebuild their lives, including finding a career and learning how to support themselves. Don’t continue to wait for things to get better. They won’t. Pack a bag, take your children, and go to a shelter. Your life will immediately improve and you will be able to take your power back.

Read the book, Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft. This is the best book about abuse I’ve ever read. Lundy Bancroft was the director of an abuse perpetrator’s program, and he has first-hand knowledge about the way that abusers think. Any time that I’ve been working with an abuse survivor who has read this book, she/he has gathered the courage to leave, and set down at least a portion of the shame she/he had been carrying. Understanding that abusers abuse in order to get the benefits of abuse is an empowering piece of knowledge.

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.

Go to http://www.RAINN.org. RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, and they have resources for survivors.

Survivors of childhood abuse, I recommend getting involved in your local Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) organization. They don’t just help the children of alcoholics. They are a 12 step organization for overcoming the effects of all types of childhood abuse.

Know that you are not alone. There is help and support, and if you access it, things will get better.

Labels, and How They’re Used to Justify Abuse

The first time someone called me a slut, I was 10 or 11 years old, and a virgin.  I had a school-girl crush on the boy who said it.  His friend, having noticed my affinity for Crush, was telling him that he should ask me to hang out, and I overheard the conversation.

“Nah,” said Crush. “She’s a slut.”

My face flushed hot with shame and disbelief.  What on earth would make him think I was a slut?  Crush destroyed!  After that, I went out of my way to avoid him.

That was just the beginning of a long string of misogynistic epithets and behavior that make my brain spin, which is why I related hard to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC’s) recent speech on the House Floor in response to Ted Yoho calling her “disgusting,” “out of [her] freaking mind,” and a “fucking bitch.”

For me, the most important part of the speech was when she “said it was important to point out that the issue wasn’t just about one lawmaker’s statements, but also a culture ‘of accepting violence and violent language against women.'” (Chris Walker in Truthout).

The culture of accepting violence and violent language against women is what I want to talk about today.

It bothers me that I feel I need to say this, but it’s probably important before I launch into  some of my own experiences with the type of everyday misogyny that AOC is talking about.  I’m an educated woman–a BA and two MAs.  I tend to be shy in company that I don’t know, I’m a complete failure at flirting, and I’m not a casual dater.  Personality-wise, I tend toward people pleasing, although I’m working on that, and I have depths of empathy and compassion that are yet untested.  I am not promiscuous, stupid, mean, or difficult in any way.

Here are some of the name-calling highlights that led me to the realization that women have not come as far as many people would like to think they have in gaining cultural equality:

  1. Calling women stupid.  Usually this happens when women fail to stroke a man’s ego, laugh at his horrible jokes, or agree with his questionable opinions.  Instead of asking the woman why she isn’t laughing, or requesting her opinion, he assumes that she just doesn’t understand.  A great example of this in my life was when I worked retail at Macy’s.  (FYI, people working retail take an insane amount of abuse.  Be kind to them).  I was minding my own business, ringing up an elderly man’s purchase, when he started telling me terrible, sexist jokes.  They were so insulting that I couldn’t even pretend to laugh at them, and did my best to just finish my task so he would go away.  When I failed to laugh at yet another horrible joke, he said to me, “You’re pretty dim, aren’t you?”  When I gasped, his wife stepped in to cover for him, “Oh, don’t take him seriously,” she said.  “That’s just how he is.”  I felt both sorry for her that she had to live with that man, and angry with her for minimizing his insulting, sexist behavior.
  2. Calling women sluts, whores and bitches.  It’s come to my attention that these insults about a woman’s sexuality have nothing to do with whether or not she’s sexual.  They’re more about cutting a woman down after she’s hurt a man’s ego in some way.  I’ve been called a bitch after telling a man I’m not interested in going out with him so many times that I’ve stopped saying no.  Usually I’ll just give him a wrong number and walk away.  Recently, I broke up with a man who thought that he could tell me what I could and couldn’t post on Facebook, and in response, he launched into a tirade of insults all variations on the theme of bitch.  Not a good look.
  3. Calling women Psycho or Crazy.  After I left an abusive ex-boyfriend who stalked me and broke into my apartment, I found out through the grapevine that he was calling me “Psycho-Bitch.”   I found this ironic given that he was the one who’d behaved like a maniac.

After being called a “psycho-bitch” by this stalker ex-boyfriend I had a revelation about labels, and it is this: Labeling a person is a way for the labeler to justify mistreating the one being labeled.

It’s true.  Stalking Jennifer, the person, and breaking into Jennifer’s house is so much more difficult to justify than stalking Psycho-Bitch.

It might be a “dick move” to ghost a woman after having sex with her, but if she’s a “slut” or a “whore,” well, then, it’s probably happened to her before.  She’ll get over it.

Slapping a woman might be unmanly.  However, slapping “That Bitch?”  Well, she deserved it, right?

As I became aware of this labeling phenomenon as a woman, I began to see all of the different ways that labels are used to dehumanize and enable barbaric behavior toward fellow humans.  Think about the labels that have been placed on people of different ethnicities.  Calling people of Native American descent savages has historically enabled brutalities like stealing Native children from their parents, cutting off their hair, sending them to boarding schools, and physically punishing them for speaking their native language, in order to “kill the Indian, but save the child.”

Think about the labels used against people from Mexico in order to justify stealing their children and putting them in cages, where they languish to this day.

Think about the labels used against Black people in order to justify killing Black teenagers for innocent things like walking down the street in a hoodie.

Bullies use labels like geek and nerd to enable them to feel Ok about their mistreatment of people that are kinder, smarter, or smaller.  I’ll never forget an incident on the school bus in middle school when a group of older boys cornered me, called me “school-girl” and pretended to spit on me.

In today’s news, I read an article about Federal troops occupying Portland and disappearing people from the streets in unmarked vans.  I was horrified that Americans could justify treating other Americans this way until I scanned down to the comments section (always a mistake) and saw what those troops must be thinking.  A man commented that the protesters were “animals” and “thugs” and that they deserved to be taken and detained indefinitely.  Animals.  Thugs.  By dehumanizing the protesters through these labels, the troops rid themselves of any guilt they might feel about what they are doing to the lives of the people that they are taking.  

Words matter.  Words are power.  If you don’t believe me, think about how authoritarian regimes invariably conduct book-burnings.  They fear the spread of ideas that might threaten their power.  The words that we use shape the way that we view reality.  When we label other humans in ways that steal their humanity from them, we are shaping the way that society treats them.  We need to respect this fact, and respect it when people express a preference about the words that we use to describe them.

If someone is labeling you in any way, remember that they’re doing it as a way to justify treating you as a non-human, and act accordingly.

I am now advocating for using these words more often: Human.  Person.  Humankind.  People.

I’ll leave you with this.  When I was a little girl, I used to sit next to my father while he played his guitar.  Sometimes I would put my hand on the instrument in order to feel the vibration of the music.  I loved these times, and I think my father did too.  One of the songs that he used to sing while I sat with him was Puff the Magic Dragon.  As he sang it, I would imagine myself as Jackie Paper playing with Puff, and sailing the seas while Puff intimidated mighty pirates with his roar.

One day it hit me that Jackie was a boy, and that I was a girl.  I immediately felt left out of the song and the adventure.  When I said so, my dad started singing “little boys and girls” so that I would feel included.  I had never heard of non-inclusive language.  I was 7 years old, and didn’t know about feminism, but I already felt excluded because of the preference for male pronouns.  Words matter.  Words have power.

As don Miguel Ruiz would say in his book The Four Agreements, let us be impeccable with our word.  If the urge to dehumanize someone with a label hits, please pause and question the urge.  Let us choose words that embrace the humanity of all people.  I know that it will make the world a kinder and more compassionate place for all of us.

 

Let Us Put Light Around it: A Way to Cope with Pain

It’s only dusk and I can already hear fireworks going off in the distance for Independence Day–the day in which citizens of the United States celebrate winning the war against England for the right to govern themselves.  It is seen by many as a day to celebrate the independent spirit, the rights of the individual, and freedom of religion and thought.  And yet, many do not have the freedom that the United States claims to value.

This lack shows up in many ways; some large and some small.  This past week I was reminded that I don’t have the freedom to make my own decisions about how I handle my work because I am an employee of a large corporation.  The reminder left me shaken,  and with an anxiety in my chest that took my breath away.  Whenever an emotion creates an overwhelming sensation in my body, I remember a line from a book in Margaret Atwood’s Madd Addam series.

If you’ve never heard of Margaret Atwood, you probably have heard of one of her most famous books, The Handmaid’s Tale, which has become a hit series on Hulu as well as a symbol of the importance of combating misogyny.  The Madd Addam series tackles a different social problem–the human destruction of the earth.  Some of the characters end up becoming members of a fictional group known as God’s Farmers, who form an earth friendly and sustainable commune.  Whenever things go wrong in the story, the leader of the God’s Farmers says “Let us put light around it.”

Let us put light around it.

Those words stuck with me long after reading Madd Addam, and I started using them in my own life.  As I struggled with anxious chest pains last week, I closed my eyes and imagined the pain surrounded by a healing, white light.  Slowly, the pain began to shrink, and eventually nothing was left of it except for a ball of white light in my chest.

While this technique is highly effective inside my own body, putting light around it doesn’t necessarily change things out in the world.  However, it does change how I feel about them.  So, I thought I might devote this blog post to putting light around the intensely difficult experience of the world in 2020, in the hopes that it might change how we all feel about it.

First, let us put light around a deadly global pandemic that has killed over 500,000 humans throughout the world.  Let us put light around those grieving for their dead family members and friends.  Let us put light around the sick.  Let us put light around health care providers who risk their lives every day to help those suffering from this deadly disease.  Let us also put light around the people who have lost their jobs due to the quarantine, and those who are afraid about how they are going to pay their rent or mortgage, and how they are going to feed their families.  Let us put light around the lonely people who haven’t had any true human contact for months.

As I write these words there are tears in my eyes for so much suffering, and yet imagining light around these problems does seem to ease the pain a little.

Let us also put light around a social system that doesn’t offer the same opportunities to everyone, and that often works to block people from succeeding based upon the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexual orientation.  Let us put light around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and so many others who were killed due to the racism inherent in the system.  Let us put light around the families and friends of those who have been murdered.  Let us put light around a police force that is having to face itself and ask hard questions about how to change.  Let us put light around the people who have risked their own safety to go out and protest the injustice in the system.  They have been heard, and we are grateful for their voices.

Let us put light around those who are dealing with sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence and sex trafficking.  Let us put light around a social system that is biased towards the abusers–a system where rape kits–representing the most horrible day in thousands of women’s lives go unprocessed.  Let us put light around a system where rape victims find it almost impossible to get justice–a system where, instead, these victims often find themselves accused of lying, or of trying to get attention.  Let us put light around a society where women who are beaten by their partners are asked what they did to deserve it, and told to stop provoking the beatings.  Let us put light around 16-year-old Chrystul Kizer, who killed the man who was sex trafficking her, and now faces life in prison.  Let us put light around the abusers, the misogynists, the traffickers, and the rapists in hopes that they can see the error of their ways.

Let us put light around a medical system that often seems to be more about profit than about treatment.  Let us put light around the patients seeking help who are turned away because their ailments aren’t easily diagnosed.  Let us put light around medical providers who lack compassion for the sick.  Let us put light around the people of color who are unable to ask for pain medications without being accused of drug seeking.  Let us put light around the women who are unable to ask for care without being accused of having mental health problems.  And let us put light around the medical providers who are doing their very best to help people in spite of being overworked and under-supplied.

Let us put light around a political system that divides a nation, divides families, and divides friends.  Let us put light around those who want to vote, but cannot.  Let us put light around the bullies that assume they know better.  Let us put light around those that hold their thoughts to themselves in order to keep the peace.

Let us put light around the LGBTQ+ community.  Let us put light around a society that condemns people for their sexual preference or gender identity.  Let us put light around the victims of hate crimes.  Let us put light around Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered because he was gay.  Let us put light around those who hate gay and transgender people, for surely they suffer too.

And finally, let us put light around ourselves.  Remember that you are always your first priority because you are a member of the human race and inherently deserving of your own love.  Embrace yourself, for your relationship with you is the most important relationship in your life.

 

The Process of Examining and Changing Your Worldview

This isn’t what I was planning to write about today, and I’m feeling extremely nervous about what I’m about to say.  I’m worried about accusations that I’m a privileged white woman who can’t understand what the African American community has gone through at the hands of some of the police force, and those people would be absolutely right.  I admit that I am privileged as a white person in the United States, and I feel ashamed of it.

Yet, events in the news recently, including the murder of George Floyd by police, and Amy Cooper consciously weaponizing a call to 911, make me feel ashamed and helpless in the face of murderous hate by people who look like me.  If the world were not in the middle of a pandemic, I would be looking for a march to join, and creating picket signs, but things being as they are, I feel compelled to use my blog to make a statement.

As I thought this morning about what I wanted to say, I considered how I could possibly say something insightful about a criminal justice system that is not truly about justice because the people in it do not apply the rules evenly.  Then, I thought about the rioters in Minneapolis and what they must be feeling at this time, and what they must want, and I found my answer.  Please bear with me while I connect the dots.

One of my heroes, Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson, the celebrated astrophysicist earned my devotion when I saw a clip of him answering the following question, which was posed by a gray-haired white man:

“What’s up with chicks and science?”

In the film clip, the room erupts in nervous titters of laughter, and the man smiles, smugly.  The mediator asks if anyone wants “to field if maybe there are genetic differences between men and women that explain why more men are in science?”

Neil Degrasse Tyson speaks up and says the following wondrous thing:

“I’ve never been female, but I have been black my whole life.  So, let me, perhaps, offer some insight from that perspective, because there are many similar social issues related to access to opportunity that we find in the black community as well as the community of women in a white male dominated society.

When I look at–throughout my life–I’ve known that I wanted to do astrophysics since I was nine years old–a first visit the the Hayden (sp?) planetarium . . .  So, I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expression of these ambitions. And, all I can say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist, was hands-down the path of most resistance through the forces of . . .  society.  Any time I expressed this interest, teachers would say, ‘Oh, don’t you want to be an athlete?’

I wanted to become something that was outside of the paradigms of expectation of the people in power. And, so, fortunately, my depth of interest was so deep, and so fuel-enriched that every one of these curve-balls I was thrown, and fences built in front of me, and hills that I had to climb, I just reached for more fuel, and I kept going.  And now, here I am . . . one of the most visible scientists in the land, and I want to look behind me and say, where are the others who might have been this?  And they’re not there.

I wonder, what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not because of the forces of society that prevent it at every turn–to the point where I have security guards following me as I go through department stores presuming that I am a thief.  I walked out of a store one time and the alarm went off, and so they came running to me.  I walked through the gate at the same time a white male walked through the gate, and that guy just walked off with the stolen goods, knowing that they would stop me and not him.  That’s an interesting exploitation of this–what a scam that was!

So, my life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks, and when you don’t find women in the sciences–I know that these forces are real.  I had to survive them in order to get where I am today.  So, before we start talking about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there is equal opportunity. Then we can have that conversation.”

Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Statement about Women in Science

Neil Degrasse Tyson’s comparison between the forces that oppress African Americans and the forces that oppress women resonated with me, as did his description of the barriers that are put in front of both of these groups of people to keep them from realizing their dreams.  So, I’m going to talk about this issue from that perspective–from the perspective of a woman in a white male dominated society.  While I realize that this isn’t perfect, and I do recognize my privilege as a white person, I feel that it does give me some insight.  I’ve never been African American, but I have been a woman all of my life.

I grew up in a conservative, Christian, white family.  Every Sunday, we would get up early, get dressed up, and go to church.  I went to Sunday school, was an acolyte, and was confirmed as a Christian before I really had any life experience.  One of the messages that I absorbed from this upbringing was of strict, traditional, 1950s style, gender roles.  I have no idea if my parents meant for me to absorb this, but I did.  In my mind, the perfect woman was married and took care of her husband and their home by cooking and cleaning.  She also stayed home to raise their children.  In return, the perfect man worked outside the home, payed the bills, and benevolently loved his family.

When I married my high school sweetheart at age 18, I had every intention of becoming this mental picture of the perfect woman.  As I write this, I cringe a little at my 18-year-old naivety, and I know now just how ill-suited I am for the type of life I thought I was supposed to live.

The first week of my marriage, my beautiful mental picture was destroyed by an act of domestic violence, although I didn’t recognize it as that at the time.  The man I’d married became angry with me over a minor issue that I offered to fix.  Instead of allowing me to fix it, he started screaming at me, calling me names, invading my personal space, and pointing his finger in my face threateningly.  Terrified, I backed away from him until I came up against the living room wall, where he pinned me and screamed at me for what felt like 20 minutes.  I was certain that he was going to hit me, and I braced myself for the blow.  It never came, and I told myself that the incident was a fluke.  It wasn’t.

The same scenario repeated over and over, escalating in severity and frequency.  I began to dread my husband coming home from work, and at the same time I tried to fix the situation, and create the life I’d expected to have when I married him.  I told him that the way he was treating me was wrong, and that he needed to stop losing his temper and threatening and berating me.  Instead of listening to me, he took my confirmation Bible off of the bookshelf and turned to Ephesians 5: 22 through 24 and read to me:

“Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord.  For a husband has authority over  his wife just as Christ has authority over the church; and Christ is himself the Savior of the church, his body.  And so wives must submit themselves completely to their husbands just as the church submits itself to Christ.”

While my husband looked at me with triumph in his eyes, my entire worldview crumbled around me.

As far as he was concerned, he could do whatever he wanted to me with impunity because it was the will of God.

Now, you’re probably saying that isn’t the intention of that verse, and coming up with all kinds of reasons why what he said was wrong.  And you have a point.  If someone could use the Bible, which I’d always believed was a tenet of kindness and compassion towards fellow humans, to justify abusing me, there was something terribly wrong with this foundation. In that moment it sunk into my soul that the world I’d been raised in was built on a foundation of misogyny.

I wonder how many African American people have had this moment of realization that their world is built on a foundation of racism.  My sense is that most of them do considering this country’s history.

Eventually, that man left me for another woman.  Sometimes I worry about her, but I’m glad that he left because I don’t know how much longer I would have stayed with him, or how much more damage I would have allowed him to do to my psyche.  The damage was bad enough as it was.  After he left, I went through a terrible depressive episode where I couldn’t stop crying.  As a Highly Sensitive Person, it doesn’t take a lot to bring me to tears, but that depressive episode was way over the top.  I once cried over a pair of slippers in a department store.  It was so bad that I went to the doctor thinking that something was medically wrong with me, and he had to explain that this was depression.  I’d had no idea.

The doctor prescribed antidepressants and referred me to a therapist.  I was terrified of therapy, but with my doctor’s encouragement, I went anyway.  Therapy helped me to build a new foundation for my world.  Ever since my now ex-husband had shattered the foundation I’d been raised with, I’d felt un-moored.  My therapist helped me to release the internalized misogyny of my upbringing, and I was so relieved to feel solid again that I decided to become a therapist myself so that I could help others going through similar experiences.

As I went through the process of getting my Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and then getting the 3,000 supervised hours of treatment that I needed to have under my belt in order to take my licensing board exams, I happened to get an internship at a domestic violence shelter.

My faith in God had already been shaken, and I no longer attended church, but I hadn’t released my faith yet.  However, my experience in that shelter moved me all the way out of Christianity.  One after another, these horribly abused women, who had severe and chronic physical problems from the abuse they’d suffered, told me that they had gone to their pastor, rabbi, or priest for help, and had received the same message: “If you were a better wife, he would stop abusing you.”

This message is bullshit.

I can tell you first-hand that nothing a woman does in an abusive relationship leads to the abuse stopping, because the abuse is not about the woman’s behavior.  I did everything I could think of.  I made elaborate meals.  I cleaned the house with a toothbrush.  I feigned interest in things my ex-husband cared about.  It made no difference.  Later, I learned the truth.  Abusers abuse because of their own internal state, not because of anything the victim does.

I think this is true of racism as well.  Racists hate because of their own internal state, not because of anything that their victims have done.

While I worked in the shelter, I started my own personal survey course in religion.  I read about the major Middle Eastern religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  I also read about Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism.  For a while I suspended choice, but over time I settled on Buddhism because it seemed to be the kindest of the major religions.  Still, it didn’t quite fit.

Recently, I’ve been exploring the history of the ancient goddesses, and I’m in awe of their power.  I’m in awe of a society that revered such powerful females, and I want to live in that society.  I think I’m a pagan.

I haven’t told my family how I feel about Christianity up to this point, but they read my blog. (Perhaps only they read it).  So, in a way I’m outing myself, which is a bit terrifying for me.  So, why am I telling you this?  I’ve been holding these feelings secret in my heart for years.  Why now?  And what do these experiences have to do with what is happening with the Black Lives Matter movement and the riots in Minneapolis?

Well, I’m telling you this to illustrate the process of changing one’s mind and worldview.  I went from being raised in a conservative Christian family to being a liberal feminist because of a series of experiences that showed me that what I’d been raised to believe didn’t fit the facts of my world.

It takes time and pain and a willingness to talk to those that you wish to understand, just as I did with the women in the domestic violence shelter.  It also means a willingness to experience the rejection of the people in your life who wish to maintain the status quo, just as I’m now risking the judgment of my family.

Even when the status quo is shameful and cruel and unjust, separation from people with a different worldview, and fear of being ostracized by your social group, can often keep people from admitting the wrongs right in front of their eyes.  Even if they do admit them, often people will say, well, racism is terrible, but I can’t do anything to stop it.

I’m here to say you can.  If I could confront the inherent misogyny in my culture and my religion and choose to turn away from it, you can take the great leap of attempting to understand why someone whose world shows them nothing but hate and violence might choose to tear that world apart in a riot.  You can talk to those who have experienced hatred and hold space for their pain.  You can shut down people who tell racist jokes.  You can do your best to examine your own bias and admit that it is there.  You can see that the world that you live in is not the world that others live in.  Changing yourself is the first step, and it spreads from there.

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man [or woman] changes his [her] own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him [or her]. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Washington Post Video of George Floyd’s Death. I’m breathless after watching it.

Trevor Noah’s Commentary on George Floyd. I wish I could be so eloquent.