Don’t tell me how I feel

I’ve been reading Controlling People by Patricia Evans, after hearing it recommended by a lot of other abuse survivors. I actually bought and started reading it quite a few months ago, but stopped within the first couple of chapters because I found all the warming-up text really tiresome. In general the more a writer tries to tell me how surprising and essential the insights they’re about to share are, the more skeptical and disengaged I become.

Eventually I got through that, and have found the meat of the book really helpful in the way it frames interactions that our society tends to treat as normal. Here’s an example, not from the book:

Them: You forgot to pick up this thing from the store even though I asked you to! Clearly you don’t listen to a word I say, and you don’t care at all about me if you can’t do this one little thing.

Me: I…. I’m sorry? But… I do care. But… I’m sorry. [goes away feeling both guilty and indefinably violated]

I’ve had exchanges like this since childhood, and in most of my formative relationships. Sometimes it’s about small everyday executive function things like remembering to do something I was asked to do, or arriving somewhere on time. Sometimes it’s about bigger relationship issues like not communicating about something effectively, or not realizing how hurt my partner would be when I did this-and-such.

Big or small, though, it always takes this form: they express how upset they are AND they say some things about my state of mind that they assume to be true based on what I did. And I end up feeling like I can’t say anything. Because yes I did screw up, and they have a right to be annoyed/angry. But their expression of hurt came with lots of statements about who I am and how I think and feel, statements that are almost never true.

It feels really awful to hear someone telling me, wrongly, how I feel and how I’m thinking, and it also damages the relationship. And yet I don’t feel like I can argue against because, after all, I’m the one who did something wrong.

What Evans does is treat it as completely incredible and absurd that anybody would think they can know what’s in another person’s mind. She points out the logic of that: of course nobody outside my head has better access to what’s going on inside it than I do. Of course any statements they make about my inner state are completely imaginary, made up, not based on real knowledge they have. But in my world it’s so normal for people to make such statements. It took me several chapters of Evans matter-of-factly labeling this dynamic as ridiculous and irrational before it really started to sink in.

For me, this was harder because I grew up in a religion that had gaslighting at its very foundation. I was taught that my mind and heart were entirely sinful and corrupted. It didn’t matter that I cared about other people so much it hurt — by definition, I was selfish and depraved, and if I didn’t believe this, it was a further sign of sinfulness and pride. I was never taught to know myself and trust my internal knowledge. I was always told that some outside authority knew my inmost heart and mind much better than I did.

In my teens, having somebody else tell me what I was really thinking and feeling was my ideal of intimacy and romance. Someone who understood me better than myself, who could see into my heart (and love me) — that was the dream. I can see now, looking back, that my relationship to myself was broken. My overwhelming desire for a romantic partner was largely because I did not feel I had permission to know and love myself. I needed someone else to know and love me — I craved it.

In adulthood, I started to develop a good relationship with myself and being alone became more comfortable. But I still had those long years of conditioning, that made me very vulnerable to someone telling me what I was “really” thinking and feeling — especially when the “real” thoughts were bad. That has been a factor in all of the badly-ending relationships I’ve had in the last several years. Over and over, a partner would tell me, not just “you hurt me,” but “you hurt me and you did it for this reason” or “you hurt me and that is a sign of these essential thoughts, feelings, and qualities in you.” And I would be left trying to figure out how to apologize and make amends while also asserting the truth of who I am. (I never did figure out how. I tried, a few times and a few ways, but only ever met with resistance and doubling-down.)

It took a while but I’m down to a pretty much zero-tolerance policy for this kind of nonsense. The people I’m close to now are all really good about taking responsibility for their own thoughts and feelings, and letting other people be the authority on theirs. Someday I hope I can be like Evans and look at somebody telling me how I feel as if they’re telling me I have two heads. But for now, the plan is to stick close to people who respect me as the authority on myself, and avoid people who don’t.