There are two ways to legitimatize emotions. You can say that the emotions themselves are legitimate – that it is true that you feel that way. And you can say that the reasons behind the emotions are true – that you have a right to be angry about whatever it is you’re angry about.
One of those is always correct. The other may not be.
When a two-year-old drops a cookie on the floor and starts crying, most people have no problem comforting them and trying to make them feel better. Because in the two-year-old’s mind, that dropped cookie is the BIGGEST PROBLEM, and most people recognize that to a two-year-old, yes, it is.
But what if a twenty-year-old dropped a cookie and started crying? Your initial reaction would most likely be, what is wrong with you? You would think they’re overreacting. And you might even say so. But are they? What counts as overreacting?
Maybe they had a string of things going wrong that day, or week, and the dropped cookie was the last straw. Or maybe they just really wanted that cookie and dropping it made it inedible. Who are you to judge their reaction as “too much?”
But that example is almost too easy. It has no bearing on another person, so why should another person have a say in whether it’s overreacting or not?
What about anger that comes from someone else? What if I hate being tickled, and my friend tickles me anyway, and at a certain point I get mad at them about it. Is my anger justified? But what if I hit them to get them to stop tickling me because they don’t stop otherwise, and then they get angry at me for hitting them? Is their anger justified?
In the first instance I would say yes, my anger was justified. And in the second instance I would say no, that their anger was not. But what makes that right or true?
In the first instance, my anger was due to someone not respecting my boundaries. In the second instance, their anger was due to my hurting them. Does the rationale for me hurting them make their anger any less justified than mine? But what if they use their anger as a means to ignore mine?
There is this thing called gaslighting. According to Wikipedia, “Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.”
But that is almost too narrow for the everyday gaslighting that happens to women. The Good Men Project had a better definition:
“I want to introduce a helpful term to identify these reactions: gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a term, often used by mental health professionals (I am not one), to describe manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy.
The term comes from the 1944 MGM film, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. Bergman’s husband in the film, played by Charles Boyer, wants to get his hands on her jewelry. He realizes he can accomplish this by having her certified as insane and hauled off to a mental institution. To pull of this task, he intentionally sets the gaslights in their home to flicker off and on, and every time Bergman’s character reacts to it, he tells her she’s just seeing things. In this setting, a gaslighter is someone who presents false information to alter the victim’s perception of him or herself.
Today, when the term is referenced, it’s usually because the perpetrator says things like, “You’re so stupid” or “No one will ever want you” to the victim. This is an intentional, pre-meditated form of gaslighting, much like the actions of Charles Boyer’s character in Gaslight, where he strategically plots to confuse Ingrid Bergman’s character into believing herself unhinged.
The form of gaslighting I’m addressing is not always pre-mediated or intentional, which makes it worse, because it means all of us, especially women, have dealt with it at one time or another.
Those who engage in gaslighting create a reaction—whether it’s anger, frustration, sadness—in the person they are dealing with. Then, when that person reacts, the gaslighter makes them feel uncomfortable and insecure by behaving as if their feelings aren’t rational or normal.”
In my life I have found that male authority figures use their anger to ignore mine. That if I get angry and lash out at them, they will make excuses for themselves or get angry in turn. And yet, they are the ones that call other people’s emotions “overreacting.” And it has taken me years to realize that while I know that my emotions are valid – the fact that I am angry is valid – the reason for my emotions are also, often, valid.
That I have a right to demand an apology from someone who hurt me or made me angry, and that I have a right to receive one.
And in the situation above, everyone’s anger is justified. Mine, for having my boundaries disrespected, and theirs for me hitting them. But that I may not be sorry for hitting them if I felt like I had no other option.
I think this can get way more complicated than this – or perhaps I’m overthinking it. What do you think?