Own Your Truth: 3 Tools for Clarity in a World Distorted by Gaslight

We were in Goa.

A bunch of 20-something South Asians of many nationalities, who all knew each other and happened to be there at the same time.

Me and a friend went in the water together. The water was warm, calm, gorgeous. The sand was soft. We swam out a bit, to where our toes couldn’t quite touch the bottom.

We looked over, and noticed 3 young men in the water, staring at us, hard. We ignored them. Then they started to swim towards us. Then they encircled us.

I was afraid. I looked at my friend. She looked afraid. None of our friends were near us. We started to swim back to the beach.

I’m a terrible swimmer.

***

We got back to the beach, and soon ran into two men from our group. My friend and I — we’d only just met — never spoke about this. That strikes me as so strange now. That I have no idea what her experience was.

I do, however, know what one of the guys in our group thought about the whole thing. I’ll just call him Ed.

Ed felt terrible for those poor young guys in the water. After all, they were probably from a village and probably seeing women in bathing suits for the first time. He could totally see things from their (probably) perspective. They probably came out to Goa, because they were hoping to see women in bathing suits. So of course they’d act like that. They were probably harmless. And maybe we should just cover up. Like put a t-shirt on? Something like that? 

Anyways, no harm done. Probably.

***

I’ve always been really good at seeing things from many points of view. It’s served me well, but there are downsides. One is that sometimes making room for other people’s perspectives leads me to misplace my own.

And that’s what happened on the beach, about 12 years ago. I didn’t show it, but I was furious with Ed. With his casual, laid-back idiocy and misogyny. Those guys were strangers, but he was supposed to be my friend.

But a part of me wanted to preserve the pretense of our laid back friendship. So I reflexively put my anger and hurt aside in order to be seen as “reasonable.”

And I can only see I was doing that in retrospect.

I defended my right to wear a bathing suit at the beach. I tried to explain to him how he was putting his sympathies in the wrong place. But he just shrugged and giggled, and started talking about something else. He seemed totally good with having the last word, and I didn’t notice how I was playing into the illusion of his authority.

This is also something I could only see in retrospect.

Years later, I learned that a friend had experienced something similar with Ed. And it was only then that I could claim my anger at him.

***

All of this is a really long way of saying, I know what it’s like to give up your power, without realizing you are doing it. So many of us do. And we do it reflexively.

I want to be clear.

I don’t blame myself for doing this. And I don't blame you for doing this.

We are, after all, doing what we were trained to do, within this system of patriarchy and racism. Within this culture that gaslights people with marginalized identities into forgetting who they are.

And we need some tools to protect ourselves from that. To innoculate ourselves against this muck that permeates everything.

So that’s what this post is about.

+ It’s not about how men and white people need to start listening. (Though they do).

+ It’s not about how rape culture makes women responsible for their own sexual assaults. (Though that’s true too.)

+ And it’s definitely not about Ed, and whatever was going on with him. (That would take a book. A boring book.)

This post is about how — in the middle of all this virulent bullshit — we learn to get clear on what’s real and true for us, and find the power of standing in that.

I have learned so much from these two moments in Goa:

+ The moment I reflexively ate my anger in order to be seen as reasonable in Ed’s eyes.

+ The moment I started to defend myself and my bathing suit, in a bid to get Ed to see things my way.

Those are the moments where I gave away my power.

+ When I played along with the pretense that Ed’s opinion was the most important thing for us to talk about. That his opinion mattered. 

+ When I treated his opinion as more important than my well-being, by taking on the emotional labor of defending and explaining myself to him.

+ When I supported his instinct to not support me by giving it my polite attention.

And I did all this because in our culture, the truth is something that is established in the minds of straight, cisgender men. Especially white men. So it becomes up to the rest of us to convince them of what is real.

So I don’t play that game anymore.

Instead, I am learning to give myself that love and respect, and to listen to my own feelings, so I don’t need to seek validation from people like Ed.

A key part for me has been emotionally, mentally, and spiritually disentangling from ingrained cultural messages about who has the authority to assert truth.

+ That truth comes from an external authority

+ And that authority comes from whiteness, maleness, age, cisgenderness, degrees, wealth, etc.

It’s hard, but glorious work, building an emotional immune system strong enough to purge this crap we carry in our bodies. 

Many folks have talked about how racism and sexism are crazy-making for folks on the receiving end. They descend on us and permeate our minds like a fog. But once we start to see that fog for what it is, we start to get real clear on what’s true, on who we are, and how strong we are. 

So here’s 3 tools that have helped me break through the fog, and find my clarity:

1) Learn to recognize the fog of gaslight.

We all have our unique and built-in early warning systems that tell us when something is off. When we are being subtly asked or coerced to play along with something that isn’t real. But it can be especially hard to spot when it’s a lie that is widely accepted in our culture. So knowing our own signals can be game-changing.

And this will vary person to person, but one sign for me is if I feel defensive, but can’t figure out what I’ve done wrong. Or maybe I feel kind of foggy or confused about what is going on, or what’s being asked of me.

2) Learn to feel the difference between speaking my truth, and doing emotional labor.

It feels good to speak my truth. And I mean that literally. When I am saying something that feels true, I feel energized, light, and powerful.

But emotional labor feels like shit. So the more I feel like shit, the more I know I am wandering away from myself.

It’s also the difference between saying to myself:

+ “This person may or may not hear me, but this is just something I want to say. Because it’s my truth.”

+ And saying, “I need her to hear me on this. It’s driving me crazy that she’s still not getting it. What more do I need to say?”

The latter is an example of emotional labor, where I am making someone else the center of my attention, and prioritizing their opinion or experience over my well-being.

I’m not saying that emotional labor is never worth the cost. If you are a victim of sexual assault, you have a pretty compelling need to convince the police of the truth of what happened to you. If you are a waitress, your job security partly relies on your ability to put your customers at ease. 

So there are good reasons why do emotional labor. But there are costs to ourselves that we must weigh. (And which make self-care all the more crucial.)

But when we are being gaslit, we often take on work that really isn’t ours to do. For instance, it's one thing to call a gaslighter a gaslighter, and entirely another to try and convince a gaslighter that they are gaslighting.

Because all that takes us away from making ourselves stronger and liberating ourselves from the people whose validation we so often unconsciously seek.

3) Practice emotional self-care

I am a BIG believer in the power of emotional self-care. In this context, it’s a re-centering move. A way of coming back to myself. 

So for instance, if I notice that I am working really hard to convince some internet stranger that she’s being racist to me — to the point that it’s taking a toll on my well being — this is a chance to ask myself, with love and compassion:

“What is going on here, for me, that I am making her a bigger priority than my well-being? And what do I need to be gentle with, in myself?”

What is it that I need here? To be heard? To be understood? And can I sit, and treat that as important, and give that to myself? Or can I turn to a trusted friend who can sit with me in this?

And in my experience, once I disentangle myself from that desperate feeling of needing something from someone who will never give it to me, I can see the dynamic I’m in, and the person I’m in it with, with new clarity. And I draw strength from that.

So many of the lies we live within fall away in the light of self-love.

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