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.

5 thoughts on “Don’t tell me how I feel

  1. I had a lot of the same feelings about Controlling People as you’re having. There are places where I definitely felt like the author was overselling herself, but other places where I felt like what she was saying was incredibly valuable, and something I needed to hear.

    One of my exes (who I’m still very good friends with and is a great guy 95% of the time) would do exactly what you describe – if I screwed something up, not only was he upset about that, he’d inform me that my screwup meant that I felt a bunch of stuff that HE thought I felt, that I HAD to feel, in order to have done X. (This was the 5% where he wasn’t a great guy).

    I hadn’t read Evans’ book before he and I dated, but I did push back, and I would say to him “Yes, I screwed up. Yes, I take responsibilty for that. But NO, it does NOT mean this, that, or the other thing you’re saying about me. You don’t have a right to say things like that to me” And he would insist over and over that it DID mean those things, because when people screw up, it DOES always mean this, that, and the other.

    So, what I did was when he screwed up, I threw his words back at him. Not meanly, but I’d bring up the conversation we have before and say “ok, so if you screwed up, then it must mean that you feel X, Y, and Z”. And of course, it didn’t mean that. While he got it in that moment, and realized what he’d done before was crappy, the next time I screwed something up…sigh, we were back to square one, with him telling me how I felt.

    My experience there (and other experiences I’ve had) have shown me that even when I push back, even when I’ve used Evans’ words with people who gaslight, most of the time, they really don’t get it. At best, they usually withdraw into a sullen silence when I completely reject their assessment of my feelings (and I’ve said things like “I am not going to speak to you about this problem anymore until you leave of telling me how I feel” and stuck to that until they’ve stopped trying to tell me how I felt. And walked away again and again if they start trying to tell me how I feel AGAIN.). At most, they just keep pushing and getting…almost hysterical.

    I think for some people, for some reason I can’t fathom, being told that what THEY have decided is the absolute reality of the situation isn’t true causes some kind of mental breakdown. Maybe they have such a strong desire for control that they literally *can’t* handle the concept of being wrong about how they read someone. Maybe that would cause them to question so much of how they read into things that they simply can’t handle it.

    I don’t know. And I’ve rambled on a lot, as is my usual MO. 🙂

    But I wanted to say that I feel what you’re saying. It’s hard. IMO, I totally agree with you that avoiding people who act like that is generally the best possible way to handle them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, my experience is the same: people who feel they have the right/ability to draw conclusions about your inner state are hard to budge from that position. Also, not coincidentally, they have all been very smart people, and had “I am very smart” as part of their self-concept, so telling them, “This insight that you have riddled out is in fact incorrect” went against that self-concept.

      My favorite English professor used to say, “People are mysteries, not riddles.” I think the need for control and the inclination to think of other people as riddles that can be solved go closely together.

      It’s great that you had a level of confidence that allowed you to push back. I’m hoping to develop that, over time.


  2. Hi, I just read your ” 5 Awesome Things About Being Mini-Orgasmic” on Everyday Feminism and just wanted to thank you for writing it. It was one of those “and now my life is changed and I understand myself better and can explain myself 1000 times better” moments. Anyway, that is all. Will be reading more of your work. Thank you.


  3. hi first of all I love this blog post as someone who has dealt with MDD and GAD her whole life this concept is extremely important to me. hearing someone tell me to “clam down” during a panic attack sets of a extreme rage in my normally pacifistic heart.

    But I actually came here because I couldn’t figure out how to comment on you mimi orgasm post on everydayfeminism. I always thought there was something wrong with me and I somehow wasnt good enough. You post was so helpful as both a feminist and a scientist. I know it sounds bad but knowing there is science to back up the fact that I am not any less of a women for my mini orgasms makes me feel 10 times better and you ideas of the positives upped that to 100 times.

    Anyway sorry that I am commenting on a different story of yours but I really wanted to thank you.


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