Therapists, professionals and regular people who think they’re being caring or kind seem to have a reference book where they go to find phrases that sound really helpful but are actually gaslighting and self-serving. They’ve been repeating these sentiments since long before the pandemic, though the pandemic and the resultant solitary confinement, damage to livelihoods and indefinite suspension of civil rights has only increased their use. This needs to be addressed. There are, of course, more than these things therapists or people who want to actually be helpful should stop saying. But the following are, in my experience, the most repeated and some of the most annoying or unhelpful.
Anger is a Secondary Emotion
I’m going to start with anger because this post is very angry and we’re going to clear up why that’s not a bad thing at all. I’ve written about anger before. Nearly every “primary emotions” chart and every list of five (or eight or six or four) primary emotions I was able to find online lists anger as a primary emotion. (I know there are issues with feelings charts/feelings wheels; don’t miss my point here.) The definition of “primary emotion,” is a feeling we feel first, a first response to a situation. If I feel threatened, my first response might be fear. If my boundaries are violated, someone who claims to love me abandons me in favor of him or herself or someone offloads all their responsibility onto me, my first response is probably going to be anger. I’m not “actually” feeling anything underneath the anger; it’s anger all the way down. And why shouldn’t it be? I don’t feel sad when someone disregards my no or wantonly breaks their word to me or puts themselves first over and over and over again even when they’ve promised not to. I feel angry. What the hell is wrong with that?
I’ve noticed that we overwhelmingly tell women that anger is a secondary emotion. Men, especially white able-bodied wealthy ones, are allowed to tantrum in public. Presidents of powerful countries, who have the nuclear launch codes for fuck’s sake, are totally permitted without any real consequences whatsoever to rant about/threaten/name call/otherwise harass teenage girls who are more effective than they are at inspiring people to come together. Of course, it’s not helpful when the only allowable response is anger—if you want to see the effects of that approach, look up the number of mass shootings perpetrated by men in America (hint: it’s all of them and there’s basically one a day at this point).
It is not only okay to be angry when your boundaries are violated; it’s an indication that you’re alive and paying attention. Disallowing anger disables justice. When you attempt to push past someone’s anger, you are violating them again (the first time being the violation that provoked the original anger); what’s worse, you’re violating someone in the name of helping them, which is at the very least deeply paternalistic.
Anger, of course, can be a secondary emotion. Happiness, sadness, surprise and disgust can be, too—any emotion can be primary or secondary. It’s invalidating, dismissive and not even factually correct to make a global statement that anger is a secondary emotion and assume that there are “real” feelings underneath someone’s anger simply because one is feeling angry. Maybe you want my anger to be a secondary emotion, so you can move on to the “real” feeling underneath it and not deal with any discomfort my anger might cause you, but that’s called “I’m uncomfortable,” not “anger is categorically a secondary emotion.” And, by the way, even if it were, “secondary emotion” is not in any way synonymous with “doesn’t exist” or “isn’t real” or “feel free to ignore.”
Only in a culture that has so disavowed community in favor of the hideous lie of individualism and thinks that emotions either shouldn’t exist or should be discarded as quickly as possible to make way for logic/reason/rationality would permit such nonsense as “anger is a secondary emotion.” Anger isn’t always constructive, but our culture’s default reaction to it is worse.
How Does That Make You Feel?
Oh, how does being asked “how does that make you feel” make me feel when I share that my pastor of five years had a crush on me for four and half of those five, blamed me and acted shocked and hurt when I wasn’t about to have an affair with him (and my then husband’s self-serving actions in response to this situation made it look like I did anyway)? When I share that an entire community of people who claimed to be a family and to care about me instantly abandoned me the moment it looked like they might lose their leader and I wanted actual resolution or justice? When I share that my ex failed me so thoroughly that I struggled for a long time to believe that men care about women at all? How the hell do you think it makes me feel? This question is dismissive, gaslighting and lazy. Therapists need not only to stop asking it, but to step up, do some actual work when interacting with their clients, and talk spades.
When a person shares something obviously egregious, that is not the time to do anything besides call the egregious behavior what it is. The person who wants to be effective at caring for and helping people heal will not move the target onto the person’s feelings about the situation until they have named unacceptable behavior for what it is. In case this isn’t clear, here’s one way that could look:
Me: So, my pastor who’s been counseling me for the past five years just told me that he has feelings for me. He did it one-on-one and he didn’t apologize. In fact, he said, “If I were younger, and this were a different universe….”
Therapist/person who wants to effectively care: There’s only one way that sentence ends and it’s totally inappropriate. The only reason I’d ever tell a girl how I felt about her is to explore her feelings for me. (Not that I should have to appeal to an outside source for credibility, but, just for the record, this is actually not made up; a guy friend, one of the few people I know who’d actually make a good therapist, actually said those words to me after I told him the summary of my church experience, which I realize I harp on a lot still. People repeat themselves when they haven’t been heard and when they have deep wounds that still need healing or issues that need resolution.)
Me: Yeah, I mean, what he said to open the conversation after his wife left the table was, “I’ve never met anyone as good at getting people to love them as you.”
Therapist/person who wants to effective care: So, not only is he blaming you for his feelings and totally abdicating responsibility for his choices in handling them, but he set it up so that it’s his word versus yours since there are no witnesses. This is called, among other things, abuse of power.
Me: And then the person above him in the power hierarchy, the regional leader who admittedly doesn’t have a lot of power either, at first said she believed my story and that she’d have to meet with the pastor and his wife. If they affirmed my story, there’d be some accountability and remedial action. If they didn’t, there would be disciplinary action. She said we [my husband at the time and I] could be as involved as we wanted in the process. Instead, she stopped responding to my emails, all while telling the other church leaders that there was “ample time for communication.” The other leaders listened to her and refused to contact me about it, leaving me isolated.
Therapist/person who wants to effectively care: And they actually listened to that person? I’m confused about why she thinks she’s a good pastor, first of all; she’s basically telling people to shun you. Second, though, what you do if you actually want to stop the rumor mill is you tell the truth, not silence everyone. So what should have happened is that pastor should have gotten up in front of the church, with you present, and told the whole congregation exactly what happened and then stepped down.
Me: I lived with a couple on the elders team my first year of college. The church regards them as essentially parents of the church; everyone looks up to the greatly. The husband of the couple, who I got really close to also, said, when this whole thing with the pastor came out, that I gave him Stockholm Syndrome.
Therapist/person who wants to effectively care: That’s ludicrous. Is that guy still looked up to as a leader? Not only is that victim blaming, but also, it’s illogical. Stockholm Syndrome is related to prisoners. He was not the victim. He was not trapped in his own home. How old is this grown adult?
Do you get the idea? This isn’t exactly active listening—this is more than that. The reason asking the question “how does that make you feel” is dismissive and lazy isn’t because the answer to the question should be so obvious that therapists should already know. The reason asking the question is dismissive and lazy is because of the opposite: it’s not obvious how something makes someone feel. When this whole church thing happened, I was in shock. I felt vaguely blamed by the pastor but, other than feeling abandoned by my then husband (and I felt that way because he literally—physically and emotionally— abandoned me: after telling me he “felt no love for me on our wedding day,” he abruptly fled our apartment on Valentine’s Day six months after our wedding and told me where he was by CC’ing me on an email to other elders at our church three days later), I didn’t know at all how I felt. Asking me how this situation made me feel would have made me scared and angry because I had no clue and no idea how to get a clue, which I would have confused for how I felt about what the pastor, my former church and my ex-husband did.
No One Can Make You Feel Anything
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t ask how something makes you feel and also tell people that no one can make people feel anything. Asking someone how that makes them feel and then telling them that they’re wrong because no one can make them feel anything is gaslighting.
Also, it’s not true that no one can make you feel anything. You can’t repeat over and over that everything and everyone is connected and then tell people they can’t be affected by anything. Scientific research is pretty clear about neuroplasticity (and that we don’t grow out of it; though the brain’s plasticity may decline with age, it never fully loses the ability), which is basically that the brain forms in response to its environment. This does not just apply to those of us who are sensitive or who have been traumatized. Human beings come wired to respond to the world they find themselves in. That’s a gigantic part of what being human is.
This means precisely that people can make you feel things. If your primary caregiver was overwhelmed and unable to soothe you, your little body isn’t going to be able to contain the anxiety that feeling like you’re all alone in a huge, foreign world without any ability to care for yourself. If your primary caregiver was emotionally unavailable or otherwise difficult to relate to, you had to adapt to find a way to connect with this person because, when you’re a child, it’s a matter of survival that your primary caregivers like you enough to at least keep you alive. This is the bare bones of attachment theory, which claims that “a strong physical or emotional bond to a primary caregiver in the first years of life is critical to our development.”
Maybe what you’re trying to do is empower the victim so that they can feel like they have agency in their lives, not “get stuck in the past” or allow someone else to define who they are or what their future will look like. That’s all well and good…for people who actually have agency—these days, those people would mostly be rich, able-bodied white men. I don’t mean to imply that everyone else, myself included, should while our lives away wallowing under our oppression. I mean that “no one can make you feel anything” is a copout. It’s what you’d say if you don’t want to challenge lethal oppression structures and systems or hold abusers to account or place blame where it should be: on the people who did harmful things or failed to do needed things and institutions that insist on privileging one group of people over another without remorse. Can we please retire this phrase from the therapy office and from our friendships?
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.