Stop Saying This: Phrases That Sound Helpful, But Are Actually Gaslighting, Part 1

Megan Wildhood
36
13579

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.

36 COMMENTS

  1. An ethical pastor confessed to me that the pastors and the “mental health” workers had entered into a Faustian deal long ago. He called this “zipper trouble” (child abuse, sexual assault, etc.) covering up system to be “the dirty little secret of the two original educated professions.”

    And covering up such crimes is the number one actual societal function of the “mental health” workers today.

    https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/04/heal-for-life/
    https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php

    For goodness sakes, one cannot speak out against systemic child abuse in the ELCA religion today. Like by handing a Lutheran pastor a copy of Whitaker’s book, “Anatomy of an Epidemic.” Without having a Lutheran psychologist sicked upon you, with the goal of silencing, poisoning, and/or stealing from you.

    It’s a shame the systemic, child abuse covering up “mental health” workers have destroyed the mainstream religions. And turned the pastors and bishops into systemic child abuse cover uppers also.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=xI01AlxH1uAC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

    I’m sorry you, too, ran into these systemic “zipper trouble” covering up crimes of the pastors.

  2. Thank you, Megan, for this wonderful article. I completely agree that a mental health worker’s language is very powerful and hugely important to any therapeutic relationship.

    One example from my own experience: I was told the ACT team wanted to “check up” on me. A more thoughtful way to phrase that would have been to say that the ACT team wanted to “check in” with me.

  3. Linked to the last example and a favourite out of the Cognitive Behaviour “Therapy” camp is: it is not a situation in and of itself that determines what you feel, but rather the way in which you construe a situation. In other words, how you feel is determined by the way in which you interpret situations rather than by the situations per se. For example, feeling depressed, anxious or angry are due to excessively negative interpretations of say, losses we suffer or the abuse and trauma we are subjected to and have little to do with the actual life events and circumstances that merely act as “triggers”. When psychology apes psychiatry, the result is drivel like this.

    • Being locked in a dungeon and being fed barely enough to survive on just so they can come and torture you every day is NOT the cause of your depression. It is your INTERPRETATION of your circumstances that causes your depression.

      Think of positive things: what can you be thankful for today?

      • Well, fasting has been proven to decrease “symptoms” so that’s one thing to be thankful for. And I always wanted a private room so that’s another. Some people call their job torture, so it could count as work experience if you play it right. No sunburn? Daily company?

        • Way to see the silver lining, O.O.! You’ll be feeling better in no time, and you can help cheer up your jailors, too! After all, they’re just caught in the capitalist system, trying to survive like anyone else. Give ’em a smile, and next time, they may smile right back at you!

          OK, that humor’s getting a little too grim, even for me!

          • @Steve McCrea:

            Naw! You are on a *roll* my friend. If you can cheer ME up,
            YOU’RE HIRED!

            Stand-up comedy. You & boans. O.O.’s got it goin’ on too.

          • Too bad Steve. I was hoping this thread would turn into a running joke, waaaaaay past where it should have ended. All the silver linings we can think of for daily torture.

            Sometimes the research news here hits me like a dry joke.

            I only do grim humor. (and the occasional groan-er.) I like when we laugh the best.

          • Laughter is, indeed, the best medicine. I heard of a program in the Eugene area where people suffering from mental/emotional distress (I don’t believe they have any “admission criteria” except that you’re feeling like you could use some help) get trained and supported in doing standup routines as a means of helping them. It sounds like a lot of fun!

      • I always thought of CBT as a technique, not a “therapy” by itself. It works great in some situations, and is awful in others. Works really well for some people, others find it intrustive and invalidative. Any therapist worthy of his/her fee would adjust his/her approach to the person in front of him/her. The best therapy is what gets the person you’re working with to where they want to go. Rigidly applying one technique as the be-all and end-all is a sure sign of incompetence.

        • “Therapy” or “technique”, it’s still part of the “treatment” industry. If it weren’t “therapy”, why would it have “therapy” in its acronym, its moniker? So now we have these two “treatment” modes, doing incredible business, more damaging “treatments” and less damaging “treatments”. I would suggest a third venue is also available, and that is non-treatment. Early or late, some people find non-treatment most “helpful” of all, and reason enough for retirement from the career “mental patient”, or career “mental patient” minder, business.

          • I don’t disagree. It is amazing how many normal activities are coopted into “therapy” so that someone can charge you for it and still maintain the fiction that they are “treating” some “disease state.” I get apoplectic when they start talking about “mindfulness” or “exercise as therapy” and that kind of nonsense. “Therapy” appears to be anything that can be marketed to convince people that someone else has an answer to their problems.

            My point in that comment is that people in the “biz” try to come up with some magical “therapeutic school” such that if everyone does this, their clients will all get happy. And of course, whenever the client does not, they are “treatment resistant,” because our “treatment” is “evidence based,” so any “failures” are the fault of the client, or the “disease.” It’s 99.9% hogwash. Deep breathing isn’t therapy. It’s breathing. Available to anyone for free.

            When I was a “counselor,” I had the great advantage of having no training whatsoever to be a counselor. So I basically just listened to people and tried to understand their issues, and occasionally came up with an idea or suggestion for them to consider at their own determinism. There was no need for a “school of therapy,” I considered myself just another human being who had somehow earned the privilege of their trusting me with their thoughts and feelings, and I acted accordingly. If that’s “therapy,” then “therapy” is pretty much anything that someone finds helpful in confronting life. The idea that telling everyone to “change their thoughts” is somehow going to produce uniform results is stupid. Just be human. That’s what people need.

          • I hear you Frank.
            I honestly think there is money to be made to be a non-therapist, therapist.
            To deprogram people.
            On the other hand, there are instances where people would love to have someone to talk to, perhaps about existential angst? Perhaps they have no one to talk to.
            And thus, many therapies are not fulfilling, because it is not a “friend”, although perhaps for the money, they should be lol.
            I remember thinking that “geez, I’m paying someone for the stuff friends do for free”.
            Maybe I’m cheap. And therapists might be wise to inform people that they don’t hold the “answers” to their own lives, IF they had the questions haha.

            I love Steve’s post also. Both posts align with my thoughts.

            As far as “therapy” goes, we are all each others therapists. We just see it as interacting. But if I said something that makes a difference in someone’s life, it would make me pleased.
            Humans are mostly wired for being in a group, being validated to some degree and well, some people don’t got nobody.

          • I agree with Steve and Sam here, of course. We are each other’s therapists in the course of caring about and for each other and being there and listening to each other!

          • I’m not against caring, the problem is that some people are going to do some things that will get them in trouble. Then what? Then “therapy”? You get my drift…There are probably some people who shouldn’t be handed over to the police. Once they are, well, the cycle is complete, isn’t it? Now how do we ware out the cycle so-to-speak. They weren’t handed over to the police because somebody cared, and then they get “therapy”, but not because somebody cared enough to prevent it. Where does it end? All too often it doesn’t.

  4. Thank you for this Megan.
    I’m so glad to hear about the secondary emotions vs primary emotion.
    I remember the first time someone explained the primary and secondary emotions, and I remember thinking,
    WOW, I never knew that, I never heard that before.
    So I did that for a while, and it was really a good way to keep me focused on possibilities 🙂

    Sure, it’s good to be ‘aware’, but perhaps too manyy people regurgitate all the exciting stuff they learned, and after a while it is just to predictable.

    “how does that make you feel?” ….made me smile.
    Although it might be better than the “trick” questions a psychiatrist might ask. :/

    I think you could write a play, a movie around “how does that make you feel”.
    How about a fringe play.

    Perhaps as always, the best counsel, is reparation or reconciliation. Obviously that does not happen to many or for most, as it did not happen for you.
    That is difficult though, knowing humans, how two people are not “ready” at the same time to repair.

    • Remember to take all shrink-speak with a grain of salt; I think the primary/secondary emotion concept falls into this category, so it probably doesn’t make sense to get too wrapped up in arguing about it like it’s science or something. But if it is being used as a way of suppressing or invalidating women’s emotions this is important to recognize and point out.

  5. Does it make a difference to you whether it’s a therapist vs. a “regular” person asking you how something makes you feel? Because although everything is in context, people often appreciate being asked how something makes them feel. Am I missing something on that point??

    • Also I’m not sure I’m down with the concept of primary or secondary or tertiary emotions, I think they’re all there all the time and the focus just changes. I believe the emphasis on the individual “working on” his or her attitude or perspective in the face of objective (and collective) oppression without changing the material underpinnings of such is inevitably futile, and that there is no particular formula for navigating the storm of end-stage capitalism. It’s basically “whatever gets you through the night.”

  6. Gaslighting a casual perspective from the person giving support. Very cool.

    My friend she says don’t say ‘how does that make you feel at her in the morning.’

    So I don’t.

    Anger I enjoy nifty ways to express anger. Nothing radical. I act like Isabella Rosalini me body. I act like Greta Garbot my face. I act like me.

    I say I’m a strong and mighty cat and I say hear me meow though I bellow a loud roar.

    This is true.

    Anyway this is cool gaslighting frame in your article. I’m gonna check your websites put on your biography under your article on gaslighting.

  7. Regarding women primarily being the ones getting told that anger is a secondary emotion, that’s to be expected. Men aren’t allowed any emotions but anger & lust, whereas women are expected to display all of the emotions, excessively, except anger, lest we be deemed bossy, cold, shrewish, bitchy, or a multitude of other gendered slurs used to silence us when we’re angry about stuff, even when it’s something that’s genuinely deservant of such a reaction.

  8. “we are all each others therapists”

    “Sam!
    Maybe another thing to never say?
    I know what you mean of course but still — I just ate!”

    LOL. We are all rather full.
    Well I kind of thought it was a powerful statement lol.
    But I hear ya. I’m in an ongoing state ATM, of needing stuff to change,
    except it is stuff that neither I nor any “therapist” can help with.
    Some might say I need a “therapist” to practice acceptance of “what is”.
    Well that presents some problems doesn’t it. On a personal and collective level.
    if we all practice “acceptance”, nothing would ever change.

    Let’s all use some CBT and change our thoughts about dehumanizing practices and hoaxes,
    lies and oppression. After all, it is just a subjective experience.

  9. To the AP Activists: this video is a MUST WATCH!

    I picked a shortie this time. 16 minutas.

    It explains the eugenics program *which FRAMES* psychiatry eugenics. The outer layer, as it were.

    The Targeted Individual (technological trafficking) program was put into effect by the FBI, as the FBI was afraid it was going to become obsolete after 9/11. Indeed, the police force in general can do everything the FBI can do now, with the surveillance equipment they can purchase or just find a “back door” into the NSA metadata collection.

    So the FBI came up with the TI Program in order to guard turf. To not become obsolete.

    With predictive programming & pre-crime analysis (which gets coopted from the researchers on this site & others, unawares), the pre-crime data goes into the targeting. Although there is no proof that “mental illness” is a predictor for violent crime, there are two other factors besides substance abuse that go into this pre-crime analysis: being a victim of a crime oneself AND NOT BEING THERAPIZED.

    I HAVE SEEN THE RESEARCH DATA!

    (in other words, if you are the* victim* of a crime, YOU ARE SELECTED FOR PRE-CRIME) I KID YOU NOT!

    This is why the reform narrative gets coupled with eugenics, unwittingly or no.

    This short 16 minute video will explain how a LOT of this works. I will write a much more detailed post later, during the summer.

    Here is the breakdown: the Targeted Individual Program from the FBI, neuro-monitoring from the CIA & NSA, misappropriated funds for space research is the NSA.

    DEFUND PSYCHIATRY!

    From whistleblower Robert Duncan (MIT, Harvard) who worked on the Voice of God Technology:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FJpMdIaeVA

  10. Other agencies:

    Targeted Individual Program:
    Also Department of Defense, & Department of Homeland Security,
    & private detective agencies

    MK Ultra:
    also DARPA, corporations, national & international crime syndicates,

    & the Harris Corporation which has the newest patents for this technology got hacked into by hacktivists AND PUT INTO OPEN SOURCE!!!

  11. So taking responsibility for my feelings of anger when feeling something from experiencing someone’s words is them making me feel? Is this right? I feel lost, confused, child-like, all those aspects of child abuse, and in shock. I get that being mad about these feelings being brought up in me from the experience of others that I trusted, and that we are reacting to our environments since we’re small, or we are traumatized by our environments since we are small, and then these feelings are triggered by the wealthy, 26 white guya. I get that me being a white guy makes sense that I’m angry too because I was raised to think I had privilege, and more sense that I would go on some kind of shooting rampage, except for I’m afraid of guns. I get that my anger towards myself is stuck and repeats indefinitely in trauma from childhood, and experiences from the mental health system and then being reminded of how parents that ‘loved’ me and other friends who ‘loved me’ repeated every one of these slogans you mentioned here to me. But again, how am I taking responsibility here? How am I accountable and how do I not just look like a monster because of how I react in my anger when I feel I AM BEING MADE to feel in the judgments and gaslighting of environments and family and ex-friends (now) and even ‘recovery’ groups because I couldn’t hear the fucking lies anymore?!
    I really do feel lost and yeah (where’s the gun?) triggered reading this. Yeah, no solutions here.

LEAVE A REPLY