Last weekend, I had a long list of things I knew I “should” be doing, but instead of being all productive and motivated, I found myself wandering around my home, listless and unmotivated.
I’d walk to the fridge multiple times in an hour, looking for something to eat, finding nothing that appeals to me, making tea and then staring into the fridge 15 minutes later to repeat this futile ritual.
Something was up.
Whenever I find myself in one of these “moods,” I know something is stirring uncomfortably beneath my awareness, making me feel uncomfortable in my own skin, and seeking out comfort from external sources: food, tea, chocolate, tidying the house, lying in bed, sunbathing on my couch.
Anything but “work.”
A friend checked in to catch up, and I began debriefing about some of the increasingly frequent sexist and aggressive remarks I’ve been fielding in my teaching and consulting work over the last months.
One man, in particular – for example – aggressively stated that he was unable to learn in my workshops because of how I was dressed and expressed (with hostility) how angry he was with me for interfering with his ability to learn due to how “mesmerizing” I was. His view boiled down to the fact that he was powerless over his reactions and angry about them, and by extension angry with me for putting him in this position and the logical conclusion in his view was for me to dress differently to make him – and all other men – more comfortable.
He was dead serious. I checked.
I want to be really clear here: I have no issue with people holding a different viewpoint to mine, I welcome respectful conversations that examine the way we impact one another in caring ways.
In these last months, however, very real damage has been done by the aggressive, hostile, blaming and shaming ways in which sharp personal judgments have been delivered, combined with the lack of inquiry or care for the impact they are having on others’ as people are delivering them.
My deep concern is about the satisfaction that some people seem to get from bolstering up their positions while clearly hurting and cutting down others in the process.
I feel unsettled and dissatisfied about how I’ve been handling these moments – mostly through redirecting, inquiry, reflective listening – and am aware that I still hesitate to take a hard line, even when people vent hurtful, judgmental and aggressive things at me.
I want to hold people with care, regardless of how they are treating me, but also want to find a way to protect myself without hurting them back.
As I examine some of my default reactions, I’m aware that I prefer evading confrontation and buying myself time in most cases, but later feel unsettled about how reluctant I am to simply shut the aggression down more assertively.
As I talk some of this through with my male friend, and begin relaying both the aggression I have been fielding, as well as the unhelpful responses that others have offered me along the way, I find myself feeling more and more angry.
As soon as I notice how angry I am, I feel squirmy and uncomfortable with myself and worried about how he will respond to my intensity and upset.
So, I start apologizing for being “so reactive, so intense, so emotional about all of this…”
And then he says this:
“Your anger is welcome here.”
He goes on to say,
“You never need to apologize to me for being angry – you’ve been hurt, treated badly, you’ve been fielding people projecting their unhealed issues onto you for months and blaming you for it, and of course you’re exhausted and upset. What can I do to help?”
His response stood in stark contrast to other comments I’ve fielded when I’ve reached out to others for support. Well-meaning others have responded with a mixture of comments like this:
“Well, it doesn’t surprise me, you know you are an attractive and sensual woman …”
“Let’s be honest – most women in Minnesota just don’t dress the way you dress.”
“It’s like you’re an exotic bird here in the Midwest and maybe people just don’t know what to do with you here …”
“You should just take what he said as a compliment …”
“Well, someone of his generation probably doesn’t really know better … how can you help him learn – I don’t want him to feel alienated?”
The problem with comments like these doesn’t lie in their content per se (I do welcome compliments – when that is truly what they are), but rather in the function they play by bringing those particular comments to that particular conversation at a time when I am talking about harm done to me.
First, they put the focus on my embodied self, my dress, my responsibility, and imply that the “other” in these situations simply had an understandable, if not normalized reaction, however hurtful it was.
Second, they make me the active agent of the incidents, instead of the person who behaved in harmful ways, subtly shifting the responsibility and focus off of the other person’s culpability, and onto me.
My clothes, my sensuality, my attractiveness (or nonattractiveness – they are used against women equally), my “fitting in” or not to Midwest sensibilities are not the issue here. Focusing on that misses the point.
I have been working in this field all my life, and over the last two months have experienced more overt sexism and hostility from men than ever in my entire career.
Being an Ally: Do’s and Don’ts
Changing oppressive structures from the inside out starts with deep inner examination – for all of us.
I’ve been parallel processing and reflecting on how I have said similarly misguided/insensitive and unaware things as a white woman in her own bubble of white privilege when it comes to interactions I’ve had with people of other races, ethnicities or cultures who remain disenfranchised in white culture.
I’ve been wondering what I can learn about shared humanity, protection of one another, using our influence in ways that stand for deeper human values instead of enabling unbridled aggression in the name of “everyone has a right so express themselves” (no matter how hurtful it is.)
Expression and Care need to be held together.
Expression without care is abusive and hurtful.
Care without honest expression in enabling and codependent.
The legacy of internalized oppression lives in myself through the fears and beliefs that I have taken in over my lifetime:
It’s not nice to be angry. (Read: Suppress your anger)
Don’t overreact. (Read: Make yourself more palatable to others)
You’re taking it too personally. (Read: Your needs don’t matter)
If you hurt men, they will hurt you worse. (Read: Enabling is the only way to stay safe)
The messages I internalized as a young girl about how to stay “safe” in the world, still inhibit me today. It doesn’t matter that I “know better.”
These old “rules” of conduct get activated in me automatically and quickly.
Even though a part of me is upset and angry by what is happening, I don’t give myself permission to know how angry I am, and I shut down the upset.
I suppress my anger – fearing it.
I then put on a mask, offer the illusion of continued connection while withholding vital parts of my own experience from the relationship.
In those moments, I am after short-term safety, social acceptance and harmony – no matter the cost.
It’s only later, when I find myself listless at home, out of sorts, irritable with no clear identifiable reason, and then getting super activated as I talk to an understanding and sympathetic other, that I realize what is really going on for me: the suffering of disconnection.
Disconnection from myself for not being “allowed” the full spectrum of my own experiences, and also disconnection from others, who only get to interact with a sanitized, inhibited version of me.
This is the very human price that we pay in domination systems: Everyone loses.
As I get more aware of the ways I was taught to inhibit myself from being a whole human, I’ve been working on
Reclaiming my own dignity
Reclaiming my right to be protected from harm
Cultivating courage to use my voice to set protective boundaries around myself and others.
Hearing “Your anger is welcome here” was powerful because it directly contradicted an oppressive message I had internalized as a young girl:
Anger is for men, not women.
Men get to aggress (that’s just normal), and women don’t get to defend themselves.
This extends to any systemic power imbalance – It’s normalized and justified for the dominant group to get angry, but we vilify and denigrate members of any subordinate groups who get angry about the hurt.
On a purely personal level, I may know that “anger is OK” as a concept and a belief.
I can tell myself that my anger is “allowed” all I want.
But, it doesn’t become a lived experience until a man is willing and able to actually sit with and welcome my anger as a woman, validate it and not get scared of it or try to teach me something about it in order to make it go away.
We are, ultimately interdependent in this way.
When my male friend saw my hurt, welcomed my anger, empathized with my experience and asked how he might help, I felt the heavy cloak of internalized oppression and suppressed anger and hurt lift a little.
• He wasn’t subtly pointing to or commenting upon my physical being and expression – as if that was the cause of these men’s entitled, judgmental remarks.
• He wasn’t trying to make my feelings go away – as if my outrage about how I was being treated was the problem.
• He wasn’t trying to explain the good intentions and helpless ignorance of other people – as if that means we should just put up with the behavior and not ask people to become more aware or to grow up a little more.
• He wasn’t putting me in the position of being therapist, good mother and teacher to these men who had behaved aggressively towards me – as if their waking up was entirely dependent on my ability to model an enlightened response to them and to continue to extend care to them after being so hurt by them.
His maleness was an essential part of the healing for me, because that interaction reinforced a new experience of “men” for me.
His response contributed to undoing the internalized legacy of male socialization in our relationship.
I had a new experience of being encouraged to be a full, whole human in a friendship with a man.
We need strong, clear, loving women and strong, protective, loving men if we are to move forward in any meaningful way.
I had a new experience of what was “welcome” in the space and wouldn’t be used against me.
Transformative, relational experiences in the present moment between men and women on the ground, far outweighs endless charged conversations about systems, politics and ideological debates about identity politics for me.
More of that, please.
Grateful for Male Allies:
On the subject of male allies, I want to mention at least four other deeply meaningful responses I’ve had from different men who are actively engaged in their own personal development journeys:
1. I’m grateful to the man who instantly apologized and regretted some comments he’d made when I talked with him about how uncomfortable they had made me and others in the room.
He took responsibility for his lack of awareness without blaming me for it, expressed care for the negative impact and made concrete efforts to repair relationships with me and others.
2. I’m grateful to the man who witnessed another man making aggressive sexual comments towards me, and approached me after the incident to figure out how he could have done more to interrupt that man’s behavior himself so that I wasn’t fielding it alone.
The simple fact that he even had the impulse to protect or intervene, and then was trying to figure out how to put that into action next time, meant the world to me. He was sensitive to not wanting to “take over” but also wanting to help in practical and concrete ways. For the record, I always welcome men intervening with other men when I am being targeted. I know some people worry that it will be perceived as condescending , but I absolutely appreciated that he didn’t fall into “tribal loyalty” with abusive men.
3. I’m grateful to the man who responded to my question, “Do you think I dress inappropriately?” by saying, “This has nothing to do with how you dress and everything to do with how you were treated and what got projected onto you. Don’t pick up that man’s work for him, and don’t let him subtly blame you for it.”
His clarity about what the “problem” was, while I was confused about what I had done to draw the attention in the first place (internalized oppression) was grounding and reassuring. It’s a very common reaction, by the way, for targets of any sort of violation to first disconnect from and invalidate their own experience – allies can help to provide a grounding counter narrative. And it can be even more powerful when it’s provided by male allies.
4. I’m grateful to the man in a position of leadership, who offered to step in and talk through “what had happened” with the man who’d made sexist remarks in a training, in order to break his illusion that “all men feel this way” and so that I didn’t have to continue to carry the burden of awareness raising by myself.
His recognition that his voice would carry a different weight than mine (I’d be easily dismissed by this individual) combined with his willingness to stand for a more relational, honoring and respectful way of being for men themselves, was deeply meaningful to me. I felt less alone, and more hopeful that we could move towards positive change together. *Please Note: he offered to speak about himself and his own discomfort and reaction to the sexist remarks, not to intervene as a mouth-piece for me. That is an important difference.
We all grow and learn in relationships with one another.
We come to know who we are by how we treat one another.
When our cultures divide us by making the expression of anger OK for men, but not for women or any groups that have less structural power, we are all pulled out of our basic humanity and our hardwiring for connection.
These systems result in people who feel entitled to aggressive and abusive expressions of anger, and it leaves others inhibited and silenced.
There is a better way:
Anger is a normal and important human emotion that gives us all clues about what matters deeply to us humans. Let’s stand for honest, direct, kind and relational expressions of our passions, our purpose and our desires – without taking others out, or blaming specific groups “out there” for our suffering “in here.”
When we are desensitized to the impact we have on others or feel entitled to violent expressions of our views, deeper connection and togetherness as a human race remains an elusive goal.
If we truly want to create a new way of being in the world, we each need to focus on changing the micro-experiences we bring to one another in real time.
In my own journey, I continue to work on bringing myself down from entitlements and insensitivities I have as a white person, and I continue to develop my courage and skills to bring myself up from fearful self-silencing, self-doubt and change the covert and indirect ways I learned to communicate as a woman.
We have so much power to make a meaningful difference to one another:
Meaningful, co-creative action includes protecting those who have less privilege than we do – as men, as white people, and reclaiming our most authentic and vulnerable voices, our subjectivities and our very humanity.
We need to move forward, together.
In the meantime, I continue to ask …
How do we create safe spaces for learning and growth, when some people continue to fill the air space with righteousness, judgment, personal attacks and accusations?
How do we live into the protective use of force and stop the verbal assault without shaming or humiliating others, and without becoming their on-call, on-demand, unpaid therapist in the moment?
I would love to hear your thoughts … please leave a comment below!