“[L]ook who they are and how many of them are saying it.”
I ran across a comment whose last paragraph got me thinking earlier:
I work to end all oppression and I work to keep my life together, but sometimes feminism is intimidating to me because there are so many strong and independent women (good things!) who seem to be hyper achievers and love work and working and I don’t feel like I am able to do that, though I have tried really hard. I *am* dependent to a certain extent, at least right now, and I feel bad for playing into a helpless woman stereotype. Sometimes I feel implicated for not being able to take care of myself. “Get to Work”? I can’t right now.
And a response:
That last paragraph you wrote could very well be me. I have fought so hard and so long about being dependent, about “needing” help from others when my brain screams at me “you don’t need help, you can do it on your own” and wanting to do things. The thing is, I can, but I find it exhausting and taking every last bit of reserve of energy I have (and then some). So, learning how to let others help me is one of the things i’m still very much learning how to do.
I have been running into a similar problem, and have been thinking about this complex of issues a lot lately. You may remember that I ranted about my frustration with some of these things earlier this year. It’s only been brought home more by some of the search terms which have brought people to that post: “i am a housewife and feel useless and worthless”, “being a housewife sucks”, “being a housewife and depression”, “can i get disability if i a a house wife” (in the US: not SSI unless your husband is absolutely destitute, and not SSDI unless you managed to accumulate a bunch of work credits before you became disabled, and applying as a disabled housewife instead of straight from leaving paid work will not help you–the system sucks), and so on.
I’m still a Housewife By Default, and am continuing to have trouble with it; recently I touched on some of the practical implications. I am particularly uncomfortable knowing that there is a too-frequent set of assumptions about women who do not have paying jobs: we’re lazy, maybe not too bright, probably spoiled, and content to let someone else take control of our lives in many ways.
Funny how that overlaps with common messages about disabled people. Harmful projection abounds in both cases, from people who assume they know what is motivating us more than we do ourselves. Naturally, I have to question the motives of someone who is making these assumptions, in the same vein as someone who assumes everyone else is lying.
The whole thing is wrong-headed. I can tell that it’s skewed and harmful. Still, it’s hard not to let it get to you.
As the author of the original post from which I drew those comments points out, about growing up with an ASD:
The “treatment” for this condition when I was a kid basically consisted of adults yelling at me to TRY HARDER STOP BEING LAZY I KNOW YOU’RE SMARTER THAN THIS YOU IDIOT GET YOUR FINGER OUT OF YOUR DAMN NOSE ALREADY AND QUIT MAKING ANIMALISTIC NOISES AND BUMPING INTO THINGS NO WONDER BOYS DON’T LIKE YOU. Yeah, that helped, thanks bunches.
When you ask for help, and other people assume it’s motivated by your being lazy or just a smartass, pretty quickly you learn to stop asking. If you started out wanting to please, and people around you keep jumping to negative conclusions about your motives, you may come to believe that you’re really a lazy smartass who could really do things without help (or clarification) if you tried.* If you repeately get told that you’re more than smart enough to figure out and do things on your own, you might start thinking this is so. If you’re told that you’re obviously too stupid to do something properly, you might believe it.
I really identified with some of Dave Spicer’s descriptions of how he learned to cope and make sense of things, growing up as an undiagnosed autistic. I’m quoting rather a lot, because it’s excellent:
Over time, I internalized others’ beliefs about me – that “there was nothing wrong with me”, that I only needed to try harder, that if I really wanted to do things differently I could. In order to deal with each of these premises, I had to develop an interpretation of them, to translate them into something I could (at least partly) understand, and then turn into my beliefs about myself.
So “there is nothing wrong with me” became this: “Don’t ask for help, because I’m not supposed to need any. Besides, if anyone looked really closely and still didn’t find anything wrong, all of this really would be my fault. It’s better just to have a small hope than to risk actually finding out.”
And “all I need to do is to try harder” became “The other people around me are succeeding while I am not, and it must be as hard for them as it is for me. So I am never to complain about difficulty or physical discomfort. If anything is physically at all possible to bear, it should be borne in silence.”
Finally, “if I really wanted to change, I could” evolved into “I am deliberately resisting having my life, and the lives of those around me, be any better. I don’t know why this is. But everyone feels this way, and they can’t be wrong because look who they are and how many of them are saying it.” In other words, I was deliberately making the people around me upset and angry. . .
From the inside, not knowing any better, I felt that whatever difficulties I had in relating to other people, in learning abstract material, or in coping with constant change and unspoken expectations were all my fault. If I could somehow “try harder”, everything would be all right. Since I could not, my difficulties were therefore my own responsibility, and I was trapped in them.
A person in this kind of situation has probably despaired of ever receiving support or understanding from the outside, and probably does not have much self-esteem either. And the stress level, internally, is very high.
What came from all of this was, for me, a state resembling post-traumatic stress. Tendencies toward isolation and passivity, not uncommon in autism anyway, were reinforced. My understanding of what was happening around me had to be faulty, because so many things kept going wrong. I lived with a great deal of uncertainty about what was true and what was not. Unable to rely on my perceptions, I instead constructed a model of what I thought the world was, then lived in constant fear that someone would rush in and tell me that it was wrong.
This is straight-up internalized emotional abuse, which he links directly to PTSD and learned helplessness. It’s not just some inexplicable, individual form of “craziness” any more than internalized racism is; hey, “they can’t be wrong because look who they are and how many of them are saying it.” Unfortunately, a large proportion of our society will say these things about anyone who does not fit into narrow prescribed norms.
Not surprisingly, this learned approach to life will make you less capable of dealing with the world around you. It is highly disabling.
This sort of thing also hurts people who are perceived as more “normal”; some of us just get it worse because we are sufficiently different from what is expected. Ettina points out some of how this works in The Social Value of Demand Avoidance. Alice Miller has written a lot about how this kind of thing affects people, and becomes self-perpetuating. Personally, I was absolutely horrified to realize–applying compassion to try to defuse my reactions to some past mistreatment–that some of the worst individual offenders were honestly trying to help their young victims learn to live in their own hideous, zero-sum versions of the Real World. They truly thought they were doing the right thing, providing an important educational service, by spreading the brutality.
I was lucky enough not to be singled out, because of my obvious differences, for an extra dose of this through ABA or other behavioral therapies–but many elementary schools operate along the same lines. It’s not good for anyone.
How does this tie in with the comment which prompted me to write today? Especially if (frequently for good reason!) you’ve developed demand sensitivity/resistance, it’s easy to interpret the “women should be able to support themselves financially” ideal as an additional demand, pointing out your personal shortcomings if you cannot do so. It’s additional social pressure you may not be up to dealing with if you are actually disabled.
Unfortunately, as a lot of other people have pointed out, feminist thinking is not proof against racism, classism, ablism, or any number of other destructive ways of thinking. Most of the people pushing independence don’t mean any harm, but have been insulated by privilege–and have bought into some models of the way the world (and human worth) works that I reject. In this case, a lot of people are not looking at how all of these destructive ways of thinking fit together and interact, and are trying to achieve equality within an economic and ideological system that relies on the existence of various types of inequality.
That’s one of the main reasons that, if pressed, I’d call myself an anarcha-feminist. Working along with a system which defines a person’s worth (and available options in life) in terms of “economic productivity” is banging your head against a wall, to begin with. “The master’s tools”, and all that.
It’s still hard not to let it get to you sometimes. “[L]ook who they are and how many of them are saying it.”
* If bad psychotherapy is also applied to your perceived strangeness–based on generalized assumptions about how your mind must work, and what must be motivating you–this can really screw you up. All kinds of harmful interpretations can be placed on why you don’t know, or refuse to admit, that you are a lying, lazy smartass who is afraid of succeeding (among other interpretations based on the professional’s projection). I am still trying to work around some of the training which can lead a person into, as Amanda described it, “Fear of thinking one’s own thoughts or feeling one’s own feelings, and constant questioning of whether they’re real or delusional.” I still fight the drummed-in need to scrutize why I’m really thinking, doing, and saying what I am, to a truly pathological extent.