Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe in the television show Enlightened.
I've had to quit telling stories about crazy exes or women I've dated.
The problem was that I started realising that when my friends and I would talk about our crazy exes or what-have-you, more often than not, we weren't talking about ex-girlfriends or random dates who exhibited signs of genuine mental health issues. Now I did have a few where I would qualify my story with, "No, I don't mean 'we broke up and I can't be bothered to figure out where things went wrong, I mean that she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and was starting to show signs of genuine paranoia," but for the most part, crazy meant "acting in a way I didn't like."
And I didn't realise just how damaging this attitude was in the way I related to women.
Part of my journey toward getting better with women was having to unlearn a lot of old attitudes and habits when it came toward dealing with the opposite sex. I, like most men, grew up in an world where certain attitudes toward women were just "the way things were" and we absorbed them without thinking about them.
One of them was the tendency to use labels like "crazy" or "irrational" without thinking. And once I noticed my tendency towards tossing "crazy" out as a verbal short cut, I couldn't not see it everywhere.
It's a habit that we men need to break; it's damaging to relationships, trivialises genuine mental health issues and - most importantly - hurts women as a whole.
The Five Deadly Words
There are certain words that are applied to women specifically in order to manipulate them into compliance: "slut," "bitch," "ugly/fat" and, of course, "crazy." These words encapsulate what society defines as the worst possible things a woman can be. Slut-shaming is used to coerce women into restricting their own sexuality into a pre-approved vision of feminine modesty and restraint. "Bitch" is used against women who might be seen as being too aggressive or assertive... acting, in other words, like a man might. "Ugly" or "fat" are used - frequently interchangeably - to remind them that their core worth is based on a specific definition of beauty, and to deviate from it is to devalue not only oneself but to render her accomplishments or concerns as invalid.
"Crazy" may well be the most insidious one of the four because it encompasses so much. At its base, calling women "crazy" is a way of waving away any behavior that men might find undesirable while simultaneously absolving those same men from responsibility. Why did you break up with her? Well, she was crazy. Said something a woman might find offensive? Stop being so sensitive.
The idea of the "crazy" woman is so vague and nebulous that it can apply to just about any scenario.
The association between women's behaviour and being labeled "crazy" has a long and infamous history in Western culture. The word "hysteria" - defined as "behaviour exhibiting excessive or uncontrollable emotion, such as fear or panic" - is derived from the ancient Greek word "hystera," meaning uterus. Until the early 20th century, female hysteria was the official medical diagnosis for a truly massive array of symptoms in women including but not limited to: loss of appetite, nervousness, irritability, fluid retention, emotional excitability, outbursts of negativity, excessive sexual desire and "a tendency to cause trouble."
(Worth noting: much of the blame for "female hysteria" was placed on "wandering uterus syndrome" or other sexual "dysfunctions." While this did eventually lead to the invention of the vibrator, one of the common cures was a clitorectomy.)
While some of the symptoms of "female hysteria" could be signs of legitimate (if misdiagnosed) mental health issues, most of it described male (as the medical field was a men-only profession up until the mid-19th century) discomfort with women's behavior and sexuality. Calling it a medical issue meant that men didn't have to respond to behaviour that challenged male sensibilities or belief structures. Instead, labeling women as "hysterical" made it much easier to diminish women's concerns and issues without having to pause to consider them as possibly being valid.
What Guys Mean When We Say "You're Overreacting"...
Men on the whole are quick to toss the "crazy" label onto women without stopping to think about it what they're saying. It's almost a reflexive response to a host of behaviours that men find inconvenient or undesirable.
Stop me if any of this sounds like something you've said - or heard - in a relationship: "You're overreacting"; "Don't worry about it so much, you're over-thinking it"; "Stop being so defensive."
It does to me.
I've said all of these things to women I'd been dating. I'm willing to bet most of the men have said something similar and the women have heard it more times than they can count.
To give a personal example:
Back in the bad old days, I was notoriously self-absorbed. It wasn't that I thought that I was the greatest thing ever, it was just that I didn't really stop to spare too many thoughts for others. I was willing to make an effort for others, but only so far as it didn't really inconvenience me past a "reasonable" point. I didn't want to have long drawn out conversations about how my behaviour made my girlfriend feel and I certainly didn't want to get dragged into what I saw as unnecessary drama. In fact, I was incredibly drama-averse, thanks to an early unhealthy relationship.
As a result... well, I wasn't willing to consider how others were feeling. When the woman I was dating would try to explain to me how the way I treated her felt, I would tell her that she was seeing things. She was overreacting to inconsequential stuff. She was being over-sensitive, reading things into what I was saying or doing that just weren't there.
The subtext to everything I was saying was simple: "You are behaving in a way that I find inconvenient, and I want to you to stop." I wasn't willing to engage with her emotionally and address her very real concerns because I was too wrapped up in my own shit to think about other people. As a result, I would minimise her issues. By telling her that she was reading too much into things, I was framing the situation as her being irrational.
I didn't realise it at the time, but what I was doing was, in effect, telling her that she didn't have the right to feel the way she felt... because I didn't want her to feel that way.
Needless to say, that relationship didn't last long. Neither did the ones that followed. It wasn't until I was willing to change my attitudes towards dating and how I related to women that I started having more meaningful relationships, whether casual or long term.
Gaslighting and Emotional Manipulation
When someone talks about the woman who he broke up with because she called too often or seemed get emotionally involved faster than he was comfortable with, because she got angry with him over the way he acted, she was always arguing with him about stuff or even that she wanted different things from the relationship, it's not uncommon to hear, "That's why you don't stick it in the crazy." The man is absolved of any responsibility for the break up; it's not because he was willing to pretend to be on the same page as her regarding the future of the relationship because it was convenient and meant that he could continue sleeping with her, it's because she was crazy. It's not because he was unwilling to discuss her concerns. She's crazy, case closed, time to move on to the next woman without pausing to reflect.
By dismissing a woman's behaviour or concerns as crazy, we inadvertently take part in a behaviour known as "gaslighting." Named for the classic George Cukor movie, gaslighting is a term used by psychologists to describe abusive behaviour where a person is made to feel as though their emotions and reactions are irrational, even (dare I say) crazy. By constantly minimizing and dismissing someone's reactions, we make them feel uncomfortable with themselves and cause them to start to doubt their own feelings. If they're being told over and over again that what they're feeling is irrational or unreal, that what they're feeling is somehow out of whack, then they start to accept that maybe it is.
Even when it's not. Especially when it's not.
Gaslighting - minimising their feelings, reframing them as being unreasonable - is classic abusive behaviour. It's telling someone that they don't have a right to the way they feel because what they're feeling is wrong. Their feelings or their concerns or behaviour isn't "rational." Once you take away their right to their feelings, it's that much easier to manipulate a person into the way you want them to behave.
Labelling women as "crazy" is a way of controlling them. It may not be something planned or pre-meditated, but the ease with which men call women "crazy" says a lot about them. Calling a woman "crazy" is quick and easy shut-down to any discussion. Once the "crazy" card has been pulled out, women are now put on the defensive: The onus is no longer on the man to address her concerns or her issue; it's on her to justify her behavior, to prove that she is not, in fact, crazy or irrational. Men don't even have to provide any sort of argument back - it's a classic catch-22: "The fact that you don't even see that you're acting crazy is just proof that it's crazy."
"What's Your Damage?"
The trend of labelling women "crazy" is part of the culture that socialises women to go along to get along. When women are told over and over again that they're not allowed to feel the way they feel and that they're being "unreasonable" or "oversensitive," they're conditioned to not trust their own emotions. Their behaviour - being assertive, even demanding or standing up for how they feel - becomes an "inconvenience" to men and they're taught not to give offense and to consider the feelings of others before their own.
Casually, even reflexively calling women crazy and the stigmatization of "crazy" (i.e., inconvenient or uncomfortable) behaviour has become a way of trying to keep women behaving in a very specific and limited manner. It perpetuates the madonna/whore dichotomy - that women are either submissive, demure and sexually restrained or irrational bitches on wheels, the emotional equivalent of riding Space Mountain after five shots of Mescal.
We may not intend to manipulate women this way - most of the time we're not even aware that we're doing it. Most of us are conditioned into it; it's a part of the subtle background radiation that still teaches us that women's desires and opinions are secondary to men's. But the fact that we don't mean to cause harm doesn't change the fact that we do without even thinking about it.
Sure, we taught you that you should never trust your own feelings and that standing up for what you want is bad but there's no real harm done right?
As with other bad habits and acculturation, we need to unlearn this tendency to use "crazy" as a weapon. It's only by recognizing this behavior in ourselves and teaching ourselves to avoid it that we can quit poisoning how we relate to one another and letting it hold us back from the relationships we all want.
This post originally appeared on Paging Dr. Nerdlove.