On creating the wrong perception.
My blogging hiatus at Wheat and Tares came about when I was trying to write on being heard and avoiding the perception that the speaker was mentally ill. I eventually gave up on the project, because I couldn’t wrap it into a post. Well, I think I found a way to hit the points. You are going to see people who are having hard times, and the tension will be between having compassion for them and turning the problems they have into reasons to criticize or devalue them.
Some people come across as afflicted by one of the following (or other problems), some more sympathetic than others:
- Narcissism or inflated self importance. (you know the guy — the one in the group who always gets up, makes a long statement about how much he knows, then asks a question that isn’t a question and that has nothing to do with what the speaker just said). They also tend to insist they are always right, more special, beautiful and right than anyone else and they often act like charismatic bullies.
- Borderline personality disorder. (you know the guy — always histrionic and always demanding attention and over-inflating the evidence. Al Gore was able to single handedly derail much of the climate change discussion by exaggeration and over predicting which led to people rejecting him).
- False expertise. (you know the guy, he starts claiming that his constitutional right to free speech has been curtailed if you won’t give him a forum).
- Sub-culture issues. You may have dealt with various geek, Deaf or other sub-cultures that have approaches that do not fit in with your own. We have had blog posts on the impact of different culture groups and expectations and how they affect communication and what matters to people.
- Autism spectrum issues. (In an Asperger’s group if a speaker says something will take two minutes and it takes 90 seconds or 180 seconds, there will be someone who gets up and calls him a liar.You also get people who will literally fart in your direction and then say it is ok because they don’t like you or who react very badly to figures of speech. I’ve been dealing with friends whose children are having some of those issues and grateful for the creation of safe places for those kids).But it has made me very aware that sometimes the kids have a real complaint that people are missing because they just write it off as being part of the spectrum.
The problem with telling people how to avoid the various things that derail them, is it is also a guide for how to gaslight someone. Gaslighting has two forms. In the one you cause someone to think that they are crazy. More and more it has come to mean that you are giving other people reasons to think someone is crazy or just not worth listening to. You can probably see the spectrum from “hey, give him a break, he is having a hard time” to “hey, just ignore him, he is just having a hard time.”
In the classic form, Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of mental abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting his or her own memory, perception and sanity.
It is also when legitimate issues or concerns are just recast as mental illness or inappropriate behavior (that second use I started out with). “She’s not really mad about our taking the young women’s budget and giving it to the boy scouts, it is just that time of the month” is a crude example.
The term comes from a movie and it calls out a very common behavior. There are people who routinely gaslight others and articles on how to identify and escape them. You probably have seen people being affected by both forms.
I first encountered the problem of the two coming together when I confronted a radio talk show host over a situation involving a single mother who had just lost her child. She was not part of the discussion (and probably never knew it took place) and neither was his audience (which is probably what made the discussion go as well as it did).
She was reacting normally. Others were exploiting her for a political agenda. But she had a legitimate complaint and was acting normally. I was offended because I was in the category of parents who had buried children and was just annoyed at the way things were going.
He backed off with an apology to me. As it worked out, I realized that I had narrowly avoided causing him to gaslight her (just because her son had died did not mean she did not have a legitimate concern). But it would have been very easy for that to have happened — for him to just say “hey, just ignore her, grief has driven her mad.”
The issue that comes up is how do we act so as to show compassion towards those who come across as different from us without also gaslighting them or causing others to devalue what they have to say.
You may be dealing with someone who is deaf with a touch of Asperger’s. They are ultra concrete, can’t hear anyone’s position but their own and are (to a hearing person) bombastic. How would you accommodate them, explain to others that they need accommodation, yet not come across as just writing them off. Or you may have someone who has violated the honor code at BYU but wants to escape the consequences of getting caught. But, they’ve also been the victim of a horrific crime. How do you address that the need to help a victim outweighs the issue of letting them avoid punishment otherwise?
I’d love your thoughts and ideas on how to make both work, how to both expand compassion and understanding without making it into a tool to devalue others. How do we listen to people, have compassion and understanding for how they are different from us and why, yet not use that to dismiss what they are saying — or are there times that is legitimate?
What do you think.
[Revised, with help from comments, and with my thanks].