July 7, 2007

Trusting Our Instincts

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:22 pm by nevavegan

It was an interesting week with a holiday in the middle. I talked to a lot of people as well, so I had this theme surface in my communications: How much should I trust my instincts.

I stopped posting all the Survivors’ writing exercises here because I’ve felt maybe a little naked on this blog. At first nobody was reading and now I have no idea who is reading. Maybe I’ll go back at some point and add them back in.

This week’s Survivors’ writing exercise was to discuss how we’ve encountered and also internalized victim-blaming attitudes. In relation to that I brought up a kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation in regard to trusting our instincts. Many of us had some kind of stirring on a subconscious level that let us know something wasn’t right, and many of us pushed it aside because we didn’t want to over-react, we didn’t want to seem bitchy, or even because people around us thought we were being paranoid. Later, after something bad happens, people will ask “why didn’t you listen to your gut?” But for those of us who have on other occasions in fact listened to our gut and gotten out of situations that made us feel unsafe, there’s always a second-guessing to follow. “Are you sure you aren’t over-reacting?” people will ask.

After all this time I have a sort of double-sided approach to my gut instincts. My first impulse, after years of self-doubt and low self esteem is to mistrust my instincts. But if I’m in a situation where there might be an actual physical danger to me, I’d far prefer to over-react than under-react. So I don’t worry so much in that context if my instinct is wrong.

There are other cases where nothing is quite so easy. What if I’m not talking about physical threats, but I just feel someone is treating me with disrespect? What if I feel like someone is behaving in a way that is not really kind or acceptable? Do I trust my instincts in that situation?

I grew up with gaslighting and projection, essentially a steady diet of “it’s not me, it’s you.” I would clearly see things only to have them denied. I would be insulted only to be told that I was the one with the problem. Given this history I’m well aware that I might be overly sensitive to perceived slights. So I try to give the benefit of the doubt. But at the same time, I never want to put myself in the position again of being treated poorly and never standing up for myself because the other person is good at instilling self-doubt in others. What this means is that if a given behavior continues over time, I have to believe there’s a reason for that.

So this brings me to other conversations this week. One person emailed me to say that while she loved my blog she was upset that I frequently made comments like “I could be wrong,” or “these are just my personal thoughts, so it might not matter.” She felt that I had as much right as anyone to voice my thoughts and perceptions and I should just go ahead and say what’s on my mind and trust myself. In a totally different conversation I had another person second guess my perceptions and say that, in essence, I was reading far too much into what others said and was possibly a little paranoid.

It’s not that I actually care at this point if some people don’t believe me. When I say things that are inconvenient to believe or suggest deeper problems than many want to face I expect to have the backlash be an effort at discrediting me and attacking me on a personal level. I’m not talking to the several people out there who think I’m nuts, I’m talking to those who are in that same place I am of wondering if they can trust their perceptions. There are a great many people who feel that something is deeply wrong in our movement, but they wonder if they’re the only ones who feel that way. Women especially are told over and over that we’re too emotional and can’t trust our own minds. You silly, you didn’t really hear what you just heard, you didn’t really see what you just saw.

I love men, I’m married to a man, many of my closest friends are male. Likewise I’m fully aware that women can be abusive, manipulative, dishonest, etc. So I don’t mean what I’m about to say as any statement against men. But I just don’t think that most men really understand the massive mind-f%#@ that is done to women in our sexist culture in regard to making us doubt what we clearly know. We face situations where we’re paid lower salaries than our less qualified male colleagues but if we say we feel discriminated against we’re told it’s our fault, because women don’t know how to negotiate for salaries. Then when it’s time to negotiate our salaries, we’re terrified to do so because we need our jobs and when the boss says “salary isn’t negotiable” we get scared.

Most women I know, and myself included, have sat in a male-dominated meeting and made our suggestion tentatively, only to have it laughed down, then later in the meeting a male colleague suggests the exact thing we just said and it is met with cheers and praises for his brilliance. I’ve been sexually harassed on a job and then told I’m taking things the wrong way, and many of my friends have had this happen as well. I’ve also had jobs where all anyone talked about was my physical appearance and never my abilities and talents. I was offered a job because someone gave the boss a picture of me (I turned it down)—so what message does that send about the value placed on my mind and the intellectual contributions I might make?

So as a woman, once you reach a certain age, you do become sensitized to these things. If a man tells us we need to laugh it off and not take ourselves so seriously it rubs the wrong way, even if in that case he might be right, because I’m also pretty sure he hasn’t experienced this in the same way I have. I’ve had many men tell me bitterly of the one time they weren’t listened to by a boss, or the one female boss that they felt was disrespectful to them, or the one time they thought a woman got the job they wanted just because they were female. And while I feel nobody should ever be treated unfairly, and that it’s wrong to discriminate against men, I’m also thinking “the one time it happened? Because that sh$# happens to me all the time.”

So given that history, being told “Awww sweetie, chill out, you’re just taking it all wrong” is massively annoying. I do second-guess myself all the time. If I say an organization seems to not value its volunteers and I back that up with my own story, in all cases I’ve heard similar stories from several other former volunteers, but I don’t tell their stories, because it’s not mine to tell. I don’t tell their stories because I know that people in charge of those organizations take steps to marginalize and discredit those that “tell tales from school.” It’s fine if I want to take on that risk myself, but I’m not going to force someone else into that position. But I don’t say things like that, which could be clearly damaging unless I’m really certain of what I’m saying.

When I say people are communicating in disrespectful and inappropriate ways, I really mean it. There are ways that respectful adult human beings talk to each other and ways they just don’t. There are always reasons for disrespectful communication. Sometimes it is just a matter of someone not controlling their temper, though I find it interesting that these same people seem to never, ever lose their tempers with bosses, major donors, reporters or anyone who falls into the category of “important.” They seem only unable to reign in the temper tantrums when they’re around volunteers, little people, or people that are otherwise safe to explode at.

There are other well-established reasons for disrespectful behavior, it can stop dissent in its tracks. Words can really hurt in fact, and the person who is hurt might just quietly crawl off to lick her wounds, guaranteeing her voice won’t be heard for a while. Some people use personal slights to try to discredit others. If the leader of an organization refuses to listen to a certain volunteer and makes belittling remarks toward her, it sets the tone for the entire organization. The other employees and volunteers quickly pick up on and that one “trouble maker” gets blamed for the organization’s problems. It also means nobody listens to the person questioning what’s going on.

I don’t think I’m wrong about all of this, but as always I might be. There’s that old self doubt creeping in.



  1. Ericao said,

    I just wanted to drop a line to say that I recently found your blog. I’m a D.C.-area vegan as well, and a lot of what you write about rings very true. Thanks for being so compelling and eloquent!

    (I’m commenting with my Blogger ID, but I hardly ever update it. I’m also at LiveJournal as sailalias, which I also hardly ever update…)

  2. Neva Vegan said,

    Thanks Ericao! I look forward to meeting some of the DC folks with blogs some day–we should do a vegan blogger meet up.

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