Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Trolls, Trauma, and Disempowerment

I've mentioned that I'm currently in therapy and doing EMDR, but if you forgot or didn't see that, there you go. That's why content tends to be later than usual (or lacking) on Wednesdays. One of the many great things about therapy is that as I gain insights about myself, I tend to gain insights about others around me, women in general, and even society as a whole.

EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is used to treat trauma and PTSD. I suffered a lot of verbal and emotional abuse as a child, and the trauma and disempowerment that caused affects every part of my life today. It informs and influences a lot of my feminist thought and writings, and as I learn more about how feeling utterly powerless as a child and how that's carried into my adult life, the more I understand about my current thought patterns and behaviors.

What I and my therapist have discovered is that the constant pattern of being abused and then having my feelings dismissed and invalidated is repeating itself in my adult life with the (mostly male) individuals who come to either this blog, my Tumblr blog, my Twitter account, or wherever else they can access me in order to "debate" or simply attack me. In my engagements with them, I'm repeating an old pattern in a behavior referred to as "trauma reenactment."

Trauma reenactment is the brain's desperate attempt to act out traumatizing incidents or patterns from childhood to make them turn out better. The classic example is the woman who was physically abuse by her father seeking out large and/or older men who are also abusive for romantic relationships. A bit of advice to the "friend zone" lamenters out there. If a woman you like is with a guy who treats her like shit, it's probably because one or more parents treated her like shit and her subconscious mind is replaying that trauma to try and make things turn out right, usually by "changing" the guy. Because if she can do that, then she has the power to do what she always wanted to do with her abusive parent(s).

That is what so many of us crave. Power. Not power over others, but just enough to feel in control of our own everyday lives. Because many of us were systematically disempowered as children. Children are disempowered by adults. Women and girls are disempowered by the patriarchy. People of color are disempowered by white supremacy. The poor are disempowered by capitalism. LGBTQAIP+ are disempowered by systemic homophobia/transphobia. And so on.

In my childhood, I was treated quite badly. But, especially early on, I had no one to turn to who would validate my feelings. No one I could trust to even acknowledge how I felt. This is part of why many mental health professionals will say that verbal and emotional abuse are often worse than physical abuse. I didn't even have a word for what I was experiencing. I knew that parents hitting their kids was wrong, and that it was called abuse, and if I'd had bruises to show my teachers or other family members then I might have been validated and taken care of. No guarantees, of course, because people are still even dismissive of physical abuse. But barely anyone outside of the field of psychology acknowledges verbal and emotional abuse as being a real problem.

So when a person comes to me, whether intentionally "trolling" or not, and ignores the emotion inherent in the issues I talk about, demands that I "debate" with them in a purely unemotional way, and or straight up tells me that my emotions aren't valid or that being emotional makes my opinions invalid, this triggers (yes triggers) an old response pattern in my subconscious. When people (usually dudes) come to me to tell me that my feelings are not valid, typically in a smug and condescending manner, my brain essentially goes "here's a chance to make someone who reminds me of my parents treat me like I wished my parents had treated me."

I spent so many years trying to get my parents to acknowledge my feelings, with each attempt ending in miserable failure. Now I argue with men on the Internet about feminism, trying to get them to at least acknowledge my feelings. To somehow understand what it feels like to be a woman in the United States of Patriarchal Bullshit. But they aren't here to understand. In fact, many of them come with the unwavering attitude that emotion has no place in "debate," and that issues like patriarchy and rape culture are abstract ideas to debate about rather than real ongoing issues that affect women and girls every minute of every day.

So I engage with them, and they invalidate my emotions and dismiss my words. This triggers old anger, frustration, and feelings of disempowerment. I try harder. They dismiss me again. And, like my parents, most do so by responding to things I never said, by twisting my words and badly misinterpreting data to favor them. And I can point out that they do this, but if they're not willing to acknowledge that they're doing it, then there's nothing I can do. I can't force people to even be willing to try and see what I see. I don't have the power to make them be reasonable. I try so hard, but every response from them that once again invalidates my feelings and perspectives re-triggers me and enrages me and drives me to try harder. And every single miserable failure of an argument is a repeat of the trauma that drove me to this exhausting, time-wasting habit.

I discovered that I had a way with written words a long time ago. And I feel like part of the reason I became a writer is because I've been on a desperate quest to find the perfect combination of words, sentences, and punctuation that will make people "get it." That will make them see things from my point of view and have that light bulb moment that makes them understand how I feel and even feel what I feel. And then, at last, they'll validate me. And I'll have at last gained the power to get what I always wanted as a child. Simple validation and basic acknowledgement of my emotions.

I'm beginning to realize this. It makes sense now, why I so easily get pulled into and sometimes even seek out these online trauma reenactments. The fact that I have a strong caretaker impulse (also a result of trauma) means that I'll also jump to the defense of people on Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook, even people I don't even really know, and get sucked into arguments that way. But I'm getting better. I've learned to block liberally, since doing so gives me the power (and clearly triggers these debater dudes badly) while allowing me to stop the cycle before it can trigger me further.

But now I'm wondering, how many other people are engaging in the same kind of trauma reenactment when engaging with trolls and people who pretend not to be trolls but basically are? How many women, having grown up in a society that tells them their hysterical girl feelings are not valid, have expressed themselves via a simple tweet or a full on article only to have men scoff at them and tell them their feelings don't matter, whether directly or indirectly?

Actually, it's gonna be a lot faster to count the women who haven't experienced that.

There's been a lot of discussion on the problem with trolls, whether they be the obvious kind or the anti-emotion fuckheads who think all the Internet is a debate tournament. And there's plenty of literature on how our patriarchal society disempowers women. What about the intersection between the two? How much of trolling and debate-demanding is about power, and how does that affect us as women? I feel that these are important questions to explore. Dibs on the first think piece.

No comments: