How We Learn Not to Stand Up

I remember the first time that an adult made excuses for someone being mean to me. I remember when my training began to not know when to say no to people, or to not stick up for myself

I was seven.

I was being teased by a boy at school, and I was told “It’s ok. He’s doing it because he likes you.” I would be told variations on this theme until i was in high school. He likes you, it’s why he tries to following around at school. He likes you, it’s why he wrote an essay comparing you to Helen Keller. He likes you. It’s why he tripped you down the stairs. It’s why he stole your lunch. It’s why he tied your shoes together. It’s why he put plastic snakes in your backpack.

As an adult, if someone were to trip you down the stairs we would call it abuse. If someone follows you around, and refuses to leave you alone even when you ask nicely – that’s considered stalking. If someone puts plastic snakes in your backpack (even though you’re afraid of them) you’d call it  mean.

The notion of being liked because he’s teasing you wasn’t just told to me by family (in fact, I can only remember one adult in my family doing so) but I can recall instances where teachers told this to us. We were fed this line to create playground unity.

Other women I’ve spoken to in my age group have said the same. We have all been told that it is acceptable for people to tease us and make us feel sad, or hurt, or frightened – in name of being “liked”. I asked one of my friends if she had been taught this, and she said that it had taken so much work to stop making excuses when her feelings are completely rational and reasonable. We as women are taught to make apologies in our heads. We are taught to make excuses for those individuals who harm us.

We shouldn’t.

This idea that being liked is attached to teasing and meanness opens us up to abuse. Mostly, it opens us up to emotional abuse, because it feels the same as some of the teasing which we have experienced, and if in our hearts we are trained to brush it off, to think of it as cute, to make excuses for others… we don’t know how to say no when it is the most important thing we can say. Yes, it also opens us up to physical abuse, but in this case I think the more pernicious side effect is that of not knowing whether it’s emotional abuse – or teasing.

The instincts which are trained out of us aren’t just the ones that say “get out, get out, you’re being abused!”  They are the same instincts that teach us how to tell our partners we’re uncomfortable. I still get all nervous and uncomfortable telling my husband when he does something I don’t like. My voice gets all soft and quiet and I shift from foot to foot. I don’t actually need to be afraid, because we’re adults and we’ve made a commitment to be together – and yet I still get nervous that if I tell him I didn’t like the way he handled something on my behalf, I’m afraid he’ll divorce me. You see, these interactions don’t just hurt women – they hurt men too. From not knowing what’s an appropriate way to express affection, to having partners who don’t know how to express their feelings without fear – men are also those who deal with the consequences of being told “It’s just because he likes you”.

I’m not the only woman to feel this way. Asserting dominion over our emotions and our physical beings in relationships where we’re consensual participants still feels difficult, and I firmly believe that the root cause of this is how we’re taught to handle teasing and bullying as children. Without the tools to tell people “no” as children, we’re not able to do it as adults – and it’s harder to recognize the hurtful things from the harmless things when we never learned how to do that in the first place.

N.B.: Yes, teasing can be a way of being affectionate, and in many relationships it works. The difficulty of course is knowing how to use it and when, so that the laughter isn’t masking pain.

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2 Comments

Filed under Feminism, War On Women

2 responses to “How We Learn Not to Stand Up

  1. Yes, I remember children being taught that teasing was either a sign that someone likes you or that it was their fault for “not fitting in.” Blaming the victim is part of our culture. Now that I have children, I’m seeing bullying from a different perspective, and I think the messages in my community have improved. However, I am less optimistic that our tendency to blame the victim in other arenas, such as in the context of sexual violence, has improved much.

    • Someday, I will write about what happened to me in the 6th grade – when my own teachers wouldn’t help me because i was “too different.” But today is not that day. We are not good at helping victims – and our society is very good at hiding perpetrators.

      I’m glad to hear that the messages in your community have changed, so there’s definitely hope for the future.

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