With increasing awareness about mental health and self-development, people resort to different methods of self-help – from books to exploratory art and theater practices to therapy. I have been active in this space for over a year now, and have always met kind, understanding and positive people. But a recent encounter shook me, and showed me what it looks like when misogyny permeates these spaces.
A few days ago I attended an event by Landmark Worldwide, an international organisation working towards self-development and improving leadership skills. I had been introduced to this organisation by a friend, who had attended, and loved their three day workshop. Feeling unburdened by the insights she’d received about herself, she insisted that it would help me as well. I was skeptical about this. Being used to theater and movement based therapeutic practices, three days of sitting and listening to someone talking did not seem appealing to me. But my friend was insistent I come to this particular event to support and celebrate her ‘journey’. “If you happen to like it, you can register”, she said.
So I went with her, but I soon realized that this was too superficial for my taste. So when the announcement for registration was made, I remained seated, and made no effort to talk to the volunteers who had descended upon the crowd to ‘help’ them make the decision to register. One of the volunteers, a middle-aged man, sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. He was gentle and pleasant. He started telling me about his life, and how the organisation had helped him overcome his issues. He asked me questions about myself. I answered them, and told him politely and firmly that I didn’t want to register. That I am aware of my issues, and I choose to deal with them differently. He started pushing me to fill the form while we talked.
There were clear power relations at play, because this man would not have treated me in this manner if I was also a man – young or old.
When I refused to fill it (I didn’t see any point it doing so since I was sure about my decision), things took a drastic turn. He threatened me – “I can hurt you in two minutes and you can’t do anything about it.” Then, looking straight into my eyes, he began repeating “You are lonely. You are alone. You have no one in this world. You are weak.” He was attacking a vulnerability I had just admitted to having in our five minute conversation.
I found this extremely disturbing, and asked him to stop. When I started to cry, he began asking me probing questions. I refused to answer them, and he claimed I was lying to myself. I told him several times that I did not want to talk about this. I asked him to leave. He didn’t. I told him he was being intrusive and cruel. He said “I’m doing this for your own good. I’m helping you.” The surreal thing about this experience is that his tone was always mellow and pleasant, and he was smiling the entire time. Even when I was crying, he kept looking at me with a calm smile.
Finally he left me alone, but kept smiling at me from a distance. I was shaken, and visibly upset. I decided to leave the event early, and this man followed me outside and tried talking to me, convincing me not to leave. I accepted his apology and shook his hand just so that we would leave me alone, and left.
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My friends were outraged when they heard this story. “Why didn’t you tell him to shut up? Why didn’t you slap him? Why didn’t you report him then and there? Why didn’t you just get up and leave?” The whys were endless, but I had no answers. Because in that moment I was feeling surprised, hurt and betrayed at being attacked like this in what should have been a ‘safe space’. I was taken aback by this man’s sadism – his attempt to hurt me just to show that he could, and his satisfaction at having achieved his goal. More than anything, I was frustrated at myself for letting this stranger get to me, his words still ringing in my ears.
It took me two days to dissect all of these feelings and understand what had happened. I remember feeling helpless when he said those things to me, my mind going back to memories of being bullied as a child. I remember not being able to even look at his face after he made me cry, while he was openly smiling at me. I felt ashamed, at being exposed like this without my will. And I couldn’t bear to look at my abuser.
And the more I thought about it, the angrier I felt. This wasn’t just an issue of unethical and ridiculous mental health practices. Of course they cannot and should not bully people into registering for their workshop. Of course they should not let untrained and amateur pseudo-therapists go around ‘diagnosing’ and ‘helping’ people. This reflects how casually we treat mental health and disorders, especially in India. I told the organisation this in an email I sent them complaining about the actions of this man. I asked if they would take responsibility if someone harmed themselves after being triggered like this.
Then, looking straight into my eyes, he began repeating “You are lonely. You are alone. You have no one in this world. You are weak.”
But this incident reflects a larger deep-seated misogyny in our society, and our mental health practices. There were clear power relations at play, because this man would not have treated me in this manner if I was also a man – young or old. He wouldn’t have tried to make me cry to prove a point. And if a man started crying while talking to him, would he be as comfortable as he was seeing me cry? Would the other people present, who were throwing me pitiful looks, be comfortable? But it’s not unusual to see a young woman cry. Even if I was a married, middle-aged woman, he would’ve spoken to me differently – with more respect. But I was close to his daughter’s age, as he told me. And the more self-confidence I showed, the more upset he got.
What is it that makes young women so weak in the eyes of society? Why do people believe that women, especially young women don’t know what’s good for them? That they are the most vulnerable, easy to attack, easy to influence. That a complete stranger can walk up to them, and tell them what to do with their time and money, and be offended if they don’t agree? What is it about strong-willed women that irks society so much, that they have to beaten into vulnerability and submission?
Looking back at the incident, I can also acknowledge my internalised misogyny. No matter what was said to me, my focus remained on being polite and pleasant. I apologized to him before even calling him cruel. I was more worried about bruising his ego, and about offending a room full of strangers by calling their ideology stupid (which was and is my opinion), than I was about my own hurt and pain.
I hope this never happens to me (or anyone) again. But I also hope it does. So that I when a man tries to bully me into doing something I don’t want to do, I can tell him exactly what I think of him.
Featured Image Credit: The Shift Has Hit The Fan