Many a delicious volume has been penned about the existence and adventures of elves, fairies, pixies and trolls.
And lo, tho' they are creatures occupying different positions on the supernatural spectrum, their one true, common nature is agreed to be eternal and self-evident: they are wild, chaotic, natural, emotional, impulsive, creative, fickle, irresistibly charming, love to dance, care for their own, shrink from risk, challenge and confrontation and are, alas, prone to all forms of deception ranging from white lies to mischievous misrepresentations to not knowing their own minds to outright lying about rape.
Women have this mythical problem, too: they lie.
They especially lie about men.
I’m hoping I know my audience. I’m hoping you’re thinking, WTF?!!!
I’m hoping by now we agree that the ‘women lie’ storyline is a fiction AND the main insurance policy of predators; and it’s one that almost all of us were trained by rape culture for generations to cosign.
‘Women lie’ was a smoke screen. Cloud cover. A pre-condition.
Re: sexual violence.
For sexual violence against women to continue for hundreds and hundreds of years, we had to believe that women lied.
A society that believed women would be a society that held abusers and predators accountable.
There was a moment in time — #MeToo — that it looked like the dots were getting connected. It seemed that more and more of us explicitly knew that the 'women lie' belief is one of the first principles of gendered abuse and degradation.
So why can't we see that truth in other spaces -- especially pro-women ones?
Women lie to themselves.
I hear it in TV shows and movies: a girlfriend is speaking some tough love to her friend, usually about a no-account man. Stop lying to yourself. I hear it in phone calls with friends and clients, beating themselves up because they missed the red flags in a bad situation. Maybe I was lying to myself. I read it in self-help book blogs and books. The notion that women lie to themselves, for example, is the central thesis of NY Times bestselling book Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis. In the intro she writes, "You...need to identify -- and systematically destroy -- every lie you've told yourself your whole life." After that, every chapter is dedicated to exposing and correcting a lie that women tell themselves.
The book has 20 chapters. That's 20 lies we're telling ourselves on a daily basis. Apparently women are busy little liars.
It's even woven into The Witches are Coming, by Lindy West -- an otherwise super-smart and wildly entertaining book I liked a lot. (Sidenote: we don't have to cosign every single idea in order to thoroughly appreciate someone's thinking and work). Even so, every time I read in those pages that we're lying to ourselves -- individually, or collectively -- I recoiled.
I don't think that's what's actually going on.
I don't think we're lying to ourselves.
I think we're being lied to.
In the tenth grade, my daughter Sophie went to China. She stays in touch with some of the friends she made there. Sometimes she comes to me, frustrated, because her friends living in Shanghai and Beijing are saying things about various domestic and world issues that Sophie knows are either not true or seriously misinformed. Because of the state-controlled media in China, there are historical events that are just missing from these kids' knowledge; or they have been taught seriously skewed interpretations of events. There are facts and contexts being withheld from them, deliberately.
Sophie's friends don't have any intent to deceive; they don't even know that what they're saying isn't wholly true. They certainly aren't lying to themselves. Instead, they are being lied to by an authoritarian regime and state-controlled media.
Let's put the blame and shame where it belongs.
I use that example because it's obvious and extreme, but I think it's what goes on in every culture. This is why we have "culture wars" over the content of elementary school text books. People - the-powers-that-be or the-powers-that-wannabe -- strive to shape what we believe because it's convenient to the kind of power they want to enjoy; often they'll lie to do that. They want the lie to be unquestioned; often they succeed in establishing the lie as a fact, a norm, a belief.
Anjali Nath of Liberation Spring once said something to me about money that was life-altering.
She pointed out the people with the least resources are often the creative and ingenious with those resources. They make a dollar stretch and bend and do high-kicks (I'm paraphrasing; she's much more erudite than that). They make magic out of money. They make something out of nothing, over and over again.
If you talk to anyone who specifically fund women's businesses, you'll hear the same thing. Vicki Saunders, founder of Coralus and author of Think Like a SheEO, constantly raves about how brilliantly capital-efficient women entrepreneurs are. They're woefully underfunded, and yet manage to create something out of nothing. Because of their experience being ingenious with little resources, when they do get a capital infusion (like from Coralus), those entrepreneurs get extraordinary results (in addition to massively growing their social impact, it's common for them to triple their revenue in a year).
Tracy Theemes, a feminist financial advisor who works with high net-worth women 4 days a week and pro-bono with folks trying to get out of poverty one day a week, writes the same thing in her book The Financially Empowered Woman:
One woman who was in my office a few months ago asked if she was doing something wrong or missing something because she was supporting five other people on $900 per month, after rent, and it just didn’t seem to be quite enough. In my opinion, that woman had an amazing ingrained sense of sufficiency. I know I couldn’t get through a single week with only $900 if I had five other people to support. I feel she should probably teach a course, because her survival management skills are excellent.
I see this in my own work, too. So many women confess to me that they need to work on their 'money story' but when we dig in what is really going on is that they are a healing or care professional and aren't earning enough money to get by. That's not a psychological issue or a 'story'. That's a reality and one that's usually getting framed up for them by a system in which there is a real gender wage gap; an even bigger gender wealth gap; and in which ALL of women's labour is devalued, especially women's emotional labour. You know, care. Healing. Support. No wonder it's hard out there for most coaches, therapists, healers and caregivers.
The real 'money story' we need to fix is a collective one: INEQUITY. It's telling us a huge lie: that having financial surplus is indicative of virtue and merit, and having not-enough is indicative of defect.
That lie is the water we're all swimming in and the air we breathe, which makes people struggling to make ends meet believe that they are 'bad with money'.
Lies, lies, lies.
We are being lied to.
But we're not the ones lying and we are not lying to ourselves.
I don't even really understand how one could lie to themselves. It seems to me that the basic condition for lying is 1) knowledge that the thing isn't true and 2) intent to deceive the other party.
I never sat down with myself and said: Self, it's going to be way easier for gendered financial inequity to persist across generations if you would believe that you are bad with money; instead, let's pretend it's all your fault. That way the system hurting you can keep chewing women up.
And my Self has never responded with OK! LET'S GO! LET'S GET A MONEY STORY!!!
The same with infidelity. I have never lied to myself about someone else cheating. I was cheated on. I was lied to. And that happened because I trusted them and genuinely believed in them and trusted them...not because I was lying to myself.
Same, with loans that never got paid back. Whenever I loaned someone money, I truly believed they would pay me back. That's why I loaned it rather than gifted it.
But when the clouds parted and I realized that I was being lied too? Then I took action, changed course, changed everything. Power.
People lie in order to prevent others from deciding to use their power.
We need to remember that. That person or that institution did not want you to use your power. This lie was designed to keep you doing what they wanted you to do.
It's not your fault. You cannot be responsible for another person's decisions. You don't have to blame yourself for believing lies.
We do not have to conclude that if we were lied that we were also lying to ourselves -- and we shouldn't, because that takes the blame away from the wrong-doer or the predator or the institution or our culture who is doing the deliberate lying. It's yet another form of blame-the-victim (itself another social norm that upholds rape culture and patriarchy).
We can, however, conclude that we didn't have all the information.
We can commit to always getting better information.
We can grieve the terrible decisions we made based on the no-good, terrible, lying information.
We can get more savvy about detecting lies on the fly.
That savvy can come from experience, countercultural care + community, and from building your analysis.
That's how we stop falling for the interpersonal lies and the Big Cultural Lies.
The aforementioned Anjali Nath, for example, runs a Freedom School. She has built out her analysis around inequity and oppression. That's why she could so clearly see that the belief that poor people are bad with money was a lie. Tracy Theemes is a financial advisor who works with people at both ends of the money spectrum and sees, first-hand, how ingenious her low-income clients are with money, so she could clearly see that our mainstream, collective money story was a lie.
Building your analysis gets you free, personally and collectively. Building your analysis helps you see through the lies. You stop being ashamed of things that are not your fault, and you start unapologetically living your life, on your terms. Power.
A few years ago, another leader + educator, Simone Writer, also said something that reorganized my personal cosmos. She said, "Women are in an abusive relationship with our culture."
Suddenly "gaslighting" took on an even bigger meaning.
And what happens in an abusive relationship?
We get trained to disregard our own senses and perceptions and believe someone else's interpretation of reality (a.k.a. their lies) and we do. We really believe. We try to fix ourselves so as not to trigger backlash and punishment. We leave our bodies and fly away while the worst is happening; then we learn to do that -- dissociate -- on a daily and hourly basis. Our new normal becomes disconnection from our own thoughts and identities. We numb our internal cues and become entirely focused on reading the room and our abusers' cues. That's how we survive.
So when self-help writer Rachel Hollis (about whom I am skeptical) and brilliant feminist author Lindy West (about whom I am wildly enthusiastic ) are both writing that we're lying to themselves, maybe they're closing in on something important. Maybe what they're both noticing and calling 'lying to ourselves' is a pattern of women dissociating to make it through the day.
(Huge shout out to artist+coach Joyelle Brandt; we stumbled our way onto this insight together, over coffee, after a Lindy West reading several years ago.)
And...we have to call things by their right names to heal them.
Dissociation is not the same thing as lying. Dissociation is an unconscious process brought on by trauma. Lying is deliberate. You solve dissociation by showing a person that they're not at fault and supporting them in reconnecting and getting free. You solve lying by confronting a person with their fault or, if it's chronic and unabated, cutting ties with them. Two vastly different medicines.
That's a lie that keeps rape culture going.
Women lie to themselves.
That's a lie that keeps us from acknowledging how big the problem really is. "Lying to ourselves" indicates the presence of a personal character defect or a trend. Dissociation indicates something bigger and more devastating at work: widespread coercion. A system of inequity and abuse, by design.
Can we please put a temporary cultural moratorium - like, say, for the next 400 years -- on saying that women, as a group, lie?
My goodness I must be such a delight at parties. Always keeping it light and bright!
No wonder woodland creatures don't come by to clean my house and elves don't fix my shoes while I sleep.
I do have some good news to share. The kind that powers you up from the inside (it is magic, but no magical creatures are required!).
When I told Anjali that her truth about money had fundamentally remade my internal landscape, she smiled wide and said, "Yes! That's liberation."
When we build our analysis, we can see through the lies -- and that's how we get free.
And when shame dissolves, power takes its place.
Let's go there, together.
illustration by Bettina Schenk
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Wow. Just Wow. I have been in the financial industry for the last 20+ years and you pieced together what I have felt but never quite had the words for. I had my hand on my heart nearly the entire time I read this article!!! Thank you for this beautiful piece of insight and VOICE.
Thank you for this. Perfect timing. I really appreciate the connections around dissociation. Helped me put some pieces together as I reconnect to my power after a long (abusive) relationship with a covert narcissist. All they do is lie. Helps immensely.