Gaslighting: How We Allow Others to Define Our Reality & Why That's So Dangerous
“YOU’RE NOT GOING OUT OF YOUR MIND. YOU’RE SLOWLY AND SYSTEMATICALLY BEING DRIVEN OUT OF YOUR MIND.”
--Inspector Brian Cameron, Gaslight, 1944
There are three common traumas that occur in relationships that trigger a great deal of hurt and confusion. The relational trauma heavy hitters are:
Unfortunately, despite their traumatizing consequences, the above terms are not widely known or identifiable. They’re even less understood. Yet understanding them can be the difference of a healthy, fulfilling relationship versus a toxic one. Most of my clients are affected by relational traumas but they’re unable to identify them on their own, they just know they are extremely unhappy in (or out of) their relationship(s). Most clients will present with a heightened level of anxiety and/or depression.
Gaslighting is the most prevalent and insidious of the three. Understanding what Gaslighting is, how it may infiltrate your life, and how to fully counter it is imperative to your own healing and growth process, along with your relationship’s growth.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where someone consciously or subconsciously manipulates another into believing that her reality is wrong. The term “Gaslight” or gaslighting comes from a 1940’s movie with the same title about a woman who’s husband slowly manipulates her into believing that she’s insane so that he can steal her hidden fortune. One of the many tactics he used was to dim the gaslights in the home and claim that the lights weren’t dimming. While the villain in Gaslight knew what he was doing and did it all strategically and systematically, most gaslighters are not consciously aware that they are going to great lengths to deny their partner’s reality. Instead, the gaslighter is more focused on being right in order to preserve his own sense of self and his sense of having power in the world (or power/control in the relationship). The partner being gaslighted (AKA The gaslightee) allows the gaslighter to define her sense of reality because she idealizes him or seeks his approval. (The Gaslight Effect, Stern, R.)
SOME EXAMPLES OF GASLIGHTING:
You’re arguing with your partner over something hurtful he said to you and he responds, “You’re so sensitive, are you on your period?”
You ask your partner for more time and attention and your partner dismisses your request and adds “Maybe you shouldn’t be so needy”
Your partner says, “You’re being ridiculous and out-of-control," when you feel you’re being quite reasonable and your anger and frustration feels justified
You ask your partner to go to couples therapy to see if the relationship can be improved and your partner responds, “You should go to therapy, you’re the problem.”
Your partner says, “You’re asking for way too much from me," when you feel like you’re asking for something very reasonable and you feel like you're always willing to reciprocate
A loved one insists, “You don't even care about/love me!” When you feel like you’ve been going out of your mind trying to please that person
You’re told you should be “over it by now” when you’re still struggling with it
You’re told to “calm down” when you don’t even feel like you’re that worked up and/or you feel validated by your anger
You suspect your partner is having an affair so you confront him or her and s/he responds,“You’re crazy, you need to go on medication”
The gaslighter attacks you with “shame triggers” that really hurt you and shut down any discussion: “You’re a bad mom/worthless employee/bad wife/poor friend/selfish/inconsiderate/don’t love me enough/stupid/unattractive”
Gaslighting is an extremely damaging relational trauma, yet its extremely pervasive and often culturally accepted. Unlike domestic violence or outright verbal abuse, gaslighting (along with betrayal trauma and betrayal blindness) does not come with visible bruises, violence, or obviously abusive statements. When a trusted loved one is regularly dismissing your thoughts, feelings, and experience and replacing it with HIS perception, HIS reality, and HIS interpretation, it can lead one to doubt one’s sense of self, her values, her grip of reality, and often her sanity. Once one has lost her sense of self and foundation of reality, she becomes less likely to trust her intuition and will instead look to her gaslighter for validation and guidance. It leaves one with high levels of confusion, anxiety, and depression. That gaslightee's mental health status further primes her for more gaslighting and causes her to become even more disempowered to prevent the toxic cycle from repeating. Hence, the vicious cycle. The outcome can become chronic depression, high anxiety, confusion, and lack of self-confidence.
YOUR PART OF THE TOXIC CYCLE
Gaslighting happens anytime you allow another person to invalidate your experience and tell you what you SHOULD think, feel, or believe. Therefore, you make a choice (unconsciously or consciously) to allow another’s reality to supersede your own intuition. Its important to explore why you would trust another’s input above your own experience. What messages have you received in life that your intuition if off? How long have you allowed another’s input to cause you to second-guess your own?
It’s important to understand how one contributes to the abusive cycle. Often times a gaslightee is very uncomfortable with confrontation (i.e. confidently speaking one's point of view while knowing it may clash with another's). Gaslightees are highly reactive and overwhelmed in an argumentative environment. In addition, a gaslightee struggles with dissenting opinions. There is no “agree to disagree”. The gaslightee feels compelled to defend herself, her reality, her point of view, instead of feeling comfortable with the fact that her partner may not agree with her or see it her way. That’s often due to a deep underlying yearning to prove her worthiness to her partner and seek his approval (i.e. “I am smart! I do have good judgment! My choices are fine!”) There is also something called The Empathy Trap. The most understanding people—those who can easily see where another is coming from and feel empathy for their experience—are the most susceptible to gaslighting. Why? The over-empathizer puts more value in her partner's perspective and wants to show him that she understands "his side" more than she honors her own reality and experience. Its important to understand that one can validate or “hear” another person’s point of view or feelings without completely discounting her own. You have a perfectly capable head on your shoulders. You know who you are, what is right and wrong, and you can do just fine making healthy choices, when given the space, confidence, and support to do so.
HOW TO STOP THE GASLIGHTING
If the catalyst for gaslighting is forfeiting your values, reality, sense-of-self, then the antidote is to reclaim those things in your life. In short, you need to sharpen and empower your intuition. That is an extremely difficult process, especially while you’re still engaged in a relationship with a gaslighter. Below is a general list of ways to improve or recreate your reality, one step at a time.
STEPS TOWARD REBUILDING YOUR REALITY AND EMPOWERING YOUR INTUITION:
Create a List of Personal Values: These are things you want to be remembered for, characteristics you want people to use when describing you, they are characteristics in yourself and others that are most important to you, things you cannot live without (i.e. honoring commitments, doing your best, kindness to yourself and others, maintaining religion/spirituality, spending time with loved ones, travel, tell the truth, compassion for others, etc.)
2. Create a List of Non-Negotiables --These are things or behaviors you will absolutely not stand for (i.e. breaking commitments, emotional abuse like name-calling, shaming another, emotional or physical extra-marital affairs, physical abuse, lying, breaking the law, illegal drugs/alcohol, etc.). These should be values and standards you are willing to hold yourself to, as well (see #4).
3. Keep a Journal—Write down your daily thoughts or feelings, don’t censor yourself or pause. See what themes, feelings, observations, and experiences come from the journal. What is your gut telling you? Are you making up the same excuses, rationalizations, minimizations, day after day?
4. Practice Mindfulness—Mindfulness is the regular practice of making yourself aware or “mindful” of what you’re thinking and feeling in your body. The ultimate goal is not to “judge” or “push back” on what you’re thinking and feeling, but just allow your thoughts and feelings to exist and “pass through you”. I’m sure that may sound overly simplified and unnecessary, but you’d be amazed to realize how much time and energy we spend “fighting off” or distracting ourselves from what we’re really thinking and feeling (i.e. what our intuition is telling us). If we practice mindfulness, we can plug back into our authentic thoughts and feelings, stop running from them (or fearing them), and regain who we are.
5. Spend Time Alone—Build a tolerance for it. Try to make it less scary. Find out what you like doing on your own, what your passions are, what comes up for you when you’re alone.
6. Spend Time with Friends or Family—Make sure these are healthy friends and family members. Not fellow gaslighters that are happy to invalidate what you feel and what you’re experiencing and instead tell you what you “should” feel and what you “should” do. REMEMBER: A compassionate loved one is not someone who is less broken than you and can, therefore, “fix” you. A compassionate loved one is someone who can sit with you in your pain and discomfort, tolerate it, and not try to fix it.
7. Get Comfortable with Being Flawed—You’re allowed to make mistakes. That sometimes includes, but is not limited to, being wrong, unpleasant, disagreeable, and a contrarian (see #8). We are all very flawed, imperfect individuals but we are ALWAYS worthy of love and belonging. We don't need our gaslighter to become our parent and lecture us or shame us. We need compassion and the space to figure things out, make a amends when we falter, and do better once we know better.
8. Complete a Step 4—Step 4 of the 12 Steps is “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Complete a total picture of yourself: your good, your bad, your strengths, your weaknesses, your positives, your negatives. The point of this brutal process is to “clear out” our dirty laundry, to realize where we have shame, and to no longer be controlled by hiding that shame. (More on that with my blog on Brene Brown)
9. Complete a Step 9--Step 9 of the 12 Steps is about making amends to those you've harmed. When you complete a Step 4 you're identifying where you're imperfect and how you've fallen short. Step 9 is about holding yourself accountable and making amends for those shortcomings. Making amends for the harm you may have caused is a step toward liking yourself again, knowing that you've done your best, and declaring that now that you know differently, you'll do differently (while expecting others do to the same). We are all imperfect. We all screw up. We need to own our mistakes, learn from them, and make amends where appropriate.
10. Don’t Defend or Debate What You Know to Be Your Truth—Gaslightee's often try to prove their worth and prove they are right. Resist the urge to defend your experience, your truth. Agree to disagree. You don't have to take on the gaslighter's truth. During your next argument with your gaslighter, try something like this, "That's your opinion and I disagree" or "I'll think about what you said but right now it doesn't feel right for me" or "I hear what you're saying, but my experience is very different from yours." Its not a one-size-fits-all solution but try your hardest to avoid "hustling for your worthiness".
11. Don’t Confuse Empathy with Gaslighting—You can understand another person’s perspective and appreciate where they’re coming from without giving up your truth. You can agree to disagree. You can take their feedback into consideration. Just because you “understand” what they’re saying or what they’re experiencing, doesn’t mean you have to take on their experience as your own.
12. Never EVER Invalidate Your Experience or Feelings—After all of these steps you’ve taken you now know who you are, what you stand for, what you’re feeling, what’s important to you, and what your intuition is telling you. You should never have to invalidate your experience or feelings to be in a relationship with someone else. Your loved one should be allowed to experience whatever he experiences. That never discounts or negates your experience or feelings.
13. Hold Others to a Similar Standard--Completing these steps will be difficult but can lead to a new, healthier, and happier way of living and interacting with others. You should expect the important people in your life to behave and respond similarly. If you work hard on keeping your side of the street clean with these steps, you should feel worthy of expecting others to reciprocate.