My therapist has spoken to me about “gaslighting” over the last few months, because I have not only been the recipient of this behavior throughout my life, I have also been the instigator. The problem is: until recently, no matter how often he brought it up, I just couldn’t recognize it. I blame this on the definition:
Gaslighting: To manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
When I read “questioning their own sanity,” I think of myself questioning some big over-arching theme in my life. As this has never happened to me, I assume I have never been gaslighted. What has never occurred to me until recently, though, is that if someone tells me I am a horrible daughter, friend, or partner because I’m not doing what they want me to do, and that makes me question whether I am a good daughter, friend, or partner, I am being gaslighted.
Second, and most importantly for this article, is the concept of manipulation. The type of manipulation that gaslighters engage in is considered psychologically abusive. This makes it almost impossible to believe that someone we love—someone we know to be a GOOD person—could possibly be gaslighting us.
But they can. And they do. Even your spouse. Even your parent (I think it’s especially difficult to recognize this behavior in a parent.)
Because those of us who engage in gaslighting behaviors (I’m talking about me, here) don’t see the behavior as manipulation. You see, for us, the world is a terrifying place. We live our lives in fear of rejection and abandonment, and, like the trauma survivor with PTSD, we truly do think every loud “noise” (a missed phone call, a forgotten kiss good morning, a visit to your parents without us) is a threat—namely, evidence of your rejection of us. According to our understanding, there is no other possible reason for your behavior other than the one we’ve assigned to it (“you don’t care about my feelings,” for instance.) We literally cannot see that it is possible for you to care about our feelings and do the things that scare us. This is beyond our comprehension. So when we manipulate you in ways that cause you to question yourself (ie. “Is she right? Am I not caring about her feelings right now?”), it’s because we truly believe what we are saying.
But there is hope if you love a gaslighter.
First, know that we aren’t necessarily narcissistic. While “narcissism” and “gaslighting” often go hand in hand, the biggest indicator of narcissism is a lack of empathy. If your gaslighting partner/friend/parent is capable of showing empathy this means that, at least in some cases, they will listen to you… eventually. Second, try to remember that we’re not accusing you of things because we’re trying to make you do something (actually, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, we just don’t see it in the moment), we’re accusing you of things we truly believe are happening. Our minds simply cannot come up with any other interpretation of the events that triggered us. We feel deeply, deeply insecure and scared almost all the time, and this can completely skew our perception of the world.
So how do you deal with this?
First, become extremely aware. Any time we start making statements that express your internal state instead our own (“You’re so selfish,” “You don’t care about my feelings,” “I guess that’s more important than me,”) or statements that attack your character (“What kind of person would do that?” “You don’t know anything,” “You have no shame,”) you are being gaslighted. The thing to do then is shut the conversation down IMMEDIATELY. You will get nowhere with us in that moment. Give us some time alone (possibly forced time alone, through hanging up the phone or leaving the house) to get our heart rates down, and then come back to the conversation. Remind us that our job is to explore our own feelings and not judge yours. This process may need to be repeated several times before we get it and are ready to talk in a productive way.
Second, validate our feelings. Please know that our feelings are very, very real and very, very scary to us. When I say “I feel like you don’t love me” please do not say “oh my god, that’s ridiculous!” This is not at all helpful and only adds shame to the negative turmoil of emotions already going on inside. Instead, tell me you understand, remind me of your love, and then point out evidence of this that I am overlooking “Baby, we had a great night last night, remember how connected we were? Do you really think that I stopped loving you this morning, just because I didn’t kiss you goodbye?” (Yes, yes I do, in that moment when I’m terrified. But if we’ve taken the time out that we need, chances are my rational brain is now back in the drivers seat, and I know this thought doesn’t make sense.)
Third, walk us through our story. We are freaking out because we believe that the action you are taking is a threat to our belonging, and we need you to help us understand how you can do this thing and still love and care about our feelings. Help us understand why it is important to you. Help us understand why you need to do it.
This is not a quick, easy process. These steps may need to be repeated many times before we are finally able to see things as they really are (and some of us may never get there.) But know this: THE MOST DANGEROUS THING YOU CAN DO IS GIVE IN, as this only serves to reinforce the behavior. As a gaslighter, I am a master at getting what I want—and, again, this is not because I’m a terrible person, but because it has worked for me so often in the past that I have learned exactly which buttons to push and exactly how hard. I’m not saying there is never a place for compromise, or even for doing what I ask you to do, but the compromise must happen after a productive conversation and must feel okay to you and not rob you of something you want or need in your life.
At the end of the day, know that YOU HAVE THE RIGHT to live your life in a way that feels right to you. And that means going where you want and doing what you want and seeing who you want. That’s not to say that compromise is never necessary, but when all is said and done, you have a responsibility to yourself—and yourself alone—for the kind of life you want to live. Remember that no one can accurately judge your love for them, because your love—if it is true, free love—will manifest itself within the parameters of who you are and how you think and feel and navigate the world.
You can love someone AND say no.
Know that this truth is very, very, very difficult for those of us with deep insecurities to accept. Please be patient with us. And seek professional help. Most of us are good people who have experienced a great deal of trauma in our lives and we are doing the best we can. Stand firmly in compassion. Some of us do get better.
NOTE: While it’s true that some of us get better, I also want to make it very, very clear that most, unfortunately, do NOT. Gaslighting is a serious and abusive behavior that can ONLY be overcome through self-awareness, therapy, and extremely hard work. Make no mistake: the percentage of people who are able to recover and learn new ways of coping is very, very small. What I have written here are insights from my own life, but I am not a professional. If you are in a relationship with someone who participates in this behavior, it is extremely important that you receive help from a professional therapist trained in this field.