Gaslighting 101: What You Need To Know
Ok people, consider this your public service announcement because I am PISSED OFF!
We are going to talk about gaslighting today, because it has happened to me, it has happened to my clients and to so many people I know and love.
And I want you to know what it is, how to avoid it, and what to do about it if it’s occurring in your life.
The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1944 movie of the same name in which the villan tried to convince his wife that she was not hearing and seeing things she knew to be happening. Suzanna Quintana had one of the best definitions I have read in her article Understanding The Language Of Narcissistic Abuse. She says gaslighting is ” A form of mental abuse that includes brainwashing or convincing an otherwise mentally healthy individual that their understanding of reality is false, making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity”
Sounds cruel right? That’s because it is.
You may wonder why someone would intentionally do this, or even HOW they could do this. And the psychology of gaslighting is the subject for another blog… or 50.
For now, I want to give you some examples of how gaslighting looks in real life so you can start to make your way back to sanity if it’s happened ( or is still happening ) to you.
First, know that gaslighting can occur in any type of relationship. And it’s subtle. Sneaky even . It’s like water slowly eroding a rock over time. The damage is not always visible right away; sometimes, you don’t notice it for years. But it’s there, wearing you down insidiously until you become almost unrecognizable to yourself and others.
My client “Becky” described this beautifully. She told me about a particular incident where her husband came home with a new car. She had no idea they were in the market for a new car, let alone that he was about to purchase one. When she shared her (rightful) outrage and confusion, her husband told her that they had discussed getting a new car several times, and insisted that she had simply forgotten the conversations . He went on to tell her how selfish she was for not wanting her children to have a safe vehicle to travel in.
Becky was of course dumbfounded. She swore up and down to me that they’d never talked about getting a new car. But her husband had gaslighted her and was now creating doubt in her own mind that maybe the conversation did happen. Maybe she needed to get her memory tested, or listen better, she told me. To boot, she now truly wondered if her husband was right and she was just a selfish person who did not care about the welfare of her own children. After years of this treatment, Becky had really begun to question her own reality and her inherent goodness. When she looked in the mirror, she had no idea who was looking back.
Another client “Tom” experienced gaslighting at the hands of his mother growing up. His mother would tell him that they were going to do things like take a vacation as a family and would show him on a calendar when they were leaving. Naturally, Tom got very excited about going away with his family. When the departure day arrived, nothing happened. Nobody packed a suitcase or boarded a plane to go anywhere. When Tom questioned his mother about it, she would look at him incredulously, assuring him that she had no idea what he was talking about. Further, she would tell him how greedy he was for wanting her to spend her hard earned money just so Tom could have some fun.
Of course,Tom grew into an adult who had no ability to trust his own perceptions or sense of what was real and not. He questioned every decision he ever made from his career all the way down to what he ate for breakfast. He internalized his mothers words, and saw himself as a greedy person. Consequently, he never asked for anything at all and became a needless machine, always giving way too much of himself to prove how un- greedy he was.
Do you see what an absolute mindfuck this is?
The people who fall prey to gaslighting are good, trusting souls. We want to see the good in people. We are introspective and are willing to look at our part in relational discord. We are resilient and can bounce back fairly easily. We deeply want to be our best for our partners, our bosses, our parents, and anyone else in our lives.
If you sense you have been on the receiving end of gaslighting, take heart.
YOU ARE NOT CRAZY AND THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU!
You are a beautiful person who has been exposed to one of the cruelest forms of manipulation one human being can perpetrate against another.
You are also being emotionally and psychologically abused.
GASLIGHTING IS A FORM OF ABUSE. It is no different than someone assaulting your physical body. Instead of leaving bruises that you and others can see, they are leaving marks on your spirit, your essence and your soul.
You are also not alone. Unfortunately, gaslighting is not uncommon. But it is insidious. It’s not something that you can easily put your finger on and recognize. There’s nothing solid you can point to and go, “Oh, that’s why I feel crazy” And people are often afraid that even if they get help, they will not be believed. In fact, it’s quite possible they are being told that.
And I can’t tell you the indescribable relief that washes over my clients when I tell them I do believe them. And I explain what is happening, and that is has a name and it’s very, very real.
I want to leave you with a fantastic resource if you’d like to learn more about gaslighting and other forms of psychological abuse. Shannon Thomas has written an incredible book called Healing From Hidden Abuse that goes into much more detail about this. And as always, I am only a phone call or an email way if you’d like my help unwinding this in any way.