I want to talk about a specific topic–gaslighting. What is gaslighting? Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse and/or psychological manipulation and intimidation wherein a person, the abuser, presents some kind of false information to the victim in an effort to manipulate perceptions and memory. The end result of this manipulation is that the victim of the gaslighting feels crazy and doubts their own intuition and ability to remember information, observations, and events or even trust themselves. The term ‘gaslighting’ was taken from the play and subsequent adapted 1944 film “Gaslight” starring Ingrid Bergman. The plot involved her cruel husband’s deliberate effort to drive her crazy by dimming the gaslights but claiming that it was only her imagination when she commented on the flickering of the lights.
Why discuss gaslighting? Well, it’s something I’ve not discussed yet, and it only just occurred to me that if you have a manipulative or abusive person in your life, or even someone with these tendencies–then you’ve probably been gaslighted.
My mother contacted me this week through my husband, and, as is her usual manner, she pretended to be loving, but she was entirely self-centered. The tone of the email was demanding and controlling. After I read it, I felt confused and crazy. I felt like I was the one with the problem. I didn’t understand what was being done to me; I’m usually so clear in my thinking. I let it sit for a day as is my habit but then came up empty–“Why do I feel crazy?” A few hours later, a very clear thought popped into my mind: “You are being gaslighted.” It was a stunning moment of clarity. I wanted to slap myself on the forehead like the actors do on the V-8 commercials. I yelled out, “She’s been gaslighting me for years!” My husband yelled from the bedroom, “Who’s been gaslighting you for years?” Oh…right. My inner monologue just went live.
Gaslighting was not something that my therapist and I ever covered in therapy. While my therapist did teach me how to talk to my mother–perhaps while she was trying to gaslight me–he never used the term. I now know how to deal with a person when they are “diverting”, but there are other gaslighting techniques that feel shocking in the moment. My father’s first go-to manipulation technique was gaslighting. I am seeing now that my mother uses gaslighting more often than I realized. If I feel crazy, then someone’s probably gaslighting me.
So, what does gaslighting look like in action?
- Blocking and Diverting: gaslighting techniques whereby a person changes the conversation from the subject matter to questioning the victim’s thoughts and controlling the conversation. This can also show up in the conversation as the logical fallacy known as the ad hominem attack. (“You’re just bitter.” “You’re throwing my past in my face.” “I guess I’m just a bad mother then!” “Well, I guess I’m just a failure!”)
- Trivializing: this technique involves making the victim believe his or her thoughts or needs aren’t important. ( “How can we move on as a family if we aren’t talking to each other?” “How could I ever deal with _______? Just get over it and be happy for God’s sake!” “Oh, I have some problems controlling my anger, I guess, but you just need to get over everything and forgive. Good people forgive.” “So what that I’ve ignored you for five years? I’m talking to you now. Let’s just let the past go…” )
- Abusive “forgetting” and “denial” can also be forms of gaslighting: This is an interesting gaslighting technique. A person can deny or “not recall” any behavior they choose citing that they don’t remember. ( “I never said that.” “I don’t remember doing that.” “I don’t remember your wedding going like that. I remember it going wonderfully! How could you possibly be angry with me for something I don’t even remember!” It’s from this point that an abuser will often move directly into countering which calls into question the victim’s capacity to remember events and information correctly–“I wonder if perhaps you are even capable of remembering things properly. I mean, I remember enjoying myself. Maybe you’re just a bitter person.” This is an ad hominem attack.)
- Countering: this technique involves an abuser vehemently calling into question a victim’s memory in spite of the victim having remembered things correctly. ( “You have a child’s memory. I’m an adult. That’s not what happened.” “You don’t remember it correctly.” “You were mentally unstable due to __________. I’m certain you don’t really remember how things really were.” )
- Withholding: a gaslighting technique where the abuser feigns a lack of understanding, refuses to listen, and declines sharing his emotions. (“I don’t know what you’re talking about. That was never said to me. I don’t have to sit here and listen to this!” “You’re just trying to make me feel guilty!” “You’re always using my past against me!”)
What does gaslighting look like specifically? I’ll use the latest contact with my mother as an example or object lesson.
My mother emailed my husband on Wednesday. She wanted to know how we were “supposed to move forward as a family” if there was no contact. Please take note that we have two competing assumptions. She assumes that I want what she wants. I don’t want to “move forward” as a family. I want to be respected as a separate person with a separate identity. I also want to hold her accountable for her behavior. She does not want this. She wants to do what she wants at all times without consequence even if what she does meets the criteria for abuse.
In her email, she directly asked the question three times. Intermingled throughout the email were declarations of “we miss you all so much” and “we’ll do whatever it takes to be in your lives again” punctuated with “I want to know how things are supposed to get better and how we are supposed to be a family if we’re not talking.” It was not really a loving email. It was a demanding email. She was not able to see that her premise was one-sided. She assumed that moving forward as a “family” was a mutual desire or possibility. She wants to be a family with me.
Do I want the same thing? The nature of her illness will not allow her to entertain such thoughts. If she wants it, then everyone wants it. It is important to understand this when you deal with certain personality disorders. This isn’t just a deficit in empathy. This is a breakdown in both cognitive and emotional empathy (Social cognition in BPD). She also addressed the issue of her friend who phoned me last fall. As it turns out, my mother did indeed condone her friend’s communication with me in order to act as a mediator even though she knew I didn’t want that. She attempted to say that she never told her friend that her therapist was trying to contact my therapist, but, according to her, these misunderstandings happen “when people aren’t talking”.
Where is the gaslighting?
- Trivializing: My mother has now decided that she wants a relationship with me after five years of ignoring me. It’s important to really understand that. Is it a reasonable expectation to call a person after five years and pretend that everything in the relationship is just as it was five years ago? No, it’s not. Five years ago, my mother was already unkind and abusive. Her washing her hands of me allowed me to make enormous progress in my healing process. Calling me up and saying, “Hi! I wanna come visit now. I’ve decided that I don’t want to be alone anymore, and you should be there for me. It doesn’t matter how I treated you in the past. I’m your mother. Sorry about that. So, what’s a good time for a visit?” is wrong! It trivializes the magnitude of her transgressions.
- Withholding: She is also withholding any kind of understanding of her actions–“I don’t understand. I was angry. So, I didn’t talk to you for a few years. We’re family. I’m coming to visit. I don’t want to be alone now.”
- Blocking, diverting, and the ad hominem attack: If I try to hold her accountable for her actions, my mother’s favorite gaslighting technique is to block or divert. Her first line of defense is to say something like, “Well, I’m so sorry that I’m such a failure!” or “You’re just trying to make me feel bad!” or “Well, I guess I knew that you couldn’t be counted on to be reasonable. You claim to be a Christian, but really you’re just bitter, resentful, and unforgiving!” She’ll aim for character assassination in a heartbeat.
- Withholding again: It’s important not to miss her reasoning behind the misunderstanding regarding her friend. “If families don’t talk, then these kinds of things happen because we can’t clear things up right away.” She is essentially blaming me for the misunderstanding because I am the one who has declared the moratorium on contact. She is engaging in withholding here because she is refusing to understand the wrongdoing. I asked for no contact, but she chose to send her friend to act as a mediator instead of respecting the boundary. Whatever misunderstanding happens from there is fruit of the poisonous tree. There should have been no contact. That phone call should never have occurred and would never have occurred had she respected my boundaries in the first place.
What is the best strategy to handle blocking, diverting, and the ad hominem attack?
- “If you want to talk about your feeling like a failure, then we can in a moment. But, right now, we’re talking about this.”
- “If you want to discuss your perception that I’m deliberately trying to make you feel bad, then we can after we finish discussing this poor choice you made.”
- “If you want to discuss your perception that I’m a no good Christian with a bitter nature, then we can after we’ve discussed your inappropriate behavior.”
This is the best strategy for countering this gaslighting technique. It keeps you in control of the conversation. Mind you, if you’re talking to a person with an untreated personality disorder, then be prepared for a big emotional expression. It’s very difficult to bring accountability to the table with an untreated personality disorder, but at least you won’t get steamrolled and feel crazy at the end of it.
Along with my mother’s email came an epiphany that, to me, was even more sinister than gaslighting–the vilification or distortion campaign. What is a distortion campaingn?
One of the classic behaviors of a person suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder is the vilification campaign. The target is the person against whom the perpetrator Borderline conducts the vilification. The intent is to destroy the target’s reputation and thereby destroy the target’s relationships with family and friends, employers, co-workers, doctors, teachers, therapists, and others. The intent may even be to force the target to leave the community, put the target in prison, or even kill the target. As with so many things involving Borderlines and their typical inability to understand or respect boundaries, there really are no limits. They will use basically any means available to them to cause damage to their target, including denigration, endless disparaging remarks, fabrication, false accusations, and even teaching others (including their children!) to lie on their behalf as part of their vilification campaign. (online source)
As it turns out, my mother told her friend last fall that I was an emotionally unstable woman due to my experience with human trafficking–something that happened almost twenty years ago! This was what my mother’s friend was referring to when she said, “Now, now, I know what happened to you in Florida…” She was trying to reason with me thinking I had gone off the proverbial deep end. My mother has also gone to other family members and claimed that I have cut her off for no good reason. She has told others that I am keeping her from her grandchildren. She has cried in front of them. She has told friends and family how wounded and alone she is, and it’s ALL…MY…FAULT. I have been completely vilified. Why? So that she can garner sympathy.
What stunned me yesterday was learning that she used the most painful of my life experiences to gain the upper hand in crafting the appearance of her being the victimized one. I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me. I thought that I knew the entirety of her capabilities. I was wrong.
What is the antidote to this kind of suffering?
It is imperative that you know who you are. Your identity has to be worked out, properly fenced in, and defined by something much more powerful than the one manipulating, disempowering, and vilifying you. In my case, there are people in my life who know me well, and they stand by me. They can vouch for my character.
A bigger more powerful truth always snuffs out a lie that feels true in the moment. This is why gaslighting and distortion campaigns are so toxic and damaging. They both take truth and manipulate it in order to victimize and oppress. In order to avoid victimization, we have to know who we are and what our permissions are. What do I mean about permissions? We were made for freedom and empowerment. We were made for clear thinking which is the definition of self-control. We were made for an immensity of joy and peace. And, we were made to experience these things within our relationships. We were not made to be oppressed, victimized, abused, and hurt in the name of toxic love. We were not made to take responsibility for other people’s “stuff”. We were not made to overcompensate for other people’s willful passivity. We were made to be the star of our own stories. So, if you are starring in someone else’s story, then get out of their story and allow that person to expand. If someone is pushing you out of the starring role of your own life story, then push them out of your story so that you can stand up straight and expand into your proper place. This is God’s intention for all of us.
Once again, if you feel victimized and crazy, unable to trust yourself or your instincts, then you may be experiencing some form of manipulation. For further education:
How do you know if you are being gaslighted? If any of the following warning signs ring true, you may be dancing the Gaslight Tango. Take care of yourself by taking another look at your relationship, talking to a trusted friend; and, begin to think about changing the dynamic of your relationship . Here are the signs:
1. You are constantly second-guessing yourself
2. You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” a dozen times a day.
3. You often feel confused and even crazy at work.
4. You’re always apologizing to your mother, father, boyfriend,, boss.
5. You can’t understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren’t happier.
6. You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
7. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
8. You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
9. You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.
10. You have trouble making simple decisions.
11. You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
12. You feel hopeless and joyless.
13. You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
14. You wonder if you are a “good enough” girlfriend/ wife/employee/ friend; daughter.
15. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses. (Are You Being Gaslighted?)