abuse, dignity, emotional abuse, family dynamics, fear, flashbacks, gaslighting, relationships, toxic, trauma
A package was being prepared for shipping. Payment arrangements had been made. By all accounts, an ordinary transaction. But my head pounded, my hands shook, and I just knew I was going to be sick. Before I knew it, I was trying not to vomit into a garbage can. I had to get out, and get out immediately. It wasn’t only the cold I’d been nursing for nearly a week that caused these symptoms; it was the residual affects of gaslighting that reard their ugly heads.
What IS Gaslighting?
Gaslighting can best be described as a manipulative and emotionally abusive tactic that erodes your ability to be confident in your decisions and perception of reality. In an accessible and readable article, LonerWof outlines how gaslighting can be spotted in family, marital or professional dynamics. My own experience, it sadly appears, is far from unique. Because of the personal nature of the stories below, names have been changed.
All in the Family
We learn many behaviors from our family of origin. When Kendra described to me her extended family dynamic, it sounded like a psychological thriller. One family member was accused of abusing women and children, denied it, and then, to hurt his partner, confessed to the behaviors he’d spent years denying. Children witnessed gaslighting behavior by a parent or grandparent, where some children were favored and others were “unspeakably abused” and made to believe they were imagining it. To protect his family from the toxic family dynamic – and with scars and a possibly undiagnosed mental illness of his own, Kendra’s father refused to permit family members to disclose to others where he and his immediate family (Kendra and her siblings) lived. Kendra believes that, because of what she saw growing up, she was able at a young age to get out of an emotionally abusive relationship before it “damaged her in the long-term.” After the breakup, before the age of social media, her boyfriend wrote her a letter that she describes as a textbook check list for manipulative gaslighting.”
But gaslighting is not always intentional. Sometimes, denial can lead to gaslighting behaviour. Rachel lives with a complicated visual impairment which went undiagnosed for years. Her family tends to dismiss her inability to see things, telling her to try harder, that – because an ophthalmologist didn’t diagnose her visual impairment – it doesn’t exist. Rachel finds herself in a complicated place, because relatives and in-laws don’t think she’s “that” blind, and yet she is the only one who sees through her eyes and processes her visual world, and she knows what she can and cannot see.
I love You… but You’re Wrong!
All relationships have conflict, miscommunication, and differing viewpoints. But when clearly-stated boundaries are ignored or deflected in ways to make one party feel unstable or irrational, that is gaslighting.
Sarah described to me a relationship she was in several years ago, where her concerns were glossed over or turned back on her. Boundaries she wanted to set were “evidence” of her mental instability, and she was a “psycho who needed to be hospitalized.” Any behaviors he did that hurt her, he denied doing them at all. When she wanted a short break from him to work things out, he tried to take her guns (used for target shooting) away “for her protection.” She began to doubt herself all the time, wondering if her feelings and concerns and personal boundaries were valid, or if her partner was right, that she was unstable and “psycho” as he claimed.
“You should Be Glad You have a Job Here!”
My recent experience above stemmed from a job I held years ago. I was belittled and bullied, and whenever I tried to raise legitimate concerns, I was told I needed to accept my colleagues as they were, and besides I had things I needed to work on. When I wasn’t being as productive as I knew I could be and was using substandard technology, my concerns were swept under the rug – until one of my colleagues couldn’t take my “unreadable paperwork” anymore – because replacing any equipment would’ve been giving me “special treatment.” Any time I mentioned anything about the work environment, I was told that I should be glad I had a job at all. The last straw was when the braille display unit I used for work needed repairs, and because it was purchased for me years ago (for work purposes) my employer didn’t believe it was their job to pay for the manufacturer to fix it. I ended up having to rely on a braille display from a wonderful generous friend while mine was out for repairs, but the bullying and gaslighting never stopped. I questioned my own perceptions – was I asking too much? Was I being a special snowflake? Was my colleagues’ and managers’ treatment of me in response to something I was doing, or not doing? Were they right, that I should be grateful I had a job at all in a down economy? Only one person at that workplace told me, in an unguarded moment, that they saw what I was going through, that they recognized it, that yes, it was, in fact, as bad as I thought.
Recently, that same braille display quit working. My work environment has changed drastically and is so supportive I can’t even begin to describe it. But so many circumstances were the same. I was borrowing that same display from that same wonderful generous friend, the box with my broken display was being prepped for shipping, and I was making phone calls to figure out how to get the repairs compensated. While support came from all sides – from the idea that I shouldn’t be the one to jump through hoops to simply be able to do my job, to modification of job duties if needed – I couldn’t escape the flashback. I felt like I was back in that office years ago, at the same desk, with the same people stabbing me in the back. Those who actually currently surrounded me were lifting me up and holding me together, and yet all I could hear and feel and see was my experience of years ago, being crushed underfoot, smothered by unreasonably unmet expectations.
In a room full of people, I was alone.
I was staring into the flames of the gaslights.
What if YOU See the Gaslights?
Gaslighting is real. It is not a figment of your imagination. Many who have shared their stories with me have told me that if they had known of its existance, they may have been able to put their fears and concerns into words, and may have removed themselves from the situation sooner.
Sarah has found that spending time with people who take her concerns seriously really helps heal the wounds that her gaslighting experience left on her. She thinks it’s essential to surround yourself with solid reliable people, and to remember that your alleged faulty memory or irrationality would be pointed out by more than just one person (or group of interconnected people), and never consistently in a way to manipulate a situation in someone else’s favor.
Rachel finds, for her, that it’s important to love her family, but to also recognize and embrace her own voice. She describes her family as “voices that I love,” but they do not live her life, and they are not always right, and she thinks that’s okay.
As for me, I don’t think it’s enough to keep my head down and just keep on plugging along. My plan is to seek out both social and professional connections to help make sense of all of this. When one questions their own reality, it’s hard to put it into concrete words. But I will try. I will hold my head high, surround myself with people who support me (singed gaslit eyebrows and all) and truly learn to trust myself again.
If you are reading this and have experienced gaslighting, please know that you are not alone. There is truth in what you are going through, and it is not inescapable. You are not alone. You are not wrong. How you experience the world matters, and no one has the right to take that away from you.
reading this post I found interesting. thinking of a couple of things that come to mind which I might ask if it’s considered gaslighting. Often times I’m frustrated at how slow the progress is when it comes to finding employment. at the appointment before this most recent one, I was feeling a bit down that things weren’t moving anywhere as far as finding jobs goes. my case worker said to me she could see the negativity and tried to get me to think positive by trying to think of at least 3 things positive that had happened within the last 24 hours. I felt like saying “this is not a counciling session and you’re no councillor” or “don’t patronise me” often times when I grumble about how slow it is to find work people say “oh it’ll happen”
Steve Sawczyn said:
OK, I will probably come off as a jerk here which is not at all my intent, understand that I am coming from a place of ignorance. That said, I just do not get this gaslighting thing at all. The examples you mention are clearly horrible, clearly abusive and clearly demonstrate manipulation. But why gaslighting, why do we need a special term for this now? Also, isn’t everyone victim of this in some way or other? Every child I’ve known has been bullied at least once, everyone in a work situation has had to deal with difficult, often condescending co-workers or managers that make them question why they bother getting out of bed in the morning. People with disabilities often deal with family members who just aren’t able to accept the true nature of their disability. I don’t understand why we need yet another label to describe this sort of behavior when these have been recognized patterns of abusive behavior for years. We don’t want to be labeled as “special snowflakes” but isn’t this very term a way of, well, self-labeling? And to those who may find me very unsympathetic, it’s not that I condone this type of behavior at all, I just don’t see how changing what we call it will make a difference.
I completely understand what you are saying and asking. A few thoughts in response to your comments.
The term “gaslighting” is by no means new. It’s actually been around for nearly 80 years, made popular by a 1944 movie (based on a 1938 play) called “Gaslight”, where a husband slowly manipulates his wife into thinking she is going crazy.
There is a difference between the “regular” schoolyard bullying, or difficult coworkers or managers, you indicate above, and gaslighting.
Gaslighting literally causes one to question their own perceptions of reality. Not “Why do I even bother?”, but “Am I REALLY seeing things correctly?” The longer you question the very essence about how you interpret situations (particularly as they pertain to healthy boundaries) the harder it is to trust your own perceptions.
I’m doing a terrible job in describing the difference…
But why the term means something… when you spend so much time questioning yourself and your healthy boundaries, the more unstable and alone you feel. Even something as simple as a term for what you are experience (as you said, it’s manipulation, it’s abusive, but it’s also its own level of incidiousness) can give you an opportunity to move past it and overcome it.
Amy Billman said:
Enter your comment here…I can say that every abusive situation I’ve been in; everyone who has made me feel horrible be it an employer or whomever, those interactions have always made me feel just as you described. I just never felt like they needed or deserved a term. To me, giving something like that a term makes you hang onto those feelings and they become a part of you, rather than choosing to deal with the situation/s and the various feelings they caused. I’m not making light of your experiences… But do they really need to have more power or control over your life? It just seems like giving them a name, even if it’s one that’s been around for a number of years and is not new, would hold you back and prevent you from rising above whatever it was you went through. By writing this, have you really overcome it? If what you experienced in the past is impacting you so physically even now when your life has changed and work situation is better, then it seems like you haven’t overcome anything or at least dealt with it despite having given it a descriptor. I’m not trying to at all sound insensitive here… It just really sounds like you’re still making yourself out to be the victim and enabling all the bullies to have power over you so that you can say… Oh, I’ve experienced gaslighting… Maybe that was not your intent, but this is how this feels in writing.
I am truly glad that you’ve been able to let go and not give others so much power over you. But not everyone has it that easy.
If you had asked me a week ago, I would’ve told you they had no power anymore. I would’ve told you I’d worked through it. I could deal with it, I could talk about it, I could count it as a learning experience… by GOD, I had MOVED ON.
And, even at the time I was being bullied, I was trying to fight back in any way that I could – far from being the victim, thanks very much. However, by the end of it, those who had seen the patterns in my life knew that this was a horrible and damaging experience. When I got out, I clawed my way back the best way I knew how. I didn’t “fight back” through any of the legal channels available to me because, as you said, it would give them more power than they deserved.
My recent experience was so unexpected and so visceral; it literally hit me upside the head. It was completely unexpected, unintentional, and uncontrollable. I mean this with all due respect, I hope to God you never feel that way.
I wrote this as a way to help others who couldn’t necessarily quantify their abuse (unlike a punch or a kick or a shouted insult). Maybe I even wrote it as a way to get it all out, rather than keep my head down and tell myself they “don’t have power” anymore because I’m not GIVING them power.
At the end of the day, though, I wrote it all down. I wrote it for me, I wrote it for others, and I wrote it so that no one has to feel alone and belittled when they feel that someone’s trying SO hard to pull the wool over their eyes.
Just seeing this come up again reminds me that when I revisit posts I’ve commented on in the past i’m always coming up with things that come to mind each time I see blog posts come up from the past. I was with an employment agency from June27th 2019 to November14th 2009. This is because I was essentially told that the agency were unable to place me into paid employment anywhere because of too many barriers. I got a letter stating this within 24 hours. I’m being advised to try and get rid of the negativity and to try to be positive part of me questions whether this is considered gas lighting or whether being encouraged to try to stay positive is realistic despite what’s going on? I’ve already written to my local mp with a back story and am yet to write the complaint to send to the disability discrimination commitioner along with the above back story. Even if i’m lucky enough to obtain meaningful paid employment and even if i’m over the moon about having a job I know the deep seeded anger is still going to be there and I have to work to rebuilding my self confidence again. Note that I was probably going to save this comment for another pending post of yours but oh well,
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I can’t speak to the victim part of your statement, Amy, but I’ve found in my own personal experience–and this is just me–finding a name for something I’m facing makes it easier to cope with for whatever reason. I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not sure quite why, but giving something a clear label, a clear descriptor, helps me organize my thoughts and form a plan to get past whatever is causing me pain. For me, identifying a behaviour as “gaslighting” helps me pin down exactly what is wrong with the behaviour and why it’s bothering me, which enables me to fight it more confidently. The whole point of gaslighting, after all, is to make someone think their perceptions of reality are inaccurate. By labeling this behaviour in a clear, descriptive way, I’m giving myself something rooted in objective reality to cling to. Not sure if this makes sense but it’s just my own internal coping strategy
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I relate so much to this. I am sorry you had to go through it. i am an abuse survivor who is blind too. if you want to follow my blog its here http://therapybits.com/ xxx
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