Gaslighting is a psychological term that that I’d never heard before last week. Coined from the 1944 film Gaslight, this form of emotional abuse has plagued all sorts of relationships, and I can’t stop thinking about the frequency with which I’ve seen it and experienced it. My brain, with this newfound information, seems to have exploded in its capacity for self-understanding. Truly. So many things have become instantly clear about the confounding and crippling effects that gaslighting has had on my life.
“Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.” Wikipedia
Ever caught someone in a bold-faced lie only to have the tables turned and been told that you were being ridiculous, crazy, and/or paranoid? I sure have. And it not only has sucked, it has been debilitating. Seeds of self-doubt are not just sowed, they are planted, germinated, watered, pruned, and fertilized with so much intention that I’ve angsted, psychoanalyzed, attended therapy, and even medicated so much so that they call me by my first name at CVS. And I’ve done all of the above not because I’ve been aware that I’ve suffered a form of abuse. I have done it because I have believed that there is something deeply and devastatingly wrong with me.
I could point to instances where I have been on the receiving end of gaslighting and to the people whom I view as having perfected the craft, but that does me no good. What does do me good is knowing that such a categorization exists and that I finally have information that affirms how very real the impact of the disorder truly is.
With my newfound awareness, I also feel angry. Angry at myself for being so blind and self-doubting. If I could, I would bitchslap all gaslighters into oblivion. Then again, the healthy part of me knows that recovery will only come when I free myself of their destructive influence, a freedom that will come through disassociation.
You’d think that disconnecting would be easy in the face of such obvious dysfunction, but I’m the eternally hopeful type. You know the kind: someone who believes that with just a little more love, a little more effort, and a little more self-examination, things will get better. There’s always hope, right? I believe in my core that everyone is trying to be the very best versions of themselves. Consequently, I’ve had a life, albeit not always gracefully, of swallowing painful pills and digging a little deeper to figure out what I’m doing wrong.
And there it is: the part of me that assumes I’ve done something wrong.
According to Hilde Lindemann, women are more susceptible to falling pray to the gaslighter’s abuse and that “the victim’s ability to resist the manipulation depends on her ability to trust her own judgments.”
I see myself as a woman of strength, of overall clarity, and with positive intentions, but I have to admit that I have a longstanding inability to trust my own judgment. This internal struggle has manifested itself in so many ways throughout my life, all of which, I see now, have totally underserved my relationships, my work productivity, and – most tragically – my confidence. That truth may be hard for some people to see because of the way I comport myself, but it’s a fact. I am never really sure that what I think is unequivocally right, so I am forever prepared to be corrected, reprimanded, laughed at, or dismissed.
On the one hand I like knowing that I am infinitely capable of taking a different tack despite what I consider to have been well-laid and well-thought out plans. On the other, more honest hand, my adaptability stems from a dysfunctional commitment to my weakness. I’m always ready to correct my error in judgment – quickly, effortlessly, and intentionally, and always motivated by a desire to gain the approval of someone else.
Yep. A gaslighter’s dream.
Why are people gaslighters in the first place? Are they born that way? Or is it an adapted behavior? Even though I want to erase them and their brutal effects from every cell in my brain, I actually am quite curious. I can’t help but think that with the gift of a little self-awareness and a bit of hard work, even the most aggregious character flaws can be overcome. If I could just make them see that they are causing pain, they will be horrified by the discovery, and progress will, once and for all, be made.
Yet I know it’s that very psychology that has made me prime pickings for the gaslighter’s manipulative ways.
Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t been blind to the fact that it’s not been all my fault, but not having had something to point to seems to have been a key factor in my having been held captive. With a deepening understanding of this form of emotional abuse, it’s surprisingly easy to see now the offenders’ emotional weakness and inability to take responsibility for the insecurities that fuel their pathology.
What’s the big deal? We see weakness all around us. Every movie we watch, book we read, relationship we have, and story we hear is about overcoming emotional vulnerabilities. Man, gaslighter’s must really have it bad that they opt for brutalizing someone else over examining their truths, particularly when the result is hurting people they supposedly love.
What are gaslighters burying? Shame? Fear? Powerlessness? And why, even if they are fully convinced that the lies they are telling are fact, does there not seem to be even a smidge of space for empathy? I guess gaslighters are the worst form of narcissist, and their love for themselves trumps all.
Look at me. Falling right back into the dysfunctional trap of trying to tease through their issues. Ah, the allure of hope. Enough! Figuring out how to feel peace and contentment is challenging enough; I certainly don’t need to devote my energy to anything that destabilizes my foundation of self-worth. They’ve got their problems, and I’ve got mine, and there’s no need to wrap one up in the other. Certainly not if the abusers are seemingly uninterested in their own evolution.
So, gaslighters, you’re on notice. No longer will I doubt who I am or how I feel. I’m going to stop letting myself go crazy because of your lies, weakness, and lack of empathy, and your cruelty will no longer serve as my system of self-measure. I will preserve the boundless love I have in my heart for those who want it, feel it, and deserve it.
Consider the gas light snuffed.