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.