I don’t know about you, but have you ever walked away from a conversation confused and apologising for something you haven’t done, feeling awful or guilty? This can be your Mums guilt-trip speech for not visiting more often because “you don’t care about me anymore”, your Boss teasing “oh come on, I never said that, you’re just being too sensitive” could be a co-worker “ha, didn’t you know they’ve all been talking about you?” even your sibling “you seriously can’t find your sunnies, what’s wrong with your memory?” or even your partner minimising your feelings “ok and here it comes, bring on the waterworks…” and what about your best mate “learn to take a joke, you won’t get far in life if you’re always soft.”
It hurts. This is because it comes from a person with some kind of authority or someone you care about, which is why it is easier to blame yourself. The term Gaslighting means ‘a form of manipulation’ where – the Goal is Control, this can be by questioning your own reality, memory or perceptions. They can do this by causing someone to distrust themselves, making someone feel intimidated & vulnerable or preventing someone’s ability to stand up for themselves. It can be intentional & calculated – or – unconscious as a learned behaviour from their previous life experiences.
Some examples are: withholding affection as a way of punishing you (implying they don’t care, silent treatment) : Victimhood where they exaggerate situations to make them the victim & they can’t function without you: Aggression or personal attacks like shaming, scapegoating, criticisms mocking you, intimidation: Trivialising how you feel to make you feel belittled, like you are overreacting: Countering is when a person questions someone’s memories, like planting a seed of doubt in your mind: guilt-tripping that convinces you to feel bad: Diverting, when they feel trapped they literally divert the focus on you & your trustworthiness : Stereotyping when they intentionally use negative stereotypes to manipulate “geeze woman, must that time of the month?”: you can be accused of lying or they refuse to listen to your point of view saying you never make sense. Ah, FYI (don’t shoot the messenger), but a public example would be Mr. Trumps Political and Institutional gaslighting. Think about it…
Brutal. I know right. It’s easy for an outsider to judge someone ‘falling for this’ and why don’t they just see through it and stand up for themselves? This is like living with the enemy, but you actually respect their opinion, like a form of Stockholm Syndrome or Self-fulfilling prophecy. It can start off harmless, but over time makes you anxious, depressed, feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. You’re defending their behaviour & not being honest to your mates to protect them (and your shame), eventually a habit of apologising for yourself or second-guessing yourself, feelings like you can’t do anything right.
So how do you protect yourself without ‘setting them off’ & making things worse. Acknowledge its not your fault, you’ve done nothing wrong & accept it could be happening to you (or someone you love). Start with a journal, this is evidence of the frequency, tactics that are used and importantly to validate your suspicions but – keep this is a safe space for your eyes only. There are support groups to connect with others to reinforce you are not alone. You can see a therapist, a safe space to talk honestly about how you are feeling & strategies to protect yourself. Re-learn to trust your instincts, this will help you regain a sense of self again. As hard as it is, resist the urge to argue as you are then playing their game – you won’t win. You can speak up & call out the manipulation when it happens – use respectful language and “I” statements to avoid aggression; follow these steps: 1. acknowledge their perspective 2. Explain how the manipulation affects you & the relationship 3. Remind them of the original question/situation and correct any inaccuracies. Yes, it is easier said than done. So, don’t get distracted by their personal attacks, try to stay focused on what it is you originally want to say – even if you have to practice in the mirror before you can do it in person. By practicing you can correct any lies because you know the facts. Remember to keep your body language neutral to show that you are not upset or getting frustrated, be cool as a cucumber. Importantly, remember that you can’t control anyone else’s opinion, even if you are right. You can’t change someone that isn’t ready to change, especially if they don’t think there is a problem. So please, have compassion and understanding for yourself. Growth is impossible without change.
This is a very simplistic explanation of a complex issue, if you feel you are being continually manipulated or suspect something is not quite right – know that you are not alone and it is quite common. To grow and be the best versions of ourselves is to educate and be open to uncomfortable truths. If you would like to connect and discuss whats going on for you, please be strong and reach out.
Elena Bishop – Director of Supportive Therapy and Social Work (0447 015 571) BPsySc MSW AASW