I learned about gaslighting years ago while in the throws of living with active addiction. And once I learned what was going on, conversations that used to leave me baffled, were just a frustrating nuisance. Conversations like when I shared with my husband how many of my son’s Ritalin pills were missing, and I would hear, “Honey, you are so sick. Counting pills? You need to go to a meeting.” My former spouse and I were both actively going to 12 step meetings, me to Al-anon Family meetings, and him to AA. Yes, he was going to AA and he was taking his son’s prescribed medications. All of it was true, and it was crazy making.
Gaslighting is a psychological term used to describe efforts to manipulate someone’s sense of reality. In her book, The gaslight effect : how to spot and survive the hidden manipulations other people use to control your life, Dr. Robin Stern explains
The Gaslight Effect results from a relationship between two people: a gaslighter, who needs to be right in order to preserve his own sense of self and his sense of having power in the world; and a gaslightee, who allows the gaslighter to define her sense of reality because she idealizes him and seeks his approval.
The signs can be subtle and hard to detect, but like anything, experience is a great teacher. When I witness another’s overwhelming confusion, I can often see behind the veil. Like in an email exchange that I witnessed as it unfolded over a several month period. The exchange started in December with a divorced father’s request for 2 additional days with his children for a family event the next summer. The mother responded to the request with changes in the visitation schedule for March, April, and May. Below are the mother’s email comments over the next several months as they dialogued about her proposal.
I am uncomfortable mapping out the entire year knowing that there is ALWAYS an event that causes us to need to adjust or allow for something that we need to swap on. l think planning in quarters is most logical.
I’m trying to help you get to Chicago this summer.
This was all done to accommodate your request for the extra summer time in order to keep the year in a good flow for the kids. I believe the event in Chicago for your parents is important enough to make the necessary adjustments throughout the year
(this is how the email was received): THERE IS NO REQUEST TO REDESIGN ANYTHING. WE HAVE NEVER DONE THE WHOLE YEAR AT ONCE, WE HAVE LOOKED AT THE SCHEDULE QUARTERLY AND MADE MINOR ADJUSTMENTS AS NEEDED TO STAY ON TRACK.
For the summer, you will not have the extra days that make travel easier to Chicago. I hope you haven’t booked your travel arrangements. Now you will not be able to leave until after 3 on Thursday.
I tried to make Chicago possible for you! … it would be wonderful if they could be there with your family. I re-arranged the entire calendar to support that effort…
I encourage you to resist planning out an entire calendar year that does not take into consideration the inevitable need for flexibility … and it is usually hard to plan large family events a year in advance. Quarterly calendar check-in is best… This way adjustments may be made to keep the children’s lives balanced.
Are you still with me here? Can you see the manipulation? Often there is not one particular statement or event that you can point to and say “that is gaslighting,” but when you step back, let the mud settle, and look at the whole, the process becomes clear.
I believe the above exchange could be categorized as gaslighting as Dr. Stern defines it for several reasons.
1. There is a power imbalance. The mother must be willing to “give” the father the 2 days he is requesting, because they fall in her parenting time. She is the gate keeper, and because he needs her approval, he becomes the gaslightee.
2. She attempts to define the reality to preserve her own sense of self. She is ”keeping the children’s lives balanced” and “avoiding confusion” for the children. She defines the reality to maintain some power in her world, “I am trying to help you get to Chicago” and “I tried to make Chicago possible for you!”
3. The game keeps changing. The mother tells him she “re-arranged the entire calendar” and made “necessary adjustments throughout the year” to accommodate his requests. And she also states “we have never done the whole year at once” and encourages the father to “resist planning out an entire year.” Ultimately the gaslightee is left feeling overwhelmed and confused.
4. Denying the truth. When the father points the number of changes, the mother says “there is no request to redesign anything.” Then when he asks again for 2 days is July she says, ”I re-arranged the entire calendar to support that effort.” Both cannot be true.
5. Exploiting your fears. Of course the father wants to act in the best interest of his children, and of course he wants to be flexible for their sakes. Maybe he is the one being unreasonable. Perhaps he should just agree to all of the spring changes so she will not deny him time with his children.
How to counter gaslighting?
1. Seek outside support. Find a therapist or friend that is willing to give you a “reality check.” Often. This will help you stay clear and focused and “turn up your Gaslight Radar” (phrase of Dr. Robin Stern).
2. Be clear and direct in your communication. Noting inconsistencies as they happen may do nothing to impact the gaslighter, but it may serve to keep you from doubting your own reality. Write down conversations if necessary and look at them when you are not triggered.
3. Do not engage in power struggles. Stick to the topic and avoid he said-she said battles. As long as you know your truth, you do not have to prove you are right or innocent. You may not get what you want, but you will save your serenity.
4. Trust the process. Each time you trust your instincts and check in with your own confusion, you will get better at seeing the signs of gaslighting in the moment. And with more clarity you may see choices that otherwise get lost in the confusion.
These are the tools that helped me untangle the web of manipulation. These tools and of course my faith in the Big Guy. I often held on to the story of Joseph and remembered, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” This helped me stay willing to walk through the fire, hand in hand with God and the wise women, because I wanted to develop a manner of living where I could stand up for myself without standing against anyone or anything.
Seeing the painful dynamic in the stories of others helps me remember. Have you experienced gaslighting? Would you share your story?