Gaslighting (verb): A form of intimidation or psychological abuse, sometimes called Ambient Abuse where false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory, perception and quite often, their sanity. A more psychological definition of gaslighting is an increasing frequency of systematically withholding factual information from, and/or providing false information to, the victim – having the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception.
There’s something about sad lonely old dogs running down a country road. Growing up in Oklahoma, you see this a lot, and even as an adult I always turn to look back at the poor pup as I drive by, hoping nothing bad happens to him as he meanders his way through life. I always know that those sad lonely old dogs are without a home for one reason only: no one wanted them. That pity and need to take care of someone and give them a chance seems to have filtered into my everyday personal and political life.
As progressives or simply as sensitive feeling people, we see someone in need and want to find solutions to help. It’s part of what I love so much about humanity, but it also stops us from thinking clearly and logically. And, sometimes the fact that no one wanted the lonely old dog is a telling tale.
This week I had my first unequivocal experience of being gaslighted by a loved one. I think as feminists, we expect sexism, misogyny, or chauvinism from adversaries or perhaps older colleagues or bosses. I was shocked that someone I cared for and I thought respected me would go there. But he did. And in the fallout of our friendship, I’ve been left with the analysis of understanding men who are so insecure they feel the need to emotionally or psychologically abuse others when called out on bad behavior.
Yashar Ali, author of The Current Conscience, wrote an amazing piece about gaslighting at HuffPo last year:
“You’re so sensitive. You’re so emotional. You’re defensive. You’re overreacting. Calm down. Relax. Stop freaking out! You’re crazy! I was just joking, don’t you have a sense of humor? You’re so dramatic. Just get over it already! Sound familiar?
If you’re a woman, it probably does. . . .
When someone says these things to you, it’s not an example of inconsiderate behavior. When your spouse shows up half an hour late to dinner without calling — that’s inconsiderate behavior. A remark intended to shut you down like, “Calm down, you’re overreacting,” after you just addressed someone else’s bad behavior, is emotional manipulation, pure and simple.
And this is the sort of emotional manipulation that feeds an epidemic in our country, an epidemic that defines women as crazy, irrational, overly sensitive, unhinged. This epidemic helps fuel the idea that women need only the slightest provocation to unleash their (crazy) emotions. It’s patently false and unfair.”
When I started processing this incident with friends, family, indeed anyone who would listen as I’ve worked through what happened, I found a staggering number of people, feminists even, who have never heard the term “gaslighting,” and that’s what’s prompted this post. When I began to describe what The Gaslighter said, “you’re assuming too much…. you read too much into it… I never lied we just never talk about it….” I watched as women nodded their heads. “Oh my god I HATE when they do that!” a few replied.
As Ali said, you’re not crazy. And as one friend told me, if you’re the one asking “am I crazy” chances are… you’re not. It’s almost always the people who don’t ask whether they’re crazy or overreacting that are the source of the problem.
But the problem of gaslighting itself stems from a psychological problem that is deeply embedded in the fractured ego of the gaslighter. As Robin Stern, Ph. D. author of “The Gaslight Effect” wrote:
“The powerful gaslighter (he has power both because he asserts it and because the gaslightee gives it to him!) engages in an ongoing, systematic knocking down of the other, less powerful, person, purposely controlling the relationship by telling the other that there is something wrong with the way she sees the world or there’s something wrong with who she is — and– the gaslightee, by agreeing with him or allowing his perceptions define hers, over time, loses confidence, feels unsure and experiences a growing shakiness of self. Gradually, the gaslightee begins to question what she thought she knew—and gives up the power to stand in her own reality.”
We’re coming up on the 4 year anniversary of one of my best friends being murdered by her boyfriend. He had a history of physical abuse toward women that he dated and she knew this about him. She had worked with victims of domestic violence and abuse and always was on call for women who might need help. While I would never compare the violent physical abuse Jana’s ex-boyfriend inflicted on women to The Gaslighter’s emotional and psychological abuse he inflicts on women, one has to wonder if it stems from the same emotional problems. Insecurity, shame, sneakiness, low self-worth, maybe narcissistic, self-absorbed, apt to create their own reality because theirs is too depressing. I’m thinking of phrases like “I’m not what they say I am” or painting themselves as a victim.
Women who allow behavior like this in relationships might have similar psychological self-worth issues too. Honestly, those self-worth issues could be created by the gaslighter themselves as a means of controlling the actions of their girlfriend or partner. Imagine the psyche of a gaslighter’s long-term girlfriend. She’s likely so emotionally damaged by a lack of respect for her and their relationship, that she might even believe she doesn’t deserve anything better. It’s abuse – pure and simple. While a gaslighter might not physically be smacking her around, the long-term emotional and psychological impact on her is likely horrifying. And if one does it to you, he’s probably done it to others leaving scares in his path. Indeed, it’s wrong.
Jana fell for a physically abusive man who never dared lay a hand on her until that fateful day that he killed her, but he exhibited controlling personality traits that made her uncomfortable. Whether it’s emotional or physical, abusers will forever deny their responsibility and attempt to “gaslight” you into believing you’re just imagining things or that they really do value and care about you and want you in their life. The truth is, if they respected you or any woman at all, that would manifest in their actions. If they weren’t so insecure or emotionally immature you’d see it as well.
In the end the lonely old dog runs from farm to farm looking for someone to play with or a warm place to sleep. He might need love and he might need a home – we all do. But there might be a reason he doesn’t have either, and neither is your fault.
Dr. Stern’s Top 15 ways you know if you’re being Gaslighted can be found at her follow up piece on PT.