Has anyone else felt crazy lately? Does the daily onslaught of (not) fake news, blatant lies, and spinning of the truth coming out of Washington have you questioning reality? If so, you’re not alone. Rates of post-election stress have risen for many Americans and the masterful manipulation of the truth coming out of a White House that lives in an alternate reality has led many, myself included, to question their sanity. This phenomenon being used to destabilize our conception of truth and reality is called gaslighting.
Gaslighting, as defined by Wikipedia, is “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity.” The long-term goal is essentially brainwashing as the targets cease to believe what they know to be true and succumb to a world of alternative facts and realities all the while questioning their own sanity.
As every post-election ethics violation, conflict of interest, sexist/racist/homophobic/xenophobic cabinet nomination and baffling executive order was announced, I started to not only lose hope but also in my lowest, most confused moments wonder if I was crazy. I wasn’t, I was just allowing myself to be influenced by gaslighting.
We have all been subjected to gaslighting at some point in our lives. Yet for me it wasn’t until this presidency and the increase in popularity of this term that I connected the dots to how gaslighting had been a theme in my life since I was young. Recently, I came across an old birthday message from a stepsibling that a friend pointed out was the quintessential definition of gaslighting. Suddenly, I started to see that gaslighting had been prevalent in my family system for years.
Let me give you some background. My parents split up when I was 14 years old. Just a couple weeks after the separation, my mother went headstrong into a relationship with the father of my middle school frenemy, simultaneously convincing me that this relationship was a good thing and that his daughter was a good friend and not my enemy like I had once thought. As my mom’s relationship progressed and our families merged, we became a household without boundaries or consequences. Merciless mocking and dinner table tantrums were normal. Disrespect was blatant and demeaning jokes at the expense of other family members were the prominent form of family humor. Our parents didn’t set boundaries nor did they hold people accountable for their inappropriate behavior.
It wasn’t until I was was in my freshman year of college that I realized how dysfunctional life at my mother’s house had been. I went back and asked her and her husband to create a safe space in their household by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior. Their response was a request for me to just accommodate the behavior and not cause conflict. They stated that they wouldn’t intervene so as not to displace any of his children. To clarify – boundaries do not mean displacement they just mean not tolerating inappropriate behavior. In making that choice; however, they actually displaced my brother and I as we no longer felt it was safe to stay in the household. Upon naming the dysfunction, my brother and I were blamed for leaving and accused of avoiding conflict when in reality we were just setting boundaries. As the blame continued, I eventually cut off contact with my family/step family as there was no space for my needs, my voice, or me in the family system. Yet on my 21st birthday I looked down to my cell phone and found a surprising message from one of my stepsisters who I hadn’t heard from in a couple years.
Oh my God! Somebody wanted to talk to me and hear my experience and try to work to move forward! Blinded by hope, I momentarily forgot that the sender was my stepsister whose prior indifference to me was demonstrated by a refusal to get up from her seat to greet or hug me when I came home for my first break from college. No desire to see me had ever been expressed previously and my leaving the household years before hadn’t prompted so much as a response from her. With all that being said, was the message suspicious? Yes. Did I see it? No.
After calmly and respectfully responding and naming the truth, her true intent for reaching out became clear as she delivered the best kind of birthday present my family can give – a mind game.
Wait. What? Where did this come from? What did I do? Did I say something? Oh right…gaslighters don’t like hearing the truth as they live in their own reality.
Everyone was mad at me? Cool. If I really still cared about that I would have continued to give up parts of myself to appease everyone’s fragile tempers. But obviously I’m over it. She apparently wasn’t, as her message was proof enough of that. And this olive branch that she claimed to extend? It was more of a Trojan horse, disguising her attack with seductive words as is common in gaslighting. Just to be clear, while I did choose to leave the household, it was because behavior like this was both normal and acceptable. For that reason, I do not want anyone to forgive me as I do not believe I need to be forgiven and will never apologize for standing up for myself. The choice I made to leave actually bettered my life rather than screwed it up, despite my stepsister’s declaration, but gaslighters tend to project their situations onto others so I’m actually wondering how she was feeling about her own life. Anyways, it’s not my place to speculate, all I know as that this message was crazy.
“I’ve never spoken like that to you before in my life.” False. “Don’t pretend like I’ve been bullying you forever.” Discounting my experience. “You don’t just get away with what you did without being bitched out by someone.” I don’t know what I did, definitely nothing to warrant this verbal attack. “You only want to be babied.” Projection. I’m fine with boundaries, I’m fine with discussions, I fine with rational conversations about the impacts of behavior. This is none of those things. This is gaslighting.
Again – projection! Who is the one here that has no idea how to solve a conflict and runs away from serious conversations? Not me.
Three years have gone by since this message and I have not heard from her since. Maybe she finally really is over it. Or maybe she just realized that her gaslighting doesn’t work on me anymore.
This is what gaslighters do. They suck you in with flashy words and then pull out the rug from under you once you are hooked leaving you questioning your sanity and wondering how you ever got into the situation in the first place. My stepsister did exactly that. She lured me in feigning hurt and confusion and once she sucked me into her story, lashed out. It is a means to manipulate and control people and I wasn’t having it anymore.
The reason I am sharing this is to show a humorous, somewhat dumbed down version of the crazy making that is coming out of Washington. Should we not stand up to this behavior, it will continue. Gaslighting starts at home and in your communities and in your relationships. My dad and Maureen consistently say that changing the current state of our country starts by changing our own relationships and how we behave in our every day lives. If we back down from conflict, normalize destructive behavior, and give power to the untrue then gaslighting and the current state of affairs will continue. If we stand up, like I did with my stepsister, then gaslighting loses its power. Instead of normalizing this behavior, which may have been part of your conditioning like it was for me, perhaps we could find the courage to call out and refuse to participate in gaslighting. And then our country will have a chance to return to sanity rather than dangle on the puppet strings of a cast of master manipulators in our government.
Want to learn more about gaslighting? Here are some resources.