I keep having the same conversation over and over.
That thing where someone undermines your perception of reality, and says you’re crazy, or denies that something is happening that is in fact happening?
When people we love and trust do that to us? It really messes with our minds.
Over time, or when it is about important things, this experience of having words deny reality can fundamentally shatter our sense of self-trust and our ability to navigate reality.
“There’s a word for that,” I say, hearing yet another such story from a female friend. “It’s gaslighting.”
Friend says “What’s gaslighting? I’ve never heard of that.”
“It’s when someone undermines your trust in your own perceptions and you feel crazy because your instincts and intuition and sometimes even plain old perceptions are telling you one thing, and words from someone you trust are telling you something different.”
“Oh.” (looks it up).
“Oh,” friend says again, reading. “But gaslighting seems to mean when someone does that to you intentionally. I don’t think he was doing it to me intentionally. Actually, it’s even harder to pin down because I don’t even think he was fully aware he was doing it and he got upset when I talked about it. But he was. And it makes me question my sanity.”
Do you understand the depth of the harm of making someone question their sanity? This is serious shit. This is not like “whoops I brought you the strawberry ice cream and forgot you like banana better.” It is poking a hole in someone’s fundamental capacity to engage with reality. Understand it in a context in which women have been being told every day for their entire lives that their perceptions cannot be trusted – when in fact our perceptions are often bang fucking on – and you have a systemic, pervasive, deeply psychologically harmful phenomenon, insanity by a thousand cuts.
And this matters not only because violence; the implications are greater. If you think of the power, the strength, the capacity to effect change that women who trust themselves are capable of, what we are losing when we doubt ourselves is an indomitable force for social change that is significant and therefore, to some, frightening. In other words, our capacity to know ourselves is immensely powerful – and power in those situated as abject must be squashed at every turn for the very reason that it has the force to overturn injustice.
On whatever axes we experience oppression, our best qualities are fed back to us as weaknesses to disguise our own tremendous power and size from ourselves. Because of the nature of structural violence, which creates the conditions in which these acts land in our bodies, this undermining of reality does not need to be conscious or intentional in order to cause significant harm.
People undermine women’s perceptions for a variety of understandable reasons:
-They feel ashamed about something they are feeling, wanting, or doing, so they dissemble and act emotionally dishonest about it, or blame the other person instead of taking ownership over their own feelings, wants, and actions
-They are not self-aware and have not done their own emotional work, so when asked a direct question about something confusing in their behaviour (such as incoherent emotional distancing, irritability, or attachment issues) they cannot give an honest answer and give a plausible, but emotionally dishonest, one instead
-They are attached to a certain image of themselves (as nurturing, as a feminist, as very responsible and dutiful) and are not ready to perceive shadow sides or less emotionally developed sides that contradict this self-image or public image
-They were raised in a conflict-averse household where skills were not taught for how to meet your own and other people’s needs simultaneously, so they unquestioningly believe a zero-sum game is the only option, and they want what they want
-They have a physiological level of arousal or alarm that feels overwhelming when talking about uncomfortable topics, so they smooth them over with excuses or logistical dissembling
-They are anxious about healthy amounts of normal intimacy and on guard against it, so keeping things vague protects their feeling of control over emotional intimacy
-They may not have lived experience of emotional safety and healthy nurturing responsiveness, but may not realize this about themselves, so they may experience people they are intimate with as having unreasonable or excessive needs
-They may have grown up watching a male parent speak to women or children in the family that way and not have taken the time to recognize and change this pattern
-They can have ‘narcissistic qualities.’ This is actually not uncommon (7.7% of the masculine-identified population, apparently). ‘Narcissism’ describes a human experience: a fractured, emotionally undeveloped original self buried under layers and layers of shame, with a seemingly highly self-confident personality developed on top. For those who struggle in this way, the original or vulnerable parts of the self are tucked away under a firewall and are emotionally undeveloped, and so this inner guide to empathy, trust, and connection that emotional adults have to guide them is to varying degrees offline. These folks are unusually inclined to gaslighting others without even realizing they are doing it. Unfortunately they are also the least likely to take ownership of or recognize their actions and are more likely to try to cover their ears, deflect, prevaricate, change the subject, attack, or flee when someone they do this to attempts to ask them for help or clarification. The level of self-awareness of people with narcissistic qualities is extremely, extremely low – they are very unlikely to recognize this in themselves or change, which makes them tricky to get close to.
These causes are all understandable. Human beings who are good people do things for understandable reasons. No one acts without cause. Sometimes – sometimes – there are more serious mental health issues that come into play; Narcissistic Personality Disorder, for instance, entails a good deal of gaslighting (along with raging and an utter inability to follow emotional logic from point A to point B). However, these are less common than the more everyday garden variety.
And yet if the impact on the other person is literally to lead them to doubt their sanity, at a certain point we have to be able to talk about what is happening, without getting mired in ‘but I didn’t mean it.”
We understand with racism that effects matter more than intent. So why are we so stuck on this idea that it doesn’t matter if someone undermined your sanity, if they didn’t mean to?
Here is a small example:
I phone a close male friend I’ve known for many years. I’m upset, and I’d like to vent, maybe hear some supportive loving words and maybe ask advice. This friend sometimes feels physiologically overwhelmed by emoting, and sometimes finds it brings him closer to people and welcomes it. In this moment, he snaps “I can’t talk right now, here,” and tosses the phone to his female partner, who enjoys these kinds of conversations.
I feel mildly hurt by the abruptness and since we’re all very close, I mention it to the partner, who relays that to him. He says from across the room “No no I’m not upset at all with you, I just am washing dishes and getting dinner ready, that’s all.” She relays this to me: “his tone of voice had completely nothing to do with anything you said, it’s just him feeling stressed about dinner.” We all agree that’s all it was and I repeat those words. I believe it completely. I think I must have misread him, and say “Oh, sorry! It’s totally ok!” and apologize for asking to talk when he’s got things on the stove. Somehow my perception – that he has just snapped at me while I am upset and tossed the phone away without any kind words, as if I’ve done something to make him angry – I decide must have been just me completely misreading him.
I abandon my perceptions and calibrate my understanding of his needs with this new information; he’s ok with listening to emotions, just not at this time of the day.
When I say “sorry,” however, I feel a little funny – some part of me is not sure if I’m apologizing for my timing, or for having emotions. I think I am wrong to feel shaken at being snapped at. I doubt my perception. His words directly contradict what my limbic brain is telling me is happening.
We don’t talk about it and I add to my repertoire of knowledge that that is just what my friend looks like when he’s multitasking, and that it wasn’t a response to me being upset at all. Because that is what he said.
A few months later we are talking and he’s been doing some emotional work on some of his own feelings, increasing his capacity to handle emotion. He says “hey you know that time you called needing an ear and I snapped at you and threw the phone away without checking with you, then said I wasn’t upset with you and was just busy doing dishes and making dinner? I actually was having a really big physiological response to your emotions and couldn’t deal.” This isn’t shared as a big revelation; he’s known for a while it was the case and just is sharing because he’s excited about what he’s learning. Nobody is upset at anybody in this moment – it’s just an interesting conversation about feelings.
I stop. I realize that my perceptions had been accurate the first time. I try to take in that I had erased my perceptions of that small moment. And not only that. In order to be a good and loving friend, I had internalized a new pattern of information about the meaning of my friend’s behaviour, which means I had continued denying my perceptions for weeks, any time I thought back on that moment.
And that maybe I didn’t need to; maybe my perceptions were fine. He had snapped at me, and tossed the phone off like a hot potato, and seemed really emotionally overwhelmed, and I had taken in “just doing dishes not upset with you” and recalibrated my reading of him with that info, because I trust him and I wanted to take in his words about himself. And yet in a very ordinary, everyday way, his words about himself were not actually true.
More to the point, they did not match my body’s knowledge about what had just happened: his emotional overwhelm. Which was not, in itself, a big deal; people can have different bandwidths for emotions at different times. If he’d said “I’m feeling overwhelmed by emoting right now,” we’d both have been in the same reality and my response would still have been “oh ok, all good, I’ll talk to her instead.”
I realize that while I can, in the moment, respect his needs either way, it would have been much less harmful to me to trust my own perceptions over his words, which were emotionally dishonest.
I could have heard his words “not upset with you at all, just have my hands full with dishes and dinner,” and thought “ok, he seems to just be feeling emotionally overwhelmed, and I guess he doesn’t feel able to say so, so he’s saying something else. That’s ok.”
Either reason for not being available is ok; but one is true, and the other is not.
One gives me an accurate ability to calibrate my internal compass; the other disrupts it – if I trust his words over my perceptions.
This is tricky: second-guessing someone about their own feelings can itself be a form of gaslighting.
It’s a strong value of mine to believe people when they say how they feel because when you come down to it, we are all experts on our own inner realities.
But having had my perceptions undermined all of my life, I have to learn to temper that information I’m being given with the evidence of my senses, and hold the two together.
When I can hold these two sets of information at the same time, I can be more willing to trust him on what he is experiencing when he needs me to, while not automatically discarding all the really quite reliable information my body is telling me.
I don’t have to tell him he’s being dishonest in order to trust myself; I can just learn that my perceptions, actually, are pretty darn on most of the time, and hold in openness that it is possible he is not being entirely upfront. That people are not perfectly self-aware, that humans are complicated.
When I know inside myself that my perceptions are really fucking accurate, contrary to a lifetime of having them undermined, I feel less like I’m trying to hold on to reality through slipping sand. When I feel less like I’m hanging on to my sanity by a thread, I can approach these situations with more ease, solidity, empathy and understanding.
If I need to, knowing I am perceiving things accurately despite his words, I can gently query the info I’m being given and see if a more honest answer might be just under the surface. “I’m reading you as a little overwhelmed, is that accurate? It’s ok if you don’t want to process feelings or be there for venting, not everybody wants to do that all the time, just let me know if that’s all it is, ok?” If I skip the erasure of my reality and trust that little voice inside myself that says “hm, no, wait, these words and these sense perceptions are shearing off each other,” maybe I’ll be strong enough to ask a clarifying question, offer understanding, and get a more accurate answer.
Here is another example. I was house hunting with a close male friend who generally treats me very well. I said “I’ll drive around and look for signs of places to rent in windows.” He, under stress, disparagingly waved away my idea with an extremely condescending tone that communicated that I must be a complete idiot. “No one puts signs in windows here,” he snaps, sneering. “Have you ever seen a sign in a window? People just use Craigslist.” I, automatically trusting his perceptions over my own, immediately think “wow I must be stupid, why didn’t I notice that this city is different from where we grew up” and abandon that plan in shame. I think somewhere in the back of my mind, “oh but I could have sworn I saw signs in apartment building windows in that neighborhood just north of here,” but I am confused and I think I must be remembering wrong.
Two weeks later I am visiting a friend in their new apartment and I ask “how’d you find this place?” and she says “Oh, I answered a sign in a window. Some of the best ones you find that way because the older generation who have been renting for a long time and don’t jack up rent are used to doing it that way and don’t use Craigslist.” I stop. I realize that I have discovered a moment in which I had automatically superseded my own physical sense-perceptions with an assumption that a male friend must know better.
And yes, women gaslight people, too. But patriarchy and structural sexism mean that the effects land differently. In that last example the friend agreed that he has been taught all his life to trust his perceptions, and so he would not have skipped to abandoning his own ideas when presented with mine. People gendered female are relentlessly undermined.
Were this just one moment, there’d be no harm done. But there are a thousand such moments in every day, and we only rarely catch them so clearly.
The depth of the impacts, realizing that all of your life you have undermined your own perceptions, that all along you were not crazy and could have trusted yourself, is dizzying. The scope of the distortion, when it hits you, is a brick wall.
And guess what? Feeling angry when you have had reality undermined in this way is normal and healthy. Look at Picard up there. Looks pretty angry, doesn’t he. When you’re trying to hang on to your knowledge that you’re not crazy, you might come out sounding… crazy.
And so the essence of gaslighting is this. Actively doing something to another person that quite expectedly leads them to feel feelings (sadness, hurt, confusion, fear). And then telling them or implying that they are crazy to feel those feelings because you did not do the thing that you did, in fact, do.
The effect on one’s psyche of being told real things are not real by people you trust in a nearly-continous, daily onslaught, is to cause fragmentation and undermining of our most powerful, most beautiful, and most effective source of guidance: our perceptions and instincts.
We live in a world that does not want women to trust themselves. That literally tells us in thousands of small and big ways that what we know is happening is not happening. Maybe, as a man with his own abusive tendencies told me not long ago, “even good men don’t really want women to trust themselves, because that would give back some of the power and control that patriarchy gives men.” ‘Good men’ can destroy a woman’s sanity, if they have not seriously, seriously worked on this.
If, as may happen, you are with a woman who has had this done to her in a more serious way in the past, these small moments of telling her not to trust her perceptions land right on top of the larger ways she may have had her sense of reality denied before. Those of us who have lived through more serious abuse have to struggle all the more to know our perceptions are accurate – sometimes damn spot on.
The effects of having people we trust, people we count on to help strengthen us, undermine reality, are serious, and deeply damaging.
Why does it matter if he did it on purpose or not? I mean, doing it on purpose might make you a genuinely bad person, sure. But very few of our loved ones actually set out to harm us, and yet harm us they do.
Someone’s sanity is not something to be played with lightly. If he harms you that badly because he just doesn’t realize he’s doing it or because he feels too ashamed to admit something that probably isn’t shameful at all or because he has grown up in a world where he can get away with it and not think too much about it, or because he just feels entitled, aren’t the effects the same?
In fact, being in this kind of morass of dissembling can be all the more confusing when you can see plainly that the person you love deeply, the person you trust and have faith in, believes it himself – even it is not real.
The trouble is that masculinity tells us all – whatever our gender – that women do not know what we are talking about. That if info comes from a mouth that is in a body with a certain pitch of voice and a certain gender presentation, that it is not to be taken as seriously. And that, that is insane.
Sometimes a whole circle of people will do this to someone and not see it at all until later. In my community, for instance, some years back, there was a woman of color whom I had been told was “angry all the time.” And she was in a relationship with someone I heard described as an “easygoing” white guy. The friend who introduced us “wondered how they made it work” because, it seemed, their “temperaments” were so different. Turned out later he had been sexually abusing her for years and denying reality when she said it was happening. For years. Later on, I heard the graphic, horrifying details of this abuse. And many of us around this situation got hit with a brick wall of our own: we had let it happen. We had seen her as an “angry woman of color,” without stopping to think what could be happening to her—what would make someone so angry?
I was among those called in to help with an accountability process and I recognized that in this case, the person causing harm did not appear to have fully acknowledged the impact or the extent to which he was abusing his partner. Did his refusal to perceive or admit to the harm reduce the impact on her of having an entire circle of ostensibly radical and feminist people abandon and gaslight her? Do we really need the person causing the harm to see the harm before we will name that it is there?
Isn’t that an awful lot of power to give those who gaslight, that they get to decide whether the person they have harmed can be heard?
And yes, gaslighting happens to masculine-identified people too. Those who have experienced it need to help and support each other rather than be in competition. We experience it in different ways based on how much society colludes with it. When people who have male privilege gaslight women and femmes, this picks up the larger cultural gaslighting of women and the cultural training to centre men, to massively amplify the harm and police the survivor and throw the survivor under the bus to protect unspoken social norms that tell women to be quiet, pliant and silent. Same is true of children who have this done to them: they are not believed. The best thing you can do if you’ve experienced this and had it happen to you and you are a guy is to use that intimate knowledge of how deeply mindfucking it is to connect with and support women who survive in a context in which the entire culture gaslights them every day (see Rebecca Solnit on this). That cultural context means when an individual guy engages in the more extreme gaslighting abuse, women and femmes are much more susceptible to being impacted and much less able to get heard.
So do we need another word?
Is there a word for “fucking with your sense of reality and undermining your sanity by saying something is not happening when it absolutely is?” that does not connote “doing it on purpose,” but instead recognizes the deeply systemic, pervasive, and deeply mind-fuckeryesque quality of these moments? A word that says “CENTRE THE SURVIVOR”?
It feels tremendously important to keep our empathy directed squarely on the survivor, in cases of significant, long term, ongoing gaslighting. This culture teaches us to empathize with those who have power, and in particular to empathize with men who harm, and to ‘skip’ or ‘forget’ to really feel what it is like to survive this type of abuse when it is ongoing, systemic, long term. We need to turn this around, centring our empathy and attention on the deeply damaging ways gaslighting affects women and nonbinary folks. This culture can heal when we hold these things together: consciously direct empathy towards the women who have been harmed, and keep it there, so we can respond in a caring way, without centring abusers, while offering a path for repair and learning when men recognize they have engaged in this kind of psychological undermining of someone else’s mind.
Gaslighting is such a powerful word and has helped so many people I know finally begin to trust themselves. I don’t want to leave it only to the extreme situations, because it is the very ordinariness and naturalization of this systemic disruption that can make it so difficult to pin down. We can centre the impacts, while recognizing that the causes of this kind of abuse are not always intentional, without letting that awareness continue to have the violent and detrimental effects on women that it currently has. We could call this ‘unintentional gaslighting’ – sure.
Of course, there are those for whom any inch of room you give them, they gaslight a mile. There are those for whom it is not wise to give any room to discussion of their intentions, because they are largely or entirely unable to act accountable or empathize with the one they have harmed. In these cases, straight up gaslighting is probably the best word. Because centring the survivor is so damn hard for these people, it can be best to begin by centring the survivor – and then staying there. Effects are what matter in gaslighting. Not intentions.
Feel free to join the Nurturance Culture and Masculinity Discussion Space
another great video resource that goes even further than this: On Gaslighting
Do you love speculative fiction and social justice? I’ve written a speculative fiction novella that explores the transformations our planet is undergoing and the undoing of cultures of domination. Cipher is currently exploring agents and publishers. Help finding its wings is welcome! Learn more about Cipher here.