On Gaslighting

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?

picard-four-lights

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 susceptible 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 thought I saw some signs in 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 self-trust 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.

Gaslight-Poster

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 colour who people said was “angry all the time.” And she was with this “sweet, gentle, easygoing” white guy. We wondered how they made it work because we believed 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 details, and they were horrific. And all of us around them got hit with a brick wall of our own: we had let it happen. We had seen her as an “angry woman of colour,” without stopping to think hey, what on earth could be happening to her – what would make someone so angry? I was one of those called in to help with accountability process; and I understood he did not appear to recognize that he was abusing her. Did that change the impact on her of having an entire circle of ostensibly radical 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 male-of-centre 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 men gaslight women or feminine-of-centre people, 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 feminine-of-centre people are much more susceptible 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.

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If you liked this post or it made you think, please help out by sharing widely!

See the original viral posts The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture
and Own, Apologize, Repair: Coming Back to Integrity

(Version française ici)

Feel free to join the Nurturance Culture and Masculinity Discussion Space

another great video resource that goes even further than this: On Gaslighting

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55 thoughts on “On Gaslighting

  1. Thanks for another spot-on analysis and discussion! I find your writing enlightening and supportive and a joy to read.
    I think we should keep using “gaslighting” for all kinds of gaslighting. We can use “intentional gaslighting” for that kind. Why should we have to change our word to protect the feelings of the people who are (unintentionally) doing harm?
    I wrote about gaslighting here: http://traumahealed.com/articles/repair-your-reality-after-gaslighting/ and one of the most important things for me is to back away from trying to analyze the other person’s intentions, and just name the effects on me, especially confusion.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think you’re spot on for not worrying about the intention when you’re trying to maintain your own reality (the burden of the brutalized is also not to comfort the perpetrator, no matter how accidental), but I also think that as a broader approach to tackling systemic gaslighting there needs to be a more accessible term for folks to have when they’re ready to start taking accountability. There are too many mental barriers against folks thinking of themselves as abusers. Much like racism — when folks, especially white folks, who have not done work on it hear the term racism they immediately deny they are racist even if they’ve just done something overtly racist. Accountability for unintentional gaslighting could too easily become a reflexive “I’m not an abuser” denial without a more accessible term.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I said recently to someone who was refusing to acknowledge a change in policy, “You’re implying that I’m lying, or crazy [about the previous policy].” Even that was hard for her to swallow, but after several repetitions, she did back down. We can describe behavior when needed, but I don’t think we should relinquish the term for it.

        Much like the distinction between racist behavior and being a racist, we can maintain a distinction between gaslighting behavior and being an abuser. When people are ready to be accountable, they’re not going to argue terminology. When people are not ready to be accountable, they can distract us endlessly trying to find a term that they find acceptable.

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  2. I thought this was a fascinating article and I have a perspective I hope others find interesting and even educational. Gaslighting as a term was new to me prior to this article, but as a male adult, I have experienced something similar that I myself practiced and have done to others that leads to great results – or in other words, the results I seek to get. To avoid any confusion, my intent is not to invalidate any part of the problem that is articulated in this article but more so to offer a new perspective that promotes learning.

    That “something similar” that I have practiced happens to also undermine others’ trust in their own perceptions. I would call that something “teaching others”. A quick example (rather than a small one) might help clarify what I mean: It may very well be that I have an observation that was missed by someone I care about, about something they care about. In this case, my mother, who I love, is ready to swap out her 2 year old Toyota Camry for a brand new Fiat 500. For those that don’t know, a Toyota Camry is a medium sized car while the Fiat is a two door small car that is between a Mini Cooper and a Smart Car: a reduction in size to say the least. Toyota’s have been reliable for my mother’s entire driving career. Furthermore, buying a new car every 2 years is expensive. I am particularly concerned about my mother’s personal finances because she’s had a history of being in more debt than she can handle. My response to the news that she’s ready to do the swap is one of shock: “Why would you ever consider switching your Camry?” She’s on such a high from the thought of a brand new car that I feel the need to bring her emotional state down. One might even say I trust my own perception, so that’s what I say to her. In short, she gets defensive, I share my facts, and while she sees my point now, she’s already signed the paperwork. It’s too late. I use her weakened emotional state to ask her to consider other situations in which this might happen again. I hope there is some semblance of learning but we may need to have my mother comment to share her part of the story.

    In summary, if necessary, I undermine a person I care about’s trust in their own perceptions initially to get an emotional response. I may even use it to get attentiom, sure, but also to strip ego and remove my emotional bonding to that person in that moment. I try to let them know that there are consequences if they do not listen. I use my own emotions to influence there emotions and send them a message that I hope will serve my purpose. Ultimately, it is a tactic used with good intentions (as subjective as that might be, I think the core of this article is about expressing intentions) that I use to help BUILD their trust in their own perceptions. My conclusion is that to teach others is to make others stronger and sometimes involves having to break something down. The resulting troubling emotions for the other person could be an indication of them needing to build more strength in their own perceptions and mental faculty. To take into account what they are feeling and perceiving and reassess the situation with the new information they have based on my behavior, albeit abrupt or emotionally insensitive behavior could help reinforce or change their perspective. It depends on them. Ultimately, assuming we are all responsible for our own perceptions once we are adults, to be swayed by others’ words without considering the validity of the words could be considered by some to be personal irresponsibility.

    Regardless of what you think of that story, fortunately, there is a better way to teach others and build relationships than what I have attempted to describe through my partial account of my personal experience. Through dialogue, and the adding of shared value into the “pool of meaning” of a conversation between people that 1. maintains safety, 2. maintains mutual respect, and 3. has mutual purpose for those involved, trust in one’s perceptions can be augmented by all involved parties simultaneously when practicing the skills necessary to have meaningful healthy relationships. I would encourage those who engaged with either the article or my comment to consider reading the book “Crucial Conversations”. It outlines the theory, concepts and skills necessary to prevent being a victim or victimized by others or by our own perceptions of others’ behavior that might lead to “gaslighting” or persistent negative emotions…negative emotions that can result in injustice and the loss of an “indomitable force for social change that is significant”, which the author of the article describes is at stake as a result of the gaslighting phenomenon.

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  3. For men, especially men who *weren’t* raised in abusive households where they experienced gaslighting as children, the challenge is learning *not* to fully trust our own perceptions. We need to understand that we are just as subject to cognitive biases as anyone else, and that our culture tends to reinforce those biases. If someone else’s perception of a particular event differs from mine, the prior probability that they’re right and I’m wrong is fifty percent, and their gender is *not* a piece of evidence I can legitimately use to reduce that prior. Indeed, if the person disagreeing is female, that arguably *increases* the probability that her perception is more accurate, because as this article points out, our culture trains women to question their perceptions and men (particularly well-off able-bodied cis-het white men) to trust theirs uncritically.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Regarding the question you asked at the end, I’d vote for “unconscious gaslighting.” Unconscious isn’t the same thing as accidental or unintentional — we’re often not fully conscious of all of our intentions at the level of surface awareness and verbally constructed thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. that’s good. but I’m also looking for a descriptive word, something neutral and less violent sounding, that holds a description of the action and te effect without referring back to te film with a really serious abuser.

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  5. good question. sometimes it’s part of a general fabric of people who love one another being unskilled or having emotional growing to do. how do you call people to do that growing, while holding compassion and the knowledge that people’s actions – even harmful actions – are understandable, even if they are not acceptable? how do we have compassion for the intergenerational trauma we have lived, for the pain we cause one another when we bump up against one another, for the damage caused in lack of self-awareness? i think by each person fully owning what they want to own, and committing to their own healing, and figuring out what the bar is and raising it.

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    1. yes! thank you! i wanted to expand on that but wasn’t sure how just yet
      – have been thinking since that structural violence always includes a deep degree of gaslighting and crazymaking. you’re experiencing racism but the world tells you we’re post-race. you’re experiencing colonization but the world tells you that’s ‘in the past.’ you’re experiencing ablism but the world tells you the problem is your body just isn’t perfect enough (how fascist is that). you have to do such deep work just to know what you’re experiencing is real, and isn’t inevitable, in order to find your people and your strength and make another world…
      the depth of strength and dignity of those who have to delve that deeply into the well always inspires me profoundly.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s not a new term, but my new tactic (this article makes such a great point that I need to bring it up when I talk about gaslighting in my upcoming classes) is to say, “Sometimes you aren’t the Evil Husband in the gaslighting scenario. Sometimes you’re just the myriad servants around the house, who also notice the flickering gas lights, who say nothing to the mistress to confirm her own perceptions. Are all of them also being gaslit? They’re not his TARGET, but are they all wondering if they are going quietly nuts in the scenes we don’t see? If so, did he victimize them any less than his target? Or are they part of it? Are their unintentional assaults on her sanity any less a part of the problem? Even if they are, in turn, being manipulated, even if they are acting in entirely good faith…can you really say they’re not doing any damage?”

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    1. good point. the way the people around do or don’t intervene matters. nothing like gaslighting + groupthink especially when the larger circle is likely to let the more powerful one define reality

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  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you so much! The existence of unconscious/unintentional gaslighting is so important, and the framing of it is so valuable! It’s particularly helpful to me to recognize, based on this article, that:

    1. It’s still harmful whether it’s deliberate or not, and
    2. Little tiny instances of this can be far more destructive than they would seem to be on the surface, particularly for people who have in the past had to deal with vast quantities of it.

    And most valuable of all is the utility of calling it out and recognizing it. If you can name it, you can get (at least some) power over it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. p.s. I would also love to have a less accusatory-sounding word for it, because it makes it easier to talk about — right now I’m imagining spending 3/4 of the conversation on “yes, I *know* you didn’t do it on purpose…!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. haha omg yes. it becomes all
      about protecting the prrson’s self-image and loses the but this leads me to doubt my sanity part

      Like

  9. As a woman I do this all the time. Precisely because of the familial and structural forces that have hampered my ability to trust and express my own emotions I often invalidate what is going on with another explanation (eg. Saying I am ‘fine’ when I am obviously angry, because female anger is so unaccepted. Or saying I am happy with a casual relationship when I really want something more serious (or vice versa) because I have been socially trained to follow men’s lead or please people). I think that because men are trained to trust their instincts means that then women get labelled ‘crazy’ or ‘difficult to understand’ because men don’t accept the alternate explanation as readily as a woman would- they don’t second guess themselves. Anyway, I am working on it, hoping to relearn how to know what I feel, feel it, say it, stand by it. Thanks for te great article!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I realized something was wrong when I kept saying things to my ex like “Don’t tell me that how I feel is wrong!” And in response to repeated questioning, “BELIEVE ME!” My opinions and my information were automatically suspect because it was me saying them.

    Yeah, I don’t miss that.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. It’s relevant to this discussion that the author of the “Consent Accidents vs. Consent Violations” piece gaslit and emotionally abused me for the year-plus following my sexual assault by a mutual friend.

    The flowchart he quotes is a list of the detailed questions he called me up and asked me almost daily for months until I broke down in tears, then gaslight me based on my responses in increasingly bizarre ways to find a way to call expressly unwanted anal sex after a clear verbal boundary an accident. At one point he told me that my rapist must have hallucinated my consent. (I was unable to speak or move at the time because of post-surgical medication.) When I pointed out that was profoundly unlikely, he accused me of hallucinating. (I have no history of this.)

    He also wrote detailed emails to me explaining what he thought happened based in part on him asking my rapist for his perspective. It got worse from there, violating many of my hard limits and leading me to question my sanity.

    I think it’s fine to use the term gaslighting to describe a specific pattern of behavior, regardless of intention, as there is an established pattern of abusers focusing on intention as a way to avoid taking accountability.

    As we know with abuse, the intention doesn’t determine the harm, and the person taking the action needs to focus more on its effects on others than on internalized shame or other barriers to accountability and; in the end, positive change.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. also, I really like this. “As we know with abuse, the intention doesn’t determine the harm, and the person taking the action needs to focus more on its effects on others than on internalized shame or other barriers to accountability and; in the end, positive change.”

      Liked by 1 person

    2. would you prefer I leave the link and your comment up so people can see what happened, or would you prefer I take down the link? I’ll do whichever you like. thanks again for sharing this, it is exceptionally hard to name things like this.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you on all counts. I appreciate it greatly. It’s been challenging, especially when it’s a colleague who frequently writes and lectures on consent.

        Would you be able to leave the link up with a directly linked footnote or a link to the comment next to it? That might help, since not everyone reads the comments.

        Thanks so much for this excellent piece. This is one of the most thorough treatments of the subject I’ve seen yet.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. goddamn, I am so sorry that happened to you. The publically feminist guys are often the ones who have the wierdest things going on. I think men have to step up into feminism and own the term but they have to also walk the walk; it is completely wacko how common this is to protect the ego/image above the actual emotional work.

          Like

        2. wordpress doesn’t have a way to link to a comment. But I put a note in “please see comment in the comments thread about this post before you read it”. does that help?

          Like

        3. ps update: Given the utter lack of genuine accountability in that situation after so much help was given, I have taken down the link that I originally posted. I do not condone ‘business as usual’ when accountability is pending.

          Also, for those who are just tuning in and would like to understand what happened here, it’s a good lesson in the ways abuse patterns work. If you have an hour, you can follow the whole sad story here by reading these threads in this order:

          thread 1: https://m.facebook.com/story.php

          thread 2: https://www.facebook.com/charlie.glickman/posts/10155165644775830?pnref=story

          thread 3: https://m.facebook.com/story.php

          thread 4: https://www.facebook.com/charlie.glickman/posts/10155235570755830

          Liked by 1 person

  12. I would love to see you go after this topic on a TED talk. I’m 52 years old , gendered female, and this kind of shit has defined my experience. I’ve long been fascinated with the concept of gaslighting — it interests me how susceptible our brains are to doubting our own senses and intuition. But I have never considered the day-in-day out effects of the pervasive, self-doubt-inducing type of “unintentional gaslighting” discussed here. (Even as I type, predictive text/spellcheck “corrects” my thoughts and suggests that “gasslighting” is not a “real” thing. ) Whip your discussion here into the frothy idea of neuroplasticity, and we’ve got a powerful recipe for global disfunction. It all makes sense now.

    Perhaps the term for the phenomenon you describe here is “predictive-gaslighting”– defaulting to an auto response based on limited knowledge; or insisting on a predetermined desired outcome; insinuating a pressumption of superior understanding; or responding with an inhuman lack of curiosity and patience for the sake of expediency.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Also, the only way to battle gaslighting is with logic, reason, reassessing reality again and again by checking the story against the facts you can gather. There’s a reason abusers isolate people. It’s so they have no access to new, accurate information.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. What do you do when all you want is to out the gaslighter for who he truly is? I am divorced from him but yet not truly free, as we have kids. And I get overwhelmed with anger and despair because no one knows the truth. I want to stay the good guy, so to speak, and it’s hard for me even to understand why I need everyone to know. Shouldn’t I just be happy that he’s pulling off a good game? When I heard he’s dating, some of this was triggered in me again; how can any woman not see? Then again I had suspected, but didn’t understand, for twenty-plus years… Reading this post, which I stumbled on accidentally, brought some lightness to me; thank you. But I go through periods where I want the world to know. I need vindication that I’m not crazy; my instincts are valid. But in the end, he’s the one who looks sane, and that hurts. Another violence.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. all i can say i see you are not alone: i and many others know exactly what you mean. being gaslighted can created a powerful need to name reality and be heard.
      step very carefully thoogh: this culture has a very strong backlash and distorts survivor’s experiences in some pretty intense ways. the best thing i did was sound out who has experience with recognizing abuse and bystander dynamics and only ah are well with those who already have done their own work or are willing to do it’s

      Like

      1. Thank you. Just hearing that others need to “name reality and be heard” really helps. I do have a band of people around me, and yet staying silent feels like more abuse, at times, as I feel there are no real witnesses other than myself.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. yep. i so hear you there. the cognitive dissonance and actively repression survivors systemically face if they dare do anything other than remain silent is *intense*. i now know the pattern but when this began i wasn’t fully aware of how the bystander patterns play out. a few books worth reading to make informed decisions: Why Does He Do That has a chapter called ‘abusers and their allies’ that my pod and I found strikingly informative. there is also a section in The Revolution Starts at Home that goes into typical bystander dynamics – when the one who harmed is of that narcissist pattern who will be nearly incapable of accountability, the entire social net tends to polarize and throw the survivor under the bus to buffer the one who caused harm from having to hear or own their actions. we are all culturally socialized to not rock the boat so minimizing, rationalizing, false equivalencies, and tacit / implicit victim blaming are routine. the survivor typically pays harder than the one who harmed in terms of loss of social ties. it makes no difference th severity of the harm, it is the same patterns in every case. the only exceptions I’ve seen are if the one who harmed has a few really really experienced transformative justice trained people he admires and respects and can’t manipulate or gaslight, because they know how to recognize the signs, and they know to check everything against their own autonomous knowledge and to double check everything with the survivor, and can kind of do that firm boundary setting with him while fully centring the survivor. needless to say, this is *rare.* short of that i found writing it out myself and doing reality checks with the pod of people who really *fully* get it and are doing their own work has helped- as has a shit ton of very very skilled body work. that last the most. good luck and no i can say at this point having heard in from many readers all over the world *it is not you. you are not imagining it. what you perceive is real. and it has a pattern.* that much i can say has revealed itself over dozens of people describing their experiences. hope some of that’s helpful! and thanks for reading.

          Like

        2. I am breathing a little easier since hearing from you! Yes to narcissism, loss of social ties… he worked at a church, and I am amazed at the number of people who invite him and my boys over, where I’ve heard from maybe two people in the year since he moved out. I actually did some protecting when a recent indiscretion came out; the church had planned to make it public in a terrible, reality-TV show way, and I used every resource to put a stop to that in order to protect my kids from the scarlet letter. Now I wonder if I should have let things come to light… Body work, yes; I do Hakomi experiential psychotherapy, which does wonders. Thanks for a good reminder to pick that up again. Finally, something a friend said really put this in perspective: “It’s your story, too.” So while I have been trying to stay the good guy and protect him to the extent that my kids don’t have to know all their dad’s dirty laundry, I need to make my own story known in order to heal. I will heed your advice, though, on treading lightly. Thanks again so much.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. the harm to survivors of speaking up is typically much much greater than protection they recieve socially – there are multiple structural factors that create willful and unconscious blinders all around survivors. be careful and tread slowly as that bell can’t be unrung. we live inside patriarchy and white supremacy as bell hooks has said, and it creates conditioned responses that want to protect power at all costs. only the people who have done their own work will perceive it and then only partially. so go slow and be prepared to do a lot of calm emotional labour with any new person you ask to help. it can be best to have all the books and resources at the ready and conserve your sanity and social bonds by having others who deeply get it help instead of doing it directly yourself.

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        4. “conserve your sanity and social bonds by having others who deeply get it help instead of doing it directly yourself.” Meaning let others speak up for you or take on the gaslighter, or simply let others provide support?

          Like

        5. from what I’ve seen, it works best to protect yourself by sounding out gently how much people already know about abuse without sharing that you have this experience. and then the folks who are capable of the kind of resilience and solid empathy that would let them help and not just harm you further can indicate that they know how to actively centre survivors and do their own reading, for instance, about bystander dynamics or about how to support survivors without making things worse. if people express that minimizing/cognitive dissonance or quickly centre the one who caused harm, disengage with them and trust yourself quickly because this can cause pretty bad harm even when people are ‘well meaning.’ hearing about harm brings up all kinds of wierd defenses in people, basically you end up having to support them through all of their own issues rather than getting help. and once you have a core group of people who are capable of holding this for you, then *they* carefully advocate for you, respecting your wishes, agency, and consent. for instance you can choose to have your name kept out of it, or to have specific requests about whether things get shared when you are not there, or whatever feels safe. for me, having others step in to protect me freed me up to focus on my own healing. every survivor has different needs, thoogh, and those needs can change as you heal.

          Liked by 1 person

  14. Reblogged this on Freeing My Heart and commented:
    This is a good read for many autistics and disabled folks who have lived with family and friends’ gaslighting. Combine ongoing psychological abuse and coercion from a Narcissist Sociopath with the whole theory of mind idea, and you’ll have a sense of what many of us live with and how so many of us have c-ptsd from psychological damage alone (not withstanding physical abuse) . I want to repost this on my blog. Thank you for posting!

    Like

    1. oh my i need to hear more about this! having helped my godson and gotten taught by my old friend (godson’s mum) how theory of mind is a skill he has been growing, and combining that with protection from abuse of this sort – this is important.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hello Norma,
        Since reading two of your blog posts, the wheels in my head have been turning for a blog post of my own about this exact thing. My blog “Freeing My Heart” is from the perspective of an autistic parent of autistic children, and much of my content deals with disability rights issues as well as the sociology of family and public life (I am far from being an expert on this topic, I merely have experiences and insights, that is all). I intend on getting back with you on this. Because this is such an important, yet sensitive topic to extrapolate on, I need to do conduct proper research (with supportive links and so forth) and do some personal writing on the matter first, is this OK? Thank you for the response, that was quick!

        Like

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