My perceptions of reality became so wholly dependent on external validation that I pretty much stopped having them. Or maybe I had them, but couldn’t access them. It was as though what I was sensing had to be passed through the filter of someone else’s perception. I had to get someone’s opinion on whatever was before me in order to even sense it sometimes, that’s how far outside myself I was living. Example: I’d be watching a terrible movie (terrible as in, skin-crawlingly boring, not as in so-bad-it’s-good; an important distinction), but instead of thinking, “hey this movie sucks”, I’d start doing side-eye around the room to gauge the reactions of others. Did they seem bored? Annoyed? Resentful? Engaged? Because if they were all engrossed, I couldn’t say anything or leave. I had to sit there and pretend to be engrossed, because clearly this was an engrossing movie and it was some deficiency of mine that I wasn’t engrossed.
Does this sound familiar to you? What I’m trying to describe is what it looks like to have been gaslighted, or conditioned by another person to believe that your perceptions are false. Have you ever had someone tell you repeatedly what you’re feeling is wrong? Or frequently sow seeds of doubt about your sense of yourself, your relationships, or your surroundings? As a pattern of behavior, this is gaslighting. It’s sneakier and more insidious than you might think, and I’m here to warn you.
I lacked a sense of self at a young age, which made me very socially malleable, which made me a perfect foot-soldier of the playground mean girls, because they knew I would internalize, without question, whatever they told me. “We don’t like her anymore”, the Queen Bee would announce, even though she had been skulking around with our crew as late as morning recess. “Go tell her she’s out, Kate.” Social pressure to belong aside, I would not once think, “wait, she was just our friend like five minutes ago”, or, “but I really like her”. I would hear and act. The people around me I chose to idealize controlled me, entirely. I wish I could say this wore off at a developmentally appropriate age, but it didn’t. Well, the mean girl part is gone.
Another sort of person who lacks a stable identity might go a different route. Instead of depending on others to shape his worldview, he might work to control the worldview of others. He might be the one to say, “we don’t like her anymore”, expecting you to fall in line with his whim. If you don’t, choosing instead to issue a challenge, or share your own idea, his fragile inner structure collapses, leaving a black hole where a personality would sit. He will fight like hell to keep himself intact, by dismantling you. It’s very important that you agree.
These two are a match made in heaven. Peas in a pod. Lock and key. Those without opinions or enough trust in themselves to form one, offer solace to the gaslighter. He can create the most far-fetched, absurd, non-sensical structures and the gaslightee will proclaim them art. Or at least will let them stand. He could say, “you don’t really feel that way, this is just that drama queen thing you do in order to make yourself feel important”, and yank the rug right out from under you. “Oh god…there I was ranting again like a diva, because I’m so conceited and entitled, and who am I to feel anger about anything, when I’m so gross?”, you might think to yourself. And as your inner world begins to roil with confusion, your gaslighter brushes off his hands and walks away. That was easy. You won’t be infringing on his unstable territory today.
There was a man I adored, who I considered my big brother and a best friend. He was friendly and funny and smart and engaging. He was available and accessible. It took me five years to see and understand the ways he gaslit me from the beginning of our friendship, and it scared the hell out of me that with a masters degree in psych and an obsession with personality disorders, I was blind. That’s how good he was, and how uncared for by myself I was.
When I agreed with him, listened to his stories with rapt attention, cracked up at his jokes, and got drunk with him, his friendship was warmer than sunshine. Just the kind of guy you want with you at every party, every happy hour, every place fun is on hand. And when I disagreed with him, and became bored by his stories, and stopped drinking I was out so fast my head spun. With no explanation. Out. And when I came slinking back, begging to make it right, apologizing and walking on eggshells, I was wrapped up tight in a bear hug. I was back in, no explanation, no discussion. In.
It felt better to be in, so I stuck around him, hung around. I took a couple steps back, because by age 29 there was a smidge of self-preservation in there, and I’d stopped drinking so our social lives diverged a bit. I kept it on the level, not wanting to risk being thrown out again. I kept it on the level by always initiating plans, and doing all the planning. I kept it on the level by carefully choosing only those activities I knew he’d enjoy. I kept it on the level by making the 40 mile drive that separated us most of the times we hung out. I went to him. And he rewarded me by keeping me close, which meant I still knew nothing about him, while at the same time believing I was of his inner circle, so it didn’t matter. Mindfuck, much? But there I was, responding to his need to control those around him, lest they see into the void where his personality should have been. He was so unstable, he counted on me to create the structure for him, to his exacting specifications.
I did not question this relationship. I did not engage with questions about this relationship. I did not see or understand that my big brother was an illusion, dependent on my subjugation to exist. He told me what was what, and I internalized it and acted it out. I can remember reflecting with him one night on how carried away the collective behavior of our friend group used to get back when I was drinking. I was laughing and shaking my head over a few of our exploits when his eyes narrowed, and he bared his teeth, hissing, “actually, YOU were the one doing all the bad behavior and causing those scenes. Don’t try to put it on anyone else.” Whoa. This was well-worn territory we’d mined for comedy before. Why the sudden flash of anger? At the time, however, I lowered my eyes and agreed. Conversation over.
Now I get what happened in that moment, and all the other small ones like it with him. I believe we were getting dangerously close to the truth, which was that he had assisted closely in my fall from the wagon, egging me on and participating equally in the drama. But because he was desperate to be in control, and therefore a cool observer of human folly, this line of conversation threatened to shatter his precious facade. He needed to cut me off at the knees, immediately. He must have been feeling especially vulnerable that night, gauging by the swiftness of his attack. By shaming me into dropping the subject, he remained intact.
It wasn’t OK for me to consider this man part of my inner circle, as he poisoned my sense of relationship boundaries, kept me under his control, and undermined my sense of self-worth. Staying in his orbit warped my sense of friendship and family. It set me up to attract more like him, and boy, did I. My sense of relationship failure was marked inevitability. Friendships, no matter how close, began to feel transitory, ephemeral. I stopped getting attached, because losing myself was too likely.
You don’t slowly back away from gaslighters. You can’t. They won’t let you perceive that you need to. You have to turn and run. And you don’t look back. If you look back, your gaslighter will be there, flickering, burning the knowledge that you’re wrong into your core.