I reject the notion that the incoming presidential administration represents a new normal we must “get over”, accept and even (fuck, no!) embrace. Absolutely not. Absolutely not, because I refuse to be gaslighted. I refuse to allow a person or group shape my reality in order to elicit my consent in an attempt to hold absolute authority over me. No. I refuse to allow a person or group to distort the truth to their own ends, in their quest for unlimited success, power and ideal love. No. I refuse to allow a person or group to attempt to manipulate our common understanding of reality in an attempt to meld it to their will and pleasure. No. I refuse to allow a person or group’s desperate need to be right, to have the last word to superceed the needs of the common masses. If we can come to a common understanding of gaslighting, to recognize it, challenge it and root it out, we will have a shot at avoiding a dystopian nightmare.
Do you know the feeling of walking on eggshells? Have you silently admonished yourself not to be crazy? Have you been in a relationship where you waited for the other person’s lead before you acted or reacted? Do you know the feeling that something is dreadfully wrong in a relationship, but can’t quite see what or describe why? Have you passed your own thoughts, feelings or beliefs through the lens of another’s before sensing them? These are all symptoms of gaslighting, a form of maltreatment where the perpetrator attempts to manipulate reality in order to control their victim. It’s a subtle, insidious, clever form of abuse. It leaves its victim in a state of isolated paralysis, unable to trust or even sense their own perceptions. It’s exceptionally difficult to pinpoint unless you know what you’re looking for.
My first experience of being gaslit was by an older relative who suffered from Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorders. Naturally, I knew nothing of these disorders or the phenomenon as a child or young teenager, the years during which I might have been enjoying cookie-baking and storytime with this individual. Instead, this person often left me feeling on edge, unsure of myself and ashamed. I grew to dislike this person and dreaded spending time with them. When asked why, I was unable to answer. I was unable to identify what exactly they did to lead me to these feelings. They didn’t hit or threaten me. They didn’t rape or inappropriately touch me. They didn’t yell or overtly disparage me. They didn’t get drunk or high and change into someone else. Well, then what was the issue? It must have been with me.
But it wasn’t. This individual had a way of manipulating situations and people in order to satisfy their needs at the cost of others. This individual lacked empathy. caring nothing for the rights, ideas and feelings of others. Indeed they seemed to deny that others had rights, ideas or feelings apart from their own. In fact, this individual had been engaging in certain gaslighting behaviors for so long, the entire family system was struggling through the confusion and pain of it, while reinforcing this person’s colossal need for control. A need which knew no bounds.
It went like this. You would travel a great distance to see this individual, perhaps wearing yourself out in the process. Upon arrival, this person would look you up and down and say something like, well, I’m glad to see you’ve gone back to your original hair color. I never liked you as a blonde. You’re much prettier as a brunette, like me.
Wait, is this a compliment? It doesn’t feel like one. They said I look pretty, but also the modifier “much” was thrown in, along with a dig on a previous look of mine. So, the whole time I was blonde, they were thinking I looked bad, and now I’m being accepted again because I’m brunette and that makes me more like the family?
Or maybe you simply shrug it off, not wanting to get into anything, and they are hosting you anyway, so what can you really do?
And then you would set down your bags and they would hug you, remarking what a shame it is they never get to see you, because you’re always busy with your own life, to the point they feel you might have forgotten about them. But you call and write, you might remind them, to which they say, well, I can’t remember the last time I heard from you. But you’d been on the phone with them just two days prior, and weekly before that, and certainly sent letters at least monthly. Do you argue the point? No, because you just got there and to do so would be argumentative and you’d be starting shit, and anyway, this individual is already threatening to retreat into sullen, sulking silence, which they promptly do for the rest of the afternoon when you remark you’d like to put your feet up for a while, rather than attending to whichever unexpressed need they’ve been holding you accountable for this time.
Later, some of their local friends drop by to say hi, and each remark in turn what a shame it is you don’t get out this way more often, because your family member is lonesome for you and looks forward to your visits a great deal. This is puzzling, because the individual isn’t treating you with much of a warm welcome, to the point you’ve started to wonder why you came, and how the rest of the week is going to go.
In fact, it’s got to the point where unless the calls are weekly and the letters monthly and cards sent on each holiday and visits twice a year across the country, (you going to them exclusively), you shudder to think what the reaction would be. But then even while following the “program” of expectation, there seems to be no acknowledgement or appreciation or reciprocation of the effort, just always a looming dread of risk. And the risk is yours, always.
Maybe you test the waters a little by pulling back slightly, or not responding in the expected manner. You find yourself under attack from all sides–the individual, their friends, and the family system. You’re taken to task for “talking back”. Chided for being “disrespectful”. Frowned on. Or worse, shut out entirely, enveloped in a silence thick and tense and impenetrable.
If you’re human, which means you have an innate need to belong, these reactions to your shift in behavior and rejection of the program might make you so uncomfortable you redouble your efforts to put the gaslighter and thus, the system back at ease. Anything to end the unbearable feeling of being apart, or worse, being seen as the crazy one. Because challenging the system is crazy. Thinking the system needs challenging might make you feel crazy.
Because what would you say about what I’ve outlined above to prove it’s dysfunctional and fucking you up? They said they liked your new hair color more than the old. They said they missed hearing from you and seeing you, and their friends affirmed it. They got quiet and stayed that way. But there was a tone, a vibe, you might add. So? Be a grown-up and say something if those small-seeming things bother you. But it doesn’t work that way…because the whole system will cave in on you, and you simply can’t risk it.
What the fuck are you even talking about? It doesn’t make sense, looking at it in black and white. And there’s not an easy or good way to explain the feelings that arise when certain innocuous-sounding comments are made. There’s no support in the system for taking a stand or leaving. As jealously as the gaslighter guards their version of reality and disordered need for control, they surround themselves with people who guard them even more viciously. The game is rigged. You’re crazy for even thinking you can change the rules or stop playing.
To be continued Thursday…