About a year ago, I read the article Stop Gaslighting Your Kids. I wanted to like it because I agreed with the author’s general idea – validate your kid’s feelings. But I couldn’t. Knowing no good was coming out of my response, I let it pass until a blog I adore recently shared the article. This time I replied.
Bracing for a slew of arguments, it was instead welcomed with “preach!” or “exactly!” Sadly, the article had already been shared over 400 times, making the incorrect definition of gaslighting gain traction and those who have experienced this IRL left trivialized.
“A child falls and begins to cry. “Come on now, you’re alright!” This is called gaslighting.“
No. That is not gaslighting.
While well-intended, it appeared the author (thankfully) has never been gaslighted herself. I have. It is not this.
Gaslighting isn’t telling a kid they are alright when they fall down. It is denying the experience ever happened. The person doing the gaslighting is using it as a method of control, of abuse. It is maliciously intended. Gaslighting is using another as an experiment in mind-screwing. It is crazy making. It isn’t what the author describes.
In a very mixed up year in my twenties, I got involved with a seemingly awesome guy. He wasn’t. Being the master of manipulation, no one knew… least of all me. Charismatic, easily promoted at work, the one I was told repeatedly I was so lucky to be dating. Little by little, he was feeding me stages of abuse in bite-size pieces, slowly poisoning my ability to recognize what was taking place.
Starting with tiny, inconsequential moments, he began to gaslight me – often by massaging the conversation until he was painted as a victim of his upbringing or past relationships. Because I was brought up by honest parents who when they were angry or hurt, it was a true emotion due to a true circumstance, it did not cross my mind this would be used as manipulation… especially from a person everyone loved.
When he promoted to a different company in a new city, I moved with him and away from my friends and family. Distanced from all my relationships, his pattern vamped up- love me, I “do something” to trigger him, hell breaks loose, patch up and try to understand why it happened, cloud nine, repeat. Knowing not a soul in the town I moved to, it was natural to focus my attention on our relationship. In his world – hook, line, sinker.
I lost a bit of myself during this time. Over and over I questioned and fought back. “I didn’t say that! No, that wasn’t the way it went. I was standing there, not here.” He claimed I told him things, looked at people certain ways or had an inflection in my voice I didn’t remember having. And with such conviction and with such repetition and steadfastness, I had no choice but to think, “well, maybe I was a little harsh…”
And that is how it begins. And repeats. And repeats. And repeats.
Remember, gaslighting is one part of a series of well-calculated actions devised to control a person. Typically, your focus aligns to make sure the gaslighter’s emotional needs are hit and in doing so, you forget your own by justifying your action was not ill-intended.
Now his needs are above yours. You question your instincts and even mistrust your own experiences. Eventually, you blend in and not cause waves so as not to upset or be misinterpreted. You will over-consider everything you say and do. Your feelings (and life) will be inconsequential to his.
This is gaslighting.
Gaslighting is not telling your child to “stop crying” or “you are okay.” Gaslighting is convincing your child they said something (when maybe they didn’t say anything) to trigger you to hit them… so it’s their fault. Gaslighting is making them think the situation they experienced did not happen as they remember or at all. Gaslighting is used as a way to manipulate for the purpose of control.
And the method is devastating.
I couldn’t ever catch the guy who gaslighted me in action. I had no proof until my birthday. He claimed I said something I knew I didn’t. I couldn’t talk to him on the phone, in the quiet open office, and he used that as a way to say I did not care or I would have. Then the ignoring for half the day and “I won’t pick you up because I am so hurt that I don’t matter to you, I cannot bear to see you,” and so on. When he decided he would talk to me again, an email train went back and forth.
He finally messed up.
Claiming I sent him something I knew I did not, I finally could pull the emails and prove it. So very small but it was something. His entire argument was based on this thing I “said” and when I finally could prove I didn’t, he flipped the conversation and moved on to something else to be angry about.
In the parking lot that night, after telling me he bought tickets to Phantom of the Opera downtown but he couldn’t bear to take me now, he attempted to run into traffic. Even at the moment, I was aware of how this looked caught on the parking lot’s video camera system – me running after him to stop him from killing himself. Exhausting is an understatement.
Sigh – so long ago and I can still remember the feeling of finding that email. I had proof. I can see the lighting in the parking lot; I can see the inside of his car in the glow. I can see the present a co-worker gave me for my birthday and I can remember being drained, mentally, and thinking, “what just happened?” and simultaneously knowing I had this small thing that proved I wasn’t crazy.
One month later, I broke off the relationship.
Driving home about a few months after that, I talked to a friend about how I felt through the relationship. I felt as if I was experiencing myself go insane – completely lose my mind. Everything I said happened, he would convince me the opposite and with such passion and so many twists, I questioned my own memory. It was as if the floodgates of retrospection opened and my last year poured through the phone, to my own disbelief. Not knowing there was a term for this, I called it mind-screwing.
[quote]The first time I read the term gaslighting, I cried. That was what I experienced and I had no idea.[/quote]
So imagine reading an article stating that by telling your child “it is okay” after they fall down, you are gaslighting them. Yes, talk to your kids about their emotions and let them know it is okay to feel them. However, it’s also okay to teach them how to hold it together and how to get through the pain. Sometimes our words are to reassure them “it is okay” and sometimes you mess up and you tell them, “Hey, I’m sorry – I should have reacted better. Here is why I did this.” They learn it is okay if you, or they, don’t react perfectly, and you can talk it out.
But don’t call it gaslighting.
If you or someone you love is being abused or is experiencing gaslighting, please seek help. Abuse is a complicated situation and help from a higher source is necessary.
Child Abuse National Hotline: (1-800) 4-A-Child or (1-800) 422-4453
Ohio Child Abuse – Report: 855-O-H-CHILD (855-642-4453)
National Domestic Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (800-799-7233)
For more information on gaslighting, please check out Psychology Today’s article on 7 Stages of Gaslighting in a Relationship.