Tagged: support

Gaslighting: definition and example

A popular term you will hear in relation to emotional abuse is “gaslighting.” It may be a confusing term because it’s based on a kinda antique movie but it is used to describe a very common (if not the #1) problem with emotional abuse. Very simply it’s making the victim think they are crazy.

The term is based on a 1944 movie called “Gaslight.” In it a man marries a woman, not for love, but for access to search and steal her deceased aunt’s prized jewels. Naturally no woman would agree to this, so he puts on a show for her. He acts loving and caring and then when she notices inconsistencies he lies and covers it up by making her think she’s crazy.

He leaves the house at night (and she’s not invited because she’s so “ill”) and sneaks back into the house through the windows in the attic. When he turns on the gas lamps in the attic, all of the house’s lights dim for a moment because they are all on the same gas lines. (See, kinda antique, right?) It was a major clue to the wife that something was up but she had been taught not to believe her own eyes, only her husband’s truth. He did sneaky stuff to solidify his truth as the accepted one, like move things around the house or put things in her purse and act like she was stealing things from him and just forgetting about it. Pretty sinister stuff. It’s pretty harsh to use a term based on this movie about someone you love, isn’t it? I thought so.

I thought so because I think I kinda gaslit myself.

*****

I remember the time I realized the beauty of the phrase, “well maybe I misunderstood.” I was a teenager and I found great power in the art of letting things go. In a disagreement with my sister about what color the car was that just passed? Let it go! Don’t necessarily give in but give her the ability to think she was right; “Maybe I didn’t see it right” and voila! Argument over! No need to argue anymore.

Let’s be clear, when I was a teenager that realization was healthy and good. We need to be able to not take ourselves so seriously. We need to be okay with not always being right. We need to be able to be wrong or at least let someone else be right.

So I took this healthy and good realization out into life and it helped my relationships. If something wasn’t worth being argued over, I didn’t. I admitted that I could be wrong and moved on. Things were great.

But things in my relationship to my husband quickly got one-sided. When things are one-sided, small shifts grow massive over time. Times I used the “maybe I’m wrong” trick turned into “remember, you were wrong.” The times I said, “maybe that is the best way” became, “that is always the best way.” Not good.

*****

An emotional abuser isn’t gaslighting to steal jewels, he’s trying to steal being right. When you have to be wrong so often in order to let someone be right, you start to think you’re crazy, unworthy and less than.

Every day being separated from my narcissist has led to more and more realizations of things he stole from me. More accurately, maybe there were many things that I gave away to him that I shouldn’t have.

Here’s an example: chili. I believed I couldn’t make good chili. Every time I made it my husband put it down. I just didn’t do it right. In my early wifey days I originally made chili with just tomato juice, burger, and chili beans. He said it couldn’t be called chili, it was too runny to put on a hot dog so it was more like soup. So I tried a different recipe. Something else was wrong… over, and over and over again… over years and years. Sometimes there was a specific complaint; sometimes it was very vague or just a look; sometimes he gave me a compliment… with a negative twist on the end. It was all very unsteadying. This was gaslighting and the result was complete.

I. Fail. Chili. After years he still would tell others I didn’t know how to make chili, it was “more like soup” even though I had long ago ever stopped making anything remotely runny. That didn’t matter. The thievery was complete. I was incapable of making chili and everyone, including me, knew it.

*****

Chili is not something to stress over. In the real world you say, “Maybe I got it wrong” and move on. Yet years of “maybe I was wrong” somehow got me pushed over into “I am wrong” territory. Even without my husband here to give a single negative glance, I don’t trust my chili. He stole my ability to make chili although it would be more accurate to say I actually can make more variations of chili than most people. But that is what gaslighting does. The abuser takes your own healthy ability to not take yourself so seriously, turns you around, and lets you believe you are wrong. Crazy even. The craziness comes in when my brain says “I can make so many variations of chili and often it’s tasty.” But my heart says, “Maybe I can’t make chili.” They don’t match up. Can I make chili or can’t I? Second-guess. Ruminate. Argue. Give in, give up. Fight for self-esteem. Suppress. Years go by adjusting responses to make things work. Things shift, change, and you are an inconsistent mess. You no longer trust yourself and somehow you miss the key player who was there all along. You only know you don’t trust your own self anymore.

And it’s not just chili. All of life is a game; a game the abuser must win at all costs. She spends years and years gathering your cards. “Chili? I’m better than you at that. Give me the chili card.” “Child-rearing? Oh that’s mine.” “I’m a better dancer.” “Oh no, don’t try buying clothes for me, I clearly have the better fashion sense.” “I pick the best cars because I know the best features that matter.” “You can’t be trusted with the money.” Snatch, snatch, snatch. It may take years for her to artfully get a certain card from you (by gaslighting) but she WILL get it. Big, small, she gets them all. A gaslighter is stealing being right. And it starts by letting you give them as many cards as you will without a fight. In my case: “Well, maybe I was wrong….” Our generosities are used against us.

*****

In the movie the woman is finally clued into the reality and she snaps out of it and walks away tall, vindicated. In reality I think that would be pretty rare. Either you turn away empty and broken, (so few cards left) or, like in my case, my husband turned and walked away tall throwing all the cards in the air saying, “I don’t wanna play anymore, you’re cheating anyway.” And I’m left on the ground gathering what’s left of who I am after it’s been marred up by being in his hands so long.

However, any of those endings are better than begging for your own cards back all the while trying to hide the cards you have left so she doesn’t try to take them too.

If you think that you or someone you know is the victim of gaslighting, get help! Gaslighting is a me vs. you game and CAN’T be played with more people. Let people tell you AND BELIEVE THEM that you have a good fashion sense, that you’re a good mom or dad, that your contribution to the chili scene is valuable. Talk to a therapist and let them help you rebuild your deck. It’s dangerous to get so low as an emotional abuser would have you go.

I don’t believe that all emotional abuse relationships HAVE to end in separation or divorce but you do absolutely have to learn how to share cards to have a healthy relationship. Cards should be regularly and freely exchanged back and forth, given from both sides and never taken without a sincere apology later when you realize your goof. (Hey, we all get a little snatchy from time to grumpy time.)

Often, by the time gaslighting is recognized patterns have settled in that need outside help to view and correct. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. When it comes to gaslighting a little help will go a long way and people are willing to help. Gaslighting is just shifting reality so that the abuser wins. With someone else to help hold down reality where it belongs, gaslighting can’t happen.

And let’s not forget this little extra gem we learned: appreciate that when you turn on a light, the rest of them aren’t affected. Yay, building code advancements!

 

photo credit: @lattefarsan <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/99312118@N07/9434562706″>Övergiven</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>

Realizing Emotional Abuse

“When did it start?” “How long has he been like this?” I get these questions a lot and I can’t say. I guess the real answer is forever. Abuse is inherently sneaky. No one is going to be in a relationship with someone hits you in reaction to your meeting handshake.

I think the more important question is, “when did you know?”

Even that question is sketchy. For a long, long time (forever?) things seemed… off. It was more about the confusion I had. As things went on more and more things simply did not add up. I spent years and years trying to understand and now I realize that I was actually getting there. But I didn’t feel like I was actually getting there. I felt like I was getting further away. I felt crazier.

I had more questions than I ever had answers and now, in hindsight, I realize that that was me actually starting to get it. I was starting to get it because, in truth, there was no “it.” It didn’t make sense because there was no it. Every time I hit a dead end I circled back and tried a different angle. As I dug and dug, each time reaching a non-answer, I kept finding myself with less and less ground. I built supports and took on enormous amounts of blame because I was the only one working.

*****

I had some friends who, with great amounts of alarm and concern for me, made sure I got to the local women’s center. I was a shell of a person yet still digging away. Why can’t I please him? How come when I go to my therapist to fix me she only wants to talk about my marriage? Why do I keep not being good enough for him? Am I self-sabatoging? Sure, he says incredibly hurtful things but he has a right to his opinions. It’s my part to show him grace. And plus, I am flawed, he has a point. Around and around. That was my brain. I was stuck. It was all that was left.

I still existed. I still went to work, got the kids to school, I still did everything I was supposed to but internally I was always on the loop: Why can’t I please him?…

I spoke to the advocate assigned to me and I cannot describe her, maybe one day I will be able to. All I can say now is she was unfamiliar but yet I was drawn to her. She spoke little but when she did I was both revolted and drawn to her words. It was cognitive dissonance like I had never experienced before (and I had experienced a lot!)

She said, “here we call those people abusers. Is it okay if I refer to him as your abuser?” My insides fought. NO! YES! I glanced into her eyes. She was so kind! I quickly made a compromise with myself. I will let her call him an abuser. It’s what she knows because those are the types of people she always works with. I will know the truth… but to please my conflicted thoughts I didn’t clarify what that truth was. I just decided I would allow her to call him my “abuser.”

Through the rest of that surreal conversation my insides fought. I cried in pain. I revolted at the thought of putting any blame on my husband. I tried to be strong and make purposeful decisions. I was there to get advice on how to leave him. I was there to appease my friends and prove I didn’t belong there and I really just needed to stay with my husband. I was in turmoil.

And even though I had experienced extreme amounts of turmoil in the past several years, although I had cried myself to sleep time and time again for years and years—nothing I had experienced before was like this.

The situation was so bizarre to me I felt split in two. I was like I was sitting at the table crying and I was also standing in the corner watching myself. The crying self I was very, very familiar with. The watching self bluntly pointed out what she saw as she watched this “movie.” “Wow, that’s what an abused woman says.” My crying self heard that statement and cried harder and tried more to defend him and the more she defended the more the watching self shook her head, “Wow, she’s really lost.” All the while the assigned advocate and my friend both sat with me lovingly caring… and my friend started to become an advocate and my advocate started to become my friend.

During that meeting I never said anything specifically bad about my husband. I just talked about how I felt and that was enough for an outsider to see the truth. This bothered me. How could someone judge my husband as an abuser without his perspective? I knew that he was so confident that he was right to be upset with me. How can his perspective be understood with him not there?

My friend looked at me and said, “Do you think that he is sitting somewhere crying over the state of his marriage like this?” I froze. I knew from loads of training what my husband liked and didn’t like. I was trained to know all his possible reactions to any possible thing. In that moment, with that specific question, I realized that he didn’t really care about our marriage. He didn’t care that I was crying because in all of his inconsistent reactions, he never cared if I was crying. He didn’t care about our marriage because he never did anything to fix it. He only gave feedback on why it was my fault when I brought the issue to him. He took great offense at how I had wronged him that got us to this state in our marriage but he never actually DID anything.

And as my crying self paused and looked up to take in this question, my watching self came over and put a caring hand on her shoulder.

*****

And although nothing made sense, it all added up. It all added up to nothing. The answer was nothing. At the bottom of my problem was that my husband was empty. He had put it all on me because I was the only thing he could put anything on. He couldn’t blame himself because nothing was there. He was GOD and because he was NOT God everything that didn’t add up (which was everything) was someone else’s problem. And the person who was there, the person who cared the most, the person who did the giving… was me. He needed more ego and he took it from me. He needed a scapegoat and there I was. His problem became mine because I was the only person who could handle a problem.

The truth was that I was actually exceedingly strong. I had been taking on all of my flaws and issues as well as his. No wonder I was starting to crack.

I was reduced to crying in a domestic violence center because, as horrifying as it was to me, it fit. We’re all broken people. Everyone has flaws. Whether someone hits you or not, if they expect to put all of their flaws on you, that’s abuse. It hurts you.

The advocate called him an abuser. Even though he never laid a hand on me. My husband was an abuser. They knew this because I was sitting there deeply hurt because of him.

*****

Did I fully understand all of this then? No. But it was the start. It was when I started to feel the truth. It was also when the watching part of myself actually got a voice. She cares about the crying self but she’s much more purposeful, cerebral, and honest really. I suppose she’s the one who’s writing now. It’s good to have her back.

What It’s Like To Leave: life will get better, right?

I don’t know if things really got that much worse at the end or if I was just starting to see more clearly what had been happening all along. It was probably both. An interesting aspect of ending abuse is that it actually gets worse at the end. I think that I was slowly coming out of the fog instead of doing it quickly like the standard suggestion for escaping abuse (i.e. have a bag pre-packed and ready, have money set aside and then, when it’s not expected, go, go, go!) Unlike the cold-turkey abuser quitter, who is wise enough to hide somewhere safe when things get worse, I was experiencing the uptick because I was still there.

I was also becoming more cognizant of how unhinged a lot of it was. Note: I said “more cognizant” and not just “cognizant” because I still couldn’t wrap my head around how crazy it was. It just seemed off. I couldn’t understand why he was so upset and disgusted with me because I didn’t follow politics and news like he did (and he did at a fanatical level.) I didn’t understand how even after double-checking locks on my vehicle they always seemed to be unlocked and how he was always the one to catch that I had left my own vehicle unlocked. (I got lectured several times a week.) I couldn’t understand why I seemed to get in trouble because I had friends. (He literally complained during a counseling session that people liked me. He said it as an insult. “I’ve seen it, they will write her notes about how great she is!” Apparently thank you notes were not acceptable for me to receive in his reality.)

I saw it more because I was getting help. I had told some people and they were speaking truth to me. Finally, I heard what I thought was true the whole time but still didn’t see as truth because he had me convinced I didn’t know what I was talking about. (I was an unsecure, uninformed, well-liked idiot of course. He had proof. He’d seen the thank you notes.) At this stage it’s most important, I am sure of it, that you only talk to people you trust. These people should be those that won’t hurt you (there’s enough of that going on, thank you) and that you know to be stable, reasonable people. I trusted their viewpoints, not just because they aligned with what I expected to be truth, but because their lives testified to it.

Important note: Sometimes well-meaning, truly good people can still give bad advice. Not everyone can really understand and may say things like, “just try to do one thing a day to make him feel special.” They don’t understand, it’s not their fault, they just don’t understand. It’s like telling a woman who’s had her arm broken because she served her husband a cold dinner, “just make sure you heat it up in the microwave when you hear he’s home from work. Do you need a microwave? I’ll buy you one.” This is a kind, well-meaning, giving, load of truly hurtful crap. Recognize it as such, thank them for caring and move on.

I also saw it more because it really did get worse at the end. Every little thing seemed to provoke offense. I don’t know if he ever was really offended or if it was just some excuse to mete out punishment. There was always some reason he found that he shouldn’t have to be kind to me. One of the offenses at the end was that I had picked up his phone and turned down the volume on the advertisements (being clear that I would turn it up for him again when the advertisements were over.) He spent 10 minutes on this issue in the counselor’s office. Everything I did was offensive to him and worthy of his self-righteous anger.

There is a reason the standard advice is to flee. The realization by an abuser that their power is gone is often answered with a temper tantrum. It makes sense really. It’s what they’ve done before but just now on the biggest-scale production level. Telling you you’re stupid or worthless without them, whether by the actual words or action, is what has made you stay so long in the first place. So it makes sense that their natural reaction is more of the same.

If their temper tantrum doesn’t work the next tactic is usually a wild swing opposite. Next comes the apologies, the gifts, the compliments. I’m so sorry, this stage is totally fake. There’s nothing a battered woman (or man) wants to hear more than words that show her or his partner cares. The horrible part is that he or she doesn’t. I really am very sorry. I wish this information wasn’t true. There’s a reason that you will see it everywhere concerning abusive relationships, it really is fake.

In my situation I was slowly getting my legs under me. I learned about boundaries and I started walking away from anger and accusations and closing the door. I felt I found a neat trick. Sure, he just got more angry more often (ramping up) but I could just walk away more.  Finally, I told him we would be separating in two weeks. Something strange happened almost exactly one week to that deadline. Something totally unexpected. He texted me that he would be coming home late from work and asked if I needed anything from the grocery store. Now this might sound benign to you, but this was HUGE! Seriously, this man had not done anything for me in so long that 1) informing me he was going to be late and 2) thinking about my needs, was enough to turn me into a caricature of a 19th century southern belle, “Oh dearie, the object of my affection has taken a likin’ to me. Catch me, I’m fixin’ to swoon!” Not to mention he told me the items he was buying from the store. He was letting me into his life! “I do declare! Do go on, honey…” Maybe the correct idiom here is that I was “happy as a dead pig in the sunshine” because this was our swing opposite. This was our version of the gifts and kind words. A few days later he asked me to go out with him and our kids shopping. Again, totally out of line with how he had been treating me. Seriously, this man would not make eye contact with me before this. When I came in a room, he would leave it. Me? I figuratively turned my head to see if someone else was standing behind me. He was really paying attention to me? Fiddledeedee.

But I was determined. I was healed enough to know that one or two kind gestures does not a healed relationship make. (It was later pointed out to me that these weren’t actually kind gestures but just actions of a reasonable human being.) If he can do it once or twice, he can continue to do it after we are separated and we can heal together and build a healthy relationship. I mentioned something along the lines of not wanting to buy anything special for the kids because we weren’t sure how things were going to go and moving it back and forth would be difficult. That was it. The normal human being spigot was cranked shut. It wasn’t genuine. It was just a ploy. As soon as he realized it didn’t work, that I was still planning on separating, he stopped.

The next stage of leaving an abuser, especially a narcissist, if they can’t scream or woo you back is to simply write you off. All of the sudden it’s like you never existed and none of your feelings, history, or rights matter at all. Just one week after I moved he filed for divorce. He wanted nothing to do with me. If I wouldn’t play his game, then no game for me. He did things like leave the kids home alone and go to work, even though I was available because I didn’t exist. He went out and bought the entire back to school list on his own (even though I had always been the one to do it) because I didn’t exist. (Neither did the kids apparently, they weren’t invited to their own back to school shopping.) No more marriage, no more wife, no more history. Poof. Gone in a flash.

*****

Here’s something I’ve learned in Celebrate Recovery. When you are needing to make amends, the possible repercussions can get in your brain and keep you from making that step. Being vulnerable enough to admit you were wrong in order to say you’re sorry is terrifying. But I’ve heard testimony after testimony about this phenomenon and the general rule is, the worst-case scenario you’ve built up in your mind rarely comes to pass. Usually people are forgiving or even have totally forgotten or didn’t see how you had wronged them. Your fear was unfounded and in the end you have the freedom of being released of the guilt and shame of what you did to wrong the other person. Making the next emotional step and having a difficult discussion with someone is rarely as bad as you expect.

Through this whole post I’ve talked about the negative possibilities of breaking up (divorcing/separating/setting boundaries) with a narcissist. It surely sounds horrific and miserable. I’m here to say when it comes to an abuser, oftentimes when you are finally vulnerable enough to say, “I can’t do this anymore” your worst fears DO come to fruition. He really does spew hate, trivialize loving gestures into manipulative tools, and write you off as nothing. (Not what you were hoping for, eh?)

But, I’m here to tell you, in the end it’s still all worth it because in the end you have the freedom of being released of the guilt and shame.

Of course it’s not that easy. As the saying goes: it’s simple, not easy. To be honest, it’s hard to let the guilt and shame go sometimes, they were constant companions. There are also unfathomly huge waves of fear, insecurity, indecisiveness, and  loneliness.  So in my case my worst-case fears did come true. But I’m telling you, it’s worth it.

It’s worth it.

Believe me. It’s worth it. We’ll talk more later, okay? For now just know it’s hard but it’s worth it.