Tag Archives: gaslighting

Healing and breaking

Healing is seldom a linear process. This is as true for bodies as it is for minds, especially when healing requires rebuilding. When we build muscle, part of the process involves our bodies ripping apart the structures we already have in order to respond to the demands we’ve made on ourselves. This tends to hurt. Push too hard and you can end up – in the short term at least – able to do far less than you could. Push far too hard and you can damage yourself. Mind and body alike have limits, and while you can push to try and recover from pretty much anything, sometimes what’s needed most is rest, and time.

When you’re in the middle of it, telling the difference between breakdown and breakthrough is difficult. I’ve been around this one a few times. Dismantling a limiting belief, or an out of date coping mechanism can be messy. Dismantling the consequences of gaslighting is frankly a brutal process. I’ve gone a lot of rounds with that one over the years. It isn’t the sort of thing you can unpick quickly.

There’s been a lot of gaslighting at a national level here in the UK. A lot of saying that things we all saw happen did not happen. A lot of telling us that we are all to blame for the state of the economy, that it’s all down to poor people not trying hard enough. Instead, this is a consequence of deliberate policy. Not internalising the blame is challenging, and I have no doubt that many people will end up feeling that the cold and hunger they experience this winter is their fault. 

At some point there will have to be a collective squaring up to the impact of that gaslighting. There’s going to be a lot of breaking down in order to be able to heal and rebuild. Not just on the individual level, either. If we’re going to make it as a species we’re going to need to break down some aspects of our civilization in order to heal and go forward. We may have to break down all kinds of assumptions, structures and systems because so much of what we have right now just doesn’t work and is making life on this planet ever less viable. Inevitably this is going to be messy, but it is possible.


The high cost of lying

There are times when lies are the wisest and most compassionate choices. If Hitler is at the door and Anne Frank is in the attic, lying is the honourable choice. However, the human mind is a delicate thing and there are consequences to constantly distorting your relationship with reality.

It is more normal to talk about this in terms of the victims – people who have been gaslit, brainwashed, mislead and otherwise compromised by untruth. These kinds of experiences can leave a person not knowing who or what to trust, including no longer being confident in their own judgement. Gaslighting is designed to damage a person in ways that make them easier to control.

But what happens to the person doing the gaslighting? What happens to the person who has to keep asserting that x is really y and that z never happened? It doesn’t really spare them from having to acknowledge what they did or what really happened, at least not inside their own minds. It doesn’t liberate them from consequences, but it does tie them to an ongoing process of not being able to deal with anything. What happens to a person when they spend their time pretending that fake things are true, and/or that true things are fake?

What happens to the Emperor when people notice that he’s naked and that his story is a lie? 

UK politics is a mess at the moment. We’re watching people who have spent years lying, trying to explain how they’re going to fix the problems they helped cause, while not admitting they helped cause the problems. Not that any of them are proposing any actual solutions. The sounds coming out of the government are peculiar and nonsensical. I find myself wondering what it must be like to have spent the last few years lying about how great Brexit is for everyone, how great a job your party is doing of handling the pandemic, and what a fine, upstanding chap your leader is. I would think that could take a toll on anyone’s mental health, and I cannot help but wonder if we’re seeing the consequences.


The art of mental hygiene

Humans are malleable. We’re influenced by our environments and by the things we’re exposed to. If we keep seeing something, we become persuaded by it. This is how adverts work. It’s also how misinformation works. We do get a say in what we expose ourselves to, and taking thoughtful control of that is important if we don’t want to be persuaded by problematic input.

Exposure to lies, misinformation, denial of truth, fake news, people calling real news fake news, and so forth acts on our brains in just the same way that gaslighting does. After enough exposure, this stuff will start to impact on your mental health. Either you’ll be persuaded of their reality, or you’ll feel increasingly stressed, anxious, disorientated and confused as you try to hang on to what you know is true.

People who wish to cause harm invariably demand that you hear them out. They tell you that their opinions are valid and deserve your time. They want you to debate them. They tell you to do your own research, by which they mean expose yourself to more of their ideas. At the same time they are entirely closed to everyone else’s ideas, having already decided on the conspiracy theory or propaganda they are invested in. Debating them won’t persuade them of anything, but it does expose you to their toxic thinking, and that is harmful.

A coherent relationship with reality is better for your mental health than being exposed to things that have you second guessing yourself. This has to be balanced against the need to stay flexible and open to new information, because genuine insight advances all the time. Pick your sources, and consider the reason that you’re picking those sources. It can be hard to know who to trust, but a conscious decision about that will do you more good than being buffeted about.

Watch out for people who deal in radical reversals. The people who tell you that other people with an obscene amount of money are able to represent you and that people who are a lot like you are out of touch elites. People who describe kindness and inclusion as though it was a vicious assault on your rights. Famous people using massive platforms to tell you they’ve been cancelled. People who think that cutting their workers’ paychecks and giving themselves a rise at the same time is justice. If the internal logic of someone’s arguments doesn’t hold up, it is as well to keep away from it because that kind of thinking will damage your mental health.

We aren’t always going to get everything right. If in doubt, choose whatever looks kindest. Even if it turns out to be naive, misinformed, overly optimistic or otherwise doomed to fail, you are better off in a kinder environment. It’s better to fail while meaning well than to be pragamatically horrible. It’s better for your mental health to focus on spaces where kindness dominates and people mean well. Anger can be attractive and it can feel powerful but no one can live there. Angry spaces rapidly become exhausting. Anger can be a great short term motivation, but kindness will keep you moving for the long haul.

Your mental health is vital. Speaking as someone who has suffered with mental illness and experienced gaslighting, I know what it costs. Protecting your mental health is essential, and picking the spaces to be in can really make a difference to that.


Positive thinking and gaslighting

I recently ran into the suggestion that people who have experienced gaslighting are unlikely to cope well with positive thinking strategies. It was a real ‘lightbulb’ moment for me. I find positive affirmations incredibly stressful and panic-inducing. I do ok with very small ones – statements like ‘it is ok not to be perfect’ and ‘shit happens’ and ‘you can get through this’ don’t stress me out.

But, the kinds of things I’ve had recommended to me – like standing in front of a mirror and saying ‘you are beautiful and I love you’ to my reflection makes me feel physically sick. Even thinking about it twists my gut up.

Being gaslit involves taking onboard things that conflict with how you understand reality. For the person who has escaped that, being able to protect your own version of reality is incredibly important. Even when that might not be helping in other ways. I can say ‘that is a face, and it will do’ to my reflection, but that’s all. 

A while ago I tried experimenting with ‘positive’ affirmations and I ended up in a state of crisis and distress. Part of this is that a gaslit person will often have had to deal with being told that things were fine, normal, safe, reasonable and appropriate when that simply wasn’t true. I am better off with lower self esteem that feels real to me than telling myself I am great and facing the breakdown of my reality, again.

Realising this also raised for me some things about how CBT doesn’t work. I expect CBT with a therapist is an entirely different ballgame, but my experience was of being given a workbook. The workbook was based on the assumption that everything was ok really, and that I was panicking about nothing. That wasn’t the case, so what was supposed to be therapy felt like gaslighting. 

There can be no meaningful interventions if we don’t allow for the possibility that things aren’t ok. Saying ‘my life is good’ when your life is clearly hell, isn’t going to make you well. Imagining that there’s nothing to be afraid of when you have genuine reason to fear for your safety, isn’t going to fix anything. If the only problem is what goes on in your head, then maybe positive affirmations will help you. But, if what you have exists for reasons, you aren’t going to magic it away by doing something that feels like lying to yourself.


Intuition is not irrational

We take in far more data than we can consciously process. What rises up as intuition may be in no way irrational, and arguably not even that woo-woo – it’s just a different way of using our brains. Also it turns out that our thinking is far more distributed through our bodies and not just a brain thing, so the idea of a gut feeling may be highly valid as a form of thinking that is actually happening.

There are questions to ask around intuition if you want to establish what kind of relationship yours has with the rest of reality. It’s important to keep track of how those gut feelings relate to what actually happens. Humans are very good at persuading themselves they were right all along, so you do have to be self aware to do this.

How do you tell between anxiety and intuition? Or wishful thinking and intuition? Also, rather critically, how do you tell if your intuition is right but you’re being systematically lied to? How do you hang on to your intuition in face of gaslighting? Especially if you’re dealing with someone who is using the woo-woo as part of their tool set? What do you do if you’ve trusted someone, and that one mistake leaves you wide open to having your confidence in yourself entirely sabotaged? These are not easy things to figure out, and I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer here.

The most important thing is to keep checking in with yourself. Cross reference what you feel with what you know from other sources. Compare and contrast. How anxiety manifests in your body is likely to be different from what it’s like to have a gut feeling that something is wrong. The same goes for wishful thinking. Only if you want to avoid self-delusion will you be able to pick these things apart. There’s no helping the person who is hell bent on asserting that their intuition means things regardless of all evidence to the contrary. I’ve been in those situations too, and if someone is adamant that they know what you’re ‘really’ thinking or feeling, and won’t hear otherwise, there may be nothing you can do. It may be a case of deciding to put up with it, or deciding to quit. I honestly recommend quitting.

It’s also important to remember that you have the right to say ‘no’ in most situations without the obligation to explain exactly why you feel that way. Over-explaining can itself be an abuse legacy, or a sign of an unsafe situation. If your ‘no’ isn’t acceptable on its own, and you have to justify what is a gut feeling, and saying ‘this doesn’t feel right for me’ is not going to be a good enough excuse… you may well not be in a safe situation. If you can act on your gut feelings without having to justify yourself, it speaks well of your circumstances.

It’s ok to do that – if it works for you. Navigating life intuitively is just as workable and reasonable as trying to make evidence based decisions. We are all only ever guessing and there are always more variables than we know of. None of us can ever be totally certain about exactly how our choices will play out. Some of us do our best thinking by being as logical as possible, and some of us do our best thinking unconsciously. Some of us blend the two to good effect.

Watch out for people who try to play to your ‘intuition’ to persuade you of things that aren’t true. Conspiracy theories often depend on engaging your feelings to override your knowledge, logic and wisdom. If someone tells you that you are so intuitive that you’ll get why they are right… mistrust them.

An it harm none, do what you will – and if that means your choices look a bit irrational to other people, that’s ok. We’re not obliged to make sense to each other. Kindness is also far more important than making sense. Do what works for you.


The impacts of gaslighting

I’m writing this post in the aftermath of the UK Prime Minister and other leading figures telling us that when their man broke the rules he wasn’t breaking the rules. Also if we loved our families we’d have broken the rules. Weeks of difficulty seem meaningless in face of this. People who have suffered greatly while trying to do the right thing are reeling, disorientated and in distress. This is what gaslighting does to people.

I know what’s going on and I can see the process. It will have a much harder impact on people who did not think they were being lied to and who trusted this leadership. Gaslighting drives people mad, and I wait to see with a heavy heart how all this will play out. For some people, it will be a quiet fall into despair and dysfunction. Some people will freeze up and become unable to act or make decisions. Some will lose the plot entirely and what they do will be hard to predict. How many in which category? How much mental health damage done? How much more pain inflicted?

My body is heavy and sluggish this morning. I feel exhausted and it is hard to push back and persuade myself to get busy. There are things I need to do, but in face of all this, there are voices in my head suggesting there’s no point even trying. There is no win available. I’ve been a victim of gaslighting before and one of the major impacts of what’s happening on the national scale, is that it is bringing up for me a lot of unwanted memory about how that felt when it happened on a personal scale.

It is so hard to resist – something people who haven’t experienced it tend to under-estimate. Disorientated, second guessing yourself, no longer knowing what to believe or who to trust and feeling like you are losing the plot – it makes a person so easy to manipulate, or just unable to defend themselves.

When everything is this confusing, anything that sounds plausibly like a calm and sensible suggestion becomes incredibly attractive. I worry about what’s going to seem persuasive.

Mental health is a delicate thing. Humans are more inherently fragile than most of us want to believe. Not recognising that is of itself a vulnerability, because when we get into shit like this we can be slow to realise we are being broken and are in danger. But, looking at the distress, despair and confusion in the UK right now, we are being broken and we are in danger and we need to do as much as we can to assert a functioning reality, look after each other and build sanity and mutual support.


If you can choose

It sounds empowering – you can always choose how to think about something. Unfortunately it isn’t true, and putting that idea about can add layers of blame and shame for people who have been damaged by trauma, and by design.

Brainwashing. Conditioning. Gaslighting. These are terms for processes that are undertaken with the intention of controlling how a person thinks about things. Stockholm syndrome is a consequence of experience that impacts on how you think. When people come out of cults, they need de-programming. Depression and anxiety are illness that are fundamentally about not being able to choose your thoughts. These are all familiar terms, and yet the idea that we can all control our thoughts and choose them, all of the time, keeps doing the rounds.

The human mind can be quite fragile. It can be damaged. Your ability to think rationally can be messed with in ways it will take years to recover from. We like to focus on the people who, by dint of remarkable strength, faith, or persistence are able to resist mind-control and keep their thoughts their own. That a person can do something is not evidence that everyone can do it.

To have your mind broken is to lose yourself. You don’t know who you are anymore. You don’t know what you want or need, or how to feel. You can’t make choices, you are frozen and frightened and lost. I’ve been there. I’m a person with a lot of willpower and a decent capacity for reason, and I have had that taken from me and been obliged to re-build it from scratch. I’ve spent a lot of time not being able to control my thoughts or choose what I think and I’ve had a long, hard fight to overcome that.

I don’t have words adequate to express what it means to lose your self in this way. The experience of not being able to control thoughts – of not being safe even inside your own mind – is an awful one. For anyone who was damaged in childhood there may not even be points of reference for knowing what a functional self looks like. It is hard choosing thoughts when you don’t have a range of possible thoughts to draw on in the first place.

If you can choose what to think about a situation, then you are in a position of privilege. Either you’re not going through something that is damaging you, or you are possessed with unusual degrees of inner strength and resilience. While that’s something to celebrate, it isn’t fair or realistic to assume everyone has the same experiences and resources. Like all privilege, it remains largely invisible to the people who enjoy it.


Why we don’t always believe victims

It would seem a no-brainer, if you are a decent human being, that you would listen to and believe people who report abuse and bullying. But we don’t, and it is important to look at why if that’s ever going to change.

Bullies and abusers don’t go along with being called out. They deny everything, or they tell you that they are the real victim and the person who first clamed victimhood is really the bully. There are bullies who, as part of their routine, accuse their victims of attacking them. If two people are claiming to be victims of each other, the idea of always believing the victim doesn’t stand up very well, because you may not know who it is. More thoughts on this over here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/07/28/calling-out-abusers/

Most of us have a morality that depends to some degree on relationship. So we tend to believe the people we care about and disbelieve the people we don’t know or care about if that threatens someone we like. We also don’t want to believe that we love someone abusive, so we look for reasons to explain away claims of abusive behaviour.

Victim blaming is widespread. Many of us have internalised some of that.

Abusers know what they are doing, and around people who are not their victims, they act in ways that hide this. We are persuaded because they were always so nice to us. In public, they may have seemed like exemplary spouses and parents. They may tell us, with great love and concern how worried they are about the poor mental health and strange beliefs of their victim. We may sympathise, and go on to not believe the victim when they confide in us.

Victims are usually in distress. If they’ve suffered gaslighting, been blamed and made responsible, they may feel it is all their fault. If the bully has persuaded the victim that the victim is the bully, you’re going to have a hard time figuring out what to believe. I am inclined to take care of people who are afraid and distressed and seeking safety. I tend to disbelieve people who are angry and demanding retribution. I look at the power balances. I also figure, if I get this wrong, the angry person is probably better resourced to take care of themselves. It’s not foolproof. Nothing is.

An un-nuanced approach that goes ‘I always believe victims’ can be deeply threatening if you are someone whose abuser has cast them in the role of the bully. If you have had your reality dismantled in this way, this is such a hard thing to deal with. For a long time, I believed myself to be an awful person, deserving of any punishment that came my way. For some years now, I’ve lived in a strange, inbetween place where some days I think I have experienced gaslighting in the past, and some days I think I’m an awful person who deserves everything they get. On the good days, I dare to think I might get over having been made responsible in this way. I’m able to write this because today is a good day.

On a bad day, a flat statement about always believing victims can, and has panicked me. I think about the people (there were several) who were so loud and confident about being my victims, and how knocked down and powerless I felt in face of them. There is always the fear one of them will come back for another go and that they will be believed, and I will not. And the fear that no matter how hard I try, I am so inherently awful that I can only cause harm. On a good day, I think that’s the gaslighting impacting on me.

And I also know that for some people, any experience of being said no to, any criticism, any less than perfectly positive feedback counts as an attack. I know that several of the people in my history experienced me as a terrible person because I couldn’t give them what they needed. I did not prove kind, patient, generous, forgiving, understanding and co-operative enough for them and they experienced that insufficiency as abusive. They’re not making it up, it was their experience of me, and some of them I have seen go through similar issues with other people.

Abuse and bullying are really complicated. A superficial response that says ‘I will always believe victims’ and doesn’t dig into the mechanics and specifics of anything it encounters, is not a magic solution to the woes of the world.


False Equivalence

Creating false equivalence is a gaslighting technique that I’m seeing all too often on social media at the moment. Here’s an example – The British PM is called out by MPs for using words like ‘surrender’ over Brexit because this kind of talk inflames hate and increases the death threats, and presumably, the risk of death for MPs. On social media, random people start comparing this to the left saying ‘bollocks to brexit’.

False equivalence often works because at first glance it looks plausible. People on the left say mean things, people on the right say mean things, if you’re on the left and you complain about the right doing it you’re not just mean, you’re mean and a hypocrite. Saying ‘bollocks’ to something doesn’t incite violence in the way that moving into militaristic language does, and we’ve seen some people talking about ‘getting the knives out’ and using overtly violent language around politics.  It’s not equivalent.

When you see a single example of gaslighting, sometimes it is obviously rubbish. It works through repetition and reassertion. If you keep hearing the same lies, expressed with confidence and certainty, it can start to erode your confidence in your own stance. This is very much an issue in the domestic sphere. For example, if you’re living with someone who reacts as though you’ve punched them if you say no, or that you don’t like or don’t want something, you’ll probably start to feel like you’re doing something awful. I did. Repeatedly being told that expressing distress is exactly the same as someone expressing anger by punching you, will undermine your reality.

Gaslighting is an evil sort of process, designed to drive people mad. For some time now, we’ve been treated to the techniques of gaslighting from people with power and platforms. It’s there in the tabloids, and it impacts on everyone involved. For the person persuaded that ‘bollocks to brexit’ is just as nasty and dangerous a thing to say as talking about getting knives into the opposition, reality is also being eroded. Perhaps more so.

We aren’t wholly logical beings. Often our emotions get the steering wheel. Gaslighting techniques bypass logic, and tie it in knots in order to have an emotional impact. When you feel something keenly, it isn’t easy to be reasonable about it. Whether that’s feeling hurt or diminished or justified or empowered, our emotions colour our perceptions. Equally, if you are persuaded by gaslighting, you are a victim of it, even if you are apparently on the same side as the people dishing it out. Even if you become one of the people dishing it out. A broken reality, is a broken reality no matter how you got there, and there is absolute equivalence between people who have been messed up in this way.

If you’re dealing with false equivalence for yourself, focus on the reasoning and go through things in as calm and logical a way as you can. If you are dealing with someone else’s false equivalence, bear in mind that anything escalating the emotions in the situation will increase the effect on them, not decrease it. Arguing with them may make it worse. Avoiding putting emotional energy in is essential, and better for you as well. If you lash out – however righteously – you will play into the stories about how there is no difference between sides. You will make true the false reality they have been sold. That doesn’t help anyone.


The power to choose how we respond

There’s a popular line of wisdom that goes ‘we always have the power to choose how we respond’. For general purposes, it’s a useful line of thought. Often, when we have nothing else, we do still have power over our own reactions. What we say and do in response to circumstances is ours to decide, and how we act throughout an experience is our choice.

Except when it isn’t.

This failure to recognise what happens when you no longer get to choose how to respond is really unhelpful for people who experience that.

You don’t get to choose how to respond unless you are able to move or express yourself in some way. There are many physical conditions that can take some, or all of that away. You may still get some choice about what you think, but there are also illnesses, accidents and experiences that can rob you of this, as well.

Panic attacks are not a choice. Hiding them is feasible for some of us sometimes, but not for everyone. A severe panic attack takes away your choices about what you can do and say, think and feel.

Conditioning – which is most likely to happen in an abusive and controlling situation – takes away your ability to choose. If pain and fear have been used to train you to react in certain ways, you don’t have the freedom to choose your responses until you have first dealt with the conditioning.

Everyone has a breaking point. For all of us, there is scope for experiencing more than can be coped with and breaking down in a way that means there is no choice about much of what we do. Anyone can be driven mad by excesses of horror, and suffering, by gaslighting, by sleep deprivation and other forms of torture.

Not having the power to choose how you respond is a terrible thing to have to deal with. We do not have to add to that by repeating the lie that we all, always have the choice of how to respond. Sometimes there are no options available. Sometimes minds and bodies are too broken for choice to exist.