Tag Archives: gaslighting

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.

 


Dubious logic

Trigger warnings for abuse and gaslighting mechanics

I’ve had a few comments here recently that I haven’t let through because of the kind of faux-logic involved. It’s a system I refer to as x=y and that can contribute to gaslighting. It can sound persuasive and if you’re exposed to it in a close relationship with someone you trust, it can be incredibly damaging.

The ‘x’ in this equation is something you’ve done or said. It might be your clothing, that one time you cried, something you misunderstood. It may also be something you never did or said that is now being attributed to you. The ‘y’ is presented as the logical consequence of x. As a culture we do this around rape – what a woman was wearing equals her consent to anyone who wanted to do anything to her. New Age Culture does it a lot – success equals virtue, and alongside it, suffering equals lack of sufficient positivity, or bad karma. These kinds of false causalities make life harder for people who are already suffering.

Often with gaslighting it goes a step further so we find x=y and therefore it makes perfect sense if I do z to you. Z is presented as totally justified and the only reasonable response in the circumstance. Your clothes equal your consent so any reasonable person would rape you in the circumstances. It is a chilling line of logic.

What makes this so powerful is that human minds are persuaded by apparent causality. This is why we have superstitions. Our brains are willing to make connections where none exist. If someone else keeps making those connections and telling us about it, we may well start to internalise some of what we’re hearing. We believe that because we look the way we do it is inevitable that we will be harmed for it. We start to believe that use and abuse are normal, reasonable reactions to our faces, our bodies, our tears.

The recent blog comments were more along the lines of ‘if you believe this then you must also believe this really awful thing, so you can see what a terrible person you are’. The ‘x’ of my original statement becoming a ‘y’ of something being put onto me. It’s very easy to do and I’m not convinced everyone who uses this technique does so knowingly. I think sometimes it’s what happens when a person’s own reality is so badly damaged that their head is full of non-sequiturs. If you’ve internalised the dubious logic our culture holds then you might easily regurgitate that without knowing you’re doing it. Women who insist that modest dress will protect other women from rape are a case in point here.

Saying a thing is a logical progression does not make it a logical progression. Saying one thing means another does not make that true either.

Anything that makes a victim responsible for the actions of an abuser needs recognising as an abuse tactic and rejecting – which is not so easy to do in practice when you’re on the receiving end.

X=Y logic is not always worth arguing with. Sometimes it’s just about using up your time and energy and trying to tie you in knots with stupid hypothetical situations. Making you engage is a popular tactic with trolls, and that means sometimes the best thing to do is not engage. Sometimes the best thing to do is exit quickly and quietly. You are entitled to feel safe, and if a conversation doesn’t feel safe it’s often better to just get out of there if you can. If you are living with this kind of stuff, get help around how to leave safely – the risks of being killed or injured by an abuser are at their highest when people try to leave. X=Y logic all too often leads to ‘and this is why I have to hurt you.’


After the gaslighting

Gaslighting is a deliberate process where one person sets out to destroy another person’s relationship with reality. It is often a feature of abusive relationships because a person who no longer trusts their own judgement is easier to harm and control. It’s also very normal for abusers to tell their victims that nothing happened. There was no punch. There was no shouting. It didn’t happen. The victim is mad.

When you hear day in and day out that you said things you are sure you never said, did things you do not think you did… you question yourself. If the person you love and trust keeps telling you that you’re imagining things, the damage can be done long before you notice what’s happening. You end up not trusting your memory or judgement and that’s terrifying. You’re so busy trying to hold on to a viable reality that you don’t see what’s being done.

I got out. What I’ve only just started dealing with is the legacy of gaslighting. I’ve not seen much about the aftermath which is part of why I’ve only just realised that there is one,for me.

If someone states as fact that I’ve done or not done something, where I think the opposite is true, then I fall straight into total panic. It’s easily done. A misheard word, a misremembering by someone else, a misreading, a misinterpretation… but I don’t default to assuming the other person made a mistake. I go straight back into that headspace where my reality was broken and I didn’t trust myself to know if something that hurt was in my best interests or not. I recognise it now as a form of triggering that makes me largely unable to deal with this kind of situation.

I can be put here by accident – we all make mistakes and many people pay less attention to their words than I do. What we remember is not always what the other person remembers – usually that’s fine, it’s when it gets thrown at me as unassailable fact that the panic kicks in. I can also be panicked by people ascribing meaning to my actions that was not what I meant at all and refusing to let me explain how I see things. I’ve gone a few rounds with this without recognising that triggering was part of the process. Evidently, I can be triggered by anything that looks like gaslighting and while it’s happening, I have no way of even thinking about whether this is an intentional attack or just poor communication. I don’t experience it as either, initially. I experience it as me being an awful failure of a human being who should crawl off somewhere and die quietly, because that’s where it puts me.

This is one of the things that makes triggering so difficult to deal with. While it’s happening, you often can’t tell it’s happening – a previous reality asserts itself over the top of the one you are currently in. You’re back in the place or the headspace where the trauma happened. It doesn’t leave room for questioning it, or thinking about the mechanics of what’s happening. With gaslighting, being put back there suddenly is terrifying and disorientating. It reasserts a former reality that wasn’t real and that was all about trying to break me. I feel the things I used to feel, and they are not good and further, they rob me of all means of dealing with whatever’s caused the trigger. If I’m panicking because I no longer know what’s real, I can’t deal with the other person’s mistake. Or my own.

I’m working on a strategy to cope with this next time it comes round. Here’s what I’ve got so far: I am entitled to feel however I feel regardless of whether it makes sense to anyone else. I am entitled to have opinions, even if they are at odds with other people’s opinions. I am entitled to feel safe, so if I’m not feeling safe I should step back from a situation and make some space to get myself on a better footing before I try and sort anything out. I do not owe anyone a response or explanation straight away, I can have more time. There are usually other people who I can check in with about what I said and did, and how it might be interpreted. I should do that as soon as I can. I have people I can trust to help me navigate. I need to develop these ideas when I’m not triggered so that I have them in my head when things go wrong.

I recognise that what has happened to me was not of my making. That makes it harder to deal with alone. However, the support of people around me makes a lot of odds. Trust is something I find difficult, but increasingly I think trust is the way out of this for me. It is in trusting the people who think I am sane enough, and good enough that I can build resistance to the triggering.


Believe in truth

This is the next instalment in my series of blogs where I pick up ideas about fighting fascism from Molly Scott Cato.

This is a tricky one in the current environment – believe in truth. With so many sources offering opinions as facts, rubbishing experts, buying ‘experts’ to promote their agenda, offering counter facts that aren’t true – it’s not easy to pick out the truth from the lies, or from the confusion.

Believing in truth is a belief position. Previously we looked at asking for evidence – which is about establishing what the truth is most likely to be. This is a different, and more philosophical process. It asks us to get over post-modernism, and step away from the idea that truth is always subjective, partial, contextual. Sometimes these ideas are useful and relevant, but they are also easily manipulated to serve a right wing agenda.

Belief itself is a state that is easily manipulated. We also all know that data can be innocently misunderstood, experts can be wrong because they haven’t seen all the data yet, and so forth. The very best information we can get falls short of the truth.

One of the things that abusers do – it’s called gaslighting – is to provide the victim with conflicting information with the intention of driving them mad. Right now in British politics, Jeremy Corbyn is being presented by the media as weak and ineffectual, but also as a powerful leader with dangerous ideas. Migrants apparently come over here to simultaneously take all our jobs while scrounging off our benefits system – we’ve seen a lot of that one. The EU is simultaneously totally evil, but should kindly find a solution to our brexit problems. Clearly both cannot be true. People with terminal illness are declared fit for work. When you’re thinking about truth, this is an area to pay particular attention to.

A person who is interested in truth will be open to new information. They won’t however, swing back and forth between conflicting ideas and at every turn expect you to believe the idea they’re putting forth. Taking a step back and trying to look at the overall pattern will give you a better sense of what you are dealing with.

In face of constant gaslighting, it may be a better bet to pick a view and stick to it, just so that you can function and keep moving. In face of gaslighting, it’s not enough to believe in your truth – you will need to remind yourself of it and revisit the evidence so that the misinformation does not undermine you. Given the scale of the gaslighting, you will also need to share that evidence with other people who will likely also be struggling to navigate and stay sane.

Even if you’re not sure what the truth is, if you believe in the idea that there is truth, and the evidence (somewhere!) to make it clear, then you have some resilience against the madness people feel when they are given conflicting information and told that it is all true.


Calling out abusers

When you call out bad behaviour in others, a number of things may happen. A person who has made an honest mistake, or just been careless, will likely be upset but also sorry and remorseful. Decent people called out on their cock-ups tend to own it and try to deal with it.

Whether you’re responding to something done to you, or calling someone out over what you’ve seen them do to others, the results can be the same, although the consequences of that, in turn, may be different. Here are some of the most obvious outcomes and their implications.

The abuser denies everything. Frustrating if you’re an observer, devastating if you’re a victim. If you’ve been shouted at or hit, and then told that these things did not happen, it’s confusing and distressing. If you endure a lot of it, you may feel you’re going mad. Denying what happened is a form of gaslighting.

The abuser blames the victim. The victim in some way made them do it. Again, this is devastating for the victim, and may over time persuade them that they are responsible. It’s hardest on child victims who have no reason to know it isn’t their fault. If you are not the victim and you get this response, do think carefully about whether the person on the receiving end could really have caused what happened to them. It’s not an argument anyone should be comfortable with. Making victims responsible for the abuse they experience is a form of emotional abuse and gaslighting.

The abuser derides the victim. The victim is crazy, a drama queen, over reacting, a liar, making it up, fantasising, needs help. This is another form of gaslighting that will, over time, cause the victim to doubt their own sanity and judgement. They will complain less, and do less to protect themselves if they are persuaded that their responses are irrational and unreasonable. If the person challenging over abuse is persuaded that the victim is ridiculous, the victim gets less help and support. If everyone is persuaded that the victim is silly and makes a fuss, abuse can go on and nothing is done about it. Do not be complicit in this.

The abuser minimises what was done. A blow becomes ‘just a tap’ a violent shove becomes ‘a little accident’. The abuser says it wasn’t as bad as the victim was making out – again this undermines the victim’s confidence in their own judgement and plays into the idea that the victim is making a fuss about nothing. Watch out for the use of the word ‘just’ in this context. Where the abuse is non-physical, this is even easier to persuade onlookers about. The victim is a snowflake, a drama queen, wants to be the centre of attention, has no sense of perspective, makes mountains out of molehills…

If you have heard about abuse from someone else, rather than seeing it first hand, there is a further thing to take into account when calling someone out: Bullies often play victim. If two people tell you that they are each is being bullied by the other, the odds are that one of them is telling you the truth, and the other is saying it to do more harm to their victim. On the whole, victims tend to be fearful and seeking safety while bullies claiming victimhood are likely to be angry and wanting retribution. Victims may be confused (for all of the above reasons) and not sure if it’s their fault in some way. Bullies are confident when they self identify as victims. The victim is the person most likely to be apologising and wondering how to fix things. If the bully is playing victim and the victim is the person who is saying ‘I think it may be all my fault, I’m afraid I’m a horrible person, I can’t get anything right’ then it can be all too easy to misjudge what’s going on.

Also, if someone is more offended by being called out than they are worried about the harm they may have inadvertently caused, they’re out of order.


Danger signs in human relationships

How do you tell when a relationship has crossed a line and become genuinely toxic rather than merely uncomfortable or challenging? When you’re in the thick of things, especially if it’s impacting on you emotionally, it can be hard to make good decisions about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. To further complicate things, a deliberately abusive person will try to persuade you of their world view in order to keep abusing you, and that can make things incredibly confusing.

Here are some things I think it’s fairly easy to spot even in emotive situations. These are danger signs. The amount of them and the context will of course matter, and people in crisis can flail about in horrible ways and still deserve our sympathy, but on the whole if it looks like this, be very careful.

Double standards – rules for you that do not apply to them, and/or entitlements they have that you are not allowed.

They can only be right and you can only be wrong unless you totally agree with them and do everything on their terms.

Not being allowed to express any kind of pain or discomfort. If you are punished, verbally or physically for expressing pain or discomfort, this is a very dangerous situation. Leave it carefully – leaving is when abusers are at their most dangerous.

De-personing you – not allowing you to think, or feel anything that isn’t agreeable to them. Refusing to hear you if you express something that doesn’t suit them. Rubbishing your opinion. Minimising your distress by telling you that you are over reacting, making a fuss, that it’s drama and attention seeking. Being very quick to dismiss you. Decent people tend to be slower to complain that other people are doing drama.

Attributing things to you that are of their making – ‘you made me angry’ and ‘you made me hit you’ are classic examples of this, but it can be more subtle. For women, the effect our bodies have on male bodies is something we are routinely blamed for and made responsible for. There’s a limit to how responsible you can be for the effect you have on other people, and this stuff is definitely on the other side of the line. Also, the same people will not take any responsibility at all for the impact they have on you, even when we’re talking bruises. They will treat these things as comparable – their anger and your bruise. Either you’ll find that if you can be heard, everything they feel is then blamed on you using that as the justification. Or, if you can’t be responsible for how they feel about you, they can’t be responsible for anything either. It’s twisted and difficult to sort through. Watch out for un-nuanced, binary thinking in which one thing is taken to mean another.

Changing the story. Now, we all change stories as our understanding of a situation shifts over time. It becomes a danger sign when the changes are rapid, illogical, contradictory, if you are clearly being lied to, and then lied to in a different way to cover the first lie, and when you are expected to go along with the ‘truth’ that the other person has at any given moment and they get angry if you can’t keep up or make sense of things. This is a mind game, and a form of gaslighting. If they treat you like you are crazy for not being able to make sense of their shifting story, it is definitely gaslighting.

This is by no means a definitive list, but I think it’s a useful place to start.