Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Emotional Justice: Gaslighting

30Before30: Prioritize Mental Health

I had the most fucked-up conversation I have ever had as an adult with my husband's father a couple of weeks ago.  If I were to write a textbook on what gaslighting is and its use in mentally and emotionally abusive relationships I could use a transcript of this conversation and its aftermath as an example.  For your reference, this feministe post draws out a fuller explanation.

Essentially, my points and comments were met with phrases like, "Well, I think anyone who thinks like that has something wrong with them," "You're not understanding what I'm saying," and "I think you are imagining things that are not there," and "Now I don't want you to get upset/you don't have to get upset."

These statements aren't so bad on their own, right?  Well, it gets weird when I put them in context.  Whenever I disagreed with his points, providing evidence and reasoning, he would say "people" who think like that have something "wrong" with them or he would imply that I misunderstood him when I hadn't.  When those tactics didn't work, he resorted to saying I was imagining things because I was upset or angry.

All of these tactics are designed to make me doubt the validity of my own thoughts and feelings and even my own experience of the conversation in real time.  Systematic and repeated exposure to this type of behavior is a form of abuse.  As this article points out, over time, gaslighting can weaken a victim by compromising their confidence and essentially endangering their sense of self.

So how do you know if it is happening to you?

Dr. Robin Stern, a licensed practicing psychoanalyst and author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, identified some signs that might help you identify whether you are being gaslighted.  
1. You are constantly second-guessing yourself
2. You ask yourself, "Am I too sensitive?" a dozen times a day.
3. You often feel confused and even crazy at work.  
4. You're always apologizing to your mother, father, boyfriend,, boss.
5. You can't understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren't happier.
6. You frequently make excuses for your partner's behavior to friends and family.
7. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don't have to explain or make excuses.
8. You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
9. You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists. 
10. You have trouble making simple decisions.
11. You have the sense that you used to be a very different person - more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
12. You feel hopeless and joyless.
13. You feel as though you can't do anything right.
14. You wonder if you are a "good enough" girlfriend/ wife/employee/ friend; daughter.
Emphasis added is mine.  Source.

Now the question: How do you practice self-care in this situation?

First, an important part of prioritizing mental health for me has been recognizing when I need to practice self care and believing that it is alright to do so.  This seems like a very basic stance but I think a lot of women, myself included, are brought up to do the exact opposite.  Girls tend to be socialized as nurturers and care-givers but the emphasis of all that care is always supposed to be focused outward.  Focusing inward can seem selfish and wrong.  

Swallowing all that hurt and anger and bitterness is no way to live.  I can, and will, tell you stories.

Here is what I did, however, I recommend that you always research and inform yourself as much as possible.  The links and references I have provided are a good start.  

Additionally, if you have access to counseling services use them.  There is NOTHING WRONG with reaching out for help-when we bitch to our friends we are essentially doing the same thing for free feedback of questionable quality.

First, AFFIRM YOURSELF.  I am not crazy.  This is what happened.  This is why it is wrong.  This is why it makes me feel this way.

Let it marinate.  I digested the conversation for a day or so.  I did this for myself but also because I knew I wanted to talk to my husband about it.

Talk about it.  I was able to express what happened and how it made me feel.  Taking the time to process and think helped me clearly articulate my thoughts.  By the time we talked I was also calm enough to listen which meant Wes and I could have a real discussion.  If you do want to talk about it, talk about it with someone you trust or find an impartial party.

Assess your options.  Think about what you want to happen-how can you proceed to meet those ends?  Maybe you can limit contact with this person.  Maybe you can choose to alter how you engage with them.  Our choices are limited right now and in a very real sense, the best we can do if we want to remain together is to wait it out and move as soon as possible.

Decide on coping strategies.  If you can't escape your situation completely, think about how you want to cope.  Waiting it out sucks, but in the meantime we are adapting by ensuring that we both spend as little time in the house as possible and we do our best to keep separate meal times.  Additionally, I no longer engage in conversation with him.  

It's not ideal, but it's the best we have right now.

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