STEPHANIE WILLIAMS, PH.D.
You have probably heard this term thrown around a lot lately – Gaslighting. Gaslighting is a psychological term we, as a nation, know all too well – “Alternative Facts” taking the place of perceived reality.
Gaslighting, means to manipulate one by psychological means into questioning her own sanity.
Melissa McCarthy’s character of Sean Spicer beautifully illustrates the concept during the SNL Cold Open (published Feb. 5 on YouTube):
“I’d like to begin today by apologizing on behalf of you, to me, for how you treated me in the last two weeks.”
Later on in the skit, a reporter asks McCarthy (Spicer) about Trump’s travel ban.
“Yeah, I wanted to ask about the travel ban on Muslims,” the reporter asks.
“It’s not a ban,” McCarthy says. “Not a ban. The travel ban is not a ban, which makes it not a ban.”
“But you just called it a ban,” the reporter responds.
McCarthy (Spicer): “Because I’m using your words, you said ban, you said ban, now I’m saying it back to you.”
The reporter then says “The president tweeted and I quote, if the ban were announced with a one week notice…”
McCarthy (Spicer) interrupts.
“Yeah, exactly, you just said that, he’s quoting you. It’s your words. He’s using your words when you used the words and he uses them back — it’s a circular using of the word and that’s from you.”
I found this skit hilariously funny, but also highly disturbing in its realism. It seems absurd, but it is dead on.
I see this too often in my practice. A client comes to me desperate to understand why she cannot make a relationship work. She has lost the ability to trust herself and her own judgment. She has begun to believe her partner’s alternative facts and has bought into the lie.
In reality, the controlling person has used manipulation and intimidation to twist the facts around to fit her agenda. Almost always, the controller has a personality flaw that does not allow her to self-reflect or see her human limitations. She is unable to see that she has any faults or responsibility in her relationships with other humans. This phenomenon can be extremely subtle or over-the-top. As an example of how outlandish the manipulation can be when it has been allowed to persist over a long period of time, I once had a client who said, “We went out with friends last week and now she is screaming at me that it is my fault that she caught the flu because, if I would have told her it was going to rain and that she should wear a coat, she wouldn’t have gotten sick. I guess I should have reminded her.”
It is painful for me to see how a person can be unwittingly sucked into this dynamic, how she slowly believes the lie, and how now not only does the controller beat her up, but she starts doing it to herself and believing she is broken. She has lost herself and is unable to see what someone else from the outside clearly can.
People tell her her partner is bad news, but she is emotionally locked in. She believes she is, on some level, defective and that the only person who could love her is the abuser. She concocts strategies to improve herself to win the acceptance of the abuser (which, by the way, never happens). The abuser slyly resolves to distance the person from friends and family who try to offer her insight into the dynamic, isolating her so that the brainwashing cannot be brought to light.
For the reasons I have illustrated, it is not easy for most people to walk away from such an emotionally entangled relationship, although when I have educated people about the dynamic, some have found a great freedom in understanding it. Although, some beat themselves up for not having seen it sooner. When the client finally is able to see what has happened to her she is able to say “no” to the madness. From my perspective, it is like a high fever that has finally broken, allowing the client to see it all so clearly and leaving her baffled by her former stupor.
Gaslighting is not confined to intimate relationships. Now being expected, as a nation, to believe alternative facts, gaslighting has taken a stronghold. With this happening on a micro level in personal relationships and on a macro level with our nation’s current leadership, many feel like we are bombarded by controlling fear-mongers. What can we do collectively to free ourselves from this manipulation?
To begin to combat gaslighting, one first must let go of the fantasy that the abuser will change and that she will grow to see the error of her ways. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but no amount of contorting, confronting, explaining or anything else will change the personality type that engages in gaslighting. For a victim of gaslighting, it usually takes much time and support to gain back one’s trust and belief in one’s own truths. As a nation, it may require the same long-term effort to avoid buying into the tactics used by an insecure leader to undermine our ability to rely on our common sense. By identifying gaslighting in current personal relationships, we can work on not being swayed by what we know in our gut is untrue. We can also be aware of triggers from gaslighting in former relationships that continue to cause us to question ourselves in the present. By strengthening ourselves in personal relationships, we strengthen ourselves collectively. We grow to trust ourselves and develop the strength to dig our heels in and fight back.