Gaslighting. What does the word evoke? I planned on writing an article about it, but Merriam-Webster beat me to it, crowning gaslighting as the word of the year.
Therapists have been familiar with gaslighting prior to its 2022 coronation, but before digging into the details, let’s talk about most Boomers’ first acquaintance with the term.
A popular 1944 film, Gaslight, starred Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton, and Charles Boyer. The movie contributed to using this label for not-so-uncommon psychological abuse.
Yes, gaslighting is abuse.
You can also view it as bullying, and all bullying’s harmful, but what makes it so egregious?
The victim’s sense of self, judgement, and worse, mental health, suffers from pressuring and deception for the protection of another’s self, their family, their image, their money, and their reputation.
Greed, envy, jealousy, and exposure are some of the driving forces.
It occurs in families, groups, work settings, governments, and anything or anywhere threatening the status quo.
Over the course of my professional career, I’ve encountered situations where clients endure gaslighting. This includes adolescent children, adult children, and other family members, when deviating from the clan’s norms.
Here are a few disguised examples:
About 30 years ago, I saw an adolescent because of their acting out behavior. The parents always attended the sessions, and based on their dress and behavior, I sensed something was off but couldn’t put my finger on it. Couples often display some congruency, but this was not the case here.
When the adolescent met with me, I suggested they share more about the situation in the home for me to assist them better. Much strife occurred between the couple, which included hints of infidelity and substance abuse. The adolescent became the confidante. I asked the adolescent about my sharing this with one parent. They agreed.
During my meeting with the parent, things didn’t go well. They dismissed their child’s concerns, claiming the issues were deeply exaggerated, and things with everyone other than the identified patient were fine. Thus, I never saw that young person again.
Within a year or two of that encounter, another individual sought my help. Depression ensued. This person and their spouse engaged in a nontraditional lifestyle, less common than now. Soon, this person revealed their childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. When the individual divulged this to relatives, backlash and denial were severe.
They became a pariah, even by one sibling who suffered similar treatment. Again, denial and insinuations about the individual’s mental health ensued. The last I heard, the individual and their spouse removed themselves from further contact with their family of origin.
Fast forward years later, an individual came to see me, referred by a colleague who maintained their client suffered from crippling anxiety. After many sessions, I concluded things weren’t as they seemed. The anxiety seemed related to a situational matter disguised by another family member.
I encouraged the client to explore options to uncover the truth. They resisted at first, but soon discovered the reality of the genesis of their anxiety. I spoke to the lovely family therapist about the problem. They shared with me their suspicions. But the client and other members banished any concerns, focusing on the client’s overwhelming anxiety.
Not long after, the client removed themselves from the toxic relationships surrounding them, with their anxiety lifting.
The reason I share these examples?
Many Boomers have been gaslighted. Some cases are easier for recovery than others. Put downs about one’s body or intelligence might be brushed off. Others, not so much. If it’s the latter, I hope you’ve explored ways to reverse those messages. For others, it’s never too late.
Also, as we age, senior moments abound. Please don’t allow anyone to make you feel bad. If it’s more serious, that’s a different topic. However, sometimes, dementia of a loved one lies in front of us, and if the issue is raised, it might be pooh-poohed. And this is another form of gaslighting.
How about on a larger scale? When you know something’s amiss but others double down, telling you how wrong you are or worse. They hurl insults, claiming you suffer from paranoia. Yes, gaslighting lurks everywhere, without speaking of paranoia, sounding paranoid.
What to do?
For embedded messages, please seek help from a professional.
And those that you can’t control, but you understand your sanity is challenged? Find well-balanced people who witnesses the emperor’s lack of clothing, regardless of others’ attempts to gaslight you.
What do you know about gaslighting? Have you experienced it in your life? How have you dealt with this phenomenon? What has gaslighting cost you?