Can I just say, gaslighting is a whole BUNCH of annoying bullshit.
If you’re not familiar with what gaslighting is, you can read about it here. I can just about guarantee someone at some point has gaslighted you. This is particularly true if you’re a woman, though it’s by no means limited to women. The whole point of it is to make you question your own reality. It’s a whole bunch of toxic that nobody needs. That said: In this post, I’m going to talk about how it impacts women because that’s my personal experience.
It heartens me to see a greater amount of awareness about gaslighting and emotional toll it takes on people getting greater attention. One of the big lessons I had to learn about gaslighting is this: Trust yourself. It sounds like easy advice but women in general aren’t raised to trust themselves, at least not women of my generation. I’d like to think it’s changing. We’re raised to view ourselves through the lens of our value not to ourselves, but rather to someone else – our value as mothers, as wives, as sex objects. We are taught that our worth lies in how clean and well-behaved our children are, how much we appeal to the male gaze, how artfully we decorate our surroundings with our presence. Our talents, our intelligence, our very selves are erased in favor of these less personal things and when it feels intrinsically wrong and unfair to us, we’re taught to ignore that voice inside us telling us that.
While it’s a whole other issue (and probably fodder for a whole several other blog posts) to touch on the ways that women are taught to devalue themselves of their own intrinsic worth in favor of someone else’s opinions, I think it carries relevance to the issue of why we’re susceptible to gaslighting. One of the key aspects of gaslighting is that the person doing it has a vested interest in ensuring that you trust their perceptions over your own. If you’ve grown up being taught by the culture you live in that your opinions and feelings carry less weight than your male counterpart’s then it’s easier for your counterpart to convince you that his reality supersedes your own when those realities don’t match.
I grew up watching this impact my mother in particular. She was an intelligent woman, creative, skilled in her chosen profession (surgical RN). She had a great sense of humor and was capable of deep insight into things. She was also made to feel insecure, small, insignificant and worthless because she was overweight and not a great housekeeper. Looking back at this from the perspective of being an adult with the benefit of counseling I can see how ridiculous it was to devalue her for such petty and insignificant reasons, but that’s the culture she lived in.
Because I mean, let’s be clear. Anyone who would try and make someone who’s daily profession involves saving other human lives feel worthless because of the size of their ass and the number of dishes in their sink? Is a jackass. She was never given the tools to flip that bullshit the bird. Fortunately, she also recognized that it WAS bullshit, and she gave me the tools to do so.
For me, learning that self trust isn’t a journey I’ve made by myself. I’ve found great value in seeing a counselor and learned some solid tips for developing that “in tune with my own feelings” place so that it’s harder to pull this on me. I think one of the most valuable things I learned in therapy had to do with learning to listen to my own inner voice. If I felt a particular way, especially if that feeling was negative, I learned to stop and take a breath and ask myself why I felt that way. And believe me, it’s not going to be a eureka moment the first time or even few times you do it because chances are you’re going to be digging through some layers of crap to get to the heart of it.
Hand in hand with that was learning to just allow emotions to BE. This is especially true with negative emotions because women are strongly taught not to have those or to acknowledge them. We’re taught to feel bad or guilty if we do. Emotions are part of who we are and anger, sorrow, grief, disgust all come from an authentic place inside of us when we allow them to exist. We don’t have to act them out but we do have to acknowledge their existence. This was taught to me as “embracing the dark child* within”. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by a negative emotion, imagine that emotion in the guise of a small, angry child. Now offer the child a hug. Embrace that child and imagine the love in your heart for that child – yourself – to flow out and surround that child. Offer soothing and comfort without judgement. You’re not here at this moment to solve the child’s problem or figure out why they’re upset. You’re here to just offer love and comfort.
As you learn to pour the comfort out you start to get a better sense of what’s driving the negative emotion and it comes back to the thing of taking a breath and asking yourself why you felt that way. As you develop a deeper sense of comfort with yourself, it gets easier to really examine without judgement what made you feel that way. And the stronger your sense of connection is to yourself and the WHY of your feelings, the less other people outside of you can ding your sense of self-worth and your trust in your own thoughts and feelings in order to meet their own purpose.