I am a gaslighter
But can we change our patterns?
I did it again last night. I did this thing that I am not proud of. But somehow it is always my reaction when I am hurt…
In this essay, I talk about the complexities of being hurt, if acting to get what you desire is bad, and how you actually have more influence over other people than you think.
You did something that hurt me. And I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what happened.
Years ago, I came to understand the term gaslighting. Do you know it? Do you do it? From my understanding (perhaps flawed) it is a psychological term used to describe when people emotionally manipulate others into questioning their sanity. Or their perspective.
There is a spectrum. As with everything. An example of one end might be something like, “I feel bad about something that was said before.” To which someone else might reply, “Why are you so goddam sensitive all the time?” (Note to all sensitive people out there who have had someone say this to you: Raise your hands. You are not alone. I found out recently I had been being labeled as sensitive by multiple grade school teachers—my mom kept my report cards—and ex’s and friends alike. Not all malicious, but not all kind either… I doubt my kindergarten teacher was using the term “sensitive” to mean that I was highly intuitive and understanding.)
And elsewhere on the spectrum of gaslighting, one could knowingly use their perception against reality to uproot you. Or for example, let’s briefly look at the Me Too Movement. This perhaps would fall under the umbrella of the way that our cultures can gaslight us by making us feel like our opinions and experiences are not acceptable. I have been really lucky to have not received blatant abuse from either a partner or stranger, but almost half of my friends who are female-identifying have. One of my oldest friends only recently told me that she had been date-raped twice. She had invited the dudes back to her house, and said she was not interested in penetrative sex, and fallen asleep only to be woken up by someone doing things that she did not consent to. Twice. With TWO different men. When she appeared upset, one of them said, “You invited me over.” Implying that that invitation had been extended to all parts of her body. She told me she felt like she was crazy.
I am ashamed to say this, but a part of me thought some Camille Paglia–like response along the lines of “Well, you wore a short skirt. You drank too much. You invited him to sleep over….” But Fuck Camille Paglia.
"We're not talking about sexual assault. We're talking about, often in the case of undergraduates, we're talking about both individuals are drunk. The men are looking for sexual experience. The women aren't sure what they want... What I've said from the start, and I maintain I'm correct: a girl who goes to a fraternity party and is asked by a young man, would you like to go up to my room—I still maintain to this day that a woman who says yes is signaling she is ready for sex."
—Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae
Who gives someone else the right to violate someone else’s body? Fuck that dude. And screw me for not having the gut reaction to support and honor my friend’s experience first and foremost. That tenderness was my second impulse. And not my first.
I, however, have been gaslighting all of my life in some form or another. I am trying to become more aware. To notice when I start doing it. But changing the tone of the room and my pain is hard. Rationalizing that even tho I am feeling this way, it is not effective in getting the sympathy and recognition I so desperately crave.
When I came home yesterday, after two days of being away from my lover, I thought that he would be happy to see us. It was nice to have a break from each other. But halfway through the trip, I realized that I missed him. I missed his grumpy always-having-an-agenda mood swings. I also felt proud of myself that I could go off with M and my dad and have fun. That I could give him time alone because that’s what he needed and not resent him. I wanted him to recognize me, that I had given him this gift. And taken care of more things around the house, so that he could focus. I wanted him to say: “Thank you. I appreciate all that you do for us.”
But that is not what I returned home to. I returned home to a sleep-deprived man who had eaten an entire cake even tho carbs make him sick. And frustrated by not getting all he wanted to get done done.
How do you go about recognizing an unhealthy behavior in yourself? Fuck, if you know, let me know.
I do this pattern. It is always the same. I get hurt. I feel bad. I can’t tell you, I am not sure why. I want you to care. To see me, but when you do, it is not enough.
I am always surprised that this method of cold not-caring on my part wouldn’t inspire care and tenderness from you. Like I am so mean to you, with the goal in mind that you would be ultra-gentle with me. There is a flaw in logic.
It would be far more “effective.” (This is a problematic term, but I cannot think of a better one. It is problematic for me in that I am not sure if I want to judge things only the spectrum of effectiveness. The term seems to limit, be judgmental, perhaps capitalist, and inhuman. Ultimately presumptuous that we as humans could ever conceive of and understand all the variables needed to truly understand what it would mean to be effective.)
So, I was mean.
Mean in the cold/distant way. I took on what I perceived to be your mood and let it take me with it. Giving short answers. Saying I could do the dishes so you could get back to work. Pretending that I didn’t want you around.
In her recent book, You Have More Influence Than You Think, Vanessa Bohns researches how we underestimate the effect we have on other people. She illustrates how this lack of self-awareness can lead to misunderstandings and techniques for letting go of the influence that you don’t have and digging into what you can.
When I noticed myself doing this cold-I-don’t-care, the-way-that-I-punish-the-people-I-love thing, I started to think about what I actually had control of in the situation. It made me think of the above book. I have not read it (only read reviews), but it made me think, in this situation, how could I—through my own actions—influence and avoid indulging in my own pre-programmed responses and alter them to be more effective?
In this case, I think that I can speak for both Josh and me that we want to feel loved and supported. To be seen and honored. We want a home environment where we feel appreciated and worthy. I am guessing that a more “effective” response might have been caring for what he had been working on. Looking him in the eye. Telling him that I missed him, even tho at that moment, I was angry and hurt. That might have elicited a loving response back—what I ultimately desired.*
We will see if I can actually do it next time.
*For those of you who might take issue with this approach, I do too. I feel like it is acting. And I feel like I have been taught that acting is bad. That authentic is good. That you should be able to be most authentic with the people you love. And I don’t disagree. It is just so complicated.