The term ‘gaslighting‘ has become popular in recent times and, to a degree, I associate with it. My childhood was weird by anyone’s standards, yet to the outside world my life was tickety boo. My friends all told me they wished my Mum were theirs because “she’s lovely” and everyone and his dog liked my Dad who was a “grand fella”, but they didn’t have to live with my Mum’s mental health issues, addictions and poor parenting skills or my Dad’s volatile moods, complete lack of parenting or (now suspected) autistic tendencies. For example, we had a dishwasher fitted in our kitchen and needed a hole putting through to outside for the waste pipe. My Dad started stabbing at the wall with a kitchen fork and thought he could make a 3″ diameter hole through solid sandstone with it – it’s not exactly rational behaviour. In response, my Mum chucked a mental and threw an entire shepherd’s pie, in its glass ovenproof dish, at his head which, if it had hit him, could have killed him. I went up to my bedroom and read a book to escape the insanity – it was just an average week to me.
Although my childhood didn’t fit the strict definition of ‘gaslighting’ I still identify with the warping of reality and the constant pretence by my parents that everything was fine, when it was anything but. As a child you don’t know this though – you just know that you’re miserable and confused and worried but don’t know why. You’re unaware you’re living in a dysfunctional household or that your parents can’t cope or have mental health issues. I knew they both loved me to bits, but their behaviour made me very, very unhappy so then the definition of being loved got warped too. As a child this is all totally confusing and you simply can’t get your head round it.
I married a man who truly gaslighted. He would argue with me that black was white and red was no colour at all. He made me doubt my sanity, my perception and reality. He would flirt outrageously with other women, then tell me I was being paranoid when I got upset about it. He isolated me from my friends and family, constantly told me I looked like crap or talked shite, belittled me in front of his friends who all thought he was hilarious, spread rumours that I was mentally unstable (which after 4 years with him I actually was!). This guy made me question everything about myself, but in such a subtle and manipulative way that I had no idea it was happening.
I had a very interesting conversation with my best mate recently about the fact several of my close friendships have died a death in recent years and it made me realize that the way these women have chosen to fall out with me also feels gaslight-y. For example, my dearest friend of over 2 decades had become distant. I could only ring her at certain times, she didn’t confide in me the way she used to and she had a family member she’d become extremely close to who had obviously taken my place. After not hearing from her for over 3 weeks I wrote a blog post, the gist of which was that I feared for my mental health after my mum dies as we speak every day, my best friend wasn’t making time for me and I’d love to make some new friends to fill the void my Mum will leave when she dies (she wasn’t a raging alcoholic then and we had always been super close). I didn’t feel I said anything bad and didn’t think my friend would read it as she was too busy to even text me let alone read my blog, but she did read it and went ballistic. Within 24 hours her husband and son had unfriended me on Facebook and our 20 year friendship was over. I was made out to be an awful person by her whole family, when she was the one being a shit friend and all I’d done was be honest about the situation and say that I felt isolated and lonely. I mention my other closest friend in the post, who also read the article, and was not in the least bit offended by it. In fact we had an honest discussion about our situations and both agreed that although we love our friendship we’d both like more friends as we live some distance from each other and can’t get to see each other as much as we’d like.
The neighbour who was nasty to me recently which I wrote about at the time hasn’t spoken to me since. So she tells me I look old and miserable not once but 3 times despite knowing I was upset by her comments, then takes the hump and is now no longer speaking to me. WTF?!
Of course, my biological Dad was the master manipulator. He wasn’t very involved in my life but sent me to Coventry, along with the rest of my paternal family, when I asked someone else to give me away at my wedding (which I wrote about here). So he’s a shit Dad but I am the one who is treated like a Leper when I’m honest and tell him he’s been a shit Dad.
In these people’s minds, they are in the right and I am in the wrong. They can’t admit to themselves that they’ve actually not been the best parent/friend/husband so I am made to feel at fault because it’s easier to blame me than to face up to their own behaviour. As the gaslighting article reminds me, it’s impossible to reason with them or to get them to take responsibility for their behaviour. They truly believe you are the one being unreasonable or nasty, not them.
The gaslighting article describes how the author herself survived her childhood, and in reading it I realize that that’s how I survived too:
- By being defiant and not accepting my parents’ behaviour was normal or healthy – I knew it wasn’t. “Being defiant does not make you difficult. It makes you resilient.”
- Accepting that acknowledgement is not on the cards. I knew my Dad would never in a million years admit he’d been a rubbish parent or that he’d made a mistake in blaming me for our lack of relationship.
- Letting go of the wish for things to be different. I didn’t try to change my Dad’s or my Friend’s minds when they stopped speaking to me – I just wished them the best and let it go. I held on to the knowledge that I’d done nothing wrong other than to react to the pain these people had caused me and that was healthy and normal behaviour. It was up to them to apologise and take responsibility and that was never going to happen.
- Detaching from the gaslighting. In other words, holding on to what you know is reality even when the person is trying to persuade you that black is white. It’s really hard to do as a gaslighter makes you question your own judgement but I know in my heart I’ve done nothing wrong other than react to a situation caused by someone else and if the other people involved can’t accept that or wants to blame me for their mistakes that’s their choice and there is nothing I can do about it.
I’m a very black and white person – I’ve needed to be to survive a life which has involved altered perceptions of reality. I needed to hold on to my versions of right and wrong behaviour and to not deviate from them, because if I had deviated I would have lost my grip. I’m also totally intolerant of bullshit. I don’t give people the benefit of the doubt because in my world if you like (let alone love) someone you aren’t cruel, nasty or horrible to them – end of story. The people in your life should always lift you up not put you down. My best mate is a very honest person and I know she always tells me the truth, but she does it in a way which isn’t hurtful or critical. I can’t be doing with people who are nicey nice all the time – they’re just blowing smoke up your arse and telling you what you want to hear, which is another way of altering reality. But when people are honest they have to be honest in ways which protect the other person’s feelings – blurting out “yes, your arse does look big in that” is hurtful.
None of us are perfect. I know I’ve said and done things which have inadvertently been hurtful, but I’m the first person to apologise when that happens and to acknowledge that I’ve made a mistake. When my closest friend was upset by the blog post I wrote I emailed her to apologise, even though she was the one being a rubbish friend and it was her behaviour which had in part led to the post. Needless to say she’s never apologised for upsetting me. It’s important to take ownership of our behaviour and acknowledge the impact our words and actions have on others. Even when I had my famous melt-down on Christmas Day, which I felt was in no way my fault, the first thing I did when I got back to my parents’ house was apologise to both of them. Yes I was justified in blowing up, but I went too far and said things I shouldn’t (even though they were actually true!).
Now I’m older and, hopefully, wiser the thing I value most in any of my relationships is kindness. When you’re kind to people you can’t go far wrong and when people are being un-kind it’s easy to recognize. However, I am not kind to the point of being a doormat. During the conversation with my best mate recently she said “for someone who hates confrontation you still seem to have more than your fair share” and I realize the reason for that is that some people mistake my kindness for weakness, then when I confront them with the fact that their behaviour towards me is shabby they can’t handle the fact I am standing up for myself. Yes I try and see all sides of the argument and the other person’s point of view but I don’t make excuses for hurtful behaviour and I expect the people in my life to take ownership of their role in any discord. If they can’t do that I’m not afraid to call them on it or to ultimately walk away. Hand on heart I can honestly say that I have not missed the people who have fallen out with me for any second of any day – in fact, it was a relief to stop pretending that the relationship was fine when it clearly wasn’t. It was a relief to stop questioning myself and wondering if I was doing something to make the other person treat me poorly – I wasn’t.