Gaslighting

So I got a wake up call this weekend, all thanks to a quote that I saw posted on Instagram. It read, “you gotta start being sick and tired of your own shit, sis. That’s when you’ll start making the changes that need to be made in your life.” 

And it hit me. I find myself again and again in dating situations where I am not treated with respect, or ultimately am used. And while that is not entirely my fault, I also know the following about myself: 

  • I’m a giver, and I will do almost anything for people that I care about, even if I just care a little
  • I often take responsibility for things that are not my fault
  • I care what people think of me, even when that person is disrespectful to me

What’s worse, is when I express my frustration, I find myself gas-lighted… and then somehow I end up being the one to apologize, and made to feel as if I did something wrong. A.K.A I get gaslighted.

A recent example

I recently started talking to someone. At the outset, it felt so different. He said that he wanted to get to know me, and when I asked how we’d do that since he lived in another state – he said he wanted to talk to me every day. Woah, every day! In my last relationship I was criticized for wanting to talk even every other day. Imagine my surprise. Someone who is interested in my daily life. 

It was great. And I was comfortable talking to him right off the bat. I usually describe myself as shy, but this time that wasn’t the case. That made me feel excited. And I felt even more excited when he told me he was coming to Ohio and wanted to come see me. Me? You want to come see me? Hell it’s usually like pulling teeth to get a guy to make a plan. 

Here’s where I started to misstep. Out of my excitement, I made a dinner reservation for the night he was coming because it was Pride weekend in Columbus, and I knew it would be hard to find a place to eat. I cleaned my apartment, and I got all done up. And then I sat. Hours passed, the reservation passed. And then I found out he was finally in Columbus by seeing from his social media that he was at a party. I was upset, and this first time he was apologetic. I let it go because he had been at a friend’s birthday party, and I was just some new girl. 

Red Flags

Did it register as a red flag for me? No not at all. Instead I blamed myself for having high expectations. 

He’d be in Cleveland for a month, and though not for a good reason, serendipitously I would be in Cleveland the next couple of weekends to take care of my mom. We hung out that first weekend. I got ready to go out, and was dressed and ready to go by 10 PM. It was 12:30 AM before I heard from him. But nonetheless, I ubered downtown and we had a fun night. But,, here’s a list of things that I’ve apologized for since: 

  • Being upset he wasn’t replying to me the following weekend, and didn’t make an effort to make plans even though he said he wanted to see me
  • Driving to his neighborhood because we were going to meet up, but then sitting there for hours and finally hearing from him that he forgot
  • Picking him up at 4 AM to go get his car, being promised breakfast / hanging out that day, and then being upset because that didn’t happen and I was ignored 
  • Being sarcastic, him not understanding my sarcasm and thus accusing me of it not being sarcasm

Self Reflection

Why was I apologizing for my feelings in reaction to his mess-ups? Should I be apologizing for asking to have my time respected and for there to be open and clear communication? Why am I feeling bad about myself right now after he posted that when he sees one “flaw,” he backs away from a person. Am I really flawed for wanting those things? 

I had a total flashback to my past relationships at that moment. I was letting myself get walked all over, and I was seeing that as a reflection of me and not as a reflection of that person. 

My number one issue is the gaslighting. So let me tell you a bit more about what gaslighting is, and how you can deal with it. 

Gaslighting 101

Gaslighting occurs when a person engages in certain behaviors or says certain things that make you question your reality – ultimately allowing them to maintain control. Here are a couple of examples: 

  • Denying that they’ve said something or done something even though you have tangible proof otherwise
  • Their actions don’t match their words
  • They tell you or others that you’re crazy 
  • They project. For example they’re a cheater, but they constantly accuse you of cheating
  • They tell blatant lies, so that your constantly forced to question whether something is true or not
  • They tell you that everyone else is a liar, and that they’re the only one with correct information
  • Even though they constantly tell you that you don’t add value, they randomly throw in a compliment. And what they normally compliment you on is something that serves them. 
  • They will advantageously forget any of their past negative behavior
  • They will disengage from listening to you and claim that they don’t understand what you are trying to say 

These are just a few examples. Some common things that gaslighters will say to you are: 

  • “You’re just over-sensitive”
  • “You always jump to the wrong conclusion”
  • “Stop taking everything I say so seriously”
  • “You’re reading too much into this”
  • “Why would you think that? What does that say about you?”
  • “You are just paranoid”

GASLIGHTING – IS IT HAPPENING TO YOU?

So how do you know if you’re being gaslighted? Besides some of these behaviors and phrases, a big part of it is how that person makes you feel as a consequence. Consider the following: 

  • Do you often ask yourself if you’re being too sensitive?
  • Do you make a lot of excuses for that person’s behavior?
  • Are you always apologizing?
  • Are you often made to feel like you’re crazy in the relationship?
  • Do you always wonder if you are good enough for them?

For me. This comes up as me always apologizing. Always. And then making excuses for that person. It was never their fault, somehow it was always mine. 

how to deal with it

Personally, I will say that if you feel like something isn’t right. It probably isn’t. In a past relationship I continually made excuses for why I wasn’t allowed to see my significant other consecutive days in a week, or for them being extremely late, or blowing me off. In that relationship, it turned out that I was being cheated on. Now it isn’t always that severe of a reality, but at the end of the day, being gaslighted is extremely bad for your mental health. Here’s what you can do. 

  1. Identify that there is a problem. Trust your gut. Answer those questions above for yourself. Just by doing that, you’re taking a huge step. 
  2. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings. You cannot control what you feel, and your emotions should always be respected by another individual. Their actions have an effect that they are responsible for, even if they didn’t intend them to have that effect. 
  3. Sort out the truth. One thing that is helpful for me is to replay or even rewrite a discussion I have had with a gaslighter, and the discussion that got us there. Where do you start to abandon your own perceptions and begin to take on theirs? How did you feel during the conversation? 
  4. Take a minute to visualize the situation. How would it have gone ideally? Do you feel like it is possible with that person? If not, envision yourself without the relationship, feeling positively and having a strong support system. 
  5. Talk to your close friends. Ask them for an objective, brutally honest opinion on the gaslighter, and if being in that relationship has changed you. 
  6. Give yourself the permission to let go, or stop interacting with that person in your life. Identify all the other people that you would consider as a part of your support system. 
  7. Abandon trying to decipher who was right and who was wrong. Focus instead on how you feel. Emotional well-being is always more important. 
  8. Remind yourself that even if you are right, you can’t control anyone’s opinion of you or of the situation. The only opinion you can control is your own. Do you like the person that the gaslighter makes you become?
  9. Consider what you would tell a friend in this situation. Write it out, but address the letter to yourself, and read it back when you’re finished. 
  10. Make a list of all the totally awesome things about you. 

Their GASLIGHTING ISN’T about you

One thing that is important is that there is a distinction between a real disagreement and gaslighting. What makes gaslighting distinct is that only one of you is actually listening and considering what the other person is saying and the other is simply insisting you are wrong and calling you crazy. Conflict is important in relationships. But this sort of conflict is unhealthy. 

I’m never going to make this guy understand that he did anything wrong. But that doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with me. Remember that how someone treats you is more reflective of them, than it is of you. 

Setting Boundaries in Toxic Relationships

I’m going to get straight to the point today. Let’s talk about setting boundaries in toxic relationships.

Whether it is at work, in your dating life, or with family and friends – we’ve all had to set boundaries before. I think that this is one of the hardest things to do in any sort of a relationship, because there is no exact way to do it. And, not to mention, nine times out of ten these aren’t physical, visible boundaries. They’re abstract, and the bounds tend to change day to day – or as our moods fluctuate.

But, some are easier to set than others.  We tend to feel more obligated to maintaining certain kinds of relationships than others. It is a lot harder to deal with a toxic family member, than it is to deal with a toxic friend. We feel as greater sense of responsibility and commitment to certain roles. And family in particular, has been defined by society as something that is always going to be a constant. Whether tied by blood or family history, these relationships seem more permanent. And when you decide that you need to distance yourself from a family member, you are often met with criticism for doing so.

One thing needs to be made clear. Disrespect and harmful behavior does not discriminate based on what kind of relationship it is. You can be mistreated and abused by a family member – and in fact are more likely to be in a familial relationship than in any other kind of relationship. But we put up with the abuse because, “they’re family.”

This is incredibly unhealthy, and only serves, in some instances, to continue the cycle of abuse. As a society we have interjected a degree of power dynamics into the structure and institution of family. We weight these relationships much heavier than those between friends. This can make it all the more hard to establish boundaries when you need to.

My Experience with Boundaries

A year ago I had to establish a firm boundary with a family member. In fact, my mental health depended on it. But I will not pretend that it has been easy. I still struggle with it today. I feel a sense of obligation to this person, and because of the norms and values of our society I often feel like I am being a bad daughter, or just plainly, a bad person for establishing a boundary between myself and my father.

But the fact of the matter is, I have been vastly more mentally stable and happy since I have created that line. I continually have the conversation with my therapist where I debate tearing that wall down, and using the concept of wise-mind, come to the conclusion that that would be extremely unhealthy for me. I have to work everyday to love myself despite that decision.

Now, this does not mean that I do not love my father. It means that because I love him, I too often allow his mistreatment and poor behavior to affect me at a really deep, and harmful level. And for a long time I justified that for him. I allowed the relationship to continue because I thought that I had to. But after I tried to confront the behavior to no avail or understanding, I eventually reached a limit that I did not know that I had.

I had gotten to a point in my mental health journey where I was a lot stronger than I had been in over a decade – and I saw that if I put my emotion mind aside, and considered some of what my rational mind was telling me – I needed to set a boundary. Here are some things to consider if you think that you may need to do something similar.

How are the person’s behaviors affecting you?

A landmark study found that there is a very real link between toxic relationships, stress, and your health. In fact, those in unhealthy relationships were at greater risk of developing heart problems, including dying from strokes or heart attacks, than those who weren’t in negative relationships. Our brains have a gene expression called conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA), that is associated with inflammation and low immunity. Originally a part of our flight-or-fight response, CTRA provides short-term benefits such as increased healing, physical recovery and the increased likelihood of survival. But, long-term activation of CTRA can cause chronic inflammation, which increases our risk for a multitude of health problems.

Outside of the biological effects of toxic relationships, how else are they affecting you? Do they constantly make you feel bad about yourself? Do you feel like there is an unequal amount of give and take? Are you constantly drained from interacting with this person? Do you feel emotionally or physically unsafe?

If so, there are a couple of options: (1) feel hopeless and drained constantly,  (2) accept the relationship for what it is, (3) create boundaries, or (4) end the relationship.

Boundaries

Shoes of two people with a line separating them.

Step One

I suggest that you sit down and define for yourself what you want your relationship NOT to be. This will help you to identify what behaviors are of issue for you, as well as how the toxic person is making you feel. By knowing what you will not tolerate, you are priming your brain to recognize and avoid those behaviors and situations in the future.

Step Two

Envision what the ideal relationship with this person would be. When I say ideal, I mean imagine what it would be like if it was perfect and healthy. Then take that image and identify the stuck points – the things that the individual does not seem to be able or want to change. This really helped me to see that it was rational to set a boundary with my dad. I had tried many times to express what I needed from him and what made me upset, but he refused to take responsibility, made abusive comments, and continually lied to and gas-lighted me. Unfortunately, I knew that he didn’t have the desire to stop those things. But that made setting the boundary justifiable. I was able to define what a healthy, respectful relationship should look like, and I knew that this relationship wasn’t that.

Step Three

Decide the bounds. This is where there is a plethora of options, that truly depends on the individual situation. For me, I had to completely cut off communication. I had to engage the “block” function. Every interaction disappointed and drained me. And my mental health took a severe blow when it came to anything that had to do with him.

But this can look like many different things. Maybe you just can’t hang out with this person alone, or you need to decrease the frequency. Maybe you need to make it clear that you cannot constantly be available over phone or text. This could also take the form of setting ground rules about topics that you are not willing to discuss. At a recent event I attended, a woman spoke about how she had to tell her family that her body and weight were not to be topics of discussion, and nor did she want to talk about other people’s bodies. Instead she challenged them to have different conversations.

Step Four

Decide if you need to communicate to the other person what the boundary is. In some situations, cutting off communication is the boundary that needs to be formed. If that is the case, you may not want to communicate what the boundary is going to be. I knew that my dad would not understand, respect, or agree with the boundary I was setting, and I knew that that conversation would not be a healthy one.

But if you are in a situation that you need to make the boundary verbally clear – stay clear, calm and consistent. Don’t feel the need to over-explain yourself, don’t place blame, and don’t become defensive. Be a broken record, and stick up for yourself. If you know that you can’t easily do that in person, send a text or a letter. You are in charge here.

Step Five

Surround yourself with people that make you feel good. People that support you and respect you. Keep close the people that make you feel safe, and that help you to grow. In the past year, I learned that even family can be toxic, and even family can make their love for you conditional. But I also learned that I could find family in other people. By surrounding myself with positive and healthy relationships, I have been able to maintain my mental health and overall grow as a person.

You Are Worthy

Now I want to be clear, this isn’t an expansive step-by-step process – and I’m not a licensed, health-care professional. This is just a brief overview of how I set boundaries. Be aware that there may be situations where the individual doesn’t respect those boundaries, and at that time you may need to consider other options. If you, or a loved one, is in any sort of abusive relationship and need help, reach out to a local women’s organization or utilize the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (1-800-787-3224).

If you take anything away from this, remember that anyone can be a toxic person: a parent, a sibling, a boss, coworker, or friend. Know that you have choices, and that there are people who will support you – whether that support comes from close friends or community organizations. You are worthy of healthy, respectful, positive relationships.