Coping with Gaslighting

Amanda was in an unsatisfactory marriage. Her husband was often on the internet communicating with others in chat rooms, even with other women. Amanda understandably felt rejected, and she suffered from low self-esteem. She had tried both individual and couples therapy to address her issues, but was unsuccessful. She fell into self-defeating ways of coping with her stress and seeking more attention from her husband. She became very negative, nagging, and complaining, behaviors that were guaranteed to fail. Eventually Amanda decided to take some risky actions. She left her husband, filed for divorce, found a well-paying job she enjoyed, and asserted herself with her parents, who had contributed to her problems over the years. In short, she seized opportunities that had been available to her, but which she had been afraid to pursue.

What changed in Amanda’s life that led her to these decisions? Before answering that question, let’s note that in subtle ways, first her parents – and later on her husband – regularly tried to convince her that her perceptions of them were faulty. By any objective measure, Amanda’s parents were cold, distant, and unsupportive of her emotional needs. Yet, they would always tell her that the rejection she felt was for her own good. They told her that they showed their love for her by preparing her to face a hard world where others would be out to take advantage of her. Only by their insensitive and impersonal treatment could they train her to be vigilant for the malicious intentions of others. Amanda became dependent on her parents and unconsciously tried to perpetuate this destructive dependence by marrying a man who showed the same manipulative control in convincing her that only he could accurately interpret her reality for her.

To borrow a present-day colloquial term, Amanda’s parents and husband were “gaslighting” her. Although the term has no formal standing in psychology, it refers to a psychological process whereby one tries to manipulate and control another’s perception of reality, to the point where the victim literally questions the validity of their own perception. At one level, Amanda sensed that her parents were rejecting her, and her husband was being emotionally unfaithful, but at another level she became self-critical for distorting her perception of them. Her self-loathing developed and led her to helplessness, abandonment anxiety, low self-esteem, and eventually, depression.

OK, back to our earlier question: How did Amanda get out of her emotional nightmare? The change was triggered when her father died. His death spurred her to seek therapy because she experienced tremendous guilt over his death. At her first session with a psychologist, she was surprised when he asked her a pretty simple question that provided the foundation for subsequent sessions: “What are you avoiding?” No mention of anxiety, depression, bipolar, etc. – just, “What are you avoiding?” Before too long she discovered that the answer was not her overt guilt, but anger – anger at her father and her husband. Her guilt was actually a mask for anger because of the distorted reality both those men had created for her. Once she accepted the fact that she really had done nothing to feel guilty about, she was ready to accept her anger and perceive reality as it existed, not how she wanted it to exist, or how others tried to convince it existed. She decided she needed to focus on her thoughts and behaviors, on those things she could control. She became more constructive with her thinking, and took specific actions noted earlier that gave her more empowerment and confidence. She realistically evaluated her abilities and her confidence, and her self-esteem improved. She learned that her issue was not depression or any other dysfunctional label; her problem was avoiding things that she needed to confront. She even put her past aside and decided to develop a more constructive relationship with her mother based on present realities. As she took charge of her actions and thoughts, she lowered her overall life stress that she had tolerated and suffered for many years. When she took independent self-generated actions, she felt more in control of her life, and was able to manage stresses in more healthy and productive ways. She extinguished the flame of the gaslight.

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