I was with my parents the other day. I don’t recall the exact conversation, but I remember my mother saying “why on earth would you think that about yourself?” I told her it is hard to shake negative self-thoughts when it is all I’ve heard for over 20 years. She replied “what could anyone possibly say about you that is negative”.
After I got done giggling to myself, remembering all the negative things she’s said to me during my childhood, I got to thinking about this. How is it that one person can have such a profound, lasting impact on how I feel about myself? And honestly, what did he say? I was relieved she didn’t ask for an example, because I don’t think I’d have been able to come up with one. And this is the definition of Gaslighting:
an extremely subtle, constant barrage of mis-truths, designed to keep you guessing, and eventually leav you in a perpetual state of confusion and self-doubt.
I look back over 25 years with my ex and see example after example of very subtle messages, all used to change the subject and make me doubt myself. It is a smoke screen. It is like a verbal game of Jenga, only he is the only one playing. I was the Jenga tower, and one by one pulled apart my pieces. Eventually I collapsed.
Each of the pieces he pulled out was a positive belief I had about myself. Someday I hope to compile a list of what he said, exactly. Right now I’m still putting the pieces back together. Looking back and seeing what each piece, each message was, is painful and will take time.
The best way to illustrate the power of gaslighting is to tell you who I was and who I became.
I was a confident, accomplished, authoritative, educated, healthy, debt free woman when I met him.
I was nothing when he left. I was a disabled, scared, confused and incompetent person when he left.
I read someone liken gaslighting statements to worms, which I found to be a great way to vision them. They start in a cocoon, quietly waiting till big enough to hatch. As the years go by he, and I, fed them: he, by uttering his ridiculous accusations, me, by entertaining them. Each time he said something which I accepted as fact, I was feeding those worms, allowing them to burst through their cocoon and become full fledged beliefs. Eventually there was little left in my head except a writhing mass of pulsating, slimey, disturbed worms, spewing terrible thoughts about me.
I’ve gotten to know my worms over the 3 years I’ve been working on this. I’ve been starving them, looking them in the eye (do worms have eyes?) and telling them they are wrong. I’ve watched them slowly loose power, and my brain has become clearer. I feel so much better, I often lose sight of how many worms there were, and how stubborn they are. I can go days at a time now forgetting how easily my worms are activated. Once activated though, I quickly descend into the mental fog that dominated my life, a brutal reminder that I am still a newbie in my recovery.
The ultimate goal of gaslighting is to make a person dependent on the other. In my case not only was I financially dependent, I was emotionally dependent on his meager scraps of positive feedback, dished out when it was clear I was at deaths door, either physically or emotionally. In the end I was incapable of everything. The thought of walking away never entered my brain, because the worms stopped such thoughts. If I were to accidentally challenge one of the worms, the others circled around, reinforcing the worm under attack. And, in addition to the others protecting the questionable worm, they created trigger words – words designed to shut me down; shut me up.
Trigger words are words that, when uttered, immediately activate the worms in your head and shut you down. I’ve struggled identifying my triggers, and I suspect figuring them all out will be a life long endeavor. What I have learned is that triggers words create a physical sensation. Now that I understand the physical sensation I am able to step back, realize I’m being triggered and get away from the situation.
Trigger worms are incredibly elusive. One of the strongest of mine is the “misunderstanding” worm. This worm is the one who whispers “you have no right to question anyone, because you are hysterical, not really listening, and you don’t know what you are talking about. Others understand things, you don’t, because you are too bitchy to listen to them. And, if you question them, you’ll piss them off, and then what will happen? You will ruin everything.”
Pretty blanket statement, eh? I believed it. On the few occasions I had the strength to ignore this worm it was short lived.
As a result I’ve blindly accepted what any “expert” told me. If the information I was being given felt wrong, like a lie, my worms jumped in and advised me not to question, as I was most certainly wrong and would make the situation worse.
This is why I’ve accepted lies told to me by Bank of America. This is why I am living in a house I can’t sell because the “expert work” done by my ex was actually rubbish. This is why I believed all the bullshit lies my realtor told me. This is why I am currently living with mesh in my body that has been recalled through all of Europe, taken “off the market” in the USA (good old USA, always avoiding accepting responsibility. Hey – is the USA a Narcissist??). This is also why I’m confused, indecisive and a people pleaser; none of which is fun!
I have learned one thing in the past few years: if something seems wonky about what is being presented to you – Walk Away. You might be overreacting. You might miss out on something good. But I’m willing to bet that 9 times out of 10 walking away will save your ass. And the more you do it, the easier it will become.
I had the privelage of doing this yesterday at work, and it felt amazing! I am trying to “soundproof” the studio. The owner and I decided I should just order a few panels, we’ll throw them up on the walls and see what happens. Easy Peasy, right? Not so fast!! I had to make sure the panels were returnable and to do that I had to call the company. They said yes, they are returnable, and claimed I could order them on their website. Except I couldn’t. The only way to order them was to call the company. Before I knew it I was knee deep into a lecture about ceiling panels, internal walls, barriers versus sound dampeners. I was being barraged with questions, like “have you looked under you ceiling tiles, because I bet there is nothing there and you can see right over the walls into the next room. If you don’t fix this blah, blah, blah.” I felt that fog settle over my brain and part of me wanted to cry. This would have been my response – to cry out of sheer exacerbation. Instead, I said “I have to go” and I hung up. Then I walked around the studio, dropped a few F-bombs, and calmly went on with my day. How fun is that!
The point is this: Gaslighting is Real and it will kill you if you let it.
If you are numb, a walking zombie, living in perpetual fog but putting on a happy face when you have to, I’m willing to bet you are with a Gaslighter. I have to tell you:
Leave Your Gaslighter.
LUG your ass, LUG your belongings, and LUG your brain out of their reach.
(we should make this a National Holiday!!)