Gaslit and Fuming

I haven’t written a personally emotional entry in a while, but the topic of manipulation gets me so riled up that I am breaking the trend and writing from experience. I write this in response to the painful situations in which some of my strongest, most impressive lady friends have been unfortunately placed. It must be stated, though, that the issue itself is much more serious than even the accumulation of incidents that prompted this discussion.

The term “gaslighting” comes from the play Gas Light (and all adaptations thereof). In the story, a man tries to convince his wife that she’s crazy in order to steal her jewelry. He does so by dimming the gas lamps in the house and then trying to convince her she is imagining the change. For the sake of clear writing, I will use the male-female relationship as the example throughout this entry–and because it is the one within which I am personally fuming–though men are by no means the only ones capable of gaslighting. Needless to say, neither are women the only ones capable of being gaslit. Yashar Ali, though, gives a very thoughtful argument for why women tend to bear the brunt of such manipulation.

Nowadays, the phrase “gaslighting” is used when someone (say, a man) tries to convince another (in this case, a woman) that she is crazy, exaggerating, insane, or living a false reality. It involves manipulating her into believing his own sense of reality is true, rather than hers. It can be used in situations ranging from a short-term interaction to long-term abuse.

It frequently comes out very subtly. “You’re over-reacting” and “You’re imagining things” are very minor (but all too prevalent) uses. As Mr. Ali explains in his touching Message to Women from a Man, it is manipulative for the person whose bad behavior is insulting to claim that it is not insulting! Let’s take a look at two recent scenarios. Names are changed, of course.

Situation A: Joe tried to convince Betty that he knows what she is feeling better than she does herself. He refuses to tell her about his previous heartache, choosing instead to focus on her past heartbreak and to blame it for any distance she puts between them. “When you’re over your pain, you’ll see that we should be together,” he tells her, “and if you don’t realize that we should be together, then you must not be over your ex.” Whenever she tells him she just wants to be friends, he says, “You’re obviously in a really bad place right now. I am going to take a step back. But I’m still your friend.” He weasels his way into being “romantic friends” by turning lunch plans into wine-and-dine plans, convincing her that spending more time with him will help give her clarity. She gets her clarity, says, “I’m in love with someone else,” and he laughs and tells her she must not be seeing things clearly. She must still be in a “bad place” and she can’t possibly be in love with someone else. He tells her to get her crap together and that he’s not going to let her go that easily.

In some light, his actions seem complimentary, except he’s trying to convince her she is depressed!

Situation B: Ricky is cheating on Gwen. She suspects something is wrong every time he comes home late, or hides his phone. Yet, Ricky tries to convince Gwen that her worries are unfounded. “They’re petty and childish,” he says. Unfortunately, the cheater can often provide a whole slew of reasons why the suspicious one is over-reacting, imagining the bad signs, or worrying over nothing. Of course, the worry is perfectly valid.

Often, the manipulation is presented in a seemingly “rational” way. The logic makes sense, and so, “Yes,” we tell ourselves, “I must be what you say.” As normally smart, confident women, we don’t feel like we should fall for manipulation. It makes us sick partly because we hate to think someone else has pulled the wool over our eyes. “How could I have fallen for that?” we yell at ourselves. “And for so long!” We tell ourselves that we should’ve known better. But just as assault is never the victim’s fault–regardless of how much he/she had been drinking or what could’ve been done differently!–so is manipulation never the fault of the manipulated.

Perhaps it’s easier for some men to think that a woman is legitimately insane for her to have feelings for someone else. Perhaps it’s easier for him to attribute her anger towards him with her not being “in a good place” rather than her justifiably feeling that way towards him because of his own actions.

The reality is that manipulation happens on a sliding scale. It’s not always cut or dry and is frequently so frustratingly subtle that even the manipulator is blind to it. But that makes it all the more powerful; it is presented as fact!  And these little examples of mine are nothing compared to the thousands of women who are physically, emotionally, and sexual abused and then—get this!—convinced that they are making it up. Some women experience gaslighting when actually mid-heart attack (You can read the article here)!

It is essential to understand that manipulation comes in all forms and varieties. It exists in schools, between coworkers, in LGBT relationships, in familial relationships, and even without the slightest hint of violence. Another Go Girl succinctly describes the range in her article here.

The topic of gaslighting needs to be discussed simply because it is hard to identify. The context is fundamental. And as certain states enact laws that devalue the word of the victim (see a Go Girl article on the topic here), it becomes even more imperative that we establish a respect for one’s own impression of pain, context, and reality.

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