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What Is Gaslighting?




Excerpted from
The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life
By Robin Stern, Ph.D.

Fear of Humiliation

Lots face it, once you've reached Stage 3 gaslighting, you're in a relationship that isn't working very well. For many of us, it feels like a profound humiliation to admit that things have turned out so badly. Leaving the relationship seems like an admission of failure, whereas staying seems to offer us the chance to recoup our losses.

Certainly that's how Melanie felt about her marriage, and how Jill felt about her job. Both women found it humiliating to admit that they didn't have the power to fix their situations. Melanie thought that a healthy person could make things work with Jordan, while Jill believed that being on outstanding journalist could win over her unreasonable boss. Rather than look realistically at their gaslighters, they just wanted to put their heads down and keep trying. Even the most monumental effort seemed preferable to admitting their "failure."

Unfortunately, we can't get very far by avoiding the truth. Whether or not you decide to end your Stage 3 gaslighting relationship, you'll never find a way to become happier-either outside it or within it - by ignoring your situation. You have to admit that something isn't working and to look rationally and rigorously at whether improvement is possible.

Melanie needed to be ruthlessly honest with herself about the kind of man Jordan was. She needed to see how unfair and unreasonable his criticisms were, and how deeply they wounded her. She needed to look at how unhappy she had become, and how distraught, confused, and frustrated she felt. She needed to admit that this was her marriage-not some idealized haven she hoped to regain if she did enough therapy but this actual, depressing, Stage 3 gaslighting relationship. Maybe things could get better with Jordan and maybe they couldn't, but nothing could improve until Melanie faced the truth.

Likewise, Jill needed to see how unreasonable her boss's actions were. She had to face the possibility that he might prefer to lose her-a good journalist-because of irrational prejudices or preferences of his own. She needed to accept that she might not be able to win him over and to ask herself what she wanted to do if that were the case. Working harder and hoping for the best weren't going to help. But looking at things truthfully would.

If you struggle with feelings of humiliation, you may need to show yourself a great deal of compassion and accept the idea that there's no shame in having made a mistake, or even several mistakes. You may even decide that the pain of humiliation is a small price to pay for freeing yourself from misery.

You should also remember that time heels many wounds. A situation that seemed totally humiliating as you were leaving it may become only a distant, wry memory when you've moved on to a better job or a more satisfying relationship.

Creating Your New World

I'd like to leave you with a very special visualization exercise that my wonderful colleague and mentor the psychoanalyst Frank Lachmann once shared with me. Whenever I've felt myself giving in to others more than I'd like, or losing my sense of clarity about who I am and what I want, I return to this exercise. Although it could have many applications in your life, as it has in mine, it may be especially useful in helping you to cope with the exhaustion and confusion that so often accompany Stage 3 gaslighting.

Whom Do You Allow into Your World?

1. Imagine that you live in a beautiful house, with a beautiful fence around it. Take a moment to picture this house-its setting, its rooms, its furnishings. Take a moment to visualize the fence as well. What is it made of? How high is it? I want you to imagine this fence as very powerful, so powerful that no one can breach it.

2. Now, find the opening in that fence, the doorway or gate through which welcome guests may enter. Realize that you are the sole gatekeeper here; you have complete power over who enters and who does not. You may invite in anyone you choose, and you may keep anyone out, too, without even giving a reason. Take a moment to feel what that power would be like. You might want to allow the faces of those you'd let in float into your mind, as well as picture the people you'd want to keep out. Experience your power as gatekeeper of your house.

3. Now imagine you've decided that only people who speak to you with kindness and consider your feelings with regard can come in. And if anyone enters and then abuses you or challenges your reality in any way, he must leave and can't come back until he's prepared to treat you nicely. (You may also get tired of the people who alternate between dismissing you and treating you with regard, so perhaps you will decide not to let them in no matter how nice they're being!)

4. Continue to visualize your house, your walls, and your gate for at least fifteen minutes. Allow yourself to see who wants to come in and whom you want to let in. Picture what happens as you decide yes or no. See the responses of the people you've rejected or accepted, and experience your response to their responses.

5. Afterward, if you like, write for a few minutes about what you learned from this experience, or talk about it with a friend. Remember, you can use your walled house as a sanctuary that will be there for you anytime you want it.

So now you understand what entraps you in the Gaslight Tango, and you've seen how difficult the three stages of gaslighting can be. It's time to turn off the gas! And in the next chapter, I'll show you how.



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