I have never really understood why this behaviour triggers my rage, but it always has, for as long as I can remember. In person or online, attempting to say anything about my internal landscape will send me flying off the handle. But I think I now understand why.
I think I have always been inordinately sensitive to gaslighting without ever having the benefit of anyone explaining to me what gaslighting is or how to recognize it. I have come to this conclusion now because of 2 specific encounters. In both cases, I had dealings with men who have been accused of gaslighting their partners to an abusive degree.
I believe that many of us use gaslighting tactics in normal interactions with many different kinds of relationships because it is an argument tactic that we see so often that most of us are not aware that it is, in fact, gaslighting. I don't believe it is usually done maliciously or that the people who do this are consciously aware that they are trying to manipulate the other person in the argument. I think that it's just something we are socially conditioned to be accustomed to.
Gaslighting is where one person tries to convince another person that what they feel, think, or believe is not true. This is not something that a person can argue. I mean, you can argue that someone else believes something that is factually incorrect, but you cannot argue that someone else *doesn't* believe something that they do believe. Or that they don't feel what they feel. At best, you can point out examples that their actions do not match their professed feelings. But it is not possible to know what is going on inside someone else's head.
Much of the time, this is not done out of a misunderstanding or a confusion. Much of the time, gaslighting is done when someone does not like a situation and tries to control the situation more favorably by convincing the other person that their subjective experience of the situation is wrong, so that the other person will behave in a manner that the first person prefers. Imagine, if you will, a child complaining that she doesn't like brussel sprouts, and her mother says "oh, yes you do, now eat them." This is not because the mother is confused about the child's food preferences, this is because the mother wishes the child to eat the damn vegetables and so tries to convince the child that she does not know her own taste preferences well enough to behave in a way that leads to the veggies not getting eaten. The mother is trying to control the situation, and she does so by attacking the child's perception of her own internal landscape, her own subjective experience. And this is considered a "normal" argument tool. Very few people will overhear that mother and think "abusive". At worst, most people will think "frustrated" and probably agree with her method.
So there were these 2 men who were accused of abuse, and who used gaslighting as one of their tools of abuse. Because of the specific details of the situations that I won't get into here because it's not my story to tell, these were not clear-cut situations and I had not yet adopted my "start by believing them" policy. So I heard these accusations and I didn't know what to think. I wanted to disbelieve them, and I was very upset at the turmoil this caused in my own life. By bringing these accusations out, I was now in a very difficult position between two parties where I had my own reasons for wanting to maintain ties to both sides but accusations and counter-accusations of abuse flying around made being in the middle ... awkward, to say the least.
So I did what I could to remain "neutral". And then, I saw it.
In both of these situations, I ended up having my own altercation with each of the men. In one, it was a pretty massive blow-up, but in the other it wasn't - not in the grand scheme of things. We weren't all that close and the argument was not over anything really important. But with both men, they used a form of gaslighting in their argument with me.
In both cases, I was accused of feeling things that I did not feel and also of not feeling things that I did feel. On a normal day, that's enough to piss me right the fuck off. But coming on the heels of these gaslighting accusations, that made me pause. Suddenly, I had the key; I had the connection to *why* this behaviour angered me so much.
And suddenly, their victims' accusations became much more believable.
So I remain ultra-sensitive to when people make declarative statements about how I feel, how I think, how I see the world. I have not learned to control my rage at this. In fact, I now feel more than angry, I feel like someone has attempted to violate me. Because now I see the tactic as a form of control and manipulation.
But more than that, I see it as a symptom of what's wrong with our entire culture. Because I don't think that every single attempt at gaslighting - every single "geez, you're so angry all the time!" - is actual abuse. I think that we've managed to normalize that tactic as simply part of how people argue or disagree, so that even people with good intentions can argue poorly and use the same tactics *as* abusers without actually being an abuser in that moment themselves.
And that's the scary part. If *everyone* uses gaslighting, for all kinds of disagreements, then no wonder so many people can't recognize real abuse when it happens and no wonder so many people don't believe abuse or rape victims when they finally come forward. Every generation teaches the next that this is an acceptable tool in an argument, so that every generation has a reasonable chance of hiding the abusers among them in the throngs of people who simply have shitty communication skills and entitlement complexes.
I don't really have anywhere specific I'm going with this. I just came across some old writing from the time of these two experiences I had, and it reminded me that I hadn't ever gotten around to writing about this. So I'm sitting here, thinking about former relationships (I was reviewing my Breaking Up workshop), former metamours, things ending poorly, other people's relationships ending poorly, abuse, gaslighting, and I ended up here - thinking of all the times people use an abusive manipulation tactic in normal, everyday interactions with all sorts of people. That's kind of terrifying.
So when I fly off the handle because someone dared to make an "observation" that was really a statement that he thinks he knows my emotional landscape better than I do, before judging me too harshly for being "emotional" or "hysterical" or "irrational" or "temperamental", consider all this for a moment. Consider that telling someone what they feel or don't feel is *gaslighting* and what abusers do to control their victims. This person I'm arguing with probably isn't an abuser, and certainly isn't *abusing me* in this one online argument. But what if he is? What if, the reason why he's so comfortable using the gaslighting technique with me online is because he uses it all the time with people who are in a position to be abused by him?
Or, what if he's not and he genuinely doesn't want to abuse anyone? How easy do you think it's going to be to never abuse anyone if the most comfortable argument tools he has are the same ones that real abusers use? Most abusers do not believe they are abusers. Many even think of themselves as the victims (victimization by your control is not the same thing as victimization by my resistance to your control). Abusers are not comic book villains, petting their white cats in their evil lair while they plot ways to break the minds of their victims. Of course he doesn't think he's manipulating anyone. We all think that, mostly. We are all the heroes in our own narratives. So it's really easy to think that I'm the bad guy when I lose my temper. And sometimes I am.
But gaslighting is an evil, insidious tactic that burrows into our society and takes a hold of people often unwittingly. So be on the lookout for signs of gaslighting - in other people and in ourselves. Don't tell people what they are thinking, feeling, or believing. Don't assume that you know what's going on inside someone's head, especially if they contradict you. This is an abusive tactic, and we should all be strongly opposed when we see it happening.
We just need to learn how to see it happening.