Living with Toxicity: Gaslighting


In light of this week's latest executive branch embarrassment, it seems important to highlight one specific behavior that is a consistent feature of persons who might be identified as narcissists. We will likely come back to this and other behaviors later in the series, but the teaching moments afforded to us with our current president are too rich to put off until later. 

Gaslighting: a process of psychological manipulation that results in destabilizing another person by engendering self-doubt and confusion through a confounding series of lies, denials, diversionary tactics, and projection. 

We now know that two weeks prior to his inauguration ("the biggest audience in the history of inaugural speeches," if you believe the president) Trump was shown intelligence that Putin gave the green light for Russian hackers to impinge upon the integrity of our electoral process through a variety of means. This week (not unlike the last 546 days of his tenure) he proceeded to misremember this and numerous other conversations about the voracity of our country's thoroughly vetted intelligence reports. 

July 16, 2018 “I have great confidence in my intelligence people but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today and what he did is an incredible offer.”

July 17, 2018 “...let me be totally clear in saying that — and I’ve said this many times — I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.

Gaslighting like this is easier to see because we have him on video saying the very things he denies and changes the next day. When a president has this loose of a relationship with the truth and a keen ability to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of persons in the U.S. through such manipulative behavior, it's no wonder that people have a) either stopped caring about truth as a value or virtue in political discourse or b) are willing to believe whatever the latest thing he has said even if it completely contradicts an earlier statement on the same topic. This is what gaslighting does to people. It wears them down, and it causes them to stop trusting themselves and their own memories. It is usually insidious, and at its most profound heights, gaslighting results in persons becoming shells of their former selves who come to depend fully on their abusers for their sense of what is true.

It's easy to see why this is an effective tactic for authoritarian (or aspiring authoritarian) leaders. At the interpersonal level, all it requires to "work" is someone with enough self-doubt, fear, or insecurity. At the national level, the ground must be prepared similarly. But that would first mean that our country would need to be filled with persons who are predisposed to self-doubt, fear, or insecurity. Thankfully, America is full of well adjusted people, is known for its collectively calm demeanor, and can rest in the fact that security is something we all experience consistently. Right? It's not like things have gotten progressively worse since he took office, that white supremacy has exploded since his campaigning, that people live in fear of being separated from their children, that healthcare has become increasingly inaccessible, or even that our own president has thought of giving up his own citizens to an enemy foreign state. Thank goodness those things aren't happening because if they were it would mean we were ripe for gaslighting and becoming unwitting victims who would begin to depend on a strongman who could save us from the numerous crises that surround us (never mind that he created them in the first place). Can you even imagine such a scenario?

Interpersonally, gaslighting begins small. Tiffany tells Todd that she wants him to bring her back a Dr. Pepper from the convenience store. Todd comes home with the Dr. Pepper only to be castigated for bringing her the wrong drink. 

"I asked for a Diet Coke, honey. It's OK. Sometimes you don't hear me very well. I'll just drink this," she tells him. Todd is confused and is pretty sure that she had asked for a Dr. Pepper. He decided it wasn't worth arguing about because they always seemed to argue about these kinds of things, and he wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. It was certainly possible he had misheard her. The problem was that he was beginning to feel like there was something wrong with him. Was it a developing neurological condition that impacted his memory?  Was he going crazy? 

Of course, this narrative of his poor hearing or not remembering well gathers steam over the course of their relationship, and Todd begins to feel quite confused and insecure about his memory. He keeps making these mistakes, only Tiffany seems to be getting increasingly upset by the consistency of his poor performance. Todd now finds himself full of anger. He is frustrated with himself for not being able to remember things well. Tiffany seems to do everything right and prides herself on never making mistakes. Todd has struggled with self-esteem issues for some time and can't believe a person like Tiffany would want to be with someone like him. Fearful of losing the relationship, Todd slowly begins to believe that Tiffany is the sole arbiter of truth in the relationship. He can't seem to figure out why he feels so empty inside though. Thank goodness he has a person like Tiffany around to help him remember and to keep his life stable. 

Sadly, as hard to believe as this may sound, many people have experienced or are currently experiencing some form of this phenomenon in their interpersonal relationships. Do you consistently ask yourself, "Am I crazy?" Do you seek out friends, siblings, or co-workers for reality testing? If someone contacts you with this question consistently, chances are good that s/he has been or is currently being gaslit. This is a red flag that they are connected to someone with narcissistic (or even sociopathic) tendencies.

It is imperative that survivors of this kind of emotional abuse find a way to re-establish trust in themselves, and the only way that can happen is by breaking free of the fog created by the toxic person in their life. Through the process of establishing boundaries, cutting off or significantly limiting contact with the toxic person, and refusing to allow another person to define reality, it's incredible how quickly one begins to re-member that which has been dismembered in the process of gaslighting and other toxic behaviors. 

There is hope. Persons can and will trust themselves again after this process, but it requires that they get their story straight so that they can take back the authority that was gradually siphoned away by the emotional manipulators in their lives. 

I'm just glad we don't have to worry about these kinds of things happening here on our own soil.