Monday, October 6, 2014

gaslighting: a term I want us all to know

My article recommendation of the day is short, and I sincerely hope you'll all read it so that we can talk about it. It's called "Why Women Aren't Crazy," by Yashar Ali (a man). Thanks to Mel for recommending it to me.

One of the things that Ali talks about in the article is gaslighting. Is this a term y'all are familiar with? I don't think I'd heard it before. Gaslighting is when you (intentionally or unintentionally) do something to make someone else think that they're crazy. You do something to undermine or dismiss their emotional reactions, or to make them think that their reactions or observations are disproportionate or insane. It's something that women have done to them (mostly by men) constantly. I grew up among men who constantly did this to the women I grew up among. Daily. I've experienced it so so often in my own adult life.

It's so good to have a term for this. Language is powerful. Being able to name something allows us to be able to recognize it, talk about it, change it.

I hope you'll all read the article and then write what it makes you ponder and consider and feel.


  1. I am as intrigued by people's comments over on the original article as I am by the article itself!

    I have nothing more to say at this juncture.

  2. I felt that way yesterday about an article on a completely different subject. Maybe I'll blog about that sometime soon.

  3. Actually, I'll add this. I myself am not very emotionally expressive, even if I am having a strong emotional reaction internally, and so I haven't been the recipient of gas-lighting too often. But the article made me want to think carefully about how I respond to my very expressive daughter. I find myself saying things like, "Calm down. Relax." too quickly. I don't necessarily think those are bad phrases, or that it's bad to want to help another person to be calm, especially if their reaction is actually hindering them from getting out of a situation they don't want to be in. But I imagine any "help" has got to follow acceptance of their emotions for a person to not feel dismissed. And by then, maybe more often than not, they'll have found their own way through the strong emotion.

    I do find the idea of not taking everything literally to be very helpful, both in considering my own strong emotions and those of other people. That a strong feeling of anger or jealousy or irritation or whatever is important to regard but may not in fact be exactly about what it proports to be about.

  4. I would find it challenging to know how to parent your emotionally expressive daughter in many, many moments, so I'm not claiming here or anywhere else that I have the Answer.

    I will say though that there has never been a single time in my entire life that someone telling me to "calm down" has actually helped me to calm down. Even if there is some kind of external crisis and I myself know that the very best thing would be for me to calm down, someone telling me "calm down" doesn't actually move me one inch closer to being calm. And then of course there are all the times when I'm angry and don't *want* to calm down because I strongly believe that the problem is the thing making me angry; the *problem* is not my anger. Then, when someone tells me to calm down, I want to punch them in the face.

    It's interesting to ponder what *does* help me calm down, in times when the very best thing is indeed to calm down (like, when I'm panicked, and it would be better for myself and everyone if I could stop panicking). I'd say the two things that help most are when, 1. Someone I trust says, "I will stay with you right now no matter what. I'm not going to leave you." and 2. Someone I trust says, "We'll get through this together. I'm here now. Look at me. Look at my eyes. You are not alone. I'm here. I care about you, and we're going to figure this out together."

    Those two things help me a whole heck of a lot. And it strikes me now, as I write this all out, that if someone says either of those things to me, it's the exact opposite of gaslighting. The message being communicated is, "I take you seriously, and what you feel is extremely important to me, and I have a lot invested in sticking around and continuing to take your feelings seriously and figuring out WITH you (not FOR) you how to proceed from here in a way that feels okay to YOU."

  5. YES to the opposite of gaslighting, as you describe here, Tamie. Empathy and validation go very far in actually calming people down, and there ARE many instances in life where calming is not only helpful, but essential to reaching a peaceful conclusion. I'm thinking of my own life in a thousand instances, but I'm also thinking about work. If a person panics in a medical emergency, it can actually make the injury, illness, or problem worse. If someone has a broken neck and starts thrashing around, they could sever their spinal cord (!!!) if they are unable to breathe and resist the bag-valve-mask, they asphyxiate. These are common problems paramedics and ER staff encounter; putting a mask over someone's face when they already can't breathe is counter-intuitive for the patient but it is THE thing that helps keep them alive long enough to treat the breathing problem. For example.

    I have found eye contact or close proximity (standing or kneeling by the patient's ear and speaking calmly and in a way that commands attention without amping up emotions), as well as some empathy and reassurance are critical for cooperation: "I know you feel like you can't breathe. The mask feels wrong. But it is to help you breathe. The mask is to help you breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out. We're here to help you."

    It's the same in all our panic; the brain registers danger as DANGER! FIGHT, FLIGHT, OR FREEZE! The brain does not differentiate between life and death, and anxiety attack; both are registered as dangerous and just as valid. Just as traumatic. (I read this in a neurobiology book I just finished reading), and in all panic scenarios I think the best we can do for each other is to validate, and communicate that we are there to help.

    As a parent of course I do say "Calm down!" fairly frequently. I think I use it as a tool to grab my kids' attention so that I can then validate and help; maybe I should rethink my phrasing to ensure that emotions feel validated. With Amarys I will sometimes say "CALM DOWN! JEEPERS!" Out of frustration; I don't expect her to actually calm down but rather am having an emotional outburst of my own.

    I try really hard to resist any temptation to gaslight my kids, since it was a frequently used tool in my childhood and has made being an adult rather hard. (prior to this week I didn't have a word for it, though), but I know that in times of extreme stress it is my knee-jerk reaction because it is what I know. Because I'm a paramedic, in true emergencies I don't gaslight them. But the mid-range ones I have in the past, and since last November in particular I've noticed it and worked hard to weed it out--like when my oldest broke his arm. I wanted to tell him he was being dramatic and to relax and let his body heal itself rather than overreacting. I didn't like this reaction in myself but was just becoming self aware of this particular reaction to stressful situations, so it was a learning process. If he had choked on something I would have leapt up and called an ambulance, but since it was a hurt hand, I just wanted it to go away. I didn't know it was seriously injured til the next day when it looked pretty bad and I took him to have an x-ray.
    I didn't actually gaslight him at all; but I recognized an urge to.

    Thank god for therapy, is what I'm really saying. Lol.