- Gaslighting is a manipulation technique, usually used in romantic relationships, that makes a person disbelieve their own experience.
- Family dynamics can also be a form of gaslighting, especially if they start in childhood and continue through adulthood.
- Recognizing the gaslighting dynamics in one's family can help restore belief in oneself.
You’re so dramatic.
That never even happened.
You’re overly emotional.
Have you been on the receiving end of statements like these? If so, you may be a victim of gaslighting. But gaslighting comes in other forms too. It can be obvious or subtle, and in some ways, the subtle forms can be the most harmful.
The term gaslighting originated from the 1944 film Gaslight. The film follows Paula through emotional manipulation by her husband, Gregory. Gregory orchestrates pictures that disappear in the house, noises from the attic, and the gaslights dim and brighten, and then denies they're happening, insisting Paula is making it up or losing touch with reality.
“Gaslighting” is now used broadly to describe one person treating another this way, usually in romantic relationships. It means purposely making someone doubt their own truth. In its extreme, gaslighting can undermine a person’s grip on reality. In milder forms, it can undermine their trust in themselves and their own experience.
But, what happens if a child is gaslighted by their family? Receiving it as a vulnerable child can make it more powerful, more lasting, and harder to see.
Gaslighting in a Family
It’s confusing to receive messages from your parents that contradict your reality in your childhood home. When two things can’t be true at the same time, especially if it’s your own parents feeding you false information, it’s natural for you to question yourself and believe “something must be wrong with me.”
Once you believe that something is wrong with you, it may be difficult to notice and understand how gaslighting works in your family. Because when you fall victim to gaslighting, you are taught to believe nothing is real and nothing can be trusted, especially yourself.
4 Types of Gaslighting in a Family
1. The Double Bind Family. Parents that send conflicting messages put their children in a “double bind.” Whichever way you respond, your parent is unhappy or you are punished. This puts you in a constant lose-lose situation. Perhaps your parent says they understand, yet uses critical and demeaning tones, or perhaps your parent says they love you but their body language says otherwise. When you are loved and rejected in the same breath, nothing seems real. Research shows a strong connection between double binds and the development of borderline personality disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia.
The Message: You cannot trust yourself or others.
The Impact in Adulthood: It’s difficult to take other people at their word and feel safe in your relationships. You can’t rely on anyone, including yourself.
2. The Unpredictable and Unstable Family. One day, your parent may allow you to go to your friend’s house, but the next day they scold you for asking. This category is tied closely to a parent (or parents) with serious mental health conditions. For example, they may be sober for a period of time and then fall off the wagon, or they may exhibit mania and then fall into depression. You witness back-and-forth behaviors and emotions with varying rules and consequences that don’t make sense.
The Message: Anything can happen. Things are out of control.
The Impact in Adulthood: You believe people are a mystery and it’s impossible to make sense of others. You view your emotions as bad and have trouble managing them. It’s very hard to trust anyone because you believe people are, at their core, radically unreliable.
3. The Picture-Perfect Family. Growing up in this type of family, there is no room for mistakes, negative emotions, or weaknesses. Only the ideal image is presented to the world and everything true, authentic, or vulnerable is shoved deep down for no one to see. These parents place an emphasis on achievement and strive to be admired and envied by others.
The Message: You can never make mistakes. Nothing is good enough.
The Impact in Adulthood: Since you are, in fact, human, you attempt to hide your humanness and feel deeply ashamed of your flaws and weaknesses. You suppress and ignore your feelings (especially the negative ones) because you don’t believe they are important or real. You are highly critical of yourself when you do make mistakes. You feel unfulfilled despite your achievements.
4. The Emotionally Neglectful Family. This is the most subtle form of gaslighting in a family. In fact, it’s so subtle that it is difficult for many victims to recall it ever happening. It also happens in families that are otherwise caring. All it requires is that the parents are unaware of feelings in general, and fail to notice their children's emotions and emotional needs. When you experience childhood emotional neglect, your emotions are largely ignored.
Imagine that your parents act as if your right arm does not exist. It would be deeply confusing and undermine your belief and trust in your own right arm. The same thing happens when it's your feelings.
Since your emotions are the deepest, most personal, biological expression of who you are, when your parents treat your feelings as invisible, irrelevant, or meaningless, you naturally feel your inner self erased or reversed. When your parents don't acknowledge or respond to your emotions, you are set up to doubt and ignore your deepest self. (To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my bio.)
The Message: Your feelings are unnecessary, burdensome, and to be kept hidden or, perhaps not even real. Your feelings and emotional needs don’t matter. You don’t matter.
The Impact in Adulthood: You were never given the chance to learn the true value of your emotions. Since your emotions are a window into who you are, you don’t feel like you know yourself and sometimes feel empty or numb. You have trouble trusting yourself because you don’t have your emotions to direct you. You feel alone and disconnected from others.
If you grew up with any of these forms of gaslighting, and perhaps are still experiencing it from your family now, it makes sense that you question yourself. But even though you can’t change your childhood, you can change your perspective on it, and you can change how you think and feel about yourself.
Now, in the future, you will have answers to gaslighting attempts from others.
Them: You’re so dramatic.
You: “Having natural, human feelings is not a form of drama.”
Them: That never even happened.
You: “It happened for me and so it matters.”
Them: You’re overly emotional.
You: “Or maybe you have a low tolerance for other people’s feelings.”
Them: You shouldn’t feel that way.
You: “That’s your way of trying to make me doubt myself. It’s not working.”
Let's throw the gaslighting out the window. This is what is actually true: Your feelings, experiences, and needs are real. They matter. And they are worth standing up for.
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.
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