Robin Stern Ph.D.

Power in Relationships


When a Desire for Self-Improvement Turns to Self-Sabotage

How gaslighting can manipulate intentions to be a better person.

Posted Oct 27, 2019

A couple weeks ago, I was honored to be a guest on the Today Show for a special segment on gaslighting hosted by Maria Shriver. In preparing for the interview, I reflected on stories of gaslighting that have stood out to me through the years. In my private practice, I’ve seen all sorts of gaslighting --  gaslighters and gaslightees of all genders, ages, races, and backgrounds. But I found the following story unique and important to share. It’s about a woman who I will call Natalie–and, if you met Natalie today, you would never believe it possible. This is often the case.

Natalie had been coming to me for a while in hopes of working through a difficult childhood. She had been raised by a mother who was impulsive, unpredictable, egocentric, and both physically and verbally abusive. Natalie had scars on her head from silverware and on her legs from wooden spoons breaking on them. Her mother’s favorite name for her and her two siblings as children were the “Good-for-Nothin’s.” Good-for-Nothin’ 1, 2, and 3. Natalie was the first born, so was Good-for-Nothin’ #1.  

She did not think much of the nicknames or her mother’s behavior until in elementary school, when she started visiting other children’s houses for playdates. Why did all of their mothers seem so nice? They didn’t yell or throw things at their children. They didn’t call them mean names or chase them around the house with belts and spatulas. They weren’t smiling one minute and then screaming the next. It left Natalie with a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Natalie wanted to ensure she would never act like her mother, never treat another human being the way she had been treated. But her childhood was hard to shake. From a young age, she feared becoming like her mother, cringing when someone even vaguely referenced a similarity between them.

In middle school, she began journaling about her mother’s erratic and cruel behavior, thinking that if she wrote it all down, she would never forget and would never do any of the things her mother did. Natalie read several books about personality development in high school and studied psychology in college and grad school. By the time of our first session together, she was in her mid-twenties, had read hundreds of self-help books, and had filled over 30 journals. In our sessions, she referred to herself as a “work in progress." She was keenly aware of all of her imperfections and bad habits and looked for opportunities for self-improvement.

At that time, she was dating a man named Dorian. Dorian was four years older, a Harvard graduate, and a brilliant musician. Natalie adored Dorian and really looked up to him as someone older and wiser. And, at first, he seemed to adore her too—he loved her self-analysis and constant attempts to “become a better person.” As she was always reading and writing, her in-depth analyses of life and the human psyche always provided her with something to say. Dorian said he admired that she could respond to any question, relate to any story, engage in a conversation on any topic, and pick it up when any conversation died.

But, at some point, Dorian seem to tire of Natalie’s endless introspection and her talkativeness. He was suddenly critical of her on a regular basis, saying things like, “I need silence. I need you to ask me more questions instead of you answering your own questions. You talk too much. You think too much.”

Immediately, Natalie would thank him for his words and apologize for her shortcomings and mistakes. She explained that she knew overthinking and excessive talking were her weaknesses, and she wanted to get better in these areas. She asked for his help, viewing it as an opportunity for self-improvement. After many months of this, they had a conversation that went something like this:

Dorian: “You’re quiet so much more lately, which means you’re improving. But, I can tell it’s hard for you—to stay quiet and to know when it’s okay to speak. Maybe you should be completely silent until it’s not uncomfortable for you anymore. Because now the only thing that comes out of your mouth are insincere questions—you ask me about my day or about how I’m feeling…but only because I’ve asked you to ask me. You don’t really care. Maybe you just need more practice quieting your mind and your voice.”

Natalie: “Of course, I care. I love you, and I want to know about your day and your feelings.”

Dorian: “If this were the case, then you would let me talk until I’m done. You would let me go on until I ask you a question or until I ask you to speak. You are just like your mother.”

At this point, he suggested that it would be best if she would only speak when he asked her a question, or if she raised her hand and he nodded that she had his permission to speak. She convinced herself that this must be a good idea—that he only wanted her to overcome her tragic flaws. Dorian loved her and wanted to further her self-improvement.

And, so, she went along with it. She welcomed it. She found comfort in keeping silent as long as possible and then raising her hand only after Dorian had spoken at length about his day, his music, his ideas. After all, she was working on herself, she was achieving the goal of becoming less like her mother.

One day a close college friend of Natalie’s came into town. Natalie arranged for her and Dorian to meet her for dinner. Shortly after sitting down at the restaurant table, Natalie’s friend noticed Natalie raising her hand for permission to speak. The third time it happened, she grabbed Natalie’s hand and dragged her into the ladies’ room. She screamed through tears of concern, “What is going on?! Who are you, and what did you do with my friend, Natalie?! I hardly recognize this quiet, meek, and pathetic version of you! Raise your hand before you speak?! And wait for him to call on you?! Like a small child in a classroom! What happened to my strong, confident friend, brimming with stimulating ideas and nonstop chatter? Where did she go?”  

Luckily, for Natalie, her friend’s concern had the intended impact—it  was a wake-up call to Natalie. It did not mark the end of her relationship with Dorian, but it marked the beginning of the end…as Natalie began to take back her reality.

It took Natalie about 10 months of writing out their dialogue, of trying to put an end to the manipulation, of calling him out on his unrealistic and critical demands of her, and of her standing up for herself and saying “no” to his crazy requests, to know that things would never change.

Dorian was not willing to look at his own behavior, words, or twists of reality. He believed that he was right and that she had too many problems to even be deserving of an opinion. With the support of her friends and her journal, Natalie was able to walk away. Nearly two decades later, she is in a mutually fulfilling relationship of over a decade with a man who loves and respects her and a 9-year-old son who loves her dearly. Her life is gaslight free.

Natalie’s story is not unusual; many gaslightees are convinced over time—by someone they trust—that some behavior or action on the part of the gaslighter or requested of them (the gaslightee) is completely reasonable…and, in Natalie’s case, even helpful and desirable. Natalie’s positive view of Dorian, as the loving guy she wanted him to be, the desire to have him see her in a positive light, and her commitment to bettering herself—these all led her to engage in behavior that later seemed crazy to her. This is very typical of gaslighting in a relationship. It also is common for gaslightees to engage in frequent self-reflection and introspection—to constantly examine one’s own behavior and question it. And, true of many gaslighting relationships, the spell was broken by a third party: Natalie’s friend witnessing the outrageous and degrading behavior.

For Natalie, there was an added layer of fear that she would become someone she didn’t want to be and a hope for self-improvement. What was unusual about this case was the initial comfort she found in being gaslit. At first, she welcomed the control and convinced herself that it was good for her. Also unusual, was that Natalie was not suffering under the spell of gaslighting; her reality at the time was about self-improvement and staving off the ghost of her mom. 

Natalie’s story has a happy ending—she is blessed and knows it. Many people still suffer and have experienced great destruction at the hands of gaslighters. Hopefully, the more we read about and discuss gaslighting, the less likely we are for this to happen.