And How To Avoid This All-Too-Common Form Of Abuse
I had to look up the term, ‘gaslighting.’ It wasn’t one I used in conversation, but I lived it, for the first twenty years of my life. My third oldest brother and older sister gaslighted me from as far back as I can remember. Growing up, I thought it was the only one. Sadly, I’ve discovered it’s all too common. Lots of people experience gaslighting.
According to an article in Psychology Today, gaslighting is when someone else makes you question what you know is real or true. Abusive, narcissistic people like to gaslight others. It’s an effective form of manipulation.
What I experienced, growing up in my own family, was being called a liar, pretty much every day. These two older sibling would set up traps for me. The funny, well, not-so-funny thing was, they did it independently of each other. I don’t think they even talked about it, so I was being framed or set up several times a week. My head was spinning.
There were several factors which worked in their favor and made me an easy pawn:
- First, I was deaf until I was eight years old, when I had an operation to remove blockage from my ears. My parents knew I was deaf much earlier than that, they just didn’t get around to doing anything about it until we got back to the States. A persistent teacher kept after them to have me checked out. Being deaf, it’s easy for bullies to gang up on you and play tricks. They had me convinced I was hopelessly stupid.
- Next, I was also being physically abused by my third oldest brother, so I became a shy, fearful child and developed a form of PTSD. I had lightning-fast reflexes. Even now, decades later, my husband is astonished at how quickly and silently I can disappear from a room or move from point A to point B.
- Thirdly, my parents had established a rule in our family that the older children took care of the younger ones, and I was #5, way down on the totem pole. That meant my parents refused to deal with any disagreements or problems among siblings. I couldn’t explain the bruises on my leg as third oldest brother swinging a baseball bat too close “just for fun.” I wasn’t allowed to truthfully say that the lock on the bathroom door had been smashed — again — because he wanted to “see what (you) were doing in there.”
I couldn’t say anything, because the abuse would only get worse. So I got the reputation of being incredibly clumsy as well as stupid. Even when I grew older and the threats turned sexual, my parents didn’t want to hear it. I was “tellling tales,” and they refused to believe anything I said because my older, godlike siblings had declared me to be a liar.
I really sympathized with the main character in Jane Eyre, abandoned, friendless and alone.
So the lies when on, and the abuse continued. Until one day I confronted both of them and told them off. I made myself look at them without fear. It took me weeks of practicing, to speak to them calmly and quietly, to make them listen. It helped that I’d grown up to look and sound just like my mother. I used her voice, her favorite phrases, and told them this nonsense was going to stop right now. I stood up for myself.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen until I was twenty. A lot of damage had been done by then. And the gaslighting didn’t exactly stop.
A few years after that, I married a man who picked up a girlfriend and began gaslighting me to justify his lack of fidelity. I guess the universe decided I needed to reinforce that lesson about standing up for myself. Even now, as an ex-husband, he continues to say nasty things about me to our children. He’s hoping they’ll repeat his ugly words back to me, so he can hurt them through me. But they never do.
The main thing I learned, and it took me years to learn this, was to stand up for myself, no matter what anyone else said. From that, you learn perseverance and resilience. Standing up for yourself is a skill, and it’s one you can acquire. Self-defense classes help, because then you are literally fighting back. Even in a psychological battle, physical resistance is really helpful.
“This happened to me. This is what’s true.”
- Keep telling people until someone believes you.
- Keep being you, because you are beautiful.
- If no one else tells you that, then you have to tell it to yourself, because it’s true.
- Don’t let anyone squash your personality.
- Don’t hide who you are. You and your story are a gift to the rest of us
My older sister acknowledged what she’d done, when I confronted her at age twenty. My older brother never has, and he continues to speak ill of me, causing a rift in the family.
My mother finally said she believed me, when I was in my forties and reminded her of an experience from childhood, one I could prove. My father had died years earlier, still believing me to be a hopeless, clumsy liar.
When my mother passes on, our family will be divided between those who accept me and those who don’t. But I can’t become a liar to justify the lies of others, to make them feel better. They’re in a self-constructed prison. The truth could set them free, if they only wanted freedom. The choice is up to them.
What would you choose? Truth or lies?