7 Powerful Things You Can Do About Gaslighting Parents
Gaslighting is manipulating another person or group to doubt their own reality, memory, perceptions, or even experience.
“I never said that.”
“That didn’t happen.”
“Actually, you’re the one who does that, not me.”
“I won by a landslide.”
I’m a mental health therapist, and hear lots of stories from clients of parents who gaslight. My parents practiced their own versions as well. So I understand.
Dad’s gaslighting was very subtle and longterm. He completely hid who he was, which is perhaps the worst gaslighting of all.
Mother’s response to memories I shared with her, especially those I was working on in therapy, was, “That didn’t happen.” Or, “You imagined that.” My own experiences of their constant fighting, arguing, and putting us in the middle, were filtered through her experiences of it, and her ongoing decision to stay in the marriage, which I’m sure she felt the need to justify.
She did it, I’m sure, to protect her ego, and her own feelings of pain or guilt. No parent likes to be reminded of their failings. And all parents have failings, including me.
As a parent, having worked on myself in therapy, I vowed never to gasllight my child. And I didn’t. I made other mistakes. Some big ones. But one thing he could always count on from me was the truth.
That’s one way I countered the gaslighting I received, by not passing it along to my own child. What else can you do about the gaslighting you’re receiving or received from your parents?
Therapy helps, and I don’t say that just because I’m a therapist. Ten years of therapy helped me in numerous ways, and one was to find my truth. Therapy validated my memories in ways that my parents wouldn’t or couldn’t. There’s power in knowing your life experience is real and valid.
Inner child work in therapy also made a difference. I began learning how to tell the truth to my own son when he came along, by first telling the truth to my little girl inside. I told her she was loved, protected, smart, and safe with me. I validated her pain.
Don’t let your parents’ gaslighting keep you from your full potential.
One of my clients is an amazing artist. I’m using her example with her written persmission. She’s also quite funny. But her mother always told her she wasn’t. She would say something like, “Don’t try to be funny, sweetie. You just aren’t.” During therapy she started an Improvisational Comedy class. Terrified, and convinced she would fail, she went anyway. By the end, she was the one being requested by all of classmates to be in their Improv groups. She was, indeed, very funny.
While in my own therapy in my twenties, I learned how to stand up to my parents with the experience of my truth. While there really are three sides to every story, your side, my side, and the truth, it’s urgent that you honor your version, while trying to understand the other person’s side, and the facts. Yes, even to the point of seeing your gaslighting parent’s point of view. Especially if they don’t have full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Gaslighting parents likely have some narcissistic tendencies, because narcissists are the grand masters and mistresses of gaslighting. It’s how they maintain their grandiose view of themselves, which in fact hides their feelings of low self-esteem. It’s part of their defense mechanisms. If they admit to your version, their internalized image comes tumbling down, and they must face their own shame and fear of not being who they want you to believe they are.
Parents with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, NPD, are not likely to ever see your memories as real. However, you can learn more about who they are and about the disorder. This clears the way for you to see yourself with clear eyes, and not through their eyes.
Gaslighting parents who aren’t full-blown narcissists will stil have the same fear of being “found out.” They also lose their defense mechanisms if they admit to you and themselves the truth of your experience, versus their memory or version of it.
Parents, like my mother, who aren’t full-blown NPD, can eventually be communicated with. It will take stamina on your part, and I suggest you pick your battles. There are some childhood traumas serious enough to process directly with a parent whose ego can take it, and there are some that are so traumatic it’s best to deal with those issues solely in therapy. Only you and your therapist can determine which ones those are.
When you do decide to confront the gaslighting, there are a few techniques that are helpful. If you are a teen living at home, don’t try these without help from another adult, a school counselor, or a therapist.
You can use mindfulness, compassion, boundary setting, conflict resolution, humor, behavior modification, and Imago Dialogue. I personally prefer and mostly used humor.
Eventually when my mother would say, “You imagined that, “ I would answer, “Yes, you’re right. I made it all up. Why wouldn’t I imagine something that wild?” This was after reminding her of a car chase with her friend driving, all of us in the car, and my dad in his car behind us, as the friend drove her car off the road into a field trying to get away. Interesting that I don’t remember what happened after that, or even why we were running, but I didn’t tell her, because that would bolster her argument that it didn’t happen.
By the way, she sometimes laughed when I confronted her using humor. I can be pretty entertaining. And fortunately she had a sense of humor. In a therapeutic setting, we therapists call that Paradoxical Therapy. Enter the delusion or defense mechanism and overly, conspicuously agree with the person’s irrational beliefs.
What if your parent doesn’t recognize, respect, or have a sense of humor? Try the following techniques.
If you choose to confront them, or you still live with them, do mindfulness meditation first, so you are centered and grounded when you talk with them. They will push your buttons, because, after all, they installed them. So continue to remain mindful and present as much as possible. Don’t relive the trauma while discussing it with them. Here’s how to practice mindfulness beforehand.
What Is Mindfulness?
Isn't it interesting that the practice of Mindfulness is described by a word that means its opposite? When our minds are…
Try compassion. Once you’ve dealt with some of your anger and hurt in therapy, journaling, or processing, then ask them about their experience. Or ask family members or friends who know them what their life was and is like. If they don’t have NPD, they may be gaslighting because their own trauma is so intense they can’t face it. Sometimes presenting as caring about them gets them to open up. When they open up, they are more likely to listen to your experience.
Set boundaries in whatever situations you need. When they gaslight you by redirection, such as saying, “You’re the one who does that, not me,” tell them you prefer to remain on the subject. When they gaslight by denying your experience, leave the conversation. This is part of what I call Behavior Modification of your parent.
Behavior Modification means you stop rewarding the behavior you don’t like. That can include saying goodbye and hanging up the phone, or saying you need to take a walk and leaving. Obviously this only works if you are grown and/or don’t live with them.
You can start the conversation again later, after laying the ground rule that you will listen to them, but they are not to discount your feelings and memories.
Conflict resolution is best used in the presence and under the guidance of a professional. Family therapists are trained in conflict resolution, and can help you and your parent talk to one another. This is particularly useful if you are a teenager or living at home.
Teens have no power from which to negotiate with a parent, especially an abusive or potentially abusive one. Your school counselor can refer you to a family therapist, and can be your ally in seeking help and approaching your parent about counseling.
Imago Dialogue is a therapy communication technique which can be taught to both you and your parent, if they agree to go to counseling with you. It begins with an agreement that one of you will begin as the listener and one will begin as the speaker. The listener agrees to listen so as to repeat back to the talker what they said. This requires concentration, and makes it impossible to be thinking about what you’re going to say when it’s your turn.
The speaker starts by using only “I” statements followed by a feeling. For instance, “I feel hurt when we talk and I don’t think you’re hearing me.” Saying “I feel…” makes it so the other person can’t argue with you. They may argue about other things, and may try to argue about your feeling, but they can’t. Your feeling is your feeling.
The remainder of the statement should be said in a way so as not to accuse the other person. If you are stating your truth in a non-accusatory way, the person listening will feel less threatened. For example, “When we talk I don’t feel/think you are hearing me.”
The listener then repeats back to the first speaker what they said, and validates their feelings. A validation can be, “I see why you feel that way.” they then ask if that’s all the speaker has to say for now. If the answer is yes, the listener then becomes the speaker, also using only “I feel…” statements. The first speaker then becomes the listener who has to repeat what is said and validate the feelings.
There are therapists who specialize in Imago therapy, just as there are those who specialize in family therapy. In addition to school counselors, doctors can recommend therapists. You can also look on sites like Psychology Today and Therapy Den to find therapists who specialize.
The biggest problem with gaslighting parents is that they start it when you’re a young child and you believe everything they say. As you get older, it’s important to claim your own reality, through talking with others, observing, reading, or counseling.
Once you’ve found your own truth and reality, stand up for it and yourself, in your own mind and in the world. Whether your parents are alive or not. Whether they ever listen to you or not. Learn to listen to yourself.