Playing the victim role: Manipulator portrays him- or herself as a victim of circumstance or of someone else’s behavior in order to gain pity, sympathy or evoke compassion and thereby get something from another. Caring and conscientious people cannot stand to see anyone suffering and the manipulator often finds it easy to play on sympathy to get cooperation.
so often victims end up unnecessarily prolonging their abuse because they buy into the notion that their abuser must be coming from a wounded place and that only patient love and tolerance (and lots of misguided therapy) will help them heal.
~George K. Simon Jr., In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People
Gaslighting. This is something most of us have experienced in our lives, whether we are conscious of it or not. Because of what gaslighting is, it is highly likely it’s happening and you don’t realize it.
According to Wikipedia:
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.
Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. The term owes its origin to a 1938 play Gas Light and its 1944 film adaptation. The term has been used in clinical and research literature, as well as in political commentary.
Something to note about gaslighting is the manipulator doesn’t have to be intentionally doing it. Anytime anyone questions your own experience or tells you what you remember isn’t true – that’s gaslighting.
Here’s a thing though – gaslighting doesn’t just happen in our personal relationships. Gaslighting happens All The Time culturally. It is a part of our patriarchal culture and wounding.
Gaslighting is part of our patriarchal wounding and cultural relational trauma. It is traumatic and re-traumatizing for those of us who live in a patriarchal culture (all of us). This gaslighting shows up in the form of telling us our Noes do not matter. Our consent is irrelevant. Our boundaries don’t need to be respected or even acknowledged.
This gas lighting, I find, is particularly insidious. And that is of course intentional and by design. Gas lighting has us believing that either our experience isn’t real or that our experience is our own fault and not the fault of the other person or our culture.
This shows up on a broader scale as victim blaming, slut shaming, or actually being told that what we saw or heard or experienced wasn’t real or that we “misunderstood.”
This also shows up in the statistics of violence of against women. How every day, on average, three women are murdered by current or former intimate partners. How one in six women experience rape or attempted rape (and these are only the numbers reported, we know from lived experience that this number is much closer to six in six women). How 1 in 3 women have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime (again these are only the reported numbers).
This shows up when a man “mansplains” to us our own lived experience or what we meant to say or write.
This shows up when we say something, it is ignored, and then a (typically white) man states exactly the same thing and gets praise.
This shows up in Freudian psychology that blames the mother for all our problems and also tells us that as women we have sexual fantasies about our fathers (um, no. No I do not.).
This shows up in all the parenting books that tell us what to do and how to do it instead of trusting ourselves.
This shows up in all those stories of how we are too much: too emotional, too loud, too reactionary.
This shows up in all those stories of how we aren’t enough, how we can’t do anything right, how we are broken and need to be fixed, how we have to keep trying harder and harder and striving more and more to become “perfect.”
This shows up in a thousand ways every single day of our lives.
We are gaslit by the media. By our culture. By our families and friends.
Some of it I believe is intentional. And also, some of it, I believe, is not.
Regardless, it’s still gaslighting.
All this gaslighting, which is actually part of our lived reality, creates fear and terror and confusion. Fear, terror and confusion keep us small and quiet and obedient and compliant. It keeps us chasing our own tails. It keeps us pointing fingers at other women as The Problem. It keeps us isolated. It keeps us complicit.
When we are sitting in isolation, distrusting and judging other women, we are allowing the patriarchal culture to keep us leashed.Because our culture and the systems it propagates knows that when we are singular and isolated we can’t do a whole lot of harm.
Because it knows that if we come together in community and solidarity, it is fucked and will be burned down to the ground as we breathe fire in unison.
Because it knows the way to keep us leashed is to keep us distracted with the stories of how other women are bad and out to get us and how we ourselves are also not enough and too much and don’t deserve to exist.
One of the effects of gaslighting and other forms of patriarchal wounding that I find to be most harmful is the isolation and distrust of other women.
The reality that we are not in community.
The reality that mothers are to blame for everything that is wrong with their children, be they infants, adults, or anywhere in between.
The reality that we shame the hell out of other women for speaking up or demanding their boundaries be respected.
The reality that we completely disregard another woman’s No.
The reality that we, particularly white women, will claw and trample all over each other to get the crumbs of success (white) men deign to offer us.
This leashing runs deep. It goes back thousands of years. It is connected to the trauma inflicted on us as women, for generations. It lives in our blood and bones, muscle and being.
It is real. We are not making it up.
Epigenetics shows us how trauma is passed down through our DNA from our ancestors. And when each generations experiences trauma of one form or another or many forms, that gets added to what is passed down. It becomes cumulative and maybe even exponential.
We all carry this unprocessed trauma of our ancestors. Add to it the trauma of our lived experience be that physical or sexual violence (or both) or the trauma of living in a culture that considers us Less Than.
It’s no wonder we in-fight with other women. It’s no wonder we question our sanity. It’s no wonder we often stay quiet and isolated and small. It is no wonder the leash stays on and the current president is in power and are left feeling lost and confused.
This is all by design. This is all intentional. This is how oppressors keep the oppressed from fighting back against them.
One of ways we can take off the patriarchal leash, one of the ways we can start to shift, one of the ways we can begin to tear all this shit down, is by noticing.
Noticing the ways we allow others to tell us what our lived experience is.
As we notice and acknowledge we can also begin to unravel all the wounding and trauma and stories that lives with us. We can become curious about our whys and hows and whos. We can begin to say No and I will do better and I will do different next time and then actually do better and different.
It will be a slow process. It will be messy. We will make mistakes. We will fuck it up.
We will need to learn to sincerely apologize.
We will need to learn to tolerate being wrong.
We will need to learn to tolerate making mistakes and being imperfect.
We will need to learn to listen.
We will need to learn when it is important to speak our truth and share our voice and when it is important to move aside and allow others to be in the center.
We will need to learn to trust other women.
We will need to learn to be trustworthy to other women.
We will need to learn to be build each other up, to support each other.
We will need to learn what it is to be in true community, to understand we all have this leash around our necks, we all have our own unlearning to do.
And that we can do this all together.
Unearthing and examining and dismantling and dislodging our own wounds and wounding behaviors.
As we come together, as we act in rebellious solidarity in community, we will see how our stories and experiences are similar and yet unique. How we weren’t making it all up. How it wasn’t just in our heads.
As we share our stories and experiences in community we will see how we have all been gas lit by our culture. By the myth of the Perfect Woman. By the myth that women are sinful and evil.
This is an act of resistance. This is an act of rebellion. This is an act of defiance.
And it is how we will burn it all down to ground with our fiery breathe.
It is how we will rise from the ashes, together.
In community. United. Together.
This essay was originally shared as my weekly newsletter in August 2017. It has been edited and revise for publication here.
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