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What It Sounds Like When Your Parent Is a Gaslighter

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

The term “gaslighting” dates back to a 1938 play by British playwright Patrick Hamilton. In this play a manipulative husband convinces his wife that she has been stealing things and hearing things that really aren’t there. She begins to question her own perceptions of reality until she practically goes “mad.”

• What is PTSD?

The psychological definition of gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which a victim is deliberately manipulated into believing things that aren’t true in order to instill doubt or cause the individual to question their sanity. This type of abuse is particularly damaging when it involves a parent gaslighting a child.

Children rely on parents for their survival and if this core relationship is violated in any way, the long-term ramifications can lead to extreme trust issues, lack of self worth or self awareness, inability to experience one’s feelings and a sense that one is losing their mind because their recollection of events is constantly being questioned.

Parents who engage in this type of abuse are often struggling with their own unresolved trauma and are too emotionally fragile to take responsibility for the ways in which they may have let their children down. In my case, my mother’s own self worth was predicated upon her belief that she was a good mother, even though she was covertly incestuous and failed to respond appropriately to discovering that I was sexually abused.

Her favorite means of “gaslighting” me was to insist that I didn’t tell her about the abuse, so she couldn’t possibly have done anything about it. Inconveniently for her, she found out about it after my grandmother walked in on my abuser and I while he was molesting me and they had a fight about it, so this story she tells herself is invalidated by fact.

We asked our Mighty Community to tell us the ways in which they experienced “parental gaslighting.”

Here’s what’s they had to say:

  1. “‘I didn’t say that.’ Never owning her nonverbal messages or taking responsibility for them. So her constant rejection was always placed on me as me being the fool. I didn’t realize until years of counseling how damaging she had been. I could write a book.” — Katie M.
  2. “You must have dreamed that. That didn’t happen. The common denominator in all your problems is you. Why are you upset about that? If you didn’t make me mad we would have a great life.” — Deanna W.
  3. “When bringing up childhood abuse my mother goes, ‘Well I don’t remember it that way. Are you sure it happened? It was probably a bad dream.’ Or she would make excuses for my stepdad being drunk and not remembering hurting me so it probably didn’t happen. And I couldn’t ask for an apology because in his blacked out mind it never happened. 10 years of abuse I endured.” — Luralee A.
  4. “’You always make things up to create a conflict.’ This is my mother’s go-to phrase when she is confronted with things she said that hurt me. All I wanted was to hear her say she was sorry, instead I got this.” — Benedicte V.
  5. “’You’re overreacting’ when explaining how I feel. This made me stuff my feelings and made me feel like I did not deserve to express negative emotions.” — Nicole F.
  6. “’You’re a drama queen.’ I grew up being told this all the time, even by siblings. Or ‘you’re just sensitive,’ ‘we know how you could be, ‘you’re so emotional.’ Even to this day, I constantly question my feelings to things that make me upset, angry, sad or hurt. For a long time I would tell myself ‘just get over it’ or ‘maybe it’s you.’ Took a lot of inside work and being educated in emotional health that I realized that I have a right to my feelings and needs, no matter what others think.” — Neecky A.
  7. “Constantly being told that my reactions to things were extremely irrational, that I was too emotional, hysterical even.” — Jenny P.
  8. “’Stop being so dramatic’ and ‘you need to grow a thicker skin.’ Oh and when they hurt my feelings by making fun of me, it was dismissed with ‘we’re just teasing you, don’t take it so seriously.’” — Revyn C.
  9. “’You don’t really feel that way, let me explain to you how you should be feeling.’ ‘You don’t really want that, let me explain why you are wrong for wanting it.’ As a result, I had basically zero self-awareness until I was out of the house and old enough to see through this person.” — Laura K.
  10. “’It’s like you live in a parallel universe with your own version of the truth. We are scared for you that you don’t know what is true in the world’ made me feel crazy and out of touch with reality when the reality was (I realized years later) I was raised in a cult. I kept asking questions and they hated it and said I needed to be more spiritual and cultivate faith.” — Cassie J.

As is evident from our community “gaslighting” can feel “crazy-making.” It makes healing from other forms of abuse even more challenging because it’s a type of victim blaming, it robs us of our agency and it hinders our emotional awareness.

If you have experienced “parental gaslighting” you are not alone. It’s important to seek out the help of a mental health professional to disentangle what you know to be fact from the fiction that you have been coerced into believing.

Header image via Rajesh Rajput/Unsplash

Originally published: September 11, 2020
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