A Quick Word on Gaslighting

(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you.)
–Walt Whitman

I was talking with a friend the other day–a smart friend who has been through therapy more than once and has thought a lot about psychological issues–and I used the term “gaslighting.” This friend gave me a blank look, so I tried to explain it.

A brief explanation isn’t easy, trust me. If you want a fuller explanation, I highly recommend you read this short blog post. Basically, “gaslighting” has come to mean when you substitute your own reality for someone else’s. It most frequently happens when one person says, “That hurt” and the other person says, “No it didn’t.”

That’s a simplification, of course. Variations on this include someone saying, “You hurt my feelings” and another person saying, “You’re just too sensitive.” So…instead of recognizing that someone feels hurt, we take away that person’s permission to feel hurt. We tell her/him that s/he SHOULDN’T feel hurt. We try to fit FEELINGS into a right/wrong scenario.

We start this with children: Susie hits Bobby and he cries outrageously, dramatically, pouring it on. A parent says, “Oh come on, it didn’t hurt that bad.” And the parent is probably right: the reaction is outsized compared to the actual pain.

But guess what? We’re not kids anymore. And that strategy of dealing with other people’s pain is very unhelpful when we’re trying to be psychologically astute, mindful grown-ups in relationships with other grown-ups.

So I propose the following:

1. You are ALWAYS allowed to feel whatever you feel–hurt, sad, happy, relieved, scared, whatever.
2. When someone tells you s/he feels ANYTHING negative, DON’T respond by implying the feeling is somehow unearned. I’m not saying you have to take full responsibility when you didn’t intend to hurt the other person. Just say this: “I’m sorry you feel hurt.” If you’re especially courageous, try, “I’m sorry I hurt you” or “I’m sorry what I said or did hurt you.” This situation is NOT about right and wrong. It’s not about who has the moral high ground. It’s simply about someone having feelings.
3. When you feel hurt (or anything else), recognize that FEELINGS are NOT the same as ACTIONS. You are absolutely allowed to feel anything at all, to whatever degree you feel it. But feeling angry DOES NOT justify you yelling at or punching someone else. And those kinds of behaviors don’t lead to any kind of understanding, nor to any cessation in the feeling you’re having.
3a. Again, FEELINGS DO NOT EQUAL BEHAVIOR.
3b. I would also add that often, anger is related to hurt; that what makes us angry is, in fact, feeling hurt.

In other words, don’t gaslight. If someone else is hurt by something you said or did, be courageous enough to face that hurt with compassion. You didn’t intend to be hurtful, and you know it. If you don’t understand why the person is feeling hurt, gently ask for an explanation. Apologize not because you did anything “wrong,” but because you genuinely feel sad that the other person is hurt. (Incidentally, one reason people gaslight is because they feel guilty for having hurt someone else; more of that poisonous judgment, only this time directed inward instead of outwards.)

And if you’re feeling hurt, try to communicate that feeling without blame. This is why therapists suggest “I” language to couples: “I feel hurt” is a very different statement from “You hurt me.” It is easier to move away from offense and defense–and towards nonjudgmental connection–when each person is responsible for clearly articulating how s/he feels.

There is, of course, more to say on this subject, including the fact that our language doesn’t help when we’re trying to express that someone else’s pain also makes us feel pain. “I’m sorry” is woefully inadequate, when what you really want to say is something like, “I suffer because you are suffering.”

We will all screw up and hurt someone else. It’s inevitable, and we can’t lead our lives trying to be “perfect” so that never happens. But when it does, we can let others and ourselves off the hook by simply saying, “I’m sorry you feel hurt.”

The wonderful corollary to that is: “I’m joyful you feel happy.” Here’s to more of those comments for all of us.

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