Unpacking Gaslighters to Make Space for Empowerment
I could hear Victoria speaking about me in another room with Rocelyn, her tone was just loud enough for me to hear what she was saying but low enough for her to deny saying it. She had just gotten done being passive aggressively critical in conversation with me about characteristics she also possessed. I didn’t respond but I knew she was projecting and this wasn’t the first time. I became frustrated because she was already in a position to have some influence over my access to certain resources, so while I wasn’t intimidated by her, I was fearful of retaliation and restrictions of my access to the things I needed for my safety and well being…despite not feeling as safe as I deserve, I knew things could become dramatically worse and I didn’t want that to happen. I was bargaining between enduring projections of her internalized racism, colorism and feelings of inadequacy with access to my basic needs. I’d been here before and I was tired of the abuse, but due to systemic marginalization I couldn’t afford the luxury of victimhood. I needed to suck it up, stay political, lay low and finish what I was there to accomplish.
Weeks later I brought the incident up with the two of them in a group setting and was met with expressions of forgetfulness and complete denial despite us all knowing what truly occurred. Victoria’s response was “I don’t want to go back and forth with a ‘he said - she said’ but if I did those things, I apologize….I just can’t remember.”
I didn’t want to argue either, what I wanted was accountability and a sincere apology, what I received was a verbalized manipulation from a person lacking accountability and seeking control. Her faux apology was positioned in a way that left me dis-empowered and I couldn’t refute their harmful behavior because then I’d be perceived as argumentative and confrontational which is a typical accusation for passive aggressive gaslighters to make. Behavior like hers isn’t considered abusive because in a repressive society, healthy expressions of anger, disappointment, sadness or confronting issues directly is treated as negativity despite the act of abuse being negative in and of itself. Past interactions with people like her showed me that I was dealing with someone who had little respect for others they couldn’t leverage for personal gain, so I’d waited to address this issue with Rocelyn present hoping that instead of lying, they’d have to show some sort of remorse and my concerns could be noted in a more neutral space. My doing this also made it clear that I’m not afraid to stand up for myself when needed, but that didn’t inhibit dishonesty from both of them.
Situations arose where we all needed to work together and honest communication was necessary but Victoria continued to play clueless. Any time there was an issue her response was “I have no idea,” which left me in the position of picking up her slack in the relationship publicly, meanwhile in private conversation she’d admit to noticing the things she previously claimed were “off her radar” and when I’d point out what she was doing the look in her eyes made a strong but familiar statement that said, “you and I both know that I’m lying, but I’m not going to be accountable by saying it,” she wanted me to do the heavy lifting while taking all of the responsibility. This told me that not only did these social conflicts and unresolved issues occur long before I was present but there was a clear disingenuous nature between them that left me feeling confused, questioning myself and like I couldn’t stay above water.
As time continued I noticed that when I’d try to discuss concerns directly she would retreat and respond via text or not at all. Her speaking up was reserved for times when responsibility was absolutely evident and even then she’d get ahead of it to divert some of the blame or deny her contribution entirely. Rocelyn was different, she would confront concerns directly but in ways that were detached, lofty and esoteric so she wouldn’t necessarily have to look at self or share her own feelings in a way that wasn’t objective. I began to realize that I was the catalyst used to clean up and hold tension that existed between these two people and they refused to confront it for fear of being put in an inconvenient, uncomfortable and even damaging position. If they could take whatever existing problems they had and divert them to me as a messenger, any resulting negativity could be blamed on the person carrying the message and not either party that’d sent it. The two folks in this scenario were roommates and I was a subletter, they’d relied on each other for stability and familiarity in an external environment that can be shocking and difficult to cope. I was objectified as a disposable means for them to wield subtle power toward getting what they wanted from each other. When I first moved in I asked why the last subletter, a PhD student, hadn’t stayed longer and Rocelyn said there were some “communication issues.” I pressed her to tell me what they were but she refused to divulge the details, it became clear to me that this information was withheld intentionally so if the issue recurred I wouldn’t have access to a frame of reference that could possibly identify them as the source of the problem instead. These were two individuals who were middle aged or close to it and they were using tactics to manipulate me into getting what they wanted from each other and I could identify this behavior clearly because I’d encountered it in numerous scenarios.
I’d experienced it while growing up witnessing abusive family relationships at home, particularly between my mother and her husband, a man who insisted I call him father despite never truly viewing our relationship as such. They’d fight physically, verbally, mentally and emotionally as they’d both done in previous relationships to other partners. During each fight they would stonewall to grasp for power in their relationship. When my mother couldn’t get what she wanted from her now ex-husband she’d ignore him and spend more time with me, knowing that he would be jealous of our time together, knowing that even at a young age I’d use encouraging words as an attempt to empower her to leave him despite her having no intentions of doing so. She’d take me out, laugh and joke with me, spend quality time with me in ways that we did before she met him and she knew that I yearned her connection and would fall easily in line. She’d do this until he’d apologize, they’d engage in overt displays of affection in front of me and I’d quickly return to a third class citizen in the home. She even went as far as falsely presenting me as a problem child to him and others, ascribing his behaviors to me as a cry for help, hoping that someone would somehow realize that she was coding her issues experienced with him and not me.
On one occurrence she used me to get him into counseling, she gaslighted me into thinking that I had mental health issues and that her husband needed to be there to talk about his concerns in order to “fix” me, when really she just wanted to get him in to see a therapist for his abuse, despite them both being incredibly abusive toward me and each other. After the first session the therapist said that she didn’t notice anything about my behavior to be concerned about, but my mother was so disengaged from accountability that somewhere deep down she believed that I was the source of her domestically violent relationship so surely we’d have more to talk about and eventually we’d get to her husband in a session. Perhaps she was hoping that I’d say something in front of the therapist and they’d be forced to talk about it. I was 12 years old. Once the therapist said she didn’t see a need for additional children’s counseling we didn’t book another session and my mother never summoned the courage to tell her husband that she wanted to go to couples therapy, instead she spent weeks mocking the therapist in private with me as a way to convince me that I wasn’t healthy at all…years later she finally shared her true intentions from that time but I’d already spent countless days being broken down by her actions, questioning myself and becoming dis-empowered. It was just one of the many ways that I endured family violence from beatings with belts and fists without reason, beatings for things my other siblings had done, withholding food or clothing and locking me in my room for 6 months at a time as punishment for things I didn’t do because they didn’t want me around. When I tried to speak to my mother about it she’d say “you weren’t always innocent” or “I’m sorry you feel, that way.” As if my feelings were the issue and not her abusive actions. Witnesses would also gaslight, claiming they didn’t notice what was happening in our home and how myself and siblings were being abused before their eventual divorce despite them being fully aware and just not wanting to get involved.
I’d ask myself, why can’t some people just tell the fucking truth? Why couldn’t these adults be accountable and where does society’s culture of accountability avoidance come from? Is it rooted in fear and ego?
I’d experienced this with bullies, people who were relatives, peers, coworkers and friends who’d say and do offensive and abusive acts in private or about me with others while I witnessed as a third party. I’d bring it up and they would claim they didn’t know what I was talking about and had no problem with me causing me to second guess my perceptions and self trust.
Most relatably I’d witnessed it in romantic relationships with cis-gender men who claimed that their harm was dreamt up by my “insecurity and imagination.” Men who tried to convince me that they only did hurtful things to retaliate against my efforts to hold them accountable and my seeking reciprocal care and responsibility within the relationship was the true issue and not their harmful actions.
Gaslighters use persistent dishonesty, projection, confusion, withholding, manipulative affection and even turning your allies against you (and you against them) to gain power and brainwash others to bend toward their will and ego. These abusers use these tactics to cause others to believe that they are unstable and unreasonable which causes victims to begin to distrust themselves. The primary motive of a gaslighter is to make life easier and more accessible to their needs alone so they don’t have to feel uncomfortable, compromise or be accountable and they create environments where victims can’t defend themselves against their actions. As a family violence survivor, past trauma made gaslighters feel that it would be easier for them to perpetuate this behavior and victim blame by claiming my “perceptions” of their abusive actions were somehow connected to my past. But I’d already done the work to accept, clear out and navigate those past hurts and now I know how to quickly identify this common form of manipulation and use my past to help others empower themselves to leave relationships where they are being abused. The truth is that everyone is dealing with some form of trauma which is the reason why gaslighters act the way they do and continue with this mental, emotional and social violence.
This year I’ve been doing the mental and emotional labor required to unpack this issue and identify the people in my life who do this so that I can clear out those relationships and make space for interactions that are mutually respectful, fun and healing all while stopping incoming abusers at the door. As I get closer to establishing impenetrable boundaries in this area I am forced to have uncomfortable conversations, prioritize my needs, speak up and distance myself from a lot of folks, including relatives who have wavered between support and disrespect to maintain access and power. These people may retaliate, withhold resources and gossip about me but I choose to keep my boundaries and standards firm, being ruled by self love and empowerment, not fear. I’m realizing that my old ways of responding to gaslighters with increased love, access and vulnerability cannot cultivate my safety because ultimately these people do not love me in a way that is pure and respectful of my humanity and worth. As I clear out the baggage, diversion and blame left behind by these people (many who are beloved by others because of their expertise in the oppression of power, influence and ego,) I begin to make space for compatible, empowering, independent and healthy relationships with others who are doing the work to sort out their shit, are secure in themselves and of like mind and frequency.
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