It’s easy to fool people when they’re already fooling themselves. ― Quentin Beck, Spider-Man: Far From Home
The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect. ― Peter A. Levine
1. How do gaslighters operate?
Gaslighters know how to hack us, both emotionally and cognitively. They can see our blind spots, plain as day—the things about ourselves which elude us even when we mightily strive to know ourselves. For someone adept at gaslighting, the act is like child’s play. With the insight of an empathic, attuned individual, a gaslighter—whether with full consciousness or as part of their implicit and intuitive ways of relating—swiftly identifies people who may be manipulated. The gaslighter tries a few things to see what happens, and, if they strike paydirt, they start digging in to mine as much as they can from the situation.
The things they try are sometimes called “relational moves”, interpersonal behaviors which serve as more or less intentional gambits to locate where the other person is in the relationship by seeing how they respond, in an ongoing process of feedback among people. This is something we do all the time, regardless of whether gaslighting is in the picture. Gaslighters will hang in there long enough until either there isn’t anything left to parasitically absorb, or the other works out how to become unattractive as prey.
2. Why do we ignore the warning lights?
We are often unaware of the gaslighter’s work as it occurs. Blind to others’ nefarious motives, desperately in need of love and connection, without the internalized example of safe and loving relationships in childhood and early adulthood, we are unaware of the other’s true motives. In particular, we are naive in as far as understanding that other people can be malevolent, planful, deliberately calculating to achieve ends of power and control. We don’t want to believe it is true of others, because the idea is so repugnant to behold within ourselves. We replace this mature awareness with a crude and unformed sense of our own badness, without really getting granular.
We may fall in love, and idealize our new relationship and lover. We may have a history of broken trust and betrayal and want so hard to believe this person and this relationship is different that we warp reality, projecting our wish for a trusting, safe person onto a bad choice because the pain, confusion and difficulty of copping to what is actually going on—if that awareness is even dimly available—comes at too great a cost. Self-deception is cheaper.
The energy required to get out of the well of denial is too much, and only threat and despair—hitting “rock bottom” and essentially having no other viable options—triggers change. Waiting for a real crisis is so much worse than biting the bullet, but most people struggle with getting gaslighted don’t knuckle down and deal with reality by choice because they don’t want to look within to the good, the bad and the ugly.
When people try to warn us, we ignore them, get made. We don’t let ourselves think the unthinkable, and then can’t deny it later. We can’t tell when there is a “red flag” or not, and even more may perceive interpersonal warning signs as signs of safety. For example, when someone is too warm and intimate too quickly, too quick to reassure, too good to be true…
3. The false stories we make up for ourselves
What kinds of excuses can we make when we know something is going on, but want so desperately for it to be different? What kind of defenses can we deploy to push others away when we know the person we are falling for is not a good choice, maybe not even a decent human being? We attack, using the psychological equivalent of a pointed stick—or worse.
The great British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion put it starkly in his landmark paper, The Psycho-Analytic Study of Thinking: “When we can’t think properly and are confronted with a disturbing thought—that who we think is Mr. or Mrs. Right may not only not be The One, but may be very, very wrong—rather than meeting that thought with a proper realization—the recognition that this person is a bad apple—we evacuate all our badness onto the person instigating the frustrating idea.” Like someone who has eaten spoiled food, we expel the contents out of ourselves, metaphorically speaking… all over the place.
4. Words of war
Bion uses the idiom of machines of war, drawing upon his experience as a decorated WWI tank battalion commander: “[C]onceptions are formed, but they are treated as if indistinguishable from things-in-themselves and are evacuated at high speed as missiles to annihilate space.” Rather than being able to make sense of intolerable realizations and hold on to them, we blast the person trying to tell us what is really going on, and jamming our own interpersonal radar in the haze of destruction.
5. Recognizing the inner gaslighter
Denial is at the root of self-gaslighting. When we cannot tolerate the emotional states which go along with seeing what we would need to see about ourselves in order to avoid being targeted, we cut ourselves off from the very information we need to know in order to be safe. This is not about blaming ourselves for making a mistake but rather about being curious and compassionate with ourselves so we can recognize what we are doing, why we are doing it, and learn to make better choices armed with greater emotional self-awareness.
6. Avoiding self-knowledge
Because of the nature of avoidance, because we can use dissociation from our own experience in order to preserve cherished illusions, it is often painful to confront and go through long suppressed feelings. Blaming others and ourselves is a way to externalize (“get rid of”) emotional pain, relieving suffering temporarily by creating rationalizations for why bad things keep happening. Eventually, the pain of repetition may force us to become motivated to go beyond our usual set of expectations and beliefs about ourselves and others.
We’ve got to catch that as soon as it starts to happen, or at least a little bit earlier each time by and large. And try different moves than our usual ones in the unconsciously-fueled rush toward tragically predictable outcomes. Gotta change it up, not randomly but thoughtfully, at least make an educated guess, targeted experimentation, rather than going all-in every time to try to make something true which isn’t really.
7. Looking for love in all the wrong places
A young man may find that he seems to always date women who are unavailable, who are either unwilling or unable to reciprocate the love he feels. Perhaps he experienced an early loss in his life and is unconsciously looking to replace a missing mother, or perhaps he has an unresolved break-up with his high school sweetheart… or both, as one tends to give rise to and amplify the next.
His need to see them as much purer, more loving, more committed than they actually are comes from his own disavowed feelings, which in turn prevent him from taking the steps necessary to understand his own psychology and romantic choices. By procrastinating dealing with grief and hard loss, he idealizes the other person, making them in his mind into someone they are not. When they disappoint him, he feels deceived and hurt, but that quickly turns to self-blame, wondering what is wrong with me that people keep leaving me. It’s a useful illusion, but it wears thin after a while.
8. The garden of forking paths
There are many possible paths when this pattern repeats itself over and over. Some lead to depression and self-destruction, isolation and hopelessness. Others lead to an emotional overload where the real underlying feelings breakthrough, forcing him to feel what he has been trying not to feel and leading him to make the connections back along the thread of his history to pull his experiences together into sudden awareness. Our experiences look very different when we look back with deeper understanding, and things mean something entirely different than we could have known with the benefit of wisdom.1
9. Meeting the stranger
One factor which comes into play here is that we may not be quite the same person we were, because we were much younger and less psychologically and cognitively developed, or because later in adulthood we have grown and mellowed, and have come to see things quite differently than how we were so sure must be right, and would always be true, as youngsters. Making sense of the world, gravitating toward something which feels true and real, is the action which is deferred.
“If something is going to happen to me, I want to be there.”
― Albert Camus, The Stranger
Yet another path is appears when we have the information from inside our blind spots available for use, experiencing self-recognition before the hammer actually drops. This can emerge from self-inquiry, encountering a model to follow in a friend or fictitious character who comes to a similar understanding, in dreams which reveal suppressed negative emotion, or through personal development work and therapy, among others.
Clearly less painful and destructive in some ways, though perhaps not as spontaneous, requiring willful self-exposure to challenging emotions and realities. We take a step back, and carefully and methodically work though the issues before they reach the point of crisis.
10. Tabletop exercises are better than actual disasters
By simulating the crisis, we make the most of our frontal cortex, learning from pretending and imagining, rather than getting pulverized. When we start to feel “sick” of what we are doing, or “tired” of it… it suggests we are having trouble maintaining denial. This is a sign we may be on the brink of being able to chose differently, and means we should slow way, way down and take stock of what is happening.
We may have to deal with a double loss, making it harder to justify the cost of moving forward. First, the realization of the actual losses, and next the what ifs… what if I’d made the connection 10 years ago, what if someone had told me this earlier, and another place where we risk blaming ourselves rather than being courageous in curiosity and self-compassion… the lost time and chances, risking distraction from the opportunities at hand. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional dark night of the soul, but they are only rich when they are fruitful.
11. The trick
One of the best ways to combat gaslighting is to be in touch with your inner gaslighter. Human beings are experts at deception, including self-deception. If we learn about our own blind spots, triggers, and interpersonal patterns―as well as how we respond emotionally―we become less of a target for gaslighters.
Not only that, armed with self-awareness and greater consciousness, we are better able to tell who isn’t trustworthy without having to be mistrustful all the time. One of the biggest things we start to notice when we understand our own blind spots are the ways in which we let others off the hook—making excuses for them, rationalizing and minimizing negative behaviors, and blaming ourselves for others’ actions. When we stop doing these things, we stop gaslighting ourselves as much, and stand a better chance of definitely noticing what we need to noticing in ourselves and others.
Freud called this deeper retrospective reframing “Nachträglichkeit,” translated as “deferred action”, or “afterwardness”. This is the action of making sense of things later on, which generally requires that we first take full stock of the experience, including the emotions at the time, and then do the work of creating a context for understanding what happened through our present lens.