Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.
I thought I was crazy. For a long time. Behind every smile or good sermon, I secretly assaulted myself daily with thoughts that I was all wrong. That I was fooling people who thought I was good at what I did or was a put-together person. For decades, literally, I was haunted by my father. Anyone who was close to me during those years knew I had “issues” with my father.
I didn’t trust myself. If I had an opinion on something, it wasn’t legitimate unless someone smarter or more important than me had the same opinion. If I disagreed strongly with someone I respected and cared about, it caused me unrelenting anxiety. They “had” to be right, but I felt something different. I didn’t trust my perception of reality, so if I got upset about something, I automatically assumed it was “not that big a deal.” If someone else responded as if it WAS a big deal, I was astonished, as “oh, I’m allowed to feel bad about that?” At other times I made a big deal out of things that were, in fact, NOT big deals in the whole scheme of things.
I didn’t trust myself.
Of course, when I was growing up, it seemed that my father’s congregations adored him. Many of them put him on a pedestal. My mother told me how certain people thought he was “wonderful”, and how his sermons changed people’s lives. But I didn’t like my father. I figured I must be missing something. Obviously I was wrong if “everybody” loved him but me.
“You have a problem with your father,” was my father’s usual diagnosis of me, speaking of himself in the third person. Yes. Yes, I did. But he insinuated it was unfounded. He never said “I’m sorry” because he was never wrong.
I was tired of being told I was “just like my mother”– which he told me when I cried or got angry at him. I was tired of being told I had penis envy or was sexually attracted to my father. I was tired of being told I didn’t know anything, and he knew everything, even about me. I was tired of him dissecting every person I loved until they were pitiful, mentally ill and faulty people that weren’t worthy of love. People I loved were always defective.
“Why do you take it so personally?” my father would ask, laughing. “I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about them.”
“But they are people I care about! And you’re ripping them apart!”
He laughed. “Don’t be so sensitive.”
When I trusted the wrong people and tried to tell them about my relationship with my father, I was told, “Hey, you’re lucky he doesn’t beat you or sexually abuse you. He doesn’t drink, he provides for you. You don’t appreciate what you got.”
I didn’t know how to think for myself. My father spent hours telling me what Jung or Freud or Tillich or Rollo May wrote. “You should write a paper on that,” he’s say. When I got to college, he lent me books on psychology, and I wrote what he would have written. I didn’t do well. But I didn’t trust my own thoughts or ability to critique people who were published or who had PhDs. I thought what my favorite professors thought. I tried to be so many different people at once so I would be worthy, that I made myself crazy.
I just learned of the term “gas lighting” a few years ago. I am certainly not one of those types that seeks out labels, after having so many labels imposed on me all my life. When I came into conflict with senior pastors or parishioners in my ministry, I immediately thought I must be wrong all the time, and they were right. When there was major controversy in the church, I didn’t trust my own instincts, no matter how upset I’d get about something. It must be wrong, especially if “important people” were on the other side of the argument.
My father sabotaged a lot of relationships. I don’t know that he always set out to do that, but it was so habitual for him that it just seemed to happen. When I was living with my parents after college, I was so lonely. I had no direction to my life at the time. I was deeply depressed. I had no social life. I didn’t want to live at home.
One evening, a family friend came to dinner. Jim was like a cousin. I’d grown up calling his parents Aunt and Uncle, as they were my parents’ best friends and our families did a lot together. Jim had taken care of me when I was a child on such trips, like a big brother or cousin. He grew up into quite a handsome guy, which I noticed, of course, but I always thought of him as a relative. Not someone to be attracted to.
He came for dinner just because it had been so long since he’d seen me, and he heard I was back home from college. It was good to see him, hear about what he was doing and to kid around. He was a nice guy. After dinner, he suggested we go for a drive, just to have some time to visit by ourselves.
It was the catching up of friends who shared a history. He told me some of the things he’d been through. He’d been jailed temporarily for a traffic fine that he neglected to pay. He’d been 18 and foolish. He told me about how his father gave him a Bible to take with him to jail, how his father didn’t judge him for a stupid mistake, but promised to pray for him and be there. I was honored that Jim saw me as someone he could tell such things to. At 22, I still felt like a child, and he treated me like an adult. It felt so good to be with another human to just talk and visit. To be respected as someone who was worth talking to.
After he left, my father was angry and told me all the reasons I was forbidden to date him. I hadn’t thought of dating him! I just wanted a friend. Despite my arguments, Dad went on, tearing Jim apart psychologically, trying to show me that he was inferior and had mental flaws. Why else would he end up in jail?
I argued that Jim knew it was a stupid thing to do, that he’d grown from it, and… but it didn’t matter. Dad’s word on anybody, including me, was final. He alone knew the truth about people. We fought about it that day and many days after. I didn’t know yet that I didn’t have to attend every fight I’m invited to, and I fought hard to convince Dad that Jim was not a worthless human being.
Dad would not relent. After a while, like on many previous occasions, I started to doubt myself. Maybe I didn’t have a good sense of people. Maybe I was attracted to Jim, though everything in me assured me that I didn’t think of him that way. And as it always worked out in my head, maybe … I AM crazy. Just an “emotional, hysterical female.”
One day I called Jim, just to see if we could get together. I had enjoyed our time together visiting. I was so very lonely for human company that didn’t pick me apart or question my sanity.
“Uh no, I don’t think so,” Jim said when I said I thought we could get together for another visit. He seemed to think, too, that I was asking for a date. My Mom later told me that she and Jim’s Mom were talking about the two of us, and how Jim didn’t think we should date. I didn’t want to date him! No one would listen.
I felt crazy. Over the years I’d learned that my father had sent Don to a psychiatrist and Mark to primal scream therapy (which explained the daily screams that erupted from upstairs without warning). My father sent me to a psychologist that eventually tried to rape me. When I told him about it, finally, a year later, he said, “I can’t believe he would do that to me.”
We were all broken, in my father’s eyes, and needing to be fixed. He assured me all my life that he knew me better than I knew myself, and by the time I was an adult, I believed it. I felt he could see inside my head and was judging and concluding. It was never in my favor. I was a woman, driven only by sexual impulses and my desire to be a man. I could not be trusted with big decisions because I was a woman.
I stumbled across the term “gaslighting” a few years ago on a Facebook page, and as I read it, it described my state of mind and my experiences. Other people had experienced what I had! There was a term for it! The term comes from a movie called Gaslighting, starring Ingrid Bergman, where her husband purposely manipulates her environment to make her think she’s going crazy and cannot be trusted. People don’t always do it on purpose. My father didn’t do it on purpose, but it’s part of who he is. He is unable to feel sensitivity toward another person, but is always worried about how things affect him.
For years I could not understand how a father could feel no emotion toward his own child; to be unable to be happy for their happiness, or sad for their sadness. He was unable to have any of our backs. Each of us understood that we were to make him look good, and when we didn’t– when Don and Mark actually made him look bad during their teenage years– they were sent to therapy. I thought it was my fault that my father was incapable of loving me. That if I’d only been a more impressive daughter, or been smarter or more successful, he’d have been able to love me. But someone told me once, “you might want to look up Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”
I wasn’t trying to get revenge by analyzing him back, but when I read the description of someone with NPD, my father fit all the symptoms. He was able to put forth a persona in the Church that showed him to be a charismatic preacher and wise counselor. But when he was home, he needed to be catered to, served, and to have his ego stroked. He could not be bothered with children or our needs. We were there to make him look good. And it was never enough.
But I finally knew that I wasn’t crazy after all, and only now, am beginning to trust my own instincts, feelings and opinions. It’s been a long, long difficult trip to here.