How to Overcome Emotional Abuse from Gaslighting

This week I came across Yashar Ali’s insightful article: Message to Women From a Man: You Are Not “Crazy” featured on The Huffington Post from The Current Conscience blog. He describes how men and women alike tend to gaslight women due to the culture we grow up in and not knowing a more productive way of respectful communication.

Gaslighting is a term that mental health professionals use to explain a form of psychological abuse where untrue information is intentionally said or done to make a victim doubt her or his own memory and perception of what happened. It is as simple as an abuser denying any previous abusive episodes have occurred, or an abuser can intentionally stage peculiar events to disorient his or her victim. This occurs daily in our interactions with women when we deem them overly sensitive, emotional, or crazy—both at work and at home.

The term comes from a 1938 play called Gas Light, and it’s 1940 and 1944 film adaptations where the husband uses various forms of trickery including turning gas lights lower than normal to convince his spouse she is crazy. The term became a colloquial expression, and was then used in clinical and research literature. Yashar Ali’s interpretation brings to light the cultural dynamic that our social mores today still allow this type of emotional abuse to occur, predominantly with women.

As I commented on other blogs this week I noticed the cultural dynamic to devalue women and their emotional intelligence. We are still trying to fit women into the mold of how men work and operate, and it is not working. Rebecca Knight on Financial Times also recently wrote about how social identity plays a factor in helping women rise through the ranks at work. Amy Levine-Epstein on CBS News also commented on how a recent study on women finds a drop in ambition, which is also wider evidence of a trend going on right now of the need for a cultural shift to take place within our society empowering women to own their emotions and ability to be flexible…and use them as a strength in both their personal and professional lives.

A woman’s brain is built differently than a man’s. There is more connective tissue between the left and right side of the brain, allowing more cross-talk between the two brain hemispheres. fMRIs show under stress blood is more evenly distributed across the brain allowing women to make decisions using both logic (left side) and creativity/emotions (right side). This is a strength, but in our culture it is often “gaslighted.” When men are under stress blood flow in a male brain increases in the left orbital frontal cortex suggesting a fight or flight response. If the problem cannot be solved logically right now, then men will tend to put off/forget about it until their cortisol levels begin to lower and they think more clearly. How men and women produce their stress-reducing hormones (testosterone for men and oxytocin for women) is also different.

My masters is in counseling. From experience I see the most success with clients when we empower them to change from passive/aggressive/passive-aggressive communication styles to becoming more assertive by teaching resiliency & life skills (proactive take on the unlearning bad habits/beliefs). So I often have people identify which of the 12 listening blocks they use so they become more aware of when they tune the other person out so they can bring themselves back to the present moment.

The quickest way to become more assertive is to take back control & responsibility for staying present in conversations. When we shut down & daydream or talk to ourselves while others talk, we take away our choice to respond back in a respectful manner right then & there. If a woman has been “rendered emotionally mute,” this would enable her to identify when gaslighting is taking place, as it is taking place—so she could then respond/interpret the situation objectively. Assertive communication relies on treating yourself & others with respect.

I tend to agree with Hilde Lindemann Nelson who published Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair with Cornell University in early 2001 that a woman’s ability to resist gaslighting depends on “her ability to trust her own judgments.” By narrating a counter-story (the real events/true information), women that have been gaslighted may be able to retain their autonomy and come to objectively see the psychological abuse for what it is so they can re-establish their concept of self and heal from the exploitation.

This is why understanding listening blocks, and then building upon this awareness with assertive communication skills will help a woman who has and is being gaslighted to identify the unhealthy relationship dynamic. She can then choose safety, to leave, address the situation with appropriate authorities if necessary, and seek professional help. If there are multiple forms of abuse, seeking therapy rather than coaching (skill-based and focused on present/future outcomes) may be more appropriate.

Using a coach who helps you identify assertive communication, gender intelligence, and emotional intelligence will open doors to new skill sets that can help both the victim and abuser to divorce themselves from co-dependent relationships so they can pursue functional, healthy relationships.

Likewise, if someone—either man or woman—is gaslighting they can become more aware of their misconstruction of reality by learning how gaslighting inhibits them from obtaining genuine or true intimacy. They can do this by learning what listening blocks are and how their sociopathic behavior limits them from receiving acceptance, appreciation, respect, and unconditional love if they continue with this form of psychological abuse. They can then work from there to acquire the necessary skill sets to change to healthier relationship behaviors.

Lyndsay Katauskas, MEd

Mars Venus Coaching

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