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Episode 237: Gaslighting


And hello to you! And welcome to the Richard Nicholls Podcast, the personal development podcast series that's here to help inspire, educate and motivate you to be the best you can be! I'm psychotherapist Richard Nicholls and this episode is titled Gaslighting. And if you're ready, we'll start the show!

Hey there, me again. I say again, but unless you're a subscriber to my Patreon stuff, you don't hear from me that often I guess. If you listen to my short, bonus, Friday episodes, then I'm hardly around for more than half an hour a month for you. But if you hang on my every word, then you probably remember a couple of weeks ago, when I briefly mentioned that I was presenting at a conference.

It was the episode about self discipline. You might remember that episode because it was the episode that I started by saying Alright, everybody peeps! Which is a throwback to a Harry Enfield character from the 80s. And clearly, a desperate plight for me to try and regain my youth. It was the episode where I spoke about good old Phineas Gage, the guy who probably had the most famous brain injury in history.

Now, you remember it now, don't you? Yes, of course you do. The reason I talk about it now is because of that conference invitation. Because I was expecting them to ask me to present something to this massive group of other therapists all about podcasting. The ethics of podcasting, how to handle it as a therapist if you've got clients who listen, that sort of thing.

How to not break confidentiality if you've got a story that you want to share, all that sort of stuff. But after a lovely Zoom catch up with the organiser earlier in the week They've told me that they simply want me to tell my story, how I became a therapist. They just want me to talk about how I became a podcaster, just the story of my life, really.

And I thought, how could I make that worthy of being put up in a hotel, taken out to dinner, given a free conference? The little boy in me came out, comes to the surface, the imposter, just like it always does, that's what it is to be human. Anyway. I digress, because I started the episode asking you to remember me telling you about the conference presentation.

And I wonder how easy it was for you to recall that. Memory is a curious thing, you see, and you've heard me say quite a few things over the last few weeks. Especially if you listen to my Friday episodes as well. Maybe that phrase, alright everybody peeps, probably rang a bell, didn't it? Maybe the invitation to the conference thing rings a bell now, doesn't it?

Does it? Well, because, as you probably realise by now, I made that up. I didn't mention it a few weeks ago at all. That was a lie. But I can guarantee that planting that seed that I told you about at a conference, it would have meant that the next time I mentioned it, it would have genuinely felt as if I'd talked about it more often than I actually have.

Because that's just how memories work. Whether they're real memories or false memories. They're easily manipulated. And I want to talk about that a little bit today, because it's not uncommon for people to use this quirk to our memories, to manipulate and control people. And the more times that we talk about it, the more times that we shine a spotlight onto it, the less likely it is that people are going to fall for those tricks.

And hopefully, also prevent people from acting that way in the first place. Because once everybody knows that this manipulation exists and the secret's out there, they're less likely to be manipulative, I hope. Now in popular culture, since the 60s really, it's been called gaslighting. I'm sure you've heard the term before.

And if not, well, now you have. Gaslight was a play, it was a thriller, set in Victorian London, about somebody trying to find some hidden jewels in an attic, trying to convince his wife that she's going crazy, because every time he secretly goes into the attic to try and find these jewels, he turns on the gaslight in there and it dims it in the rest of the house a little bit.

And then when she asks him why it keeps happening, he tries to convince her that it's always been that dim, and she's imagining things, because if she can go crazy, she gets hospitalised, he's free to then keep the jewels all to himself. That's how gaslighting, the phrase, came about. That's how new words end up coming into being.

Now, because the term gaslighting has gone from being this extreme brainwashing term of the 1970s, to the more sort of throwaway comments of today, where anyone in defence mode who's angry and says things they don't mean ends up being called a manipulating gaslighter. I think this needs addressing a little, because the term gaslighting is getting chucked about after just a simple argument.

I think probably because our communication skills aren't that great and any disagreement comes across as a threat. But genuine, abusive gaslighting is very different and if people don't see the difference between someone using normal human defense mechanisms and someone who's trying to get you sectioned under the Mental Health Act then relationships might end unnecessarily because not everyone who's defensive is a manipulative gas lighter.

Now, I love that words can change over time. That's how language works. I'm a big fan of language. I use it all the time. But if we use gaslighting as a phrase for the normal unconscious defense mechanisms that we all have, then we are going to need a new word for the genuine, deliberate abusers. Because it is a form of abuse, it really is.

And stories like this do come up in the therapy room quite a lot. Clients will say that their abuser would say things like, You're insane, that never happened. When actually it completely did. Or, All of our friends think you're overreacting. That sort of thing. And why people do that is a podcast topic all of itself, and it's probably to do with a need for power, authority, control.

Now, it's one thing to prefer it. But it's another to actually need it, and it wouldn't surprise me if most abusers had a neglectful childhood. Not that it excuses it, but it explains it, if nothing else. Abuse is abuse, whether it's physical or psychological. They're both cruel and damaging. But I guess some abusers don't want to leave marks that other people can see, do they?

Or maybe they just don't want to be violent, but they still feel that need for control. And this is the difference between the original term for gaslighting from the 60s and 70s, where it was all about tricking partners into thinking that they were more important to them when they weren't, so as to con them out of money or something, and then nowadays we've got the more modern version of it that we talk about now, where the abuser does actually love and care for their partner. They actually want the relationship, but they want it on their terms. They don't want to be challenged. They don't want to be controlled in any way themselves. And so they'll shut down their partner's complaints. They'll not allow them to have their own reality. And this happens a lot if somebody is a serial cheater.

Now, I'm not saying that everyone listening whose partner might reject how they feel is cheating on them. But the opposite way around is likely to be true. That everyone whose partner is cheating is having their emotions rejected. And what I mean by that is if you were to say something like, I'm feeling insecure, or I feel that you don't love me, and you keep getting told that the way you feel is irrelevant.

Then you both need to explore how you feel. You both need to accept that your feelings are valid. They might not be true. It might be that there is no need for that insecurity. That there is no need for that unloved feeling. But if you don't both explore it, then it doesn't go away. So, explore it. If your partner comes to you and says those things, then you need to know that that is their reality.

Even if it's wrong to you, even if you know that what they're saying is wrong, their body is still holding those emotions. Talking about it, finding ways to boost their security and help them to see that you do care for them, is the answer. Not belittling them. No relationship advice column ever suggests that, does it?

And for good reason. So, if you're on the receiving end of the possible gaslighting, you need to stick to your reality. Even if you're wrong, those feelings need exploring. Explain that even if you're wrong about them cheating, for example, it's still a normal thing to be upset if you thought that they were.

Now, humans are defensive. We say things we don't mean, and we do things we don't really want to do. On its own having a partner that keeps shutting you down isn't a red flag. It's not a red flag that the relationship is going to be problematic. Maybe it's an orange flag, though, which is livable. But if you combine it with other coloured flags, it soon becomes a big red one.

Now, another flag would be things like isolating you from friends and family, or just trusted people. Trying to remove people who could actually support you from your life, so that all you've got left is them. Now that's quite a, quite a big red flag, actually. And gaslighters know that if you've got other people who might see through their lies and manipulation, then it undermines them.

And they need you all to themselves. Because you can't control a TV if there are multiple remotes. Someone else can easily change the channel, can't they? And gaslighters know that. For all I know, somebody listening to this is unconsciously driven to be a gaslighter like that. And I know it's more often a conscious choice, a deliberate decision that they want to manipulate, but sometimes people don't actually realise the manipulation games that they're playing.

So if you find yourself saying things like, Your friends are crazy, they can't be trusted, and I'm the only one you can rely on, or I'm trying to protect you, other people will take advantage of you. Then step back a bit, and ask yourself why you feel that need. What's really going on there? How does it feel knowing that your partner can make their own choices?

Have their own friends outside of the relationship? Because a healthy relationship has those elements. Long term, happy marriages are based on just that. We have to exist outside of each other. Otherwise we become enmeshed and we lose our individuality, our sense of self. So, like I say, how does it feel knowing that your partner can make their own choices, have their own friends outside of the relationship?

Healthy people would say it feels nice, it feels comforting. Someone with either conscious or totally buried and unconscious insecurities would say it feels threatening and dangerous. Now the elephant in the room here How long are we in? Ah, well over ten minutes in. Hmm. Is that this is more often than not something that men do.

It's not unique to men, believe me, but we do still live in a sexist society that undermines women and gives men some permission to throw around accusations that women are overly emotional, overly sensitive, a crazy psycho who imagines things. And I mention this because gaslighting can happen outside of intimate relationships as well.

These same things happen in boardrooms, meeting rooms and offices all over the world, even universities and other institutions can find gas lighters manipulating their staff or students. And it's more often than not men that do it. And it is a nurture thing, not a nature thing. This isn't caused by testosterone.

It's caused by sexism. We hear a lot of stories where women complain about sexism in the workplace or in education. And the sexism fuels the gaslighting. You get, Don't be so sensitive. Oh, I was just joking, they'll say. Don't be so paranoid. Things like that. Or worse You know, I'm worried about you. I don't think you're well.

And it's horrible, I know, but sometimes we have to document everything to prevent being manipulated. Summarising the actions from meetings in follow up emails, if you have to, so that someone doesn't claim you agreed to something that you didn't. And if someone tries to contradict your reality, give yourself some time, give yourself some space to look into it.

Let me sleep on that, you know, that sort of thing. Or I'll look into it, let me get back to you. Things like that. Even if all it does is confirm your suspicions that they're a manipulating gaslighter and you've got to watch yourself around them. So whether it's in a work, rest or play scenario, if you find yourself thinking Am I losing my mind here?

Can I trust my reality? Consider it a red flag for gaslighting rather than a sign of anything schizophrenic. Especially if someone or some institution is dismissing how you feel and is putting steps in place to prevent any social support. It might not be that you're going crazy after all. Might just be that someone wants you to think you are.

So, let's leave all that here for today. Enjoy your week. Enjoy your month. Don't let anybody control you. And I'll speak to you again very soon. Take care, folks. Bye for now.