GASLIGHTING: A CULTURAL EPIDEMIC
Reclaiming the Story
A FEMINIST-NARRATIVE THERAPY & PERSONAL ACCOUNT
HILDA NANNING, RSW, MSW, RCC
According to current public discourse, gaslighting describes a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more ‘power’, impels its victim to question their lived experience of reality in ways that threatens their experience of safety in themselves and their sense of agency in the relational world.
In my co-research work with the clients who come to the therapy room to reclaim a life away from the effects of abuse and trauma, I am hearing a great deal about this gaslighting.
The following is my attempt to pay respect to my learning alongside the clients I work with and their journey of reclamation beyond the entrapments of abusive restorying. This reflection will also draw upon my own experiences as the target of a gaslighting campaign of malicious intent.
“Those who tell the stories rule the world.” –Hopi American Indian proverb
GASLIGHTING, I have come to know is about invisibility and covert operations, about cloaking intent and disorienting an audience and like any good storytelling, rhetorical skills, the gift of charm and an ability to enchant the audience is its elixir. My co-research in the therapy room reveals gaslighting as an attractive asylum for all kinds of manipulation and abuse. Some of the recognized names for those prone to deploying gaslighting to cause harm, according to the popular culture include: narcissists, bullies, sociopaths and flying monkeys1. In my own experience as the target of a gaslighting campaign, I have come to know its destructructive and hurtful tactics as not just ugly but as also sophisticated, in that it takes advantage of social and cultural vulnerabilities2 strategically to anchor and enmesh its damaging restoring scheme.
The mechanics of gaslighting appear to function much like other complex internalized problem systems, such as depression, trauma, anorexia, etc. The problem activity works to destabilize ones experience of safety and while attacking the somatic experience, it interrupts regulation and intimidates the resistances at work. Like a negative thought spiral it is organized to isolate the problem in the person and conjures an internalization of the problem stories and experiences. The afflicted can feel trapped and the onslaught of harmful persistence solicits despair and fear, a doubting of personal experience and a questioning of insights and worthiness. In essence, the problem tactics of gaslighting are organized for the problem to ‘become’ the person. Such conditions are a perfect storm for internal chaos and can leave ones sense of self, fragmented and the identity confused.
“The afflicted can feel trapped and the onslaught of harmful persistence solicits despair and fear, a doubting of personal experience and a questioning of insights and worthiness.”
“The problem tactics of gaslighting are organized for the problem to ‘become’ the person. Such conditions are a perfect storm for internal chaos.”
Gaslighting appears to have a similar operating system as internalized problem phenomenology, but in the case of gaslighting, there is a person(s) behind the malicious intention and conduction of confusion and harm. Like an operations manager, the gaslighter monitors the effect of the strategies at work. When the target shows signs of vulnerability, wellness compromise and begins to question their self-worth, other people might be recruited further to reinforce the erosion of the target’s defense. The recruitment of others advances the rigor of the restorying and the alleged wrong-doing narrative works to undermine healthy resistances if they are not supported and encouraged.
RECLAMATION of one’s story from any gaslight informed internalized entrapment and trauma activation is encouraged in Feminist-Narrative work with deconstruction and externalization of the harmful tactics at work and reinvigoration of the protests and supportive somatic and narrative counter experiences ignored and undermined.
Exposing the details of the injurious re-storying strategies which have been designed to isolate and weaken resistance and personhood agency, invites an empowering transport pathway back to a preferred self, beyond the story of victimhood and harm.
INGRID BERGMAN IN A STILL FROM ‘GASLIGHT’ (1944)
The ‘counter story’3 recovery process is especially potent when supported by the recognition and deconstruction of the cultural contributing factors of collusion, which have had a hand in undermining the protests of the wrong-doing and re-enforcement of allyship (therapist and any others.)
The meaning of reclamation can take on a new life, in a Feminist-Narrative therapeutic process, when the experience of self separates from the endemic injustices at play in the current cultural milieu. Coming to rest upon a personal narrative, beyond the despair of injustice, can invite an expanded or even altered understanding of the idea of ‘belonging’. Ideas of trust, truth and acceptance can take on new meaning and can invite a journey of discovery and exploration of an alternative freedom that does not rest on justice or the need to be accepted by parties that may be loyal/complicate to a culture of indiscriminate denigration and outing.
“Exposing the details of the injurious re-storying strategies which have been designed to isolate and weaken resistance and personhood agency, invites an empowering transport pathway back to a preferred self, beyond the story of victimhood and harm.”
I remain encouraged by the integrity of the Feminist-Narrative therapeutic at work in the therapy room, by my client experiences traversing post gaslight meaning and futures, and for that which my own insider knowledge has brought to this work. However horrific gaslighting’s calculated malicious intention, the reclamation is sweet.
Beyond enduring the negative impacts of gaslighting and the renewed resurgence from the associated existential grief, this personal experience has offered a generous ethnographic opportunity4 for a valuable close up study. Supporting my clients to rescue themselves from the effects of this form of abuse continues to remain some of my most challenging work and the personal of the experience, I believe has afforded an enhanced therapeutic efficacy. This knowledge remains a refuge for my spirit and an inspiration for addressing this complex and covert injustice.
1. those the abuser recruits to support to deepen the rewriting of stories. According to popular psychology, flying monkeys are usually unwittingly manipulated people who believe the smears about the victim although they may also be another narcissist working in tandem.
3. Counter Stories acknowledge details dismissed or disqualified by dominant discourses, to resist, address, and repair the unsupportive to preferred identity and to invite new proposals for action.
4. See David Epston for more on Narrative conversations as ethnograpy