THE GASLIGHTER

Have you ever had a situation that goes something like this: You meet someone and it feels like the stars align. Whether it’s a friendship or it turns romantic, it seems totally meant to be. They’re really nice and seem to be genuinely interested in you. They lavish you with attention and a true relationship begins to blossom. You feel really safe in that moment, which makes what happens next worse.

Down the road when you both have settled in comfortably, things start to change. The person who used to adore and worship you now fluctuates between needing you desperately and devaluing you. They are constantly angry and depressed. They consistently lift themselves up by putting others down. They’re often negative and hard to be around. Instead of engaging with you, they tend to make things about themselves. In fact, they may actually be prone to lies and exaggerations about themselves and others, as a way to make themselves feel better.

Maybe you had ignored some red flags at first, but it can’t be ignored now. When you are convinced that things are turning toxic, you call it off and explain that you’re moving on. However, instead of getting better, this individual’s behavior gets much, much worse!

Now, imagine that instead of going away, this person begins gaslighting you: a form of persistent manipulation meant to ultimately cause you to lose your own sense of perception, identity, and self-worth. A gaslighter’s statements and accusations are often based on calculated fiction. They begin by distorting facts, crafting deliberate falsehoods, making up character assassinations towards you, and aggressively asserting negative coercions about you to your friends, family and co-workers. You notice that they send you communication that tries to manipulate the truth by persistent distortion, with the clear intention of causing you, your family, your co-workers and your friends to question and feel less confident in your personality and your decisions.

Now, anything mean that they do to you, this person accuses you of doing to them. Not only are they lying, they are thriving off of the praise gained from being the victim in those lies. They replace factual information with false information. They personally message people who support you, threatening them if they continue to work with or be friends with you. This person begins to attempt to control your personal relationships, friendships and work relationships by constantly inserting themselves into them with made-up drama, lies and persistent manipulation aimed directly at you. They threaten your livelihood. Now we’re not talking being mean or annoying: we’re talking serious criminal harassment.

Now, imagine this goes on for 11 years!

Unfortunately, that’s been my everyday reality. I’ve been a victim of gaslighting for over a decade: since I was 20 years old.

THE VICTIM

If this situation sounds similar to something you have experienced, you may be or may have dated or been friends with a narcissistic gaslighter. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse used by narcissists in order to instill in their victim’s an extreme sense of anxiety and confusion to the point where they no longer trust their own memory, perception or judgment. The techniques used in “Gaslighting” by the narcissist are similar to those used in brainwashing, interrogation, and torture that have been used in psychological warfare by intelligence operative, law enforcement and other forces for decades.

Since 2007, I’ve faced this harrowing reality from one person in particular, as well as their family and close friends. This gaslighting behavior towards me has now been going on for over a third of my life. Never one to want to feel like the victim, I have stayed silent about it publicly for all these years. But I was inspired to share my story with you today. As a woman, as a woman of color and as a woman with a public platform, I NEED to share my story with you today.

Many years ago, I took the drastic step to move across the country and get as far away from my gaslighter as possible. In retaliation, they moved across state lines, close to where I had lived (a classic form of stalking) and even reached out to people in my new town, as well as my old, befriending them to turn them against me. While I’ve chosen to completely ignore them, over many years my gaslighter has gone through great lengths to threaten me both personally and professionally, including making death threats to my life. I have done everything one does in this situation (and have outlined them all below so you have them handy), but after going on for over a decade, it’s never really stopped.

Remember that many of the people that are on the receiving end of rampant gaslighting are harassed each and every day, because their abuser is in pain each and every day, and takes their pain out on their intended victim with their manipulative behavior.

To the harassed, it’s not “a one time thing”, like some forms of cyber-bullying. It’s yet another example that a person will say terrible, untrue things to get their way – over a very long period of time. It’s one more scary email in your inbox, it’s another day you’re hearing false allegations, it’s another letter you’re forced to have sent from your lawyer, it’s another time that person is slinging slurs or death threats in your direction. So to speak up, we leave ourselves open to being attacked.

But how long should a person endure that kind of punishment simply for daring to exist? 

THE LARGEST LESSON

In today’s society, articles like this are a long time coming, and I think my only mistake was not speaking out sooner, especially in a positive way.

When this happens to you, it’s frightening. You’ve done nothing to deserve it, and yet your gaslighter will come up with all kinds of reasons why they feel you do. That, alone, will drive anyone nuts. Too many times I felt like I had no where to turn: even movies or dateline-like episodes I had seen on the subject of gaslighting situations often didn’t compare to what I was facing on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. And none of them ended well.

I’ve come to learn I’m not alone. I’ve come to learn that we think we know how we’d handle a situation like this, but often we have absolutely no idea. If you’ve been there, and frozen, I get it. While normally I am assertive, quick-witted and valiant about the truth, at times during my ordeal with this form of harassment, I have been so taken aback by how many manipulations are going on at once, that there were many years I wasn’t able to respond to it at all. When an attack happened – and they happened often – I would completely shut down.

I’ve come to learn that this is normal. In fact, wrapped in this culture of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, I think it’s hard for a lot of people to figure out how to react to this kind of reality; one that is rooted in lies. It’s head-spinning – and emotionally draining. Remember, the entire point of gaslighting is to throw so many lies, distortions and half-truths out at once that the victim (that’s you) becomes so confused that they are paralyzed. This is exactly what happened to me. If you find that it happens to you, it’s totally normal, so don’t worry. Most people have no past experience with this type of behavior, which has now become so prevalent in society.

It’s exhausting to fight a gaslighter, and when it goes on for so long, you become despondent that there will be any kind of support if you ever DO speak out. It’s easy for the public at large to dismiss cyber-stalking as “just trolling,” as “cat-fights,” as something clearly less dangerous than the “real thing”—even when perpetrators move to extort, dig up personal details and deluge victims with explicit threats. Hey, don’t feed the trolls, ladies! Calm down, that’s just the internet!

But it’s not “just” the internet. For a lot of us, the internet has become the primary mode of remote communication and our sole business platform. It threatens your emotional health. It fights your ability to practice self-care. It inhibits your ability to exist normally. This isn’t just the internet; it’s your life. And it’s not one or two people saying something snarky about you on the internet. These are malicious, untrue, systematic, hateful attacks from someone that the victims often knows or knew personally. This is real life.

The idea that threatening messages should somehow be less alarming, less dangerous, and less worthy of investigation than threatening phone calls or harassment in the workplace (when the internet is now most of our workplaces) undermines the magnitude of what online harassment truly does and what women, in particular, go through every single day – just to check their emails.

After a while you need to choose: am I going to spend my whole life defending myself against this person or will I speak out?

WHAT GASLIGHTING LOOKS LIKE:

The term Gaslight comes from the Academy Award winning 1944 film by the same name, in which a man systematically sets out to drive his wife crazy by making her doubt the reality of her own perceptions. If you’ve ever dealt with a narcissist, there is a good chance you have experienced “Gaslighting” for yourself. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which the one doing it tries to get power over his or her victim by making them think they are crazy, out of sorts and “off.”

The gaslighter lies to, manipulates and questions the other person and the people around them, mostly for control, but sometimes to hide or distract from something about themselves they don’t want others to discover. Even though individual situations might give manipulators different platforms on which to work, these are good examples of what gaslighting sounds and looks like:

  • When they begin rerouting conversations to something you did “wrong.”
  • Turning from very invested and friendly to heartless and cold over time.
  • Subtly sabotaging your work (e.g., unscheduling things, starting rumors, “misplacing” files, manipulating your coworkers, friends or classmates).
  • Gossiping about you.
  • Reacting badly when you don’t accept their version of the truth.
  • Acting out of revenge.
  • Highly aggressive when criticized.
  • Twist and turn the truth and make such long and complicated arguments to prove their points that after a while you become thoroughly confused.
  • Excluding you.
  • Finding fault with your personality or accusing you of being paranoid, stressed, etc., when you make a complaint against their behavior.
  • Devaluing you.
  • Spreading malicious lies or rumors about you.
  • Becoming fixated on you in an unhealthy, obsessive way.
  • Constantly telling you “who you are” and what you “should” do or feel while invalidating what you’re experiencing.
  • Convincing you to doubt all evidence that shows them in a bad light.
  • Excluding others for being close to you.
  • Doubling or tripling down on their false accusations or coercions, to intimidate or oppress your truth.

FACTS TO REMEMBER:

Remember, their behavior is not about you.

Bullies are not just for the school playground and no matter their age, people who project hate are always struggling with inner battles of their own. When you are at peace, you feel no need to spread negativity. You don’t care what happened 5 years or even 5 minutes ago. When you’re genuinely happy, doing things you truly love, there is no room for negative thoughts or hateful feelings towards others. When you are struggling, you judge. When you are not struggling, life is positive, solution-based and soaked in love.

Never forget that when someone judges you, it isn’t actually about you at all. It’s about them and their own insecurities, limitations, and needs. People who are the most difficult to please are always the people least worth pleasing. They’re also the people that will never be happy no matter what you do. They create the least and risk nothing. Because they are focused solely on being the victim, they rarely give themselves a chance to bring anything of worth into the world.

HOW TO STOP THE ABUSE:

If you have this horrific situation in your life, here is what you can do to help yourself and end the abuse. The techniques you use to combat harassment, bullying and gaslighting might need adjustment depending on the person and situation you’re dealing with, but these tactics are a good starting point:

  • Tune in to your gut. That nervous, uncomfortable feeling bullying causes isn’t your imagination. It’s a warning from your brain, which senses danger on the basis of previous emotional experiences and memories. Pay attention to who makes you confused, anxious or depressed and when.
  • DON’T retaliate, even if they are baiting you to or lying to others that you already are retaliating! Don’t do it. It doesn’t feel good. You lose a little bit of your soul every time you spend your precious time trying to put others down. It doesn’t work to stoop to their level because every time you type or say something cruel to or about someone, you do more damage to yourself than them. Not only that, you may validate some of their manipulations by trying to get back at them.
  • Do not engage with the person. Do not ask other people to engage with him or her either.
  • Block the person on all social media the moment you feel you’re being harassed. Block their number. Remove the opportunity for people to easily continue to harass you on your platforms.
  • On twitter considering using The Block Bot, which is a service that allows individuals to add people to a shared block list for generalized abuse. If someone says something aggressively sexist, cissexist, transphobic, or otherwise to someone on the network and they add the person to The Block Bot, the person will also be blocked for me. It’s a sort of pre-emptive strike against harassers.
  • Tell your close friends and relatives what’s going on. Get witnesses to the abuser’s behavior. Document document document all you can. Screengrab immediately. If things are recorded or in writing, they’re harder for the other person to manipulate, and you’ll have a reference to trust even if they try.
  • Change your number if they will not stop.
  • Find supportive people to talk to and get perspective.
  • Talk to a therapist and close friends. Explain what your harassment and gaslighting is and why you believe it is happening to you.
  • If the individual is spreading lies about you publicly, threatens you or begins committing online harassment, contact a lawyer. If you cannot afford an attorney, look into domestic violence groups near you. Literally just google “your town + abuse help.” They can often guide you to low cost or free legal advice. There are 24/7 hotlines for emotional abuse in every state.
  • Choose when you will speak up about your ordeal. Don’t let them silence you, but don’t let it consume your life, either. Often this person just wants attention, so be careful with your energy.
  • If the individual threatens your life, call the police IMMEDIATELY.  911, stat. These individuals sometimes see other people as “sub-human” and it is not beyond them to take drastic measures to hurt others in order to get their way.

If you need support because you are a victim of gaslighting, bullying or harassment, Bullies Reality is an amazing organization that supports victims. They work to educate kids and teens in schools and on social media providing help for those in need and at risk of suicide.

There is a strong link between bullying and suicide, as suggested by recent bullying-related suicides in the US and other countries. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 10 to 34 year olds. Parents, teachers, and students learn the dangers of bullying and help students who may be at risk of committing suicide.

As you may know, I lost my best friend to suicide in 2011, so this cause is especially dear to my heart. Bullies Reality is 30 million people strong. They help teach families of the bullied child and the child who is bullying by offering effective solutions on how to respond to all forms of bullying and join the BR Family. They reached out to me and have been so supportive to me. Bullies Reality has been truly understanding of my ordeal, and so we wanted to partner to bring this larger message to you. You are not alone. Bullying and harassment happens and it’s NOT your fault. This amazing organization works with schools worldwide by creating new programs and policies for both the bully and the kids who are being bullied.

I truly love Bullies Reality so much. I am glad that this problem is getting the attention and resources that it truly deserves so that we can end this devastating, rising issue and stop the suicide count.

And when you may feel the most helpless, send good thoughts to anyone who is hurting enough to hurt others: those are the people who need healing the most. I know it may be difficult, especially with so much hate in the world, but I promise you that this is the only way to not swallow the poison arrow. Remember that actions speak louder than words.

Keep making good, positive contributions to the world. Trust me, people notice.

You may also like My Chat with Teen Vogue and 7 Steps to Rid Yourself of Toxic People.