If you’ve never had to look up “gaslighting” in the dictionary, consider yourself lucky. I have – twice now – been so thoroughly deceived and subtly manipulated that I began to question my own grasp on reality – my own memories, my own emotional balance and response in a relationship.
Each time it took months to regain my confidence and reclaim the truth that these people were manipulative, narcissistic, and deceitful (i.e. lying). Having that realization, and being able to say it, is empowering. Being in the dark, unsure, defensive, etc is incredibly difficult and demoralizing.
I’ll save my story(s) for another time.
First, what is “gaslighting” exactly?
The Oxford English Dictionary offers: v. Manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.
Robin Stern, PhD, writes:
A reader asked me, if it is possible over time to get so beaten down and so sure you might be at fault, that you can’t identify the dynamic? The answer is YES. The Gaslight Effect happens over time, gradually, and often, by the time you are deep into the Gaslight Tango (the dance you do with your gaslighting partner, where you allow him [or her] to define your reality) you are not the same strong self you used to be.
The process of gaslighting happens in stages, although the stages are not always linear and do overlap at times, they reflect very different emotional and psychological states of mind.
The first stage is disbelief: when the first sign of gaslighting occurs. You think of the gaslighting interaction as a strange behavior or an anomalous moment. During this first stage, things happen between you and your partner, or your boss, friend, family member, that seem odd to you.
The next stage is defense: where you are defending yourself against the gaslighter’s manipulation.
The next stage is depression: By the time you get to this stage you are experiencing a noticeable lack of joy and, you hardly recognize yourself anymore. Some of your behavior feels truly alien. You feel more cut off from friends—in fact, you don’t talk to people about your relationship very much—none of them like your [gaslighter]. People may express concern about how you are and you are feeling—they treat you like you really do have a problem.
Disbelief. Defense. Depression.
For now, I’m a bit worried about the mental health of NPR. I’m not a psychologist, but it seems to me that the folks at NPR are collectively caught up in that tango with Donald Trump, somewhere between disbelief and defense. This week, amidst the continued storm of Trump’s lies and the not-so-amusing idea from his spokesperson that these are “alternative facts“, while his press secretary said, “we can disagree with facts,” NPR has come out refusing to call Trump’s “provable falsehoods” lies.
Today NPR reported:
[NPR’s Mary Louise] Kelly said, “It’s provably not true. In that same speech out of the CIA this weekend, Trump also falsely inflated the size of the crowd at his inauguration.”
Now many listeners want to know why Kelly didn’t just call the president a liar.
On Morning Edition, Kelly explains why. She says she went to the Oxford English Dictionary seeking the definition of “lie.”
“A false statement made with intent to deceive,” Kelly says. “Intent being the key word there. Without the ability to peer into Donald Trump’s head, I can’t tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares, or doesn’t, with facts.”
It’s true that intent is important. But it’s also important to be able to call a lie a lie. If you cling to this dictionary definition, you can’t call any lies “lies” – unless the person has admitted to their intent (which doesn’t often happen). This is where NPR looks more like they are in the “depression” stage – unrecognizable and clinging to thin straws rather than speaking truth to the powers that be.
The nice thing about being in a manipulative relationship as an individual is that – hopefully – you can just walk away and cut off contact: spend time with family and friends, perhaps see a therapist, and regain your grip on reality. Unfortunately, that might be a little hard for NPR (though calls for the media to just ignore much of what comes from the White House now are being made more frequently).
What can be done is stepping back and listening to some friends, perhaps a friend “outside” the immediate relationship, like this fellow from England:
Trump lies about the big stuff and the small stuff alike. He lies about the weather at his own inauguration. As if the weather, and all its divinely ordained raindrops, were some running commentary on his lack of legitimacy. As if we couldn’t watch the rain falling on his fake tan on television. He lies about releasing his tax returns after the IRS audit is complete. He lies about making Mexico pay for his monstrous wall on the southern border. And these are only some of his most frequent lies.
He lies about losing the popular vote in November by almost 3 million Americans, claiming instead that a miraculously identical number of votes came from undocumented immigrants. There was of course no such vast conspiracy, and all the congressional leaders who heard his fantasies over dinner know this too. Otherwise their own elections would be in question, a case most succinctly made by the lawyers of one Donald Trump, as they tried to quash the recount after his own election. “All available evidence suggests that the 2016 election was not tainted by fraud,” they wrote in their filing to block the recount in Michigan.
All this would be laughable if Trump were still a private citizen engaging in pre-dawn tweet storms. Instead, he’s the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military and the chief executive of a vast federal government with a global reach. He can dispatch his press secretary, a formerly sane Republican hack, to lie on his behalf from the press room podium about crowd size and illegal voters. Sean Spicer may claim that nobody has the facts, or that people can disagree about the facts. He may claim the president has “studies and evidence” to back up his fabrications. By doing so, Trump and Spicer are destroying not just their own credibility but the good name of the presidency.
Or come closer to home with the Pulitzer Prize-winning site Politifact who write that “Trump’s statements were awarded PolitiFact’s 2015 Lie of the Year.”
Now, more than ever, we need a strong press, willing to identify lies and report on them as such. We also need vigorous reporting on those in office who are speaking truth. Give them a greater voice. Get out of the manipulative gaslighting bubble however you can. It’s not easy – I can say from experience – but it is possible, and it is liberating.