Intentional gaslighting, the overtly abusive kind, can be more intense and severe, but everyday gaslighting is more insidious, permeating our social environment and sneaking inside our heads.
“I’d like a late afternoon appointment.”
The dentist’s receptionist responds, “How about 10am on Thursday.”
“No, I’d like a late afternoon appointment.”
“How about 1pm next Tuesday.”
I say, sharply, “Did you hear me say late afternoon?”
“Oh, we save those for kids’ orthodontic appointments, after school.” If she had said that from the beginning instead of pretending not to hear my preference, I would not have felt shaken and angry at the end of the conversation.
Erased words, actions, perceptions
Everyday gaslighting, not acknowledging someone’s words, actions, or perceptions, is distressingly common. Out of convenience or obliviousness, people respond based on their internal version of reality instead of what happens in the outside world. For the people on the other side of those interactions, it is crazy-making. “Maybe I forgot to say…” “Maybe I didn’t really see…” “I wonder what I did wrong to make them respond that way…”
Some children, usually boys, are rewarded for being aggressive, certain, direct. They absorb that their opinions are important, respected, and probably correct. Other children, usually girls, are rewarded for being compliant, polite, yielding. They absorb that their opinions are unwelcome and probably wrong.
Partly because of those differing levels of internal doubt, we reflexively defer to those with more power and privilege, giving more weight to their version of events. In some conversations, for some topics, we are the ones with more power to assert reality.
It takes time and care to respond authentically to what is in front of us instead of what we believe or wish to be true. To take responsibility for our mistakes and oversights. To be self-aware enough to choose our behaviors. To own our projections.
Within your areas of expertise and confidence, remember to make room for more tentative opinions. Take a moment to wonder what would have to be true to explain that person’s experience. Take a moment to include the context of your expertise. “I see this all the time in my lab.” “I read a recent blog post about that.” “I have been biking around town for decades.”
At the same time, you do not have to erase your expertise. Everyday gaslighting is a component of mansplaining, a term coined in response to Rebecca Solnit’s elegant essay, “Men Explain Things To Me.” Mansplaining is when a man condescendingly explains to a woman something she already knows. He assumes he knows more and she knows less simply because of gender. He keeps talking even if she tries to interrupt to correct his assumption. His internal worldview is impervious to her experience and expertise.
Whitesplaining, straightsplaining, etc. are defined similarly. People with more power override the lived experience of people with less power, because they can. They ask wonderingly why people get so upset, because they are not the ones being erased.
Erased emotional labor
Everyday gaslighting occurs in relationships in many ways. For example, one person repeatedly ignores the clearly stated preferences of the other person. The oblivious person might never understand why the relationship ends, because emotional labor is just not on their radar.
Harassment and bullying often have an element of everyday gaslighting. “Maybe he didn’t mean to brush against me.” “Maybe it’s coincidental that I didn’t get invited to that meeting.” We try to think positive thoughts, give people the benefit of the doubt, and make room for the best outcome, ignoring the sick feeling in our gut that says, “That wasn’t right.”
We are told to simply doubt ourselves less, but people with less power who have the temerity to stand their ground assertively often get labeled “unhelpful,” “bitchy,” and “hard to work with.”
When a friend comes to you torn up inside because a situation does not make sense no matter how hard they try to figure it out, and they are sure something is wrong with them, and they feel like there is no solid ground under their feet, here are some validating sentences you can offer them.
- I believe you.
- You were right.
- That makes sense.
- It’s not you.
- I see how hard you’re working.
- You’re doing all the right things.
- I trust your skills and your judgment.
How does it feel to imagine a kind friend saying those sentences to you?
When your distraught friend argues that they can see the other person’s point, and maybe they are making a big deal out of nothing, and they should just be stronger and have a thicker skin, you can urge them to stand in their own story and give their emotions room to be there.
Persistent “unexplained” anger, confusion, and distress are warning signs for everyday gaslighting. Our emotions arise for good reasons, usually sparked by the present even when they are augmented from the past. When we allow all our emotions room to move, we gain valuable information about our own truth.
Shelter tentative truths
Protect faint and tentative truths inside. Shelter these new green shoots from the need for proof, either externally or internally. Let them be tentative, and nonetheless firmly there. “Everyone else says…” is not a relevant rebuttal to our lived experience. Neither is “You are too sensitive.”
Responses in the moment
When you notice that someone is erasing your truth, you can always validate your truth inside, and talk to someone supportive later. As you evaluate your options, consider whether they seem defensive or ashamed or dangerous. You could
- Let it go by without comment.
- Change the subject with small talk.
- Ask about their internal state.
- Name what they are doing: “You’re implying that I’m crazy, or lying.”
- Keep repeating your truth. “I’d like a late afternoon appointment.”
- Show your anger or distress at being erased.
Whatever response you choose is the right response for that moment. Doubt and confusion are an intrinsic part of gaslighting. There is nothing wrong with how you feel, no wrong way to respond. The problem lies with them, not you. Consider extending yourself the benefit of the doubt.
- “Men Explain Things to Me” by Rebecca Solnit lays out the silencing force of men’s assumptions about women’s incompetence.
- “On Gaslighting” by Nora Samaran advocates fierce compassion for the feeling of losing one’s sanity.