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Childhood Emotional Gaslighting: How We Might Have Missed Emotions School

Posted: April 04, 2018 by Nani Waddoups

The term “gaslighting” has had a resurgence in journalism and the popular lexicon. It comes from a 1940’s play and movie where a husband dims the gas lights in an apartment, then denies any changes that his wife notices in an attempt to make her think that she is crazy. This denial of reality, or of rewriting history to manipulate a person is what we now refer to as “gaslighting” someone.

Most of the time, gaslighting has malicious undertones: the “gaslighter” is intentionally messing with someone’s mind in order to destabilize them and cause them to doubt themselves and their own perceptions of reality. Gaslighting is often used as an abusive form of control in service of the gaslighter. There are, however, unintentional applications of gaslighting, which while appearing benign, can have very harmful consequences. A common and pervasive example is that of parental gaslighting.

I’m guessing that you can think of at least one example in your own life where a parent or caretaker was gaslighting you. Here is one from my childhood: I remember coming home from my first day of 3rd grade in my new school. I had transferred after the beginning of the year and I didn’t know any of the kids (who all knew each other). I’d had a terrible day, full of fear and loneliness. A kid threw a rock at me. I ran and hid in the library. When the bus let me off at the end of the day, I cried all the way up the road to our strange new house. My dad was in the new garage, feeding the new dog, and I told him that I’d had a horrible day, I missed my old friends, my old school, that I hated it there, kids were mean to me, I was miserable. His response was no doubt a loving parent’s response in an attempt to remove my pain: he tried to talk me out of my feelings by denying my experience. He gaslit me: “You’re fine. They like you. It’s nothing.”

“Really? These feelings are nothing? I’m fine? They like me? So my interpretation of what was going on was wrong? He’s my dad, so he must be right. I can’t trust myself to understand these feelings.”

In the early childhood developmental stages, we are dependent on adults to, among other things, define and explain our emotional experiences. When feelings arise—fear, for example—we need our parents to teach us that this combination of sensations (heart racing, sweating, and shortness of breath) is fear. If they don’t provide this defining guidance and/or deny the legitimacy of feelings, a child can experience confusion about her own emotions and doubt her intuition. Parents frequently gaslight their children, providing feedback that the child’s version of reality is wrong. Because children trust their parents’ version of reality, self-doubt can lead to a belief that one’s ability to discern reality is somehow inadequate or damaged. This early impression is carried forward into adulthood.

A common theme in adult therapy is the realization that we have an under-examined relationship with our feelings. A familiar feeling emerges, but we deny it, or it is named something other than what it really is, or we have no word for it at all. Some of this disconnect can be from the crazy-making, unintentional gaslighting that started in childhood. Not being able to name our feelings, or denying them because they are fraught with confusion can lead us down a path of poor communication in relationships, anxiety and depression, disconnection, and other painful stressors.

The repair? To reconnect with our emotions as adults, honor and identify them, and expand our emotional vocabulary to describe what they are.

Most adults have a pathetic emotional vocabulary: happy, sad, angry, frustrated, confused. The English language has a really rich and nuanced selection to choose from. “Frustrated?” How about “exasperated!” “Sad?” Might “discouraged” be more accurate? Begin to expand your emotional vocabulary so that you can teach yourself to pair the right descriptor to your feelings. Put a list of emotional vocabulary words on your fridge, or download a list of words via the app iGrok so you can refer to it frequently and check in with yourself.

If you are a parent of young kids, check out the game “Do You Feel Me?” where kids are video-taped telling stories, then the observer gets to choose from a multiple choice list of feeling words to describe how they think the kid is feeling. Honestly, it’s not a bad training tool for us as adults too!

Lastly, don’t be angry with your parents if they were gaslighting you as a kid. A poignant truth may well be that your parents couldn’t tolerate their own emotional pain at seeing you hurting.

What’s the right vocabulary word for how you feel right now?

Tags: mood and feelings, relationship and family, life transition

Nani Waddoups (she/her)

Licensed Professional Counselor

Navigating toward existential meaning, and consideration of conditions at play are the roots of my counseling philosophy and style.

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