When I finally heard and learned about the term “gaslighting” a year or so ago, my understanding of my family dynamics and my relationship with my father changed drastically. Gaslighting is a type of manipulation that abusers use to make their victims doubt their own memory or sanity.
Abusers who gaslight distort the past, manipulate, or outright lie about their past actions in order to disorient their victims. Often their lies include denial of their own abusive behavior, which makes the victim doubt whether they are actually being abused.
Abusers do this to gain and maintain power over their victims.
This term was so groundbreaking for me because for years, some of the biggest arguments between my father and I revolved around incidents that I remembered in a specific way, but my dad insisted happened differently. For example, when my parents generously bought me my first (used) car, my dad explained that I didn’t have to get a part-time job to help pay it off if I didn’t want to; instead, I needed to focus on school.
Furthermore, he told me that if I did decide to work, I only needed to make a small monthly payment of about 50 dollars.
Several months later, after I decided I wanted spending money and found a job, my dad suddenly asked me for a monthly payment of a lot more than 50 dollars.
Helping pay off my car wasn’t the issue.
It was a reasonable request, and I complied, even though I was confused. What I found troubling was that I knew my dad had laid down the rules for the car payment early on, but suddenly, he changed them. And he acted like the amount he was demanding was the one we had originally agreed on even though it wasn’t.
He vehemently argued that we had agreed on the larger amount, and I insisted that we hadn’t, which ultimately resulted in an unresolved fight.
I remembered our conversation, but it was vastly different from the one he was trying to convince me we had.
He twisted the truth in other ways too.
He’d insist that I had failed to tell him about my weekend plans when I knew for a fact that I had. He claimed we had a conversation about my curfew that never took place and then he’d yell at me for breaking a curfew we’d never set.
His recollection of events was bizarre and frustrated me to say the least. I felt helpless when we would argue because I couldn’t tell if he was lying or just had a horrible memory. My mom chalked it up to memory loss and oblivion, but as I got older, I doubted her theory.
When I entered my early twenties and started reflecting on my strained relationship with my father, I discovered a startling trend: my dad would lie, distort the truth, or otherwise twist reality every time he was trying to win an argument or when he was trying to put me in my place.
When he was trying to prove that he was right and I was wrong. And he always needed to be right.
For years, I’d literally doubted my sanity.
I genuinely wondered if I had somehow forgotten key conversations or actions that my dad later claimed took place. On some level I knew what he was saying was false, but I also didn’t trust my memory.
After I learned about gaslighting, I realized I didn’t trust my memory because he’d trained me not to, through years of lies and distortions of the truth. I finally realized that I wasn’t the insane one.
Gaslighting is often examined in the context of romantic relationships. This form of manipulation is damaging and hurtful in any relationship, but when a parent uses this tactic on a child, it can have severe consequences.
The effects of gaslighting can last for decades.
Your perception of your childhood and relationship with the gaslighting parent may be skewed. It can affect your sense of self-worth and it will make you question your own mental state, day after day, year after year.
And getting away from a gaslighting parent is much harder than getting away from a gaslighting partner.
It’s not as easy to cut your mom or dad out of your life if you don’t like the way they’re treating you.
It’s harder to explain to friends and other family members why you’re ceasing contact with a parent than it is to elaborate on why you broke up with your shitty boyfriend. People often have a hard time believing that a parent could use such a subtly abusive tactic on his/her own child, but unfortunately it happens all the time.
Like when I confronted my dad about a violent outburst he had last summer, our argument degenerated into a screaming match as he blatantly lied about and downplayed his actions. I was furious but not surprised; gaslighting allows an abuser to continue to treat other people poorly by convincing them that their understanding of the past is wrong.
But now that I understand gaslighting and its signs, I don’t let his version of the truth change my understanding of the truth. I know that I’m not wrong, and I know that my memory isn’t damaged or skewed.
I know that he’s just trying to keep his power over me, and I refuse to let him have power over me anymore.