Continuing her series on the subject of gaslighting, Sarah Xerta examines parents who gaslight their children, and the effects this has on the young and impressionable.
Close to two months have passed since my last article in this series was published, which means I have not followed my own personal goal of writing a new article at least once a month. In the past, I would have been very upset with myself over this. I would have berated myself for being lazy, a failure, and depending on what else was happening in my life at the time, this negative self-talk might have spiraled into a full-blown depressive episode rife with suicidal ideation, OCD psychosis, and caloric restriction. I would have doubted both my abilities as a writer and my right to existence.
But today, I am only mildly anxious about the two-month gap. I still have a nagging feeling that someone somewhere is disappointed with me for not meeting my self-imposed goal, but mostly I am centered and stable in my decision to not write until now. And I waited because the conclusion of my last article in this series noted that the next article would cover gaslighting as it happens between parents and their children, but every time I thought about writing, something deep inside me said no. Something told me that I was not emotionally ready to dive into such a painful topic and instead of pushing myself through the pain to meet some arbitrary deadline that I imagined others besides me actually cared about, I listened to myself. I followed my intuition—my heart—as opposed to my head and what “logic” and old patterns of thinking and behavior would have told me.
And I am proud of this! Knowing and remaining confident in decisions that are best for us is one of the ways we can begin to recover from gaslighting. When we trust our instincts, we begin to undo the damage that years of psychological abuse can inflict.
And yet, as someone who has experienced living with obsessive-compulsive disorder, I know that for some of us (whether we have OCD or not), finding and trusting our core instinct can feel like looking for the exit in a maze without exits. How can you embark upon a quest for self-knowledge when you’re not even sure you have a self to know? This state of perpetual existential crisis is, in some cases, one of the effects that long-term gaslighting can have on the psyche, especially when the abuse happens in the earliest stages of life while a person’s core perceptions and beliefs about reality are still forming.
Sadly, the power dynamics between parents and children are so exaggerated that it doesn’t take much for gaslighting to take place or have detrimental effects on a child’s psychological development. I wouldn’t be surprised if most parents have subtly gaslit their children at one point or another, simply because children are already so dependent on their parents for survival, while parents are often themselves still figuring out how to (emotionally) survive. As a minor example, when a child says, “I’m hungry,” and a parent responds with, “You just ate dinner, there’s no way you’re hungry,” that is, by definition, gaslighting: an invalidation of the child’s experience of reality, which has power because of the dynamic between parent and child. How does the parent actually know whether or not the child is hungry? While it might seem like an insignificant instance, the insidious snowball-effect of gaslighting makes it important, and helpful, to be able to define even the smallest pattern of gaslighting.
Of course, other instances of gaslighting are much more severe. Common examples include parents who project their personal problems onto their children and get upset if their children don’t respond a certain way, which can lead children to believe they are responsible for their parents’ emotional well-being; parents who unjustly blame one sibling for the actions or injuries of another sibling, which can lead a child to believe they are responsible for anything “bad” that happens to the family; and parents who accuse children of lying even when they’re not lying, which can have various effects on the child, depending on their age.
As an older child or teenager, being wrongly accused of lying or wrongdoing over time can lead to feelings of apathy and low self-esteem: Mom thinks I’m being bad even when I’m not, so why even bother to try anymore? Children so readily internalize messages from the main adults in their lives that this can lead to a core belief about the self: No matter what I do, I am bad. I will never be good enough.
Very young children, still consciously unaware of the power dynamics between parent and child and therefore unable to rationalize a parent’s behavior, may respond to false accusations of lying by failing to develop a secure sense of self and ability to trust their own perception of reality. I imagine the toddler’s subconscious in traumatic confusion: I’m not lying, but Dad says I’m lying and Dad knows everything so I must be lying. I don’t know what “truth” feels like. And if a child is punished for this alleged lying, the message is driven home even deeper, with self-doubt potentially taking place of a child’s inner home. It’s no coincidence that OCD is nicknamed “the doubter’s disease.”
In closing, I want to note that childhood gaslighting alone does not cause OCD or other psychological and emotional pain. The human psyche is so complex and multi-dimensional that it’s impossible to trace any one condition of suffering back to any one root, except perhaps a collective root of emotional unawareness and historical invalidation of intuition.
Not only is it possible for parents to gaslight their children and lovers to gaslight their beloved, but we live in a capitalist society that functions on keeping people disconnected from their inner selves, a society that invalidates emotional experiences as somehow less real than purely mental knowledge. The patterns of psychological abuse that we experience in our most intimate relationships are the same patterns that govern much of the world around us. This can make the undoing of psychological abuse incredibly tedious and overwhelming. And yet, for this same reason, the actions we take to heal from personal psychological abuse are also actions we take towards exposing and collapsing systems of economic and sociopolitical abuse.
When we remember our innate connection to ourselves we begin to remember our innate connection to each other. And when we begin to heal the severance of that connection, we begin to heal the world. Pain is a chain reaction, but so is healing. It is hard work, but you’re worth it. We all are.
Next in the series: Taking Back Your Intuition (I’ll go deeper into the importance of intuition and how we can begin to center it in our everyday experiences.)