The Answer To Gaslighting Is Compassion
People who gaslight others lack the capacity or the skills to do better.
This article was inspired by my reading of Jessica Valenti’s article, “How to Scorch a Casual Gaslighter”. It’s an interesting article about people who are described as “gaslighters”. In her article, Valenti provides some practical guidance on what gaslighting is, and how to respond to people who gaslight others. I especially liked her guidance to not provide much of a response at all to people who engage in gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s beliefs.
Though her article is useful and practical, I think we could benefit from reframing gaslighters as people who are so uncomfortable with themselves, that they provoke discomfort in others. While it has become popular to call out gaslighters and shame them for their behavior, I think we could take a different tack. I think we can defuse gaslighters with compassion.
Gaslighting is displacement activity, much like smoking, drinking, playing solitaire or anything else that displaces one from one’s own feelings. People who gaslight get a charge, a strong feeling, from gaslighting someone else. It’s also a sort of denial. I don’t like the way I’m feeling, so I will act in such a way as to make other people feel uncomfortable. Thus, I can distance myself from a feeling that I can’t accept myself.
Valenti opens her article with a short example of gaslighting, a verbal exchange with her mother. She asks her mother if crows are ravens. Her mother responds with an insult instead of politely explaining to her the difference between crows and ravens. According to the Audubon Society, Crows are a species distinct from Ravens. Jessica asked a reasonable question, as crows and ravens are hard to distinguish to the untrained eye. Her mother knew the difference but lacked the capacity to share better information with her daughter.
The problem is not that Valenti was unaware of the difference between crows and ravens. The problem is that her mother lacked the skills to explain that difference to her with compassion. What Valenti’s mother did to Jessica, is an example of how she was treated by her own parents. It was learned behavior being passed down from generation to generation, like genes. There is no evil here. Only ignorance. And I think it’s better to assume ignorance than malice.
In some circles they say, “There are no victims, only volunteers.” As kids we could not run away from our abusers. Separation from our parents was akin to death. So we stayed with our abusers for our survival, hoping that someday, the abuse will stop. As adults, we can run. We can ask for help. But if we stay in abusive relationships as adults without asking for help, we are volunteers.
Abusive people tell the story of what was done to them when they abuse other people. Abusive people impose the fate of their childhood upon other people. They start with their own kids, but if they assume any position of power, there is a strong tendency to impose their childhood fate upon many, many other people. And they will keep abusing other people until they have an awareness that they were abused as children, and they were doing to others, what they learned from their own parents.
Gaslighting is challenging behavior. People exhibit challenging behavior when they lack the capacity to respond adaptively to the demands of their environment. Like a child, Valenti’s aggressor chose to antagonize her rather than talk about something more benign. He lacked the capacity to do better.
I think that people would do better if they could. We can debate about intentions, but we can’t read minds. If someone tries to abuse me, I don’t worry about their intentions, I just note that they lack the capacity to do better. That means I never have to take as a personal attack, the words of a person who gaslights me.
When someone gaslights me, that has nothing to do with me. It’s all on them, about them, about their story, about their life. We could hazard a guess that the person who gaslighted Valenti in her story was actually jealous of her. But that is none of our business. We can only manage our response. And I submit that the best response is compassion.
This isn’t to say that we should enable a person who gaslights others or indulge them with their fantasies of mental agility. This is to say that we can take notice of their behavior, acknowledge it, but, like a subroutine in a computer, we can make some assumptions:
- What a person says when gaslighting others has nothing to do with me.
- I don’t have to take as a personal insult, anything that a person engaged in gaslighting says to me.
- I can assume that someone engaged in gaslighting lacks the capacity to do better. It’s not about me, it’s about that person’s lack of skills.
Once I have those ideas firmly in mind, there is no need to respond with an intent to deny a person who gaslights me, the response he or she wanted. Gaslighting is crazy-making behavior. While it is intended to instill doubt in the minds of others, gaslighting as an active pursuit, brings no happiness. No joy. It is a counterproductive behavior. Therefore, I can look upon that person who gaslights for recreation, as someone who is suffering. I can look upon them with compassion, not pity, not disgust, not even resentment. I can choose to keep talking with them to raise awareness, or bid them a nice day and walk away.
We can choose how to respond to someone who gaslights us.
So I don’t think in terms of “scorching” someone who gaslights me. I just let it pass. If a strong feeling comes up, I let that pass, too. I acknowledge that there is some unfinished business there that I need to attend to. I can choose to be angry or not, and I choose not to be angry. People who gaslight other people do so because they are angry and lack the capacity to manage their responses to their own feelings. I have compassion for those people, for I was once that way, too. I once lacked the capacity to manage my responses to my own feelings. I’m much better now.
When I choose to look upon people who gaslight me with compassion, I break the cycle of some very subtle abuse. And that abuse occupies very little space in my mind once I have changed my attitude.