The Long, Long Reach of Gaslighting

Will I ever be able to trust myself implicitly?

Photo by Alexander Possingham on Unsplash

Back in my dating days, I had a relationship with a man who put me on a pedestal. That was marvelous, at first; I’d been starved for that kind of attention for a number of years before I met him. I wholeheartedly welcomed his adoration, his delight in taking care of me.

Outside of that intense, passionate relationship, my life was pretty challenging at that point. I was in the process of blowing up everything — career, a lengthy marriage—leaving family and friends behind to move out of my home state and start over. These were all things that needed to happen, and I wasn’t then and am not now sorry about any of it, but I’d be lying if I said it was easy.

So it was great to be taken care of. And not just by him: he had a huge community of friends and admirers and fans and lovers. They all welcomed me into the fold, helping me with so many things, introducing me to the nuances of polyamory, making me feel like I had finally found a community where I belonged.

I let my guard down. In the face of all this warm, loving affection, it felt really good — it felt crucial — to become vulnerable. To trust, to show the weakness and uncertainty I was feeling.

This period of my life was a turning point in so many ways. I couldn’t have become who I am today without going through that time. I made so many deep, loving friendships then — including with the man I am now married to — that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

But I also put my trust in some people I really shouldn’t have.

He called me a princess, that boyfriend of mine; he said it adoringly, and I tried to take it in the spirit in which he meant it, but it always gave me a little bit of a shiver, even at the best of times. I was a grown woman in my forties, after all.

I am sensitive — emotionally and physically. I feel things strongly. I have a very low threshold for pain; I’m quite somatic, and I love bodily pleasures. I am not tough or mighty, in any traditional sense, though I don’t believe that makes me weak. I have endurance, and patience; a quiet strength. I am good at pursuing what I want and following through with things I decide to do.

But I stress out over things; I cry when I’m angry, and I shrink and cringe and want to run away whenever anyone else is angry. If I’m under any kind of ongoing stress, I am unable to sleep, which of course only makes things worse. I am not sure I have ever shouted at anyone in my entire life. I will be one of the people who dies in chapter one of any post-apocalyptic book.

My boyfriend saw all this. He made sure everyone understood how sensitive I was. That I couldn’t handle the tough stuff.

His other girlfriends (who I really liked — a number of them are dear friends to this day) were recruited into taking care of me. I’m sure many of them did so because they saw how stressed I was and knew that I needed some help. And they liked me. Others…had other motives.

This is hard to talk about.

This man, my boyfriend, told stories about all of us. And about himself. He was a master storyteller; he had rewritten the narrative of his life — without changing any facts — to tell a heroic tale. A tale of overcoming huge struggles and awful adversity and achieving self-awareness and happiness. His life was clear evidence of the veracity of his tale. He was popular, and well-regarded, and successful.

So if he said I was a princess, it must be true. After all, I knew I was sensitive. I had never been comfortable with conflict. Even as a child, I had been spooky and quiet, nearly friendless.

Things between us got crazy. Slowly, and then all at once. My instinct — as ever — was to run away, but I wasn’t going to do that this time. I was going to stay and fix this.

My boyfriend was convinced that I was unhappy. That I wanted to leave him. He told me so, many times.

I didn’t want to. But I wasn’t happy, he was right about that. I wrote short stories with thinly disguised him-and-me characters. I talked to friends. I second-guessed myself. This man had defined me — literally. He told me who I was and what I wanted and what I liked, all the way down to the food I ate and what I liked to wear.

And he told me I was leaving him.

At last, he wore me down. I broke up with him. He wept and raged, professed astonishment and despair, and then presented me with a box of “my stuff” that he’d already packed into his car and brought with him that evening, including some other woman’s underwear. It sounds amusing and histrionic when I tell it like this, but it was awful, and I second-guessed myself so hard.

Was I a selfish, weak princess? Was I not willing to do the difficult work of a relationship? I’d already been divorced twice, after all; this relationship was supposed to be my redemption, my change of path.

It took a while for me to see all the gaslighting for what it had been. The many tiny ways this man brought me down, chipped away at my strength and autonomy even as he was setting me up on that pedestal, telling everyone to admire and coddle and baby me. I was far from alone in this; so many of his ex-girlfriends were “crazy”, in his mind — having broken out of that narrative of his. He sought out the vulnerable: women who weren’t sure of who they were and who they wanted to be; or women who were in transitional places, exposed to the elements, in the process of shedding one skin and not yet safely encased in another.

It was a talent he had.

He’s gone now. Beyond the veil, and fondly remembered by so many people. I’m even no longer quite so angry, though I’m still processing the many lessons from that time.

And I’m still suffering from the gaslighting. I’m so much stronger now, so much more in possession of myself, and in a relationship that is so healthy and nourishing. But when I receive any criticism — even mild “corrections” to something I post here or on Facebook or wherever — I feel sickened, I cringe and flee and feel I cannot abide it. If someone tells me they are unhappy with something I’ve done, I try and face it bravely, to listen, apologize, atone, learn; but again, I feel it as a physical queasiness, the certain knowledge that I have done wrong, that I have been selfish and princessy.

That I am worthless, and weak. That I must apologize for being here.

That is what gaslighting does. It takes the normal interactions and negotiations of being human and amplifies them all out of proportion. It renders its victims incapable of trusting themselves, believing their own experiences.

And it doesn’t go away when the initiating situation ends. You carry it with you, like a stain on your soul. A little quiet voice inside you, whispering, What if they’re right?

That relationship was not the first time I’d been gaslit; it’s just the most recent, and the most clear. It probably wouldn’t have worked so well on me if I hadn’t already had those deep wounds. The channels in my heart, already cut, ready to take the toxic message, to own it. Ready to apologize for being myself.

I will probably be wrangling this forever.

Writer, editor, thinker of things, living on Orcas Island, Washington state.

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