My entire life, I’ve been told I was smart. I loved to read books and acquire knowledge, and I was an extremely perceptive child. Despite a background that might have condemned me to a life of poverty, I was able to use these qualities to open doors for myself and earn a top-quality high school and college education. So how does a reasonably intelligent, well-educated woman end up questioning her own judgment, sanity, and intellect?
I was the subject of emotional manipulation.
When I was born, my mother was in and out of an abusive relationship. My father would beat, choke, and threaten her to maintain control. He refused to let her work so that she couldn’t have any financial independence. He wouldn’t call or return home for weeks at a time, making no attempt to hide his various relationships with other women, while my mom was at home taking care of their newborn baby. Sometimes she would break free, move to a different city or a different state and stay at domestic violence shelters for women and children. But invariably, he would snake his way back into her life, and she continued to let him in out of a sense of guilt because she wanted her child to have a father. But he continued to hurt her, emotionally and physically, until she broke ties with him once and for all. She quit her comfortable job, packed up our nice apartment, and took her child and her belongings on the next Amtrak out of the Midwest. In breaking free, she chose a life of financial hardship and solitude. But she, as one of the strongest women I know, chose never to let another man take advantage of her and focus on raising a strong, independent daughter who would internalize the message that she was worthy of respect and love.
I’ve always known that I would never let anyone physically hurt me. If I were ever in a relationship, the moment my partner raised a hand to me, the relationship would be over. I also knew about verbal abuse. I would never let a partner tear me down, and tell me I wasn’t pretty, or smart, or worthy. I knew that I deserved better than that, even if at many times I wasn’t sure if I’d ever find it. But I was never prepared for a form of abuse that was so subtle, and so insidious, that it tears away at your very concept of who you are and what you know. I never knew that some of my best traits – empathy, compassion – could be exploited so thoroughly in tandem with my weakest traits – indecisiveness, self-doubt. And now, I hope that everyone gets the opportunity to learn about this quiet form of manipulation, so that you are prepared if you ever experience what I’ve experienced for the past year of my life.
I’m used to the term "gaslighting" in the context of rude MRAs who insist that they’re not sexist – it was just a joke, lay-deez, stop getting all hysterical over everything. That is a common form of gaslighting, but I was not prepared for its subtler form. According to Wikipedia (whatever, citation nerds, this is about my feelings), gaslighting is “a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity.” And here, doubt is the ultimate trap.
For months, I haven’t felt like me. I’ve been constantly plagued with stress, worry, guilt, anxiety, paranoia, confusion, and sadness. I was in a relationship that was strained from what seemed at the time like external circumstances, but I realize now that I was emotionally manipulated into feeling responsible for singlehandedly fixing those circumstances. I constantly felt like I wasn’t doing enough, couldn’t be helpful enough. I felt guilty for even communicating my stress to my now ex-boyfriend, but on the rare occasions I did, he assured me that he “didn’t want to be a burden” to me or anyone else. Somehow, these “assurances” made me feel guiltier for bothering him with my petty concerns, and discouraged me from voicing them in the future. He had plenty of sad stories about how no one was there for him in his life, how he’d been ostracized by his family and never really fit in with his peers, and how he feared that I would eventually give up on him like everyone else. I cared deeply about him. I didn’t want to see him suffer, and I didn’t want to abandon him as I believed others had done so cruelly.
Months deep into personal sacrifices of the financial, physical, and emotional varieties, I started to wonder if he was taking my things without permission. When I confronted him on the whereabouts of certain items, he was evasive and vague, but just truthful enough that I couldn’t flat-out accuse him of lying. I started initiating conversations around the importance of honesty and my own boundaries regarding my personal belongings. I felt appeased in the short-term, but I couldn’t shake feeling unsettled. For each missing thing, he had a perfectly genuine and reasonable explanation for why he took it or absolutely did not take it. Many of these explanations triggered my sense of sympathy, my sense of guilt, or just my general affection for this man. But that sense of unease deepened with each “misunderstanding.”
I started to feel sad and anxious most of the time. I wondered whether the person I loved was really who I thought he was, or whether I needed to relax and trust him. But each time there was a strange occurrence, I would listen with a sympathetic ear – I was looking to him for reassurance, so of course when he gave it, I accepted it. But I started feeling less and less reassured. I started forming logical explanations that fit outside the things he was telling me, and wondering if I was being naïve. But this was a man I knew well and cared deeply about. Was I really starting to doubt whether his intentions were good? He had never physically harmed me, never said a bad word about me, and always demonstrated complete adoration and affection. This was a person who told me daily how I was wonderful and beautiful, who thoughtfully apologized when I thought he was being a jerk, and who gave me supportive words and comfort when I was upset. Would he really intentionally manipulate me? Could he really stomach hurting me?
From everything I thought I knew, the answer was no. But I constantly felt sad, irritable, and physically ill. I would question myself over and over, wondering if the things he told me added up, or if I should be more skeptical, or if I was a bad girlfriend for wondering if my boyfriend would hurt me. I couldn’t tell which way was up, because my mind was an emotional warzone. It was what I thought versus what he said, and there was nothing concrete except which thing I wanted to believe more at that time. I needed an anchor – something concrete that would show me what the truth was.
I started looking through his things. I rationalized it to myself, but I deep down I felt uncomfortable with my actions. And of course, as soon as I looked, I found things I hadn’t wanted to find, but offered concrete proof that the things my brain was screaming at me were correct, and that all the things that spewed out of his mouth were essentially garbage. He never confessed directly to a lie until I offered the proof, which negatively reinforced my sneaky behaviors. But for some reason – perhaps because I truly believed he didn’t intend me any harm – I kept believing that he was working hard to be better, and that if I could just learn to trust him again, I would feel fulfilled and happy again in our relationship. The paranoia, the emotional instability, and the snooping all had me wondering if this was the person I was now. I didn’t like this person. But if I could just get over my issues, I was sure everything would be fine again. It was a temporary setback.
It wasn’t until I found explicit sexual messages between him and another girl that I finally decided to end it. I brought all of his belongings to him at the door and remained stoic through the sympathy ploys and the flattery and the guilt trips he used to try to change my mind, holding hard to the reality of the words I’d read with my own eyes. But in the wake, I was left wondering how in the world I ended up letting someone I’d sacrificed so much for lie to me and steal from me for months. The cheating was just icing on the cake. I was left thinking, who am I? Because the person I thought I was never would have tolerated this.
I’m glad I did some research and found out more about this phenomenon. There are tons of people out there like me, who feel confused, who feel hurt, who feel humiliated after dealing with an emotional manipulator. My first reaction to the breakup was to think that it happened because I was stupid, or that I deserved it for being so unbearably naïve. But that’s part of the game: getting the victim to blame herself for the actions of her abuser. I’m done now, though. I’m done doubting my intellect, my self-worth, or my judgment. My confidence is a little shaken, but it will make a full recovery. I will stay trusting, stay compassionate, and stay full of unfiltered love. But next time, I will know and trust this lovely brain of mine when she says, “This is wrong, and enough is enough.”
[This article sheds more light on the phenomenon of gaslighting and adequately captures my experience of it: http://followchristine.com/what-is-gaslig….]