This week, several of my individual clients all presented with the same kind of problem. While the specific circumstances differed from person to person, the common theme was that – despite knowing better and wanting to do better – they found themselves neglecting their own best interest.
As they described it, it felt almost like an out of body experience. They knew what they needed to do but felt “frozen” and unable to respond appropriately. Even though they could see that not responding was potentially far more harmful than reacting.
In today’s blog, I want to look at how we end up in that scenario – particularly when there is no threat to life or limb from taking action. Obviously, there is an element of the old Fight Flight or Freeze reaction however, I believe that something else important is going on – something we routinely overlook.
In order to explain that powerful aspect of what happens to you, I want to tell about my childhood experiences with shampoo.
My problems with shampoo
For far longer than I care to remember, my mother assumed responsibility for washing my hair. She didn’t much like my long hair (or me, I suspect) and felt no particular need to make it a pleasant experience. It was my regular Sunday torture before I hit double figures.
Mother shampooed roughly. The shampoo, a well-known brand for babies, not meant to sting the eyes, stung like buggery.
Every single week.
Every single week, I would wince and cry with the pain.
Every single week, my mother told me not to make a fuss because it didn’t sting.
I told her it did. She told me that it didn’t – because it was a baby shampoo that did not sting the eyes.
Many years later, I googled it and found that some children did indeed have an adverse reaction to that shampoo.
I don’t remember when Mother finally stopped washing my hair. (But I do know that over the years and the many, many shampoos I have used since, I have never had that problem again.)
The shampoo story is just the illustration of a far more important point:
Routine domestic gaslighting
Every week, my mother gaslighted me.
Mother subjected me to routine, weekly gaslighting. ]
The shampoo affair remains in my mind because it caused me actual physical pain.
But for her it wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t a deal at all. It was just a situation where she decided that was attention-seeking because I didn’t meekly accept her version of my reality.
Gaslighting is the bread-and-butter of an a narcissistic relationship
Gaslighting is what happens when someone totally dismisses your reality, invalidating your feelings and your truth. It is the bread-and-butter of an abusive relationship.
Needless to say, Mother didn’t just do it over the shampoo. But the shampoo was an instance where she had real, tangible evidence of a kid – who knew better than to make a fuss about nothing – wincing and crying with pain.
And yet, my mother knew better than I did that I was NOT in pain and was just being an attention-seeking brat.
Mother being Mother, she learned nothing during the weekly hair-washing misery.
But I learned a lot.
Above all, I learned four things:
1) Nobody was listening to me.
2) Nobody cared about how something affected me.
3) Nothing that I could do or say would impact on the outcome.
4) I was best advised to make as little fuss as possible.
That is what I learned from that and other seemingly minor gaslighting routines in my home of origin.
That was exactly what my clients, also, had learned – albeit from different experiences.
The ongoing impact of gaslighting
Childhood experiences cut very deep
Now, when that kind of thing happens to you, repeatedly, even if the actual incident is seemingly “insignificant”, the learning goes very deep. Long after you stop experiencing the situation, the learning still impacts on your life.
You learn that nothing that you say will be taken seriously. Your wishes and feelings just don’t matter.
You learn that you are powerless.
You might just as well do and say nothing.
In fact, other people would prefer you to do and say nothing that interferes with their convenience.
That was the lesson that I learned in my home from the baby shampoo and in a whole host of other ways.
Other children learn it from different experiences like parents changing their story – aka telling outright lies – to further their interests and/or public image. One of my mother’s favorites was that old gaslighting standard,
“I never said that”.
If that kind of gaslighting happened to you, you take from it that you need to set very low expectations of what you can expect from other people in future relationships.
Plus, you learn to keep quiet rather than come out with an inconvenient truth that will be shot down with such force that you will end up doubting yourself.
My clients who were unable to do what they needed to this week, are all women in their 30s and 40s, women who are, seemingly, powerful women.
But still, that old trigger of gaslighting held sway over them. Despite knowing what they needed to do, their long experience of gaslighting had led them to doubt their own perceptions.
Start with awareness
Awareness is the first step towards changing patterns of behaviour.
For the first time, they could start to make sense of the emotional hinterland that had led them to freeze when they knew that they needed to react appropriately.
Recognizing that old pattern is a start. You then have to do the emotional work to free yourself from that old pattern.
If you decide to do that alone, my program The Breaking Old Patterns Toolkit could really help to walk you through that. Otherwise, you will need to find a therapist who understands how to work with people who have been, amongst other things, chronically gaslighted.
By now, it seems that pretty much the world and his cat know about gaslighting However, all too often, those of us who have been through it don’t make the link between gaslighting and the unfortunate ways that it continues to affect us in our everyday life.
You really don’t need that old pattern in your life. Once you become aware, ridding yourself of that old pattern becomes way more viable.
PS If you, too, had bad experiences with that baby shampoo, do leave a comment. It’s always nice to belong to another secret society of survivors.
Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.
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