I rushed in a few minutes late, spied my friend waiting in a nearby booth, and sat down across from her. “Hey, you made it,” she said with a smile.
“Yeah, so sorry. I got a late start. I’ll bet you’re famished!” I said as I picked the restaurant menu and began to consider my options.
She smiled and then asked, “So, how’s it been going?”
I put down the menu as I paused to consider what to say. Over this past year, I’ve faced numerous challenges between coping with a struggling marriage, my son’s illness, and adjusting to life newly divorced.
I’ve come to dread this question. Unless I have some recent good news to share, I often don’t know what to say. Since I lost my husband to cancer nearly five years ago, I’ve learned conversations can quickly become uncomfortable when they veer into painful topics, such as dealing with my fears, worries, conflicts, or grievances.
Deciding to take a risk, I let out a big breath and said, “I dreamed about my ex last night.”
My friend made a sad face in a show of sympathy, “Aw, I’m sorry to hear that.”
Encouraged by her empathetic response, I continued, “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about him again this week. Having to move last week all by myself upset me. Pissed me off.”
“I get it,” she replied. “I feel very alone too. I remember feeling that way after my last breakup. But I think it’s best if you put it behind you now. Focus on today — where you are now. All the good things.” She nodded encouragingly, and then gave me a quick smile.
I recognized what was happening since I’ve heard these types of comments many times before. I took it as a sign she’d grown weary of hearing me complain about my ex and wanted me to drop the subject.
We All Get Weary Supporting Others
This scenario has happened many times before. It often occurs after I share a minute or two of what I’ve been going through. The listener then tells me that maybe it’s best if I let it go, or that’s it’s time to forget about the past. I’ve also heard I’m too sensitive, over-reactive, or taking things out of context. If my friends are religious, I get reminded to trust God or am encouraged to pray more.
I know those closest to me are all well-intended. Over the past few years life has given me quite a beating. It’s tough to watch someone suffer. I know first-hand how that feels since I was a practicing psychologist. It was my job for almost twenty years to listen to the anguish and hardships of others. I often wished I could fix their circumstances. To find a way to make it all go away so that they would finally feel better. I’ve never felt more powerless or helpless in the face of such pain.
However, the dismissive reaction of my supportive friends and family only worsen my situation by making it difficult for me to process the events of my life.
And, here’s the worst part — unknowingly, they have also been added to the growing list of those who’ve abused me.
Yep, that’s correct — you read it right, they were also guilty of being emotionally abusive. I was just gaslighted.
Gaslighting is All Too Common
Most of us are familiar with the term gaslighting, from the 1944 movie, by the same name, starring Ingrid Bergman. The plot is a familiar one. An heiress marries a dashing gentleman who proceeds to try to drive her insane. He manipulates her environment, making her think the flickering lights and odd sounds she’s hearing is all in her head.
Sometimes gaslighting is done knowingly and in cold blood, but more often not. The majority of the time, it’s done by good people whose sole desire is to support us but find themselves overwhelmed by our reactions or circumstances.
Most of us find it distasteful to talk about hard subjects, such as death and loss, experiences of being shamed, intense feelings of anger, desire for revenge, and the such. When conversations veer into these areas we squirm in our seats, suddenly feeling awkward.
Gaslighting as a Defense
That’s normal. We all have an emotional reaction to other people’s situations or feelings. We may find ourselves worried, frustrated, irritated, uncomfortable, feeling helpless, discouraged, stressed, and maybe even bored.
It’s what we do with these feelings that matters. Are we able to sit with our subjective experience and process it effectively? That’s the best thing to do — to own it and take responsibility for managing it.
Unfortunately, that’s hard for a lot of us. Instead we look to the person who stirs up this reaction within us, and we wish he or she would stop be so upsetting. We avoid processing our emotional responses to what we just heard by making it about the other person.
If only this individual weren’t so needy, so sensitive, or took everything so personally, we think. Or maybe, if he or she could just let things drop by keeping the past in the past, we say.
It’s their fault we feel this way, not ours, we believe. So, we shut them up by shutting them down.
Learning to Handle our Emotional Reactions Differently
We have other options though. We could take responsibility for how others make us feel. We could take it as a sign we need to slow down and examine what’s driving our emotional reaction. Are we feeling helpless, stupid, embarrassed, or awkward? Are we unsure what to say next or how to help? All of these are completely normal reactions.
Gaslighting is a cheap way out of an uncomfortable situation. It takes the superior high road in which we act like we have it all together when we don’t. We make it about the failings of the other person instead of taking a closer look at ourselves. And when we opt out like this, we hurt the ones we care about the most.
In such circumstances, it’s okay to admit we don’t know what to say next. A sympathetic nod of understanding is a great option too. There’s nothing magical about offering support. All that is required is a listening ear and a warm and caring heart.
This post was previously published on P.S. I Love You and is republished here with permission from the author.
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