Gaslighting and Empathy

Gaslighting is a word we hear a lot about these days. Diminishing another’s experience, making them question their reality, causing cognitive dissonance and redefining language. We talk about medical gaslighting a lot within the chronic illness community when medical professionals undermine symptoms, minimise what we’re going through or simply choose not to listen as they’ve already made their conclusions. For me, it seems to come down to a lack of empathy. In wider society we hear about gaslighting in relation to #metoo, harassment and sexual abuse.

Chopping logs in the disused grain silo, 2017

In my social work career during training I learnt about how effectively this is used by an abuser to make the victim question their reality. It’s only more recently we’ve had a word to encapsulate the mechanism used and the lived experience. Gaslighting seems to come on a spectrum. It’s an effective tool for the abuser, the term comes from a 1938 stage production and later 1994 psychological movie called Gaslight whereby a husband frequently dimmed a gaslamp to confuse and manipulate his wife, saying it hadn’t happened. However, I think it can come through damaging forms of leadership in a wider societal form through group think and subset social norms where ideas are cascaded and unwittingly, individuals may not be aware that they are gaslighting others. High control religion is a good example where individuals will take a world view from the stage and lead others to question their experience of reality and personal understanding when they step beyond approved doctrine. 

Having been attending therapy, either in person or more latterly via Skype over the last 18 months, I’ve realised that I have needed to explore my adolescent years and come to terms with seven years of ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as its sometimes known, between the ages of ten and seventeen (I recovered for twenty years before becoming ill again in 2018). Some psychological language can sound rather silly and talk of an inner child almost creepy but there’s something powerful in the analogy. I have had to revisit my eleven or fourteen, or sixteen year old self and try to grasp what he was going through. I’ve also had to consider how my adult self, pre-ME, viewed that chubby, curtain-hair clad, chirpy Northern boy.

My teenage experiences definitely impacted on my life choices, I chose to become a social worker out of a wider desire to, at some point, make a difference for chronically ill and disabled young people, and to some extent I achieved this. As a supervising social worker in fostering I stepped into a role overseeing a scheme to support carers who were looking after children with disabilities and in another job I worked as a senior practitioner for a local authority’s short break scheme, where disabled children had time away from home for a few hours, or overnight with specialist foster carers. So yay me, I was able to turn my awful childhood illness and lack of substantial education for six years into something that benefited others. 

However as time went on and I became more distant from that young lad, did I start to lose empathy for him? Was I so busy with family and work and other endeavours that the mountains of paperwork obscured my ability to see where I’d come from? Did I start to judge parents of children who used our service or assess their experiences against those of others? In a way, yes, because it was my job to do so. We had to make sure children were safe and that takes judgement. It also takes judgement to make hard decisions on access to services based on limited resources and eligibility criteria. Yet, somehow, I think when you are process driven you can lose sight of the human element. I don’t think anyone would say I overtly did this, but sometimes that ability to see a person in their true humanity can become shrouded behind forms and process.  

I think sometimes I would look back at my own younger experience and think, ‘It wasn’t that bad’.

I think sometimes I would look back at my own younger experience and think, ‘It wasn’t that bad’. My seven years of ME, characterised by positive spells and then massive relapses had been nicely boxed up and stored away. My life with ME, or selective memories of it could be edited down to a sixty minute documentary if needed. That was another life. Now I had reports to write, panels to attend and auditing to do. Not to mention get my daughter to the swimming pool or Brownies! Did I gaslight my former self, my inner child? I’m not sure gaslight is the right word because I’m not time travelling but I think I did negate his experiences. 

Cragside House, 2017

Last year when skyping with a group of men with ME, we talked briefly about those rare few who recover and how they don’t like to revisit their time with ME. Anecdotally they often don’t seem to campaign for funding, awareness or greater understanding, when ideally they’re best placed to do that. Someone suggested that it’s almost a bodily and psychological defense mechanism to allow themselves to move on because the reality of what they went through is too traumatic to face. Maybe over time you just forget and move on. Maybe the forgetting is about managing the grief of lost years. I don’t think I liked to look back. Maybe there was always a tiny part of me that feared it would return. Those fears proved to be correct but you can’t live out of fear. 

I think true empathy is most effectively expressed when an individual has lived recent experience of a situation: we’re honestly able to put ourselves in another’s shoes because we’ve walked in them and felt the pain. That pain eases over time and empathy is borne instead out of memory instead of embodiment. Maybe eventually it’s just a memory of a memory. Empathy takes conscious effort and self awareness and doesn’t necessarily require you to have lived experience of someone else’s situation. We have seen recently how many have demonstrated a complete lack of empathy through bulk purchasing of essential items in the wake of Coronavirus fears, or statements over the virus ‘only’ affecting the old and vulnerable. 

There’s a lack of ability to reflect and wonder ‘what if I came to the shop and there was no hand wash?’. 

I think empathy is my favourite word. It’s a powerful thing and can make a huge impact when we’re able to stop and reflect and place ourselves in another’s shoes. Recently when I was a mess on the floor having collapsed from exhaustion I found myself apologising to my younger ME self, my inner child who was gaslit left right and centre by medical and education professionals and members of my wider family.

“It was this bad, and I’m sorry for what you went through”.

It was a bit weird but it was an important thing to do. I think it released trauma I wasn’t even aware of, acknowledging the grief of lost years. 

Simonside

I think, living with a chronic illness we can all gaslight ourselves sometimes. We have a good couple of days and all of a sudden we’re wondering what all the fuss was about and making plans for the future, “it’s not that bad”… until we’re hit with the usual exhaustion aftershock a day or two later. So these mind games are tricky to navigate and we have to step back and acknowledge the reality of the bigger picture. It’s only through real self awareness and acceptance that we can balance all these thought processes and frustrations. 

Writing about gaslighting and empathy in the same blog seems like an odd combination but I think sometimes gaslighting occurs out of a fear of the unknown, or of difference. We don’t like to admit that we’re not in control so fear is manifested and projected onto others. When we try to actually see someone for who they are and utilise empathy, maybe the need to gaslight others reduces, but self awareness is vital. 

While we see an actual example of empathylessness (that’s surely not a word) playing out in the shops and online, may we be those who express empathy towards ourselves and others.

Even if they did take the last toilet rolls?! 

2 thoughts on “Gaslighting and Empathy

  1. I completely associate with this. I had a bad day yesterday, as well as Saturday and Sunday, I think the same thing: ‘did I imagine that?’

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