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Calm • Perspective

On Being Gaslit In Our Childhoods

We know the term gaslighting well enough from relationships: where a partner does something hurtful or deceitful to their lover while simultaneously artfully persuading them that they must be ‘mad’ whenever they get close to working out what this might be – and mounting a complaint.

However common the phenomenon is in love, it is arguably even more prevalent in relation to the way certain children are treated by their parents.

Relationships between parents and children are structurally desperately unequal. One side has a thirty or so year head start on the other; one side has their full mental faculties while the other is still trying to work out its name and how to spell ‘sheep’ – which allows for some very distorted and self-serving narratives to build up as to who is doing what and why.

Long before a child even knows who it is, the parent can powerfully define their identity and describe a rationale for their behaviour. ‘You were always such a sulky child,’ they might say, ‘You’d spend hours alone in your room for no reason.’ Or: ‘You were very difficult, you’d whine every time I left the house…’ Or: ‘You were so annoyed whenever I played with your little brother, it was hard coping with your jealous outbursts.’ It can be extremely difficult to work out what we’re being encouraged not to think about here, what avenues of interpretation and enquiry are subtly being shut down. What if our so-called sulkiness were in fact a wholly legitimate response to never being allowed to express anger in a household where our father ruled with terror? What if our ‘whininess’ were an entirely reasonable sign of distress after being repeatedly abandoned by an unnaturally stoic and ‘busy’ parent, for whom a small child’s dependence evoked uncomfortable reminders of their own unprocessed feelings of need? Or what if we were not just ‘envious’ of a sibling; but were grievously abandoned in their name for reasons wholly bound up with the parent’s psyche?

Boy with a Crow, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1884, Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, the gaslighting isn’t about a narrative we’re sold, it involves a silence that is placed over situations where reality would beg for there to be an explanation or room to question or to express an emotion. A parent might leave wholly unmentioned – and even unthinkable – that for a decade or so, they routinely screamed and broke doors in the house at night when there was a tension with their spouse. What is a child meant to think? Why isn’t anyone saying anything? Is this normal? Or else there was a miscarriage or a stillbirth and yet there was only obfuscation; as though there was nothing here to notice or feel.

Following this sort of gaslighting, there are emotions begging to be felt and more accurate interpretations to be formulated and disentangled: Maybe I wasn’t whiny, perhaps I was just ignored. Maybe my sense of fear and hopelessness doesn’t just belong to me, it’s the result of having grown up in a household where no one ever saw fit to mention that there were two still-births before I was six. Or: perhaps there was nothing innocent at all about that unmentioned bankruptcy or affair.

The work of therapy often involves a client at last registering emotions that were always their due. There can along the way be a terrible fear – especially in those clients who have been most hard done by – that they might thereby become ‘self-indulgent’ or ‘self-pitying’, but the problem tends to lie somewhere else entirely: in the unfair advantage and excessive loyalty the client is giving to their early caregivers. There is typically far too much fear of ‘moaning’; and far too little sense that we may actually not have moaned enough, allowed ourselves to properly notice what we really have every right to feel aggrieved about. For every person who takes too little responsibility for their lives, there are many more who take on far too much and grow hugely unwell as a result, through excessive self-hatred, self-doubt, suppressed anger and despair (some of which is left to emerge in a range of physical symptoms).

Acceding to a liberated adulthood can mean correcting a host of narratives: perhaps mother wasn’t a saintly martyr, she could just never express her needs directly and set up very guilty feelings in all of us. Or: maybe I deserve to feel sorry for myself for what happened at school rather than simply grateful for my ostensible ‘advantages’ in having been sent there. Or: perhaps I wasn’t just ‘sweet’, I was given no option to stand up for myself against the immature adults around me. By now, we might be 55 or 89. The work is worth doing anyway, for the more we can unwind the gaslighting and approach the truth, the saner and calmer we can feel.

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