Help! What to Do if Your Family Gaslights You Over Your Pandemic Worries

Experts explain how to talk to loved ones during this time.

Living in the midst of coronavirus (COVID-19) has brought on an onslaught of issues we never had to deal with before. From grieving the death of over 210,000 Americans to being unable to safely see loved ones, it’s been a difficult year, to say the least. However, if there’s one issue that has been causing people to feel crazy, it’s being gaslit by loved ones during the pandemic.

While you may be familiar with the term “gaslighting” to describe when people in relationships try to manipulate, place blame, or invalidate their romantic partners, clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly says COVID-19 gaslighting is when people begin to question their own reality in relationship to current pandemic issues because others are purposely choosing to deny their beliefs and actions.

And when gaslighting occurs on a large scale (from loved ones, news outlets, or trolls on the internet), it can lead to major health issues, both physical and mental. “At a time when we especially need support, kindness, and empathy rather than negative interactions, gaslighting behaviors tend to erode an individual’s remaining resilience and positivity. This can lead to self-questioning, self-devaluation, and a sense that one is being too sensitive, reactive, or overly concerned,” Dr. Manly says. “Gaslighting behaviors—particularly if chronic—can lead to anxiety, depression, and a host of other mental health issues. Given that gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, the short- and long-term effects can be toxic and extremely debilitating.”

But why would people make others second-guess themselves about what’s valid and true to them, especially in the middle of a deadly pandemic? Dr. Manly believes it has to do with people wanting to feel powerful and in control in a time when things feel so out of our control. Case in point: President Trump writing on Twitter, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life” because he feels “better than I did 20 years ago!” moments after leaving the Walter Reed Medical Center on October 5th—when hundreds of thousands of Americans have already died because of the virus.

“Those who are emotionally intelligent tend to have heightened empathy and concern for others during difficult times such as the pandemic; the opposite is true for those who engage in negative, controlling behaviors such as gaslighting,” Dr. Manly says. “‘Gaslighters will take advantage of those who are struggling to stay on solid ground.”

However, just because others may choose to deny your experience doesn’t mean that you should fall victim to their tactics. To help combat this abusive behavior, we connected with a few psychologists. Here’s what they had to say.

Ask for a source for their claim.

Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, says if a friend or family member tells you something that you believe is untrue, you can ask them to provide a credible source for their claim so you can examine and determine the validity yourself. “If there is no source, the information simply is not likely to be true. That is always your anchor,” Dr. Klapow explains.

However, if the conversation begins to derail, try to ground the situation by bringing it back to credible scientific sources. “This pandemic is about two things alone: One, the science of virus spread. Two, the relative risks of exposure and contracting the condition. This is not about opinion beyond what relative risk you are willing to accept for yourself and what relative risk you are willing to put family and friends [through],” explains Dr. Klapow.

Use I statements.

When someone is telling you that your perspective isn’t true, it’s best to keep the focus on you and your values by using “I” statements, says Dr. Manly. For example, if a relative does not wear a mask and practice social distancing, Dr. Manly suggests you say: “I love you very much and want to see you, yet I feel safe when social distancing boundaries are very strong. I will be able to spend time with you if you’ll be able to wear a mask while I am around. I realize this may be inconvenient, so I understand if this does not work for you.” 

By taking this route, you’re not blaming or shaming the other person’s perspective. Instead, “you’re simply stating your needs and allowing the individual to make a choice,” she explains.

Stop the conversation when it gets out of hand.

If you ever find yourself feeling overwhelmed by a disagreement and you have an inkling that you’re being gaslit, stop the discussion, especially if the other party begins to disrespect you in any way. “As soon as you stray from objective, scientific, converging evidence and into the world of opinion, you run the risk of being gaslit,” says Dr. Klapow.

One of the best ways you can stop gaslighting arguments in their tracks is by having a few go-to phrases underneath your belt. Dr. Klapow and Dr. Manly provided a small list below:

  • “You are entitled to your reality, and I am entitled to mine.”
  • “I am not going to comment on that.”
  • “That’s an interesting opinion.”
  • “Let’s discuss something else. What’s the best movie you’ve seen lately?”
  • “I know the pandemic has everyone on edge, so I’m not going to respond to your comment.”
  • “What sources of information are you using to come to this opinion/view? What makes that source of information reliable, trustworthy, and qualified?”
  • “You are entitled to your opinions, but I choose to go directly to the medical/public health/ scientific evidence to make my decision.”

Find someone who will give you an objective opinion.

As Dr. Manly has mentioned, being gaslit can make someone question their reality. Because of this, it’s helpful to have someone by your side—like a loved one or a therapist—who will give you an objective point of view if you begin to feel uncertain about your values and needs. “Having a solid person to act as a sounding board can be very grounding and affirming,” Dr. Manly describes.

However, if the loved one or therapist is unable to provide a helpful second opinion, Dr. Manly provides a two-step guide to determine if you are truly being gaslit and to establish your values.

  • Write down your “ideal” protocols, needs, and values in regard to COVID safety.
  • Once you feel strong and clear, create a simply written outline as a reminder. 

Once you have your written outline, you’ll know where you stand—which will give you grounds not to second-guess yourself when others try to disregard your boundaries.

Set boundaries to no longer discuss this subject.

At the end of the day, your mental health is what’s most important, and if your loved ones still continue to disregard that, then it might be best to stop talking about this topic with them altogether. “Simply stand in your truth and refuse to engage in a negative way. This may involve being silent, leaving a situation, or—if it feels safe—offering a short explanation,” says Dr. Manly.

But keep in mind that not all boundaries are accepted by loved ones, especially if they feel offended—and it’s up to you how you want to proceed. “Emotionally intelligent people tend to honor each other’s perspectives and boundaries” even if they don’t share the same opinion, says Dr. Manly. “But for those who are not highly emotionally intelligent, they may have great difficulty listening to or accepting alternative points of view or concerns. And if you’re having a conversation with someone who is less skilled in this area, it’s important to take a very sensitive, diplomatic approach that is devoid of anything hinting at criticism.”

This means acknowledging that you have a difference of opinion—and, as Dr. Kladow says, “If a family member or friend chooses not to respect that, then it is time for you to exit the situation.”

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