If you prefer to listen, here’s the podcast version of this post on Soundcloud and iTunes.
This is also known as gas-lighting – based on a Hitchcock film where Ingrid Bergman was made to feel crazy by her husband. What I am going to talk about is what to do and how to recognize when someone is intentionally keeping you feel off-balance or pushing your buttons to make you into the bad guy. It’s a control tactic, and it’s extremely cruel – not to mention, when done overtime it can make you believe you can’t trust your own instincts. You will start to lose a connection to your own gut instincts because someone is making you believe that they might be wrong, consistently over time. It can stall you from actually reaching the solution to an issue, and even blind you to real and dangerous truths happening right in front of you – on a greater and greater scale. Because over a long period of time – no matter how rational and confident you start out, eventually you catch “the sickness” of the manipulative behavior. Long story short – it’s DANGEROUS and NOT COOL and you shouldn’t be tolerating it or be around it – at all. This is an episode to give you a starting point for helping yourself out of this situation.
Three parts – what why and how, the tools.
Part 1: The What
People who intentionally use belittling, inconsistency, rationalizations, mixed signals and redirection tactics to make you feel less-than, mistrusting of yourself, or lost and unsure about the real issue at hand. These tactics usually employ inconsistency in reactions, in emotions, in verbiage – and point to something else. This might start when you raise an issue you have – something that doesn’t feel right to you – and suddenly the other person is pointing at something entirely different: telling you that you have a serious problem, or you look like crap, or some really diagonal reaction that you’re not expecting. Immediately you are taken aback: I was thoughtfully trying to raise a concern, I thought about this thing for a very long time – and now suddenly this person is saying this totally shocking OTHER thing. The result is similar to feeling stunned, guilty and unable to get OUT of the conflict. You might soon wish you never brought anything up – suddenly this issue is so much worse than it was potentially going to be in your mind. And you can’t seem to figure out HOW it is you got to this point. Are they right? DID I do something wrong? I don’t believe I did that…This is stage 1 of the dirty tactic affect. Confusion. Backing off. NOT fully addressing your need. Making you feel more tentative about your needs and whether or not you can even present them. You ended up somewhere so much farther away than where you started.
Stage 2 is what happens when this dynamic occurs over time. You end up building a history of these types of conversations and they begin to wear you down – the circles exhaust you, because you’re chasing the truth and can’t ever catch up. When they point to something new, you almost believe the validity in what they are saying because you’ve been here before. What they might say will also play upon your fears and insecurities, they will also have sunk in and made you doubt yourself. Even if you rationally KNOW that you are being manipulated and that this person is spewing negativity at you to make you less confident, what they say will still hurt. It will still affect you – because this is a person you know and care about. They can make you feel unloved which when you endure it, makes you feel unlovable. You internalize the hurt.
Stage 3 of the affect of the behavior is you have forgotten your gut and your instincts are valid. You have mistrusted yourself so many times – been so confused – that now you feel like you’re going crazy. “None of this makes any sense – I MUST be wrong.” They might even throw out theories to justify the possibility that this is all in your head. They might tell you things you have said to them before that you have no memory of – “I said that?” “Yes and we both decided to do xyz.” “I don’t remember that…” And logically, you see no other solution – because this person loves you. The motive is missing. Why would someone who cares about you, who you have chosen to trust – manipulate you and make you feel like you’re losing your mind? There’s no reason they’d do that – and the reasoning they have created might feel somewhat feasible. “I have been really stressed out, and we did have that fight last time when they said I did this same thing…” Now you are NOT trusting yourself. Maybe you are bringing old baggage to this conflict and you should do what they are suggesting: be more tolerant. Get more rest. Stop being so accusatory. Etc. Maybe you were wrong all along. Suddenly you are backing off, staring into space trying to retrace your past experiences – to see if you can see what they are saying. How did I forget that?
This tactic might not show up as a finger pointing – another way it shows up is completely inconsistent behavior. When you believe you are on the same page and someone has just done something that SHOULD be a big deal. You should be having a certain conversation – in fact, every bone in your body is telling you that you are valid and right in your position. But then their reaction might be the opposite of what you’re expecting. Or what they normally do. Or they might not even acknowledge the issue. Which leaves you reevaluating what you were originally feeling. Was this something I should be worried about? Is it a big deal? And if you’re in a relationship with this person – the instinct is to want it to be okay. To want the problem to not be a big deal, and so you talk yourself out of it. “Yeah it’s okay, if they’re okay I’m okay..”
A person who plays dirty will also bring things up in ways that alter the intention of what they’re saying. When they tell you what’s wrong with you they say it in a way that implies they are coming from love. They’re trying their hardest. Or – they will react to your feelings in ways that make you feel like you’re acting completely irrational. Like for example, you are extremely upset and they react to you with laughter and softness, like you were a child. Or you are believing you can trust this person and yet they do something totally inappropriate – so you call them on it, and they act as if nothing happened. Or they suddenly out of nowhere begin telling you things that are wrong with you – as though they are coming from a valid and concerned place.
Manipulators will also tend to isolate you. The acts are all to get you “contained” and keep you disempowered – so they might tell you they hate your friends, or your family is annoying, or they might immediately express hatred for someone as soon as you talk about how much you like them. This is all to keep you under their control.
They will also believe themselves passionately – they’ll rationalize their side with such authenticity that you might feel guilty and believe it’s your fault for a lack of trust. They might create irrational rules for “who they are” and “how they do things” – including what you are allowed to ask of them and what they will and will not do. They make these rules into “their thing” and although they would never be acceptable under any circumstances in any other situation – you feel powerless to argue. You feel you have no leverage. So suddenly you’re not allowed to ask about where this person is, where they’re going. You are too afraid to bring things up because of the disproportionate behavior. It can make you feel afraid to set them off- because they’ll punish you for it or you’ll end up in an endless discussion. So you take the easier route.
They’ll also as a rule not show how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking about: you won’t know how to read them, their body language will be confusing and what they say and do will send different messages. So when they are saying something nice, they might be acting physically cold. Or when they are saying something that implies they are feeling a lot of emotion, they might enact the actions of a person who is feeling nothing at all. Things just don’t line up – and so it FEELS like it’s all your bad. It’s because of you, it’s that they don’t love you or even like you, or you’re not enough, or you’re losing your mind. You can’t tell up from down.
Summary – end result of all of their behavior is you not trusting yourself. Something doesn’t feel right, but it doesn’t make sense. Huh? What just happened? Why can’t I reach resolution? Maybe I’m wrong. This is all in my head. I must be totally crazy.
Part 2: The Why
It’s not about you – it’s because of how they feel inside and whether or not they are capable of dealing with that in a healthy way. There are some different motives behind the dirty tactics but all of them revolve around a desire for power and control: someone feeling powerless and resentful of your power next to them, OR someone wanting to stay hidden and illusive so they can control you, or someone wanting to keep you off-balance because they don’t want to be attacked and they want to retain a power-position so they keep you looking in the wrong place. The motive at play is what you want to try to discern because it will show you whether or not this person is very dangerous and sociopathic aka whether or not they feel guilt and empathy for you. I will talk about some of the kinds of dynamics so you can start to make sense of your own situation.
Childhood Damage:A common cause of this is a person’s damage from childhood. They have suppressed a part of themselves and or they hate a part of themselves – the part of them that feels needy and vulnerable. This suppression must be defended fiercely – like a bully that’s saying, “get away! Get away!” but using smarter tactics – ones they might employ from a place of denial. Because the feelings are so intolerable to them, they want to believe their own lies – almost like they have an alter ego who’s sooo right and just and confident.
The damage can be caused by an early traumatic experience, or the way they were parented: if their parent gave them the tools and support to feel their painful feelings, or if they were forced to stuff them away from view. If the parent was abusive, or they were neglected, a child might adopt ways of getting love and care – trying everything possible: manipulating using their body, charm, sadness, pain – whatever it takes. How they feel becomes a tool for survival, not a weakness that makes them feel vulnerable. It is when a person becomes versed at manipulation, that they practice a state of invisibility: when they are at their resting state, you might have no idea what they are thinking – where they are mentally, or what their motives are. That is a skill learned over a lifetime. They are in truth, calculating: they are deciding what they need to do to get the most out of a situation. How to get others to give them more power and adoration.
When the damage of childhood is foundational – and occurs in the first 5 years of life, this is a much more dangerous person because they lack empathy and guilt. This is when a person is capable of much more harm – I’m talking about narcissists and sociopaths. When a person cannot see how you feel, and it doesn’t hurt them when you cry or when you’re in pain – and they seem to encourage you to feel bad for them, or they don’t seem to understand that what they say is extremely hurtful to you – there’s a strong likelihood that they have one of these personality disorders. And they can’t be cured. The damage was at a developmental stage.
Parent Mirroring: If they had a parent who was manipulative – they might be now unconsciously borrowing the methods of the parent. No matter who we are, we tend to resort to the tools we have seen used before – many of them by our parents because it’s who shows us our original framework for how to behave. So in a couple, you’ve seen a parent employ a behavior when they fight with a spouse, you’re much more likely to enact the same thing in your own adult life.
Powerlessness: Another cause is painful feelings of powerlessness. Usually this is brought out by intimacy – a relationship that grows closer, whether with time, or a milestone – like moving in together or getting married, and suddenly they feel overwhelming vulnerability. The tactics are desperate attempts at grabbing for power. Like a cornered animal – they are threatened, full of unbearable feelings of weakness and insecurity – and they cannot look at those feelings or deal with them like normal people. Why? Because the feelings were intolerable to them at an earlier age – because they threatened their survival. When we stuff pain away and choose to block it, it’s because we’re at an age when we need to be able to function, and having this weakness is impossible: we abandon this part of ourselves and suppress it, believing that it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s not who we are. And yet it lives there, deep below the surface, and we compensate for this feeling by adopting an opposite personality trait: if you stuff feelings of emotion and vulnerability, you portray a rational and authoritarian persona. But you look for others who embody the part of yourself that you cut off. It’s what they want to provoke in others to more reaffirm their current self.
Triggered Baggage:There are some major baggage triggers: Marriage, Kids, Intimacy, Achievement (tied to parents and self-worth) and Health or Independence of a partner. If this wasn’t a problem before and you’re feeling like you suddenly met a new person – and you can’t understand what happened, at certain life milestones this kind of behavior might suddenly come out. The particular trigger will tie back to the original source of their feelings of powerlessness. For example, when you get married – early family issues come out. You might begin to act like your parent, or conversely – attempt to act opposite the dysfunction of your parent. In that process the negative acts that are coming out are actually directed at the parent – but they are acting them out onto you. It’s like a way for a person to come to terms with their original problem – like they unconsciously try to recreate the conditions so that they can make them right – and the behavior will be manipulating you into assuming the role that’s opposite their self-perception.
If you guys have an uneven relationship and you start to get stronger or more confident, manipulation is a tactic to return you to a submissive state – and reset the previous balance of the relationship aka Keep the old bond safe.
Unconsciousness: Sometimes people are just unconscious and living in a state of ego. They are disconnected from the depth of what is happening because they’re afraid to look or slow down, so instead they keep busy. They’re afraid to feel. So they’re hiding from reality by staying wrapped up in their own idealized version of their identity and rationalizing everything they do with that. Like they perceive themselves as a go-getter, a power-player – they know how to keep their image cool and their life awesome. They know what’s best and they don’t allow themselves to entertain any other version of life so they are going about whatever they need to to stay on top, including telling you why you’re just crazy and they’re sooo right.
Low Self-Confidence: Another super common source is low-self-confidence. Sometimes people have a lot of self-loathing and they are hurting you as an expression of their own internal hate for themselves, and anyone who loves them. A good way to think of low-self-worth is like a pair of goggles: how people treat others is a direct translation of how they feel inside. So self-hating people treat everyone around them with hate, especially those who highlight how low they feel – like the happy or confident. You might find this comes out when you are successful or happy – it’s like the inner demons are lashing out and pushing you down. This person hates that they feel this way, so they might try to ignore their feelings – yet they eek out sideways in passive aggressive ways.
Intolerable to Emotion: They might also be acting out because they simply don’t want to feel the way they do and they are so jealous you’re happy and confident. They don’t want to feel what they feel, it makes them scared and very uncomfortable – so a way to make it more tolerable is to put it onto you. To say it’s YOUR fault that they are feeling this badness – it’s because YOU are bad and should be punished. You’re the one doing something wrong to make me feel this way. This dynamic is called projective identification – and it will make a person actually believe you are at fault. Like a self-induced hallucination. It’s a logic born out of desperate denial of something that makes them feel worthless.
Regardless of which category your sich falls into, it’s NOT COOL. You don’t deserve it, and you can’t continue to tolerate it. Which brings me to ways I want to empower you. Part 3 – the tools!
Part 3: The How, The Tools!
Tool 1: Know Thyself
Your intentions and your values can be a grounding element for you when someone is trying to talk you into their view of you. Whatever they are, record your own truths on a small piece of paper (to put in your wallet) and on your phone. For example: the truth that you are trying to be honest. You are coming from love. You want to do what’s best for both of you, you are committed to the outcome of health. You are always trying your best. All of those pure traits that you have – let them be grounding for you. Know they exist, no matter what someone says to make you believe otherwise. Let go of whether or not they accuse you of something crazy. Detach with love. Stick to your guns: remind yourself of your own intentions and that you are coming from love. THAT IS YOUR TRUTH and no one can take that away from you or make it less true.
Tool 2: Detach with love
This is a great one from many other books and the 12-step program, but quite simply: you can always be kind and loving and cut off contact from the person who is hurting you– with love. It’s not uncaring or selfish for you to protect yourself from their dysfunctional behavior. It’s loving and healthy – and it’s a way for you to start to grow healthier. All you have to do is tell the person you love them but you cannot be around them because it’s hurting you, and let go of their reaction. You are always allowed to protect yourself. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.
Tool 3: Draw a Straight Line
The truth is simple. If the dots don’t connect, there’s a reason. Do not allow yourself to will yourself into believing something said – only base your judgments on the truth of what you know.
In those moments when this other person is making you feel confused or conflicted or frustrated – and you’re unable to see WHY something doesn’t add up, there’s a REASON. When people mean something – it’s not hard to see. It’s not confusing to understand motivations, everything is pretty basic and evident. You will be able to see the cause of something. So if things aren’t making sense or you find yourself trying desperately to understand the reason behind something – or maybe someone has told you a story that you can’t relate to – like you’re trying to solve a puzzle that is their motivation, stop: don’t continue to get tangled in the web. There’s a reason this doesn’t add up.
In those moments – remind yourself to step back and draw a straight line from the actions you have perceived – and only those actions. If those actions and behaviors don’t point to a person who truly aligns with what they are saying, or if things don’t seamlessly connect – there’s a reason for that: something’s not true. It shouldn’t be complicated. It shouldn’t be confusing. It shouldn’t be HARD to understand why someone does something. Step back – detach with love: don’t get tipped into the game of mirrors. It’s being played to keep you confused and looking away from the truth.
Tool 4: Smile and Step Away
In the serious cases if you’re dealing with someone who you know gets to you and makes you feel off-balance, in the moment of their tactics – do not engage or show you are aware of their misalignments. This is how you invite more of it – so instead play along and keep a safe distance from your own thoughts and their awareness. You want to give them nothing to use against you – they will try more and more tactics to keep you under their control. In the face of that – the best thing to do is cut off access to what you’re thinking without cluing them in. Smile and point in another direction – continue to cut off access to your thoughts. Redirect and distance – continue to keep them at bay until you can get a little bit more of your balance and sanity back.
I want to thank ALL of my monthly sponsors for sticking with me, I appreciate you so so much – you are amazing! And thank you to my newest sponsors – Steve and Kelsey!! You guys are sooo awesome!!!!
If you’re in a relationship like this, I want you to listen to this – hard. It’s not enough that you love someone if they are incapable of loving you. It’s not enough that they love you – they must demonstrate that they are capable of being loving to you. If you’re dating this person, I want you to look at how this behavior feels to you. Whether or not it hurts – makes you feel desperate and alone, powerless – like you have no way out.
You don’t deserve this and you shouldn’t tolerate this or rationalize it away. It cannot continue – and you DO HAVE POWER in this moment. You are just unable to use it, because you have been manipulated into a position of powerlessness. You think you can’t go there, or you shouldn’t – because it’s not that bad. Not that serious. Or you might say to yourself, “They wouldn’t listen.” Or “They’ll just say no.” You always have a say – and it’s your job to USE YOUR POWER and begin to OBEY YOUR GUT if it’s telling you this is wrong. Whatever you feel, is valid. Whatever you want, is valid and NO ONE no matter how much you love them is allowed to talk you out of that. Nor do you have to concede. When things are difficult, you just need some better help and support. Just because you can’t see a solution from where you are now doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist: it means you have to look harder. Grab for MORE outside help. And try something new – a new source of help.
You can change everything in your life just by changing yourself – including your relationship. If this person is doing this, you get to wield the power of your body, mind and soul. You get to set the boundaries for how YOU are treated. You can and SHOULD remove access to yourself if you are not being treated appropriately. Once you really mean it, and you really align your actions with someone who means it and take the appropriate actions – BIG and PAINFUL change happens. But you need to accept that you cannot control the outcome, you cannot control what this person will do, and that’s just the way life works. They are the only one who can change themselves – that’s not your job. Your job is to take care of yourself and your relationship, by doing whatever it takes to get there – even when it seems impossible, or that you’re walking away from something. You’ve got to build a wall to FORCE the impossible change to happen. You have to mean it that much. Which is a very profound and powerful confrontation for the wrong actions to be seen – for the first time – in the light of day. When you draw a line and point to this issue, and what needs to happen – there becomes no other alternative for the other person – and this is when you can really see who they are, and what they’re capable of. Just like a teenager acts out to get their parents to create a firm boundary so that they can feel safe, these actions are pushing you to create any kind of boundary. They are validating their self-hate, which is really an opportunity for you to FORCE the change they deep-down want, but are too afraid to look at. This forcing of change is the only time they might actually change because there’s no other option. Just like it might be hard to work on something unless you’re paid to do it, it’s hard to change unless your life is a stake. This is the come-to-Jesus moment when they can actually accept their own powerlessness and do the work they need to do: because they cannot talk you out of it. They have no other choice.
If you live with sickness, eventually you get sick. Even if you’re outside this behavior now, the longer you subject yourself to it without getting tools to help yourself – and outside support, the sicker you get. Remember the airplane card: put your mask on before you help someone else. You need to be grounded to help another person – so take care of yourself and your sanity, first and foremost.
Whatever you do moving forward– let it come from love and truth and not from fear. Let go of what is out of your control, speak from a kind and loving place – and take care of yourself. Respect yourself and respect your needs. Do not tolerate behavior that is less-than, do not allow another person to hurt you, and in those moments when you can witness their pain and hate – detach with love. Walk away while stating your needs and who you are. Let go of what they believe or tell you to believe. No one else is allowed to make you feel anything you don’t decide to feel. You can and will take care of yourself and you can and will learn to hear your own voice again, loud and clear. Rebuild that bond one day at a time – and never mistrust it again. Your gut is always speaking your truth – and that truth is always valid. It’s the most valuable and important voice you have in this life. Honor it, honor yourself – and come from love.
I send you my love – and if this helped you, please share it! Don’t forget to smile. xo!