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Gaslighting: How Abusers Create Self-Doubting People and What to Do About It

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The wine was flowing; the dinner party in full swing and my wife was holding court (as usual) with everyone listening intently. She recounted her experiences as a student teacher undertaking a PGCE and described the drug abuse on the Isle of Sheppey where she’d been working. She then said the fatal words: ‘95% of people on the Isle of Sheppey are drug addicts.’

I shuddered. She always did this. She’d start off with a great story, then take things way too far, using absurd statistics which were made up on the spot. The people around the table looked at each other in disbelief. No one dared say a word (they never did) and she carried on regardless. 

Later that evening, I summoned the courage to gently challenge her (which was out of character for me, but I was in counselling at the time and was trying to be a real man, which is what she said she wanted). 

‘Darling, you were in great form last might everyone was having a blast, but are you sure about that 95% statistic? It doesn’t sound right to me. I worry that if people don’t believe it, then they won’t believe you.’

Shit … me and my big mouth: why did I just do that? She glared at me, then denied ever having said it, then made the point, that even if she did say it, I was being ridiculous and pedantic for pulling her up on it.

I reasoned with her that I felt she’d lost some of the people around the table when she mentioned that statistic because it was such an exaggerated figure and that maybe, with statistics, it’s worth knowing them first before stating them. I knew this was reasonable as I said but it caused an explosion. I was apparently being a twat. Note to self: shut the fuck up when you have an opinion. 

Thing is, following that conversation, I was so angry with myself for having been so pedantic. I berated myself: she didn’t lose the people around the table and so what if the stat was wrong; it probably wasn’t that far wrong, right? 

Gas lighting

In abusive relationships, your abuser will deliberately wrestle to take control of your every thought by pouring doubt into your mind, about:

  • What they said
  • What your mum said
  • What your friends think / thought
  • Events in the past – No it didn’t happen like that, it was like this.

Bit by bit, the onslaught wears you down and the stories your abuser spins in your mind have two purposes: (1) to ensure you doubt yourself and (2) that you trust your abuser 100%. 

For example:  My ex-wife was able to convince me that I was hugely immature at the age of 28 and needed to cut off from my family (mum, dad and sisters) because they were so possessive of me and needed me to remain as a little boy. We’d always been a healthy and close family but she convinced me that I needed time with zero contact with my family in order to become a real man. Seriously? How ridiculous! 

What gullible moron would fall for that? Me. Well, not at first. I knew it was wrong and gently pleaded with her that there must be another way, but eventually, I truly believed that to become a real man, I had to cut off all contact with my family.

So with a heavy heart and on her orders, I made the call I was dreading to make. I rang my parents and broke their hearts by cutting off all contact for the foreseeable future. 

It was always my fault, the troubled relationship, her sadness, her anger, her disasters – even when she was late for her riding lesson one morning because; she’d overslept, had breakfast brought to her in bed and spent too long on the phone to her brother. It was still my fault and an explosion followed. 

The impact of this assault on my mind

  • I doubted myself. Some days I thought I was going insane.
  • I struggled to make decisions on anything: I was too fearful that if it was the wrong decision and ended badly, all hell would break lose because it was my decision. Much safer therefore to make no decisions at all. 
  • I became a liar and manipulator with one all-consuming obsession: to do whatever it took to prevent my wife’s triggers from being pulled. 
  • I became my wife’s greatest excuse maker: ‘She’s tired’, ‘The kids are wearing her out’, ‘She had a really tough childhood‘, ‘She’s working through some stuff ‘, ‘She’s under a lot of pressure’, ‘She’s amazing to have got where she is.’
  • I doubted the intentions of friends and family: apparently none of them wanted me grow up into a man.
  • I felt like a failure. I so wanted to be a real man but whenever I tried to man up, it caused such a storm (and sometimes the storms were violent and we had young daughters). So, I always went back to appeasement: it was the only way. 
  • I spent my life apologising to my wife: for screwing up, for being a failure for not getting it right. 
  • I hated myself for my lack of practical skills: real men do DIY. 

What can we learn from my experience

I want to raise awareness about gaslighting and share six reflections for people caught in abuse.

  • When you’re the victim of gaslighting, life is frightening and confusing. You don’t know which way is up and which way is down. 
  • Abusers deliberately manipulate you so you remain blind to what is going on. It’s so clever and of course, your ignorance becomes your cage. 
  • If you’re not sure whether you’re in abuse and you wonder whether it’s all in your mind, it probably isn’t.
  • Talk to someone outside your relationship and put your dilemmas to them: the every day situations, the challenges, your suspicions and doubts. Get counselling from someone else; do not wrestle with your doubts alone. 
  • I am happily remarried and repaired with all family relationships restored. There are no mind games, no fear and no doubts in my life anymore, just straight forward living. All those years ago, I would never have thought that could be possible for me. 
  • The grass really is greener on the other side of the hill, but sometimes you have to crawl through the stinking slime to get there. So get crawling (it will be horrible at first) don’t stop, don’t look back and never give up.

Andrew Pain is  a high-performance coach, TEDx speaker, productivity expert, domestic abuse campaigner and survivor of a long-term abusive marriage. 


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