When applied to a family, the gaslight treatment is a special form of dysfunction. It happens when you, a child, receive messages or encounter experiences within the family which are deeply contradictory. Messages which are opposing and conflicting; experiences which can’t both be true. When you can’t make sense of something, it’s natural to apply the only possible answer:
Today, scores of children are growing up under a gaslight of their own. And scores of adults are living their lives baffled by what went on in their families, having grown up thinking that they, not their families, are crazy.
I have seen gaslighting cause personality disorders, depression, anxiety, and a host of other lifelong struggles. Receiving contradictory messages that don’t make sense can shake the very ground that a child walks on.
1. The Double-Bind Parent: This type was first identified by Gregory Bateson in 1956. The double-bind mother has been linked by research to the development of schizophrenia and Borderline Personality Disorder. This type of parent goes back and forth unpredictably between enveloping (perhaps smothering) the child with love and coldly rejecting him.
The Message: You are nothing. You are everything. Nothing is real. You are not real.
The Gaslight Effect: As an adult, you don’t trust yourself, your validity as a human being, your feelings, or your perceptions. Nothing seems real. You stand on shaky ground. You have great difficulty trusting that anyone means what they say. It’s extremely hard to rely on yourself or anyone else.
2. The Unpredictable, Contradictory Parent: Here, your parent might react to the same situation drastically differently at different times or on different days, based on factors that are not visible to you. For example a parent who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs one day and not the next; a parent who is manic at times, and depressed other times, or a parent who is extremely emotionally unstable. Whatever the reason for the parent’s opposing behaviors, you, the innocent child, know only that your parent flies into a rage one moment and is calm and seems normal the next.
The Message: You are on shaky ground. Anything can happen at any time. No one makes sense.
The Gaslight Effect: You don’t trust your own ability to read or understand people; you have difficulty managing and understanding your own emotions, and those of others. You struggle to trust anyone, including yourself.
3. The Appearance-Conscious Family: In these families, style always trumps substance. All must look good, or maybe even perfect, especially when it’s not. There’s little room for the mistakes, pain, or natural human shortcomings of the family members. The emphasis is on presenting the image of the ideal family. Here, you experience a family which appears perfect from the outside, but which is quite imperfect, or even severely dysfunctional, on the inside. This can stem from Achievement / Perfection focused parents (as described in Running on Empty), or from narcissistic parents.
The Message: You must be perfect. Natural human flaws, mistakes, and weaknesses must be hidden and ignored. You are not allowed to be a regular human being.
The Gaslight Effect: You feel deeply ashamed of yourself and your basic humanness. You ignore your own feelings and your own pain because you don’t believe it’s real, or that it matters. You tend to see and focus on only the positive things in your life, which fit into a particular template. You are extremely hard on yourself for making mistakes, or you put them out of your mind and simply pretend they didn’t happen. You may be missing out on the most important parts of life which make it worthwhile: the messy, real world of intimacy, relationships and emotion.
4. The Emotionally Neglectful Family (CEN): In this family, your physical needs may be met just fine. But your emotional needs are ignored. No one notices what the children are feeling. The language of emotion is not used in the home. “Don’t cry,” “Suck it up,” “Don’t be so sensitive,” are frequently uttered by the CEN parent. The most basic, primary part of what makes you you (your emotional self) is treated as a burden or non-existent.
The Message: Your feelings and needs are bad and a burden to others. Keep them hidden. Don’t rely on others, and don’t need anything. You don’t matter.
The Gaslight Effect: You have been trained to deny the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are, your emotions, and you have dutifully pushed them out of sight and out of mind. Now, you live your life with a deeply ingrained feeling that you are missing something that other people have. You feel empty or numb at times. You don’t trust yourself or your judgments because you lack your emotions to guide you. Your connections to others are one-way or lack emotional depth. Even if you are surrounded by people, deep down you feel alone. None of it makes any sense to you.