This is the second part of a series on gaslighting and bullying. To read the first part, click here.
I did an interview with Terra Vance, The Aspergian site founder, who has a background in psychology and trauma spectrum counseling and was formerly the anti-bullying liaison for a city school district.
Here is the interview:
Me: What important difference does gaslighting have from other types of bullying?
Vance: Gaslighting is more sinister than other types of bullying because the bully has what is known as “plausible deniability.” They know how to emotionally manipulate a person, or the people who might be told about the bullying, into believing that they have only good intentions and are just doing what they had to do to help someone who was being unreasonable.
For example, if a child has an abusive parent who knows that beating a child will not be socially acceptable, the parent may do other things to hurt and shame the child: brush the child’s hair too hard, make snide comments about the child’s weight, take away the things the child loves because the child “brought that on themselves.”
They will provoke the child to anger and then use the child’s response against them to make the child seem like a “problem.”
It makes the child seem “crazy” and the parent seem like the victim, and for those who don’t see the full story, they tend to believe the parent.
Bullying is usually thought of as direct and obvious– punching, kicking, stealing, etc.; however, it doesn’t usually work that way in the real world.
The worst bullies are the ones who know how to get away with it.
Me: What signs indicate that you are being gaslighted?
Vance: When you’re being gaslighted, you usually don’t know it at first.
You will find yourself trying to reason with the person who is gaslighting you. You’ll believe that their motives are good because they have an appearance of being reasonable, kind, and fair.
At first, this person might apologize, but the apology won’t feel adequate. It might be more along the lines of apologizing for not wording something the right way instead of apologizing for being unfair. Internally, you’ll go between thinking the person is abusive and wondering if they are right and you really are the one at fault.
Me: What are typical behaviours of the gaslighter? And how does the person being gaslighted respond?
Vance: Gaslighters need to stay in control of the person and of the narrative, or story, they are creating to make sure their imagine remains “pure” or “innocent.” For this to work, they do several things:
1. They choose victims who have some social disadvantage. It will be easier to make someone who is different from the majority, someone who is outcast and doesn’t have a lot of friends, into being the “problem.”
2. They are great actors. They will act offended, surprised, and hurt when someone calls them out on one of their behaviors. When a victim points out a harmful behavior, the gaslighter acts so shocked and so sad that they have been accused.
3. They provoke their victims. A gaslighter needs to make their victim seem helpless and dependent on them, so they will nudge and nudge their victim into exactly the trigger that will set the victim off, then they will use the victim’s response as “proof” that the victim is “crazy” and unreasonable.
This means that the person who is gaslighting is savvy enough to have figured out what will make their victim lose patience, and also savvy enough to know how to twist that reaction into being evidence of the victim being unreasonable.
4. They lie and deny. Gaslighters can’t be successful unless they lie, and they choose their lies to seem reasonable enough to an audience. They will say that they don’t remember something important happening, that the victim never clearly expressed a problem with a certain behavior before, or that the victim simply misinterpreted their intentions.
This often results in the victim being publicly humiliated in some way, perhaps at an event or on social media. At the end of it all, after the victim has “lashed out” in some public way and lost friends or has damaged their reputation, the gaslighter will then make excuses for the victim and appear like the “sane savior” who still accepts the victim despite how “crazy” the victim acted.
Me: How should someone confront a person who is gaslighting?
Vance: Informing a gaslighter that you know you are being abused by them is not going to end well. They do not play by the same rules as their victim and will just gaslight further to get out of it.
Sometimes, people resort to gaslighting because of their own traumas or from growing up in an abusive environment where the behavior was a learned survival technique. Because of this, the gaslighter’s victim might be inclined to empathize with the gaslighter and repeatedly forgive them.
What the victim has to realize is that they will never be able to help the person who gaslights. The best they can do is to show that person how to respect other people’s boundaries by not allowing them to continue to gaslight.
If you know someone else is being gaslighted, telling them directly might backfire. They might feel loyal to their abuser and might not know they are being gaslighted. Instead of directly accusing the abuser, reassure the victim in the situation that they were not being unreasonable or crazy. Tell the person why they were not in the wrong specifically. Tell the person you are willing to be a fair “referee” when they might feel like they are being mistreated.
If you witness gaslighting in the moment, intervene by using logic to explain why the victim is not wrong or unfair without making accusations against the abuser. Social accountability will make the abuser feel motivated to conform to the outside pressure in order to protect their reputation.
Me: Can the person who is being gaslighted start to become more and more similar to the gaslighter, trying to “fix” themselves, basically copying a lot of gaslighter’s characteristics?
Vance: Victims of gaslighting and narcissistic abuse can develop behaviors of their abusers as a survival technique. Feeling they don’t have a clear way to escape, and seeing that they are rewarded by the gaslighter when they “join forces” to manipulate and abuse someone else, might gradually cause the victim to become like the abuser.
When this happens, it’s not a conscious process. The victim has become so dependent on the abuser for intermittent and rare validation that they begin to see their abuser as being their only “hope” of ever belonging.
They’ve been manipulated for so long that they haven’t realized the change is happening. They might find themselves in a group of similar people who control and “rule” over others with those tactics by appearing to be “pure” and “dedicated.”
It can seem unreasonable that a whole group of people are abusive or that an environment is toxic when the stated objective seems virtuous. For example, a group may be very strongly against bigotry, and others may be frequently called out for contributing to and for having internalized biases against a protected class.
Someone’s gut may tell them that this environment seems toxic and abusive, and they may not understand how the person being called a racist/misogynist/homophobic was actually being those things.
If you find yourself in one of those places, it can be hard to know when there is a true dedication to virtues, or when marginalized people are just being used to as a springboard to take control of a group by being the shiniest martyr.
If you’re unsure, then look at the population of the group. Are marginalized groups safe to participate in those groups? Do they make up a substantial portion of the leadership in a group? Are the members diverse?
Also, if you feel that you or anyone else were to challenge– respectfully– the logic and impact of the leadership, do you fear that you will be kicked out, shunned, abused, or dismissed? If you do, then it’s okay to assume the environment is toxic. That is a demonstration that leadership is more concerned with being “right” than “righteous.”
If you know a place will shut anyone down who challenges the leadership, even in a respectful, logical, and constructive way– or if leadership will try to smear the character of the person who offers the challenge, then you can be sure that the group is not actually virtuous but is using a cause to perpetuate abuse.
Me: What types of people are more likely to be gaslighted?
Vance: Autistic people are especially vulnerable to gaslighting. They tend to be naturally fair, honest, and open, so they expect that others are the same. Gaslighters see the autistic profile as being naive and gullible enough to be easily manipulated; furthermore, gaslighters can tell that autistic people often misinterpret or miss social nuances. Being masters of nuance, they see “low hanging fruit” and people who will be easy to socially manipulate.
If the gaslighter can find someone who needs help in interpreting social situations, that presents the abuser with an easy opportunity to be the one who “explains” social situations to cause the victim to need the “wisdom” of the gaslighter. This allows the gaslighter to create whatever narrative they want because the autistic person is typically grateful to have someone explain why social situations didn’t go as they’d hoped.
It creates a cycle of co-dependence, often where the gaslighter arranges scenarios which put the autistic person in social circumstances where they will “fail.”
Me: Should the relationship where gaslighting is happening be ended all together? How can one take control of the situation?
Vance: If someone is gaslighting another person, then I would recommend that the relationship be ended immediately and with no contact allowed in the future.
If that’s not possible, say if the person doing the gaslighting is a teacher/professor, a manager on a job, a roommate with a lease, or a parent to the victim, then the victim needs the outside help of a therapist or a reasonable friend with knowledge about gaslighting who can help them set boundaries to keep the gaslighter from destroying the victim’s self-confidence and self-worth.
Me: Why does one gaslight?
Vance: Gaslighting is always a power move to cause the victim to need and become co-dependent on the “goodness” of the gaslighter. It is a way to make the perpetrator seem like they are taking on a project (the victim) at great personal expense that causes the gaslighter to be a martyr.
This makes the gaslighter look like a savior and the victim to look like a problem. This way, if the victim ever tries to speak out, people already are positioned to dismiss that person as unreliable and unreasonable. It sets the gaslighter up as a hero who takes on the cause of the people who are too difficult for everyone else to handle.
Me: How does one regain confidence after a period of being gaslighted?
Vance: Gaslighting is a social process, and often to find your footing again after you’ve been abused by a gas lighter, one needs to find a safe social context wherein to heal and be validated. This can be a safe therapist, friend, or online support group.
Learning to trust people is difficult after gaslighting, especially if you already have trouble interpreting social cues. These are helpful tips to know who is trustworthy:
1. This person does not make their good deeds public. They just do the right thing because it is the right thing.
2. This person doesn’t seem to “collect” or bring up vulnerabilities and sensitive information about you or others to make a point.
3. This person admits fault and apologizes for being in the wrong when they have unintentionally hurt or offended you.
4. You never feel like this person is playing games with your emotions.
5. This person doesn’t ask for an unfair amount of your time, emotional labor, money, or other resources.
6. This person wouldn’t ever tell your secrets, even if they were angry with you.
7. This person doesn’t attack your character or sanity if you make a mistake.
8. This person doesn’t always highlight your weaknesses or remind you of them.
9. This person helps you when you need it and in a relatively equal amount accepts help from you (note: this equation might be different if one person has a financial advantage, is substantially older, or is in a more stable and safe emotional and physical situation).
10. You are not afraid this person will retaliate or do something harmful to you if you need to take a break or step away for a while.
Learning to Overcome
Bullying is always serious and very hurtful, and it decreases your confidence and sense of self-worth. It makes you doubt yourself and all the amazing things you are and what you’ve done– but it can be worse when you are already dealing with depression, trauma, and self-doubt on a daily basis.
Self-loathing is a flattening emotion, feeling like every cell of your body is being sucked out of you in a black hole.
Loving yourself is a process, and I can’t give you easy advice about how to get there– beacuse as honest as I want this article to be, I still can’t be the person who sends you all those vibes and gives you tips on how to do it.
I am learning, as we all should; but I’ve learned one thing, and that one thing saves me from all those times that I want to drag my self down because I default to hating myself and feeling like I deserve to be hurt.
I know how it totally feels absurd to respect yourself, right at the moment that you are baring your teeth out of anger at yourself and what you are and have done– and doubt about whether or not you’re justified to realize you have been gaslighted.
But for the sake of the person inside you, all the happiness that they brought to you, all the good things that they’ve done for you and others, that warmed your heart and gave you the courage to live life to the fullest, all the smiles that they brought you or your loved ones, or the tears they shed and the lonelinesses that they dragged with themselves when they they had no one– and absolutely no one– to talk to nor even to look to the face of searching for a flake of understanding, or pat on the back– just be that person. Just be.
And be that person for someone else. When they are hating themselves the most, they need you the most, not necessarily to love them, but just to be there for them, respect them, reassure them, and encourage them to not hurt themselves.
A part of respecting yourself is finding safe, loving, and accepting environments. Social media can be cut-throat, but there are also kind and supportive spaces online if you look hard enough.
We have a Facebook group called The Aspergian has an article for that, where you are welcomed to come hang out with our contributors and readers, autistic or not. It’s a warm and friendly community.
Your flaws and imperfections do not make you unlovable– your scars are a testament to how rich your experience has been and a beautiful roadmap to the inner strength that allowed you to survive the tyranny of bullying, gaslighting, and abuse.