A culture of gaslightening people into staying with toxic family members

We live in a culture that places family before anything and whilst there is nothing wrong with this, it is wrong when other realities are not considered and denied and when this is valued above an individual’s well-being and their right to cut off or distance themselves from a family member(s) that is toxic.

In my work, I have come across many children that have grown into adults injured by a parent, both or another family member and who already carry guilt and shame that isn’t theirs to bare. I have witnessed the injuries first hand and listened to the challenges and struggles it brings.

Before we begin to explore this further, we need to first understand, what is gas lightening? We need to understand this, because when we silence victims, with, but it’s family! You can’t walk away from family! How can you do that to your family? You must forgiven them…(fill in the blank), what we are doing is gas lightening.

Wikipedia describes it as:  “a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes, including low self-esteem”.

Cognitive dissonance is a term to describe, the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change. An example of this is knowing something is bad for us but still wanting it. Example, knowing smoking is bad for us (cognitive) and then still taking the action to do so (dissonance). Due to the fact certain truths can lead to a feeling of mental discomfort we alternate our thoughts, behaviours, attitudes or beliefs in order to reduce this discomfort and restore balance. Therefore, it is when inconsistency can be found within us and a mental conflict is occurring.

Gaslightening not only as victims question their own judgement and reality but then also has people stuck in the cycle of cognitive dissonance and serve to keep others in their mental prison. To have pain invalidated is a form of violence.

So let’s go on to see what we mean by family, because words such match their meanings and family is more than just the word itself. Words need to be used accurately to have meaning.

What is family?

Family is more than just DNA, blood makes you related but loyalty makes you family. Family doesn’t mean others owe us, we are not bad if we walk away or cut contact with toxic family members even if this is a parent/caregiver or parents/caregivers. We are nobodies possessions and we are not objects.

One needs to earn trust and respect it is not given because someone is simply a parent to us. Relationships are not one sided and love is not being ‘loved’ by what we do rather than who we are. Love isn’t control, family shouldn’t be about being controlled. People don’t get a right to mistreat us and a free pass to do this and get out of jail card because they are ‘family’. Titles need to be earned and people need to represent the meaning of such titles or else it means nothing, blood isn’t always thicker than water. It doesn’t automatically give them a licence to kill. Emotional abuse can and does kill, not being seen, heard kills, isolation which is what this leads too kills, being silenced kills and we need to stop silencing and shaming people.

It takes immense courage and intelligence to break generational patterns and unhealthy cycles. Individuals should be empowered and encouraged to have these rights, they are modelling boundaries and healthy behaviours and self care and taking action to put these in place and have these in place and that’s never wrong. It’s not an easy choice to separate form what is meant to be the people that are our first love object(s). It is excruciatingly painful to accept that we were never loved, protected, wanted, respected by those closest to us, by who was meant to be our everything and who where the blueprint to how we would then see the world, others and ourselves.

Whilst family is important and whilst a  parent and child bond especially with mothers are seen as being unbreakable and strong, the truth is, this is not always the case. Mothers can be toxic and cause harm and destruction to their child/ren with their behaviours. It doesn’t automatically mean a person is good or great because they have given birth. I am not talking about mothers who love their child/ren but suffer from post-natal depression and find it hard to bond with their child and connect, I am not talking about women who have the right not to want a child/ren or like children much but that respect and cause no harm. I am talking about individuals who purposely manipulate and have caused suffering to their child/ren.

Where victims of this, have to grieve a loss of childhood, a loss of a parent(s) they will never have, a loss of their choices, loss of self esteem, loss of self worth, loss of their authentic selves and identity, loss of security and safety.

Where family sees them as the black sheep when they assert their rights for respect, boundaries, to be treated with dignity and where constantly they are forced into conforming and living in fear of judgement or punishment. Where society and people keeps them stuck because they are seen as the bad one for family is everything. Family isn’t disrespect, abuse, manipulation, betrayal, or abandonment (abandonment meaning emotionally not just physically).

I hate how society shames children into staying, loving, forgiving parents that have failed them in ways that were in their control and how this allows that parent(s) to feel like they have done no wrong and never be held accountable and how other family members may support the toxic parent. When said parent(s) fail their own children, and don’t care about the damage they inflict or have. Aspects such as disrespect, lack of support, attention, and protection are silent killers that often accompany victims in their adult lives as wounds and scars. Even with a sad and pathetic sorry, when sorry is said and actions never change, those wounds don’t heal easily and go deep.

Just because you may have had loving parent’s who have died and this is valid pain and heartbreaking no doubts about it, but don’t emotionally blackmail those of us who need to break away from toxic parents by guilting us to forgive or say how lucky we are to still have a parent(s), we never did, and old or not, we don’t owe to protect them because of their age when they didn’t protect us when we were of a vulnerable age or even adults that were not taught to protect ourselves and never were offered protection.

This only fuels self-gaslightening for survivors and only serves to keep them stuck and feeling helpless trapped into this labyrinth of dysfunctional patterns. Survivors should not be expected to tolerate this, to go along with this and enable this, society should not make it so this is being enabled and people who care about us should not ask us to betrayal and sacrifice ourselves and well-being in the name of so called “family”.

The only people we need to love, protect and rescue is ourselves not our toxic parent(s).

This is not to say that everyone must break all ties, this decision is an individual one and each person and situation will be different. Only that person knows what is best for them and can make that decision and they have a right to decide whatever suits them best.

But it does mean that boundaries need to be put in place and if someone’s behaviour isn’t changing or has, then partial or complete separation needs to be placed. If patterns don’t change and are repeated, it is no longer a mistake but part of someone’s chosen behaviour. Nobody can love someone into changing abusive behaviour, because the problem isn’t you. This may mean seeing someone less, having contact in ways that feel safer and total separation if this is needed.

Your psychological, mental, emotional, spiritual, physical well-being is imperative and remember that emotional abuse is just as destructive on it’s own and causes physical damage because there is a direct link with emotions and our bodies and stress and trauma all happen there in our nervous system that is then interlinked to all other systems in our body.

Love doesn’t require us to set ourselves on fire in order to keep who is hurting us warm. Attachment doesn’t equal connection, trauma bonds don’t equal love.

We need to prioritise victims, not shame them, not enable family to continue to be dysfunctional and destructive and not allow them the means to do this and the privilege all because of DNA and the relationship this creates. Nobody chooses their family, but they can chose who is family and who deserves to be in their life or not. Abuse cannot be justified.

Emotional wounds also bleed

Abandonment for a child can feel like the threat of a horrid death or death sentence. Abandonment isn’t limited to parents leaving us as babies, it’s also not being heard or seen by caregivers, its caregivers being emotionally absent and emotionally neglectful which results in us being starved of our emotional needs which are just as important as food and shelter and physical things we need growing up. It can be when we are abused as children for any form of abuse is a form of abandonment. It can be the death of a loved one, the absence of a parent or caregiver, divorce. It can be feeling rejected and experiencing rejection.

In fact, rejection hurts just as much as physical pain because the same area of the brain that reacts to physical pain also reacts to emotional pain and particularly with serious and devastating forms of feeling rejected but also ‘minor’ rejections. The level of the pain is not perceived by the event but how it affects and is interpreted by the receiver, what could feel like a ‘minor’ rejection for one person can be devastating for another. All cause pain and injury. This is why being ignored can cause one of the most painful of feelings.

If negative experiences in childhood from caregivers are experienced and then rejection or betrayals continue from friends and relationships in later life, the wound and injuries only become bigger and bigger and the pain harder to control as it gets more overwhelming and paralysing.

This affects trust, trust in ourselves, the world and others. Once trust is shattered it is hard to give, because even if we want to trust and offer this, we don’t have it, especially if so many people have hurt us and even more if by those closest to us that we were meant to trust and be safe with.

When we are bullied or ignored or ostracised by others or don’t ‘fit’ in, this affects our sense of belonging. It may feel like the whole world is rejecting us. Our self-esteem and worth then gets eroded and we can become punitive and critical of ourselves or find it hard to let love in because we have come to see ourselves as unlovable, unworthy and even defective. We may have been compared to others and if so,  we may have come to believe we are not enough. So now we either shut people out or become people pleasers to gain others approval.

If not treated those wounds stay open and get infected, if we have had to stitch them up ourselves, the stitches might not have been tight enough and so when someone injuries us again the wound rips open and gets infected all over again. This can spread to other areas of our lives and endanger them.

It can result in feelings of inferiority complex where you feel threatened by making yourself vulnerable or of feeling inferior to others especially if this is all one may have ever felt or known. It all stems from not being or feeling safe and if we have never felt safe, how can we know how to feel safe even when we are in a safe situation? We must learn new ways that start with connecting to our bodies for our gut instinct is found in our bodies and this is the radar that keeps us safe and alerts us. Trauma and stress is stored in our bodies and emotions are felt in our bodies so connecting to our bodies is key. Mind, body and soul are interconnected not separate.

Many times, life and people seem to hurt us in the same area, weakening us. A stab wound cannot heal if we keep getting stabbed in the same place.

Our responses can seem like over exaggerations to others, we can be perceived as too sensitive or of having odd reactions but an odd reaction is an old reaction. We are simply being triggered but because emotional injuries are invisible to the human eye and especially in a world that does everything to conceal it and ignore it, including ourselves, it goes unnoticed that someone can be profoundly bleeding (emotionally) whilst looking ‘normal’.

Think of a person who has been physically abused, if someone even gets angry as an innocent response or raises a hand even to say hi, these can trigger a survival response and seen as threats, the person who has been hurt in the past, is programmed to detect danger, they will get ready to defend themselves from the anger, they will see the innocent gesture of a raised hand as one that is about to strike them. Emotional injuries work in the same way and people can react to emotional flashbacks, which means when they emotionally feel a feeling related to having been hurt or abused, they react in the same way as if that threat were immediate and real. These responses are as natural as when we burn ourselves and we immediately retrieve our hand away from what is causing us the threat and pain.

In trauma the part of our brain that detects dangers becomes faulty and is overactive, meaning it will go off like a smoke alarm does, when toast is burned or the house on fire. It will not stop to think as thinking can get us killed, it will just act on what is seen as a threat. Emotionally this can also be what may threaten our ego, such as when in a relationship we may become jealous of our partner’s past lovers. even when we are loved.

Dr. Mario Martinez (also a Biocognition,) states that we can be wounded in three ways: Shame, Abandonment, and Betrayal.

He goes on to say, when your wound is shame, you feel fear, pain, and embarrassment. When your wound is abandonment, you feel fear, pain, and isolation.  When you wound is betrayal, you feel fear, pain, and anger. The healing field for Shame is Honour. The healing field for Abandonment is Commitment. The healing field for Betrayal is Loyalty.

Shame can become toxic and it’s a very powerful emotion to heal from. Shame is when we believe we are defective, shame says: I am bad, I am wrong. Many times, toxic shame is given to us just like low self-esteem is, nobody is born with a poor sense of self or shame. Many times, we have been made to feel this way and we can then take these false beliefs to mean they are the truth and they can then become part of us and in turn we can carry the legacy of abuse of rejection by abandoning and betraying ourselves. Especially in abuse we are programmed to betray ourselves we are made to do this.

Many self defence mechanisms develop for our survival, they served us at some point but later in life no longer do and threaten our very being and relationship with self and others or see us on a path of self-destruction and self-sabotage.

In the book: Healing the scars of Emotional abuse by Gregory L. Jantz PH.D. he perfectly articulates the damaging effects of emotional abuse.

“When you view life as unstable, anxiety, tension and fear result. When you are constantly vigilant to the behaviour of others, hypersensitivity and hostility result. When you learn to second-guess yourself, confusion and feelings of disconnection result. When nothing you do ever seems to be right, insecurity, guilt and shame result. When others tell you that you are always wrong, indecision and inaction result. When you stop having the energy to fight it all, apathy and depression result. When you have finally had it, rage results. When you never seem to receive fairness, justice is all you think about. When you have been hurt by those you love, love is viewed as a risk. When living is painful, addictions are acceptable because they numb the pain. When the mind is a jumble of emotional chaos, the body and its systems break down. When your inner turmoil produces outer stress, your current relationships are endangered. When you can’t control your negative emotions, you become the very person you hate. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that emotional abuse isn’t damaging”.

Emotional pain can be the hardest to heal from. It is felt at the core of our being. We must grieve, we must feel that pain, we must allow ourself this grieving process, let the tears out, let the screams of pain out and facing such soul destroying pain can feel like a threat itself; it can feel like going to war.

Trauma shatters us from within, like the shattering of a glass, sometimes we can glue pieces back or like melted gold we can make something else that is beautiful out of the loss. Either way trauma is a loss and we are changed but that doesn’t mean that we cannot create ourselves again, that we lose our worth or that we are destroyed to the point of no return. It requires us to be born again, like birth it can come with complications and it can feel painful even excruciatingly unbearable but the moment we are born again we can be filled with love for our new selves. During our transformation we have to treat ourselves with the same self-care and love as if we were a pregnant woman. We must be patient and love the new being that is growing within us. We can fall in love with the new us that is given life again and we can treat ourselves with the same love, care, devotion as we would a  new-born child because we are just as valuable, just as worthy for existing and because we can never get back what we lost or the life we should have had, but we can start from now and we can emerge from the ashes. Nobody says it’s easy, but it is possible.

Further reading:

Brain treats rejection same way as physical pain https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/brain-treats-rejection-physical-pain-say-scientists-8884507.html