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Gaslighting: A Second Trauma

It’s a fearful thing, to question your reality. To feel like no one understands your experience. To go through gaslighting.

Unfortunately, it happens a lot more than we think, and not enough people are aware of the act or its consequences.

Consciously or not, those unsupportive of a survivor or those uneducated about consent often gaslight survivors, undermining their experience and further adding to the trauma of a sexual assault.

What is gaslighting?

Simply defined, gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse “in which information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.”

The term originally came from the 1938 play Gas Light (known as Angel Street in the United States). In the play, a husband targets his wife by making small changes to their environment, and then discredits and manipulates her into believing she is mistaken or delusional when she notices them.

This manipulation is extremely dangerous, especially to survivors of a trauma like sexual assault, who often rely on the trust and support of their network during the healing process. Experiencing gaslighting may cause survivors to feel even more alone, isolated, and unsupported – even by those closest to them.

While a long-term community effort to educate and spread awareness about gaslighting is needed to prevent the act entirely, you can mitigate and address the issue by identifying instances and warning signs, better supporting the survivors of abuse in your life.

Phrases to be wary of

  1. “That never happened.”

This is the most straightforward gaslighting technique: bluntly telling a survivor their experience didn’t happen. This can be common with survivors of sexual assault, who are often told they are just overreacting or that their experience didn’t “actually count” as rape or assault due to their environment, alcohol, or their relationship with their attacker.

These comments can hurt the most when coming from loved ones. A survivor can begin to question their own memory and the validity of their emotions when those closest to them discredit their pain.

This, in turn, feeds the stigma surrounding sexual assault, silences the survivor, and drastically inhibits the healing process.

  1. “You’re just being crazy.”

Sexual assault is a deeply traumatic experience. And like many traumatic experiences, it can come with a variety of emotional responses. While survivors can process in many ways (grappling with fear, panic, anger, and more) there is no “wrong” way to feel. All of these feelings are understandable responses – and survivors don’t owe society any specific reaction. Unfortunately, some people use these normal emotions against the survivor themselves.

Survivors can report, survivors can stay home, survivors can feel all kinds of emotions (or lack thereof) and still have just as valid of an experience.

When non-stereotypical responses are quickly equated to either “acting crazy” or “being fake,” and when the survivor isn’t taken seriously, this can often feel like a second trauma piled on top of the first.

  1. “How could you say that about _____? They’re so nice!”

The blame for sexual assault falls on the attacker, not the survivor. All the same, some might (again, consciously or not) try to look at the story in the attacker’s favor – perhaps because they personally have a good relationship with the attacker, or it doesn’t add up with what they thought they knew about that person.

A frequent example of this can be found in the media whenever a high-profile assault occurs. Multiple headlines memorably referred to Brock Turner as a “successful Stanford swimmer,” even though this had no bearing in the story of him raping an unconscious woman.

Switching the narrative in this way makes the attacker sound like a victim. And when the attacker is painted sympathetically, the survivor of the crime gathers that their pain and experience is not valid in the school or justice system.

Just as with the wife in Gas Light, that twisting of reality can make a person feel even further wronged, confused, helpless, and alone.

How to end gaslighting

  1. Identify it.

The first step in fighting gaslighting is learning to recognize the signs. This is often the hardest, yet most important, step in fighting gaslighting.

Do certain people in your life instantly question your judgement, memory, or the validity of your experiences? Do they say you’re being “too sensitive,” dismiss your emotions, or make you feel guilty about bringing it up? If so, you might be experiencing gaslighting.

A few more common phrases are:

  • “You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
  • “You don’t even know what real abuse is.”
  • “You ruin my night when you talk about this.”
  1. Believe in yourself.

The key act in gaslighting is manipulating the survivor to believe they can’t trust their own memories and emotions. By causing them to doubt themselves, they will stay quiet with their issues and think they’re the ones responsible for their own suffering.

In the end, this only isolates the survivor more, making them unable to reach out to others when they need it most, because they’re so conflicted with themselves.

Once you start recognizing the signs of gaslighting, make a list of these situations. It can be easier to believe your own reality when you see a literal pattern of manipulation and word twisting.

Be gentle and positive. Be compassionate towards yourself and know that the emotions you feel are valid because you are feeling them and your experience is real, and it matters. Remind yourself that your memories are true and your experiences are important.

  1. Take a stand.

If you are emotionally ready, call out people who are unfairly discrediting you. Let them know that they’re not treating you with respect and not giving your assault the seriousness it deserves.

If this is too stressful or taxing, it is also perfectly acceptable to stick with more understanding loved ones until you feel more steady, or seek support with an organization or counselor. There are resources and support groups for survivors in all stages of healing. Remember, you don’t have to fight gaslighting on your own. Personal well-being should always come first.

Many people have experienced gaslighting without realizing it has a name. By being able to identify it, survivors can protect themselves and allies can push back against abusers. Remember to start by believing survivors who confide in you and to support them in any way you can. With a greater awareness and a forward-moving community, unknowing gaslighters might learn the impact of their words and how to speak in a more educated, empathetic way, and all survivors of assault can get the support, understanding, and healing they deserve.

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