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Exposed: Family Alcoholism and the Gaslighting Phenomena

Stott’s stomach was in knots. Lately, it was like that most of the time. He could never be good enough. Everything was always his fault. Just this week, there had been two “reality warp” situations already.

Tina, Scott’s wife, yelled at him for paying their electric bill a week late. (He’d written the check and gotten it ready to send. Tina said she would put it in the mailbox, but didn’t. Of course, she convinced Scott she’d asked him to mail it.)

Two days later, Tina blew up and tore into him in front of his sister. This time, Scott had put the lawn mower in the “wrong” spot; she tripped over it and dropped the groceries. (He could have sworn he put the lawn mower in the same spot as always, but decided he must have been wrong.) When his sister mentioned that Tina seemed to be over-dramatic and accusatory, Scott lied and said she was just having a rare rough day, downplaying the scene.

Scott is being “gaslighted” by his wife.

What’s Going on Here?

Gaslighting is “psychological abuse whereby a perpetrator manipulates a victim into doubting his or her own sanity or reality.” The perpetrator is frequently “withholding factual information from, and/or providing false information to, the victim – having the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception.” Victims are filled with self-doubt and often feel confused about what’s going on.

Scott grew up in a household dominated by alcoholism. His childhood was filled with self-doubt, constant attempts to hide his true feelings and frequent lies to cover up his father’s actions. All of these scenarios prime a person to be gaslighted as an adult; they make adult children of alcoholics perfect targets for gaslighting. The dysfunction of Scott’s childhood is now playing out in a slightly different way in his adult marriage.

Watch for the Signs

Since it is easy for adult children of alcoholics to fall into this unhealthy pattern, it is important to be aware of signs that they are being gaslighted. Watch for the following L.I.G.H.T.S.

  • (L)ying for No Reason: You’re so worried about making the other person angry, you lie or cover things up…even when there is no reason for it. You haven’t done anything wrong, yet you still feel the need to lie – you avoid rocking the boat.
  • (I)nstinct Erosion: With a gaslighter constantly trying to reshape reality, your ability to think critically is diminished. Your instincts begin to erode and you actually start believing the new reality a gaslighter is creates for you.
  • (G)uessing and Second-Guessing: You start to wonder if you are the one who is too sensitive. You wonder if things really were your fault. Scott did put the mower back in the same spot and his wife did say she would mail the bill, but he second-guessed these realities.
  • (H)ypervigilance: You are constantly on pins and needles. You want to do everything “right” so they won’t be angry or accuse you of messing up. You try to remain hyper-alert so you’re ready for trouble.
  • (T)ruth-Hiding: You don’t want others to know what’s going on, so you downplay the truth. Scott made an excuse that his wife was simply having a bad day, when in reality, the scene his sister witnessed was a typical day.
  • (S)elf-Defense: You find yourself defending thoughts and actions that didn’t occur. Sometimes, entire arguments are based on things the gaslighter is convinced you were thinking, not things you actually said. Your motives are questioned. Your actions are twisted. Things are made out to be your fault that couldn’t possibly be. And you are constantly defending yourself or apologizing for things you didn’t do or say.
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