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Dear Doctor Life Advice,
I just read a very interesting article on the concept of “gas-lighting.” This article is written by Yashar Ali on his blog, and is titled “A Message to Women from a Man: You are NOT ‘Crazy’”.
This is a very new concept to me and I actually think it directly pertains to me. After reading it, I think I may be a victim of consistent unintentional gas-lighting. First, is it ever appropriate to tell someone they are overreacting? If so, then how should he/she address the issue? How do I know for sure if I am a victim of “gas-lighting” and if so, how do I confront the person and then move forward?
Dear Potential Victim,
In the other post, titled “Gas-Lighting: Removing a Myth First”, I talked about how your feelings are what they are. In this post, I will talk about your questions more specifically.
“Is it ever appropriate to tell someone he or she is overreacting? If so, then how should he or she address the issue?”
The simple answer is no. In fact, never. However, this greatly depends on how the person is reacting. As you can tell by now, I love to use potential scenarios to make my point. So here goes a fictional scenario, and potential reactions to it: You are sitting at a restaurant in a Mall, waiting for your friend to arrive for your lunch date. She is over two hours late. You’d be worried, except that this is the pattern of your friend’s behavior. She has no concept of time, and if you bring up the issue with her, she laughs it off and tells you she’s “chronically late.” Finally your friend waltzes into the restaurant carrying 3 very large and very full shopping bags. Your reaction may be one of countless ways. I’m listing a few possible reactions below:
- You calmly reach into your bag, take out your concealed weapon, shoot her 4 times in the chest, and begin to walk out of the restaurant. On your way out, for good measure you shoot the manager and your waiter too.
- You knock the table over, make a scene, and get into a physical altercation with your friend.
- You bring up the issue again with your friend, and as she tries to laugh it off, you tell her you find her behavior unacceptable and walk out of the restaurant. Notice that depending on who you are, your tone of voice in this conversation can range anywhere from screaming to calmly speaking.
- You burst into tears and tell her you can’t stand her inconsiderate and utter lack of respect for your time. Again, you may do this in any tone of voice.
- You jump up and hug her and you begin lunch because you couldn’t care less how late she was. You had been immersed in the book you were reading and snacking on the bread and butter the whole time.
- You tell your friend in your tone of choosing how irritated and angry you are with her, you walk out, and you never speak to her again.
- You remain irritated with your friend but you don’t say anything. Next time you have an important meeting with her, you conveniently forget to show up.
- None of the above ever happened because you walked out after waiting 15 minutes, which is your maximum wait time.
The reason I am using these examples is to demonstrate that although you are not responsible for how you feel, you are absolutely responsible for how you act. If you are the psychopath in the first example, you will probably be imprisoned for life. If you are the person with serious anger management issues in the second example, you need immediate and intensive help.
Fortunately, the large majority of us are not psychopaths and do not have serious anger management issues. Most people would react in ways other than the first two examples. Notice that none of the other examples are “over-reacting” depending on who you are. You are simply acting based on your personality. If your friend does not like how you are acting, she can tell you that. Telling you she is uncomfortable with your crying, or the tone of your voice, or however else you’re acting is VERY different from accusing you of “over-reacting.” In one case, your friend is communicating with you her reaction to your behavior and feelings. In the other case, your friend is exonerating herself of all responsibility and accountability, and is telling you the problem is all with how you are acting.
People usually like to blame others of “over-reacting” because it is a defense mechanism. It is much easier for them to blame the other party for being in the wrong, rather than admitting that they have actually done something inconsiderate or made a mistake. The more fragile the ego of a person, the more likely he or she is to deflect blame and put it on the other person. Also, how you act will directly affect how defensive your friend may feel. For example, your friend would feel less defensive if you calmly communicated that you feel her behavior is inconsiderate towards you, and more defensive if you yelled at her and called her an “inconsiderate scum of the earth.”
Either way, your friend can respond by telling you her feelings and opinions. She may tell you that she feels defensive because of the way you’re talking to her. She may tell you that she’s sorry and she never realized you’d see her that way. On the other hand, she may argue that she finds it completely acceptable to be over two hours late to a date, and that she disagrees with your opinion. All of these, as well as other forms of communication focused on how your friend feels and thinks are acceptable. It is not acceptable, however, for her to tell you that you’re acting “weird,” or to “get over it already,” or that “you’re so sensitive,” or a million other accusations that put it all back on you.
How do I know for sure if I am a victim of “gas-lighting” and if so, how do I confront the person and then move forward?
That’s easy. Anytime a person points the finger at you and tells you that it’s all your problem, that your reality is somehow distorted, or that no one else would react the way you would, they are “gas-lighting” you. You need to pay attention to your feelings and notice how the responsibility and accountability is being placed entirely on you. Sometimes, you won’t know right away, and only later realize that this happened to you. You also need to watch how you communicate your feelings and thoughts to other people. Notice the huge difference between the two statements below:
“When you do XYZ, I feel so angy.”
Here, you are communicating how you as an individual feel in response to something. You are simply stating your feelings. There is no blame placed on anyone. This is a simple statement of fact.
“You make me so angry when you do XYZ.”
Here, you are accusing the other person of making you angry. You are placing blame on the other person. You are telling the other person they’ve done something bad.
If you believe you’re a victim of “gas-lighting,” it’s really easy to confront the other person and move forward. Unlike the movie after which this phenomenon is named, in most cases the person doing the gas-lighting is completely unaware of it. The first step is to always be your own advocate. Validate your feelings for yourself (“I AM angry, no matter what she says”). Then communicate this. For example, you can say “I understand that you would feel differently if you were in my position, and I still feel the way I do.” The other person may try to talk you out of your feelings. You simply tell them that your feelings cannot be altered by trying to talk you out of them. Tell the other person something along these lines: “you don’t have to understand why I feel the way I do, you only need to know that when put in this situation, I feel this way.”
This will open your dialogue with your “gas-lighter.” In the example of the lunch date, you and your friend may have a frank discussion about your reactions to each other. On one extreme, you may decide that your feelings are so different that you cannot maintain your friendship, and end it right there. On the other extreme, you may agree that waiting for her indefinitely is worth her friendship, or she may agree never to be late again. The resolution will most likely be somewhere in the middle, such as agreeing that you will only wait for 15 minutes every time you have a date, and then you will leave, or that she will call you if she’s running late. There are hundreds of ways to resolve any issue with proper communication. Shutting down the communication by placing the entire blame on one person is never the right answer.