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Gas-Lighting: Removing a Myth First

Art by Ariana Nouri

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,

Thank you for submitting such an intriguing question. I read the article in which the author explains the term “gas-lighting.” This is termed after a movie by the same name, in which a husband manipulates the living environment of his wife. When his wife reacts to them, he tells her she’s seeing things that are not real. His objective is to convince his wife that she is crazy.

Of course, the movie, although I have not seen it, must be using a lot of drama and exaggeration.  However, the name gas-lighting remains and is commonly used to describe situations in which one person’s reality is altered by the way the people around him/her treat that person. I do not think it’s only done to women. I think it can be done to either sex.

Unfortunately, it is easier than we’d ever like to believe to manipulate someone into questioning his or her own reality. I see it in my job all the time. Most of the time, the manipulator is not even aware that he or she is doing this. I believe it is mostly used in defense when someone is called out on something wrong he or she has done.

In order to answer your question fully, I would like to first address a very serious myth in this article. I will write another article shortly which will address how to know if you are the victim of gas-lighting, and what to do about it.

The myth that we must address is the concept that other people have control over your emotions, can tell you how you “should” or “shouldn’t” feel, or can “make” you feel a certain way.

To address the first part of the myth, imagine this scenario: a patient comes into my office and tells me that he has been depressed for over twenty years, and can remember three distinct times in his life when he wished he was dead. He even contemplated how he would kill himself a couple of times. I spend an hour listening to him and then tell him he “shouldn’t” be depressed and that there is no reason for him to ever feel hopeless or suicidal. He responds with:

“Oh my gosh doctor, thank you so much! It never occurred to me that I should feel differently. I owe you my life!”

Then he goes off and lives happily ever after. I know this story is absurd. It’s meant to be in order to make the point of how utterly useless it is to tell someone how he or she should or should not feel.

Always remember this: you are not responsible for how you feel. Our feelings come up as they do because of who we are and all of our experiences in the past. Given the same situation, different people will have different feelings. None of the various feelings are inappropriate or wrong. They are just feelings. You are, however, responsible for how you act on your feelings. I will talk more about that in the second article on this subject.

To address the second part of the myth, which has to do with believing that people can “make” you feel a certain way, again I’ll use a scenario. For the sake of making the story easy to follow, I’ll refer to your partner as if he is male.

You are sitting at home after an average day’s work, and your partner comes home and surprises you with two tickets for spending a week in Venice, Italy. In response to this, you may have any or a combination of the following feelings:

Ecstatic: You love Venice. You’ve never been there before but it’s been your life long dream to go, and even though you never shared your dream with your partner, he instinctively knew!

Worried: Even though you love Venice, you know that you two have been struggling financially recently, and you worry that your partner just dug you in deeper in debt.

Angry: You have lived in the same area where you were born your entire life because you have an intense fear of flying. How on earth does your partner envision you flying all the way to Venice without dying of a heart attack on the plane?

Annoyed: Your partner always seems to make the travel decisions without you. Didn’t he know that you have no vacation days left this year, and you want to spend next year’s vacation time to go visit your dying grandmother?

Terrified: When you were a child you watched someone drown in the local community pool, and since then any large body of water frightens you.

All of the above feelings are legitimate. There are countless other feelings you may have too, in addition to all of the above. Realize that your partner didn’t “make” you have any of these feelings. Your partner simply performed an act, in response to which, you developed certain feelings, based on who you are and your life experiences.

Trust me, if we could make people feel a certain way, then I could make all my patients feel happy and go home satisfied with a good day’s work.

The point of this article is to stress to you that the only person who owns your feelings is YOU. Other people can lead you to feeling one way or the other, but in every case, you are the one experiencing the feelings. No one can tell you whether or not you “should” feel that way, and no one can “make” you feel the way you do.

A large part of gas-lighting is exactly based on this myth. You hear parents telling their kids they shouldn’t be upset or shouldn’t cry. You hear people telling each other they shouldn’t be this angry or this sad, etc. On the other hand, you hear people telling others things such as “oh you make me so angry,” or “I can’t be happy without you.” My all time favorite is when a parent abuses a child and follows it with “see what you made me do!”

The trick to removing the myth is to be aware of it. Next time someone tells you how you should feel, be aware of it, and tell them you feel how you feel and their statement does not help you one bit. Also, next time someone “makes” you happy, or angry, or scared, pause and take responsibility for you feelings. Don’t put the responsibility on the other person.

In the next article, I will address the subject of people telling you how you should or shouldn’t ACT.

Sayeh Beheshti, M.D.