I came across the term ‘gaslighting’ the other day, and I immediately grasped its practical application to everyday life. (Very similar reaction, in fact, to hearing the word ‘mansplaining‘ for the first time recently!) But I digress. The concept of gaslighting may ring bells for any woman who has been misdiagnosed in mid-heart attack, patted on the head and sent home from the E.R. in abject embarrassment.
I learned about gaslighting from Yashar Ali, a Los Angeles-based columnist whose writing is showcased on The Current Conscience. Here’s an excerpt:
“This mental health term comes from the 1944 MGM film, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. Bergman’s husband in the film, played by Charles Boyer, wants to get his hands on her jewelry. He realizes he can accomplish this by having her certified as insane and committed to a mental institution. To pull off this task, he intentionally sets the gaslights in their home to flicker on and off, and every time Bergman’s character reacts to it, he tells her she’s just seeing things.”
Charles Boyer’s dastardly attempts at gaslighting poor Ingrid were both deliberate and pre-meditated.
But gaslighting is not always so, which according to Ali, just makes it worse. And all of us, especially women, have dealt with gaslighting at one time or another.
“Those who engage in gaslighting create a reaction – whether it’s anger, frustration, embarrassment - in the person they are speaking to. Then, when that person reacts, the gaslighter makes them feel uncomfortable and insecure by behaving as if their feelings are not rational or normal.”
Gaslighting can be as simple as someone smirking at you and saying something like:
- “You’re too sensitive!”
- “You’re so emotional!”
- “You’re defensive!”
- “You’re overreacting!”
- “Calm down!”
- “Just relax!”
Such responses, writes Ali, may seem innocuous enough, but in that moment, the speaker is making a judgment about how someone else should feel. And, worse, that judgement can render some women emotionally mute.
When women receive pushback like this to our own reactions, we might just brush it off: Forget it! It’s okay.
But that Forget it! isn’t just about dismissing a thought, warns Ali. It is about self-dismissal.
You too might be doing the “Gaslight Tango“ (as described by Dr. Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect: Don’t Be Afraid To Speak Your Truth) if:
1. you are constantly second-guessing yourself
2. you frequently ask yourself: “Am I too sensitive?”
3. you often feel confused and even crazy
4. you apologize – a lot
5. you can’t understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren’t happier
6. you frequently make excuses for the comments or behaviour of others
7. you find yourself withholding information so you don’t have to explain or make excuses
8. you know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself
9. you have trouble making simple decisions
10. you have the sense that you used to be a very different person.
Now consider, for example, the disturbingly common scenario of women who are misdiagnosed and sent home from the E.R. in mid-heart attack.
(This, by the way, happened to me, and it happens far more frequently than you might ever guess: when the New England Journal of Medicine reported on a study of over 10,000 heart patients, 48% of them women, findings suggested that women under age 55 are SEVEN TIMES more likely than their male counterparts to be misdiagnosed in mid-heart attack and sent home. The consequences of this were enormous: being sent away from the hospital doubled the chances of dying).
Anyway, back to the E.R.
So you show up at the hospital, overwhelmed by frightening physical symptoms that may (Oh, no, please God, no!) be related to a heart attack. It’s actually taken a lot just to get you this far, after trying for much too long already to ignore or deny your increasingly debilitating symptoms.
But the E.R. physician tells you that your cardiac tests are all fine, that you’re merely just experiencing ____ (fill in the blank here: anxiety, stress, menopause, indigestion) and that your symptoms are clearly NOT heart-related at all. Goodbye and have a nice life!
What do you do? If you stand up to the doc’s confident dismissal, then you surely run the risk of reinforcing that anxiety misdiagnosis. Patient is anxious.
When you politely question his diagnosis, the doctor sighs, one of those quietly exasperated oh-no-not-another-one-here-we-go-again-let’s-just-get-this-over-with sighs.
But you know your body. You know when something is just not right. You know what anxiety or stress or menopause or indigestion feel like – and you know that this is none of those. Do you repeat your insistence that your symptoms must be taken seriously? Patient is agitated.
The E.R. doc now begins to repeat what he’s already told you, very s-l-o-w-l-y this time as if you are a difficult or dull-witted child. You realize as he’s talking, of course, that the more you try to stand your ground, the more your affect will actually reinforce what he’s already written on your chart. You do know how this looks. Patient is uncooperative.
Besides, by now you are acutely aware that the E.R. waiting room is filled with bleeding-crying-injured-vomiting sick people, and this doctor has many far more urgent cases to see tonight. He is ready to snap your chart shut right now and move on to the person in the next bed. You can sense this. Patient is attention-seeking.
Maybe this doctor is right.
Maybe you are just feeling a bit anxious after all.
Maybe you are indeed overreacting, just as the doctor has implied.
Maybe you should just climb down off that gurney, thank the E.R. staff, and go straight home now, albeit embarrassed and humiliated that you have made such a big fuss over nothing.
Earth to all those working in emergency medicine:
Many people who fear they are having a heart attack may very well appear anxious, agitated, uncooperative and attention-seeking – particularly when faced with a response that sounds something like: There’s nothing wrong with you, dear.
Nothing – allow me to repeat that – NOTHING is more anxiety-producing than fearing you might be in the middle of a cardiac event.
Ingrid Bergman got off easy with her gaslighting. At least she wasn’t having a heart attack . . .
© 2011 Carolyn Thomas – Heart Sisters www.myheartsisters.org
See also: “The Concept of ‘Mansplaining’ Explained for You“