Guest blog by AnnabelleW, SMART Recovery Online Facilitator
The word “gaslighting” frequently creeps into Family & Friends meetings. A participant might share that their Loved One says “I didn’t say that I was going to go to a SMART meeting,” or “Of course I haven’t slipped back into my old addictive ways,” or “You got the time wrong, again.” All of which serves to make the participant doubt their perceptions and maybe even their sanity – classic gaslighting (reminiscent of the wonderful 1944 movie Gaslight).
So, what can we do, as Family & Friends (F&F), when our Loved One (LO) seems to want us to second-guess ourselves and our judgment? We can, of course, turn to what we learn in F&F meetings and the Handbook:
Safety and Support (F&F Handbook, Section 8)
We can make sure that our support network is strong. We might confide in a therapist or a close friend, and we could attend a F&F meeting. We can, in these ways, find people who help to reassure us that we are still lucid and clear headed. People who gaslight us thrive on our doubts – our support plans can help us to be strong in the face of criticism and manipulation.
Self-Care (Section 2)
Self-care might include deep breathing, taking a walk outside, meditation or even cooking a good meal – whatever helps to distance us for a while from our anxiety about our LO. By working on our self-care, we can build up some physical and mental defenses, we will be less vulnerable, and we might become more independent and better able to act if our LO is trying to control us.
ABC Tool (Sections 4 & 5)
If our LO is gaslighting us, we might sometimes think: “I am dumb. I always get things wrong. I am going crazy.”
The ABC Tool helps us to question our thoughts and beliefs, so that we can ask ourselves: “Am I dumb, or am I an intelligent, rational person? Do I always get things wrong, or do I often get things right? Is my sanity really in question?”
Using the ABC Tool, we can then move on to more helpful beliefs: “I sometimes make mistakes, but most of the time my perceptions are correct and reliable. I am a level-headed human being, with good judgment. I can attend F&F meetings/talk to a therapist/talk to a friend and I can work on the F&F tools to deal with this situation.”
The ABC Tool can help us to be more confident in our ability to read situations, and we might, finally, be able to stop walking on eggshells.
Positive Communication (Section 6)
Grammie, one of the original SMART F&F online facilitators, suggests that we might consider gaslighting to be an extreme form of lying, and she points to a useful blog on the Center for Motivation and Change website: https://motivationandchange.com/how-to-talk-when-you-think-theyre-lying/
In this blog, Dr. Josh King examines why our LOs lie – because of guilt and shame, and because they want to try to keep the relationship running smoothly. He goes on to suggest that if we focus on the lie, we might be moving away from our “end goal of trying to support positive behavior change.”
In order to avoid focusing on the lie, and to talk past the gaslighting, we can turn to the PIUS Model of Communication. In the example below, our LO has started to tell us when they will be coming home, so we want to acknowledge that. However, we know that our LO did not tell us the truth about where they were last night. Grammie suggests that we might say the following:
“You have been doing a great job of telling me when you are coming home. It helps relieve my anxiety a lot. Thank you.”
“I’ve been judgmental in the past about so many things, and I’m working hard on trying to be more accepting and trying to deal with my fear and anxiety.”
“I understand that you find it difficult to tell me things because you think that I will get upset or judge you.”
“I hope in the future that both of us will be able to talk more openly about our situation, and that I can show you that I want to better understand your struggle and be here for you.”
In these few sentences, we have opened up our lines of communication with our LO in a positive, calm way. Notice that the PIUS conversation above does not include our saying “you lied last night”. Saying this might make us temporarily feel better, but would it help our communication with our LO? Would it help our relationship with our LO?
So, the good news is that if our LO engages in gaslighting, we do not have to remain mired in self-doubt – we can attend F&F meetings for support, and we can look to our F&F handbook for the tools we can use.
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