Ticket to the Gaslight Circus (Part 1)

I love games. Like, you don’t understand. I love games. I have a wall filled with games. A friend of mine made robust, custom shelving just to hold my board games. For a period, I hosted weekly game nights and had become “the game guy.” My board game acquisition has slowed down significantly now that my disposable income is pretty slim, but my affinity for gaming is as strong as ever.

One of my favorite games of all time is a little card game called “The Resistance.” I like that game so much that I made a custom carrying case out of an old handgun case then stenciled its name on the front. Admittedly, I look pretty suspicious walking around with a gun case prominently labeled “The Resistance.” Anyway, it’s essentially a secret agenda bluffing game. There are two teams: the resistance and the spies. Spies pretend to be resistance members, and if they aren’t found out by the end of the game, the spies win.

Throughout the game, there are various objectives and maneuvers to better speculate who is and is not a spy, but the meat of the game is the social aspect. Spies will spend the entire game lying, cheating, fudging truths, masking their motivations, and accusing innocent parties. Its nefarious and thrilling to be a part of.

My favorite thing to do as a spy is wait until late game and start accusing others of things that never even happened. It is already pretty complicated to keep things straight anyway, but having the extra level of the resistance having to ask, “Did that even happen?” can really seal a win for the spies. You know it has worked when others adopt the fiction you have created. Once that happens, they’re done. Your fiction has become their truth. You pull the strings.

That, dearest readers, is gaslighting.

In a game of deception, it is a fun tool to disorient a narrative and cause a little bit of harmless chaos. In life, it can be devastating which is why most healthy people don’t even think to do it. Master manipulators, compulsive liars, and narcissists make it look like an art form, though. We all tell small lies from time to time. Normal people fudge truths to fit in, to avoid blame, and to avoid embarrassment. Pathological liars are trying to bend and ultimately break reality.

Example: My ex was a cold blooded narcissist and a pathological liar. The evening before I asked for a divorce, she had been preening for hours, and she made a pretty obvious show about how long she was taking gussying up. I already had my suspicions of infidelity; so, I knew even if I asked why she was getting dolled up, it would probably be a lie. Eventually… I cracked and asked her.

Immediately, she turns beet red. It was like someone turned on a rage switch, “Well if you have to know, I was planning a sexy surprise for you tomorrow since therapy has been so hard,” (from her talking about how much she wanted to sleep with other men) “but now you’ve ruined the surprise. Are you happy now?”

By that point, I had figured out what gaslighting was. I knew I was being manipulated, “No, I did not ruin any surprise. I asked what my wife was doing, and you chose to spoil your own plans. You could have said literally anything else, but don’t blame me. You have no right to get mad at me for something I didn’t do.”

She didn’t take that too well. At first, it looked like I fried her brain; I had never stood up to her before.

Gaslighting is used to get the target to start questioning reality. My wife did not have sexy plans for me. She was waiting for me to ask so that she had a cover story for both her fresh get up and for why the sexy surprise wouldn’t be happening. In reality, she was getting pretty for a rendezvous at a hotel near where she worked. It was a tactic to make me feel guilty and for me to not question anything that she was doing in the future.

Imagine if nearly every conversation went this way. Imagine never standing up to those reality shifting accusations. What would that do to you psychologically? What it did to me, and does to so many others, is make me dependent upon my abuser in order to form reality. We begin to defer to them for everything. Their word becomes gospel truth, and we have no way to refute it usually without feeling guilty for looking like a suspicious asshole.

Narcissists know how that dynamic works. They know that the minute we doubt ourselves, they have gained a huge advantage in the game. They also know once we start echoing their new reality for us, they have won.

Gaslighting starts small, usually concerning things one has or has not said. For example, your friend or partner may ask you to pick up some milk at the store. You do the little favor, but upon returning home you are reprimanded for getting 2% instead of 1%. They may tell you that they have said over and over that they don’t drink 2%. What do you say in a situation like that? You could say, “I remember you drinking 2% last week” because you clearly recall that happening, but this will do you no good. It is as easy as them saying, “No! I never drink 2%! Do you think you know what I like better than me now? You are always putting words in my mouth!”

Now you feel bad, and you wonder if your memory was correct. You feel like a huge jerk for trying to argue with them over their opinion on something as silly as milk. Maybe you are controlling. Maybe you are a monster. You don’t want to be a monster…. they must be right?

Right?

Wrong. Fucking wrong.

Gaslighting is nefarious. People literally lose touch with reality. They disassociate. They may fall into depression because of how disconnected they feel. The motto of a gaslight survivor is, “They made me feel crazy.” I can attest to this first hand. In the previously mentioned story, I stepped out of the gaslight for the first time, and everything unraveled almost immediately. That’s no coincidence. Within the next 10 hours, she was already caught, and the divorce proceedings had begun.

It took me months to reassemble the past four years correctly in my mind. I can’t tell you how many tearful calls I made to people like my brother, Mr. Hamilton, gasping for air and repeating, “I don’t know what is real… I don’t know what is real… I don’t know what is real.”

Long exposure to gaslight can utterly destroy one’s personal psychology. That’s no hyperbole. The odds are already stacked against well-meaning people because we usually don’t assume people intend to lie to us. We don’t think our spouse or friend or coworker is trying to orchestrate our lives around their whims.

That little touch of naïveté that healthy minds practice is the ticket into the gaslight circus, where all the games are rigged and you are unknowingly the main attraction.

How do we spot gaslighting, then? My friend recently posted something on her Instagram about this topic, which inspired me to finally breach the subject. I’d like to steal some of her points for spotting this malicious strategy, because she really hits the nail on the head:

  • They resist your attempts to make boundaries.
  • You feel like something is wrong in the relationship, but you don’t know what.
  • You feel like you can’t be yourself around that person without conflict.
  • You feel like your natural traits are inherently flawed.
  • They frequently point out your missteps and expect a guilty apology, while never actually apologizing for anything themselves.
  • If they do say, “I’m sorry,” it is followed with a reason of why you or someone else “made” them do what they did.
  • You are terrified to disagree or upset them
  • They will tell you how you will feel before they do something that will hurt you (Example: “I know you won’t like this, but I…”)
  • They highlight negative qualities about yourself, real or imagined, that are not constructive.
  • They expect constant approval or validation.
  • You feel exhausted and generally miserable when you are around them, but feel guilty if you aren’t around them.
  • You are accused of actions they have done or are currently doing.
  • You are told your memory and feelings are wrong.
  • You are accused of being “controlling” and “a doormat.”
  • You are blamed for their failures or unrealistic expectations.

This article is a lot. So, I want to end things here, if that is all fine and good with you lovely people. In part 2 I will talk about some ways to combat these narcissistic games and hopefully find an escape from the gaslight circus if you find yourself already caught inside.

It’s time to take the ring leader down.

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