Gaslighting

Hateful. Full of hate. Malicious. It’s a strong word to throw at someone. It’s even stronger when it comes from your family. It’s the word my family uses to describe anyone who expresses anger, hurt, or discontent.

My mother had a volatile personality. She experienced strong emotions quickly. She would think a person was great one minute and drop them the next. I had three stepfathers in three years. She would think a man was great, until he wasn’t. It took me several years and a bit of therapy to figure out that she likely suffered from a mild form of borderline personality disorder.

Many adults who suffer from borderline personality disorder suffered some sort of trauma in childhood. I certainly don’t know everything that went on during my mother’s childhood, but this explanation just never made sense to me. It took many years and some unrelated family drama to finally show me that her family gaslighted her for years. She was never allowed to express anger or pain in a healthy way. She commented to me many times that when she was young and upset, her mother would say to her: You don’t feel that way.

I am seeing it all now as an adult, as a result of something my cousin recently experienced. My cousin is gay, and he grew up in the deep south, in a family rooted in confederate pride and racist attitudes. His parents went through a bitter divorce and custody battle when he and his brothers were young, and he spent a lot of nights at our house during his middle school and high school years. He has become like a brother to me. His family has known he’s gay for 25 years. He has never hidden this and has brought his partner to visit many times. He has invited his father and brothers into his life and shown an interest in their lives. In all that time, they never visited him once and rarely called him. He was made to feel unwanted when he asked to stay at his father’s house for family visits. Over the past couple of years, my cousin has finally had enough.

He has become angry and explosive. He has posted publicly on social media about feeling “less than” his brothers. His family has been angry about the posts but has refused to acknowledge what was behind them. My grandmother has told him it’s all in his head and that he needs to get along with everyone. His brothers deny that he has been treated differently. His father and stepmother believe that he is just saying hateful things. That is the word everyone is using: hateful.

While it may not be gaslighting in the deliberate sense that is practiced by abusers and cult leaders, it seems to have become the way this family operates. Years of not dealing with emotions in a healthy way has led everyone to question anyone who does not follow the family policy and pretend everything is fine. Anyone who dares to get angry about this is “hateful.” It’s a way of shutting the other person down.

There is a difference between being hateful and being angry. Being hateful means you are trying to cause harm. Being angry means you are upset and hurt, and you may act out in ways that are not healthy because of this. The question is: What do you do when your family shuts you down and refuses to acknowledge your pain?

It may be time to let go. They have their version of the truth, and you can never change that. Maybe the best thing you can do is move forward with your truth and live your life in a way that doesn’t bring out the worst in you. Focus on those people who bring out the best in you. This isn’t easy, and it takes a long time, but the healing will come eventually.