Gaslighting Is Baked Into the Recipe

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I recently told a friend I was in a phase of low-functioning, and she said: Evan you put the FUN in low functioning.

I sure hope so. Lately I’m finding everything difficult. I’m very on-trend if my TikTok family is any indication. I scream, you scream, we all scream Overwhelm!

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In the midst of this fog, I finally launched a Patreon page.

I’ve been meaning to do this [Googles the launch year for Patreon] since 2013. Given my extensive background in pessimism, I mostly view Patreon as Another Burden to Worry About.

But what I am hoping for is this: To foster radical compassion by gathering a community of support and likeheartedness. I’m not sure why you’re reading this*
*Please tell me. Reply to this message.

…But I hope it is because you are not satisfied with this society and you long for a better one. I believe that a better society is brought about by healthier, happier human beings. I believe the beloved society starts at home.

And so I write this newsletter and I go into the woods with my puppets, and we talk about it. Because we’re trying to change the story.

“The world changes according to the way people see it. If you can alter, even
by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world.”
– James Baldwin

Change the story, change the society.

So, you know, join my Patreon.

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Here’s a fun thing. A dear friend presented me with the most beautiful gift. A framed poster of viewer comments from the Squirrel Dialogues project.

I take such strength from the comments. There’s a whole chorus of voices in me that tells me I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. On the other side of the scale: Fifteen thousand messages of encouragement from TikTok. Sweet messages sent by Venmo supporters. And your own emails and comments to this newsletter. So please, keep them coming.

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Speaking of Patreon, late stage capitalism, and gifts, I have my first merch idea. I want to commission a poster of Squirrel Dialogues in the style of a 1970s movie poster.

See my expert rendering, and a reference image. Like that.

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And now our feature essay brought to you by Radical Nonjudgement.

In our last episode, I talked about my reservations around telling my story, and whether or not I have permission to speak (I do). Here we go.

GASLIGHTING IS BAKED INTO THE RECIPE

I would have preferred that my emotional abuse and neglect was delivered with a clear label. Perhaps if I had been hit, and carried bruises, I’d have known what was happening.

But as it happened, the abuse and neglect I experienced was clothed in suburban normalcy. My father would thunder and rage at me one moment, and then dinner would continue in silence. There was no announcement: THIS PART IS ABUSE.

Likewise, the silence of my mother in those moments at the dinner table was not subtitled: IT IS NEGLECTFUL NOT TO RESPOND TO THIS.

It was not the type of abuse and neglect I heard about in disturbing longform journalism, or the backstories of troubled superheroes. It was a family affair, and no one in the family named it. No one in my community named it. And so I heard the message: This is normal, this is fine.

I’ve been meaning to lookup the etymology of the term gaslighting for some time. And reader, for you, I did. The term arises from the 1944 drama Gaslight, in which a man manipulates his wife into believing she is going insane.

In modern parlance, gaslighting has come to mean: Making someone question their own reality.

The emotional abuse and neglect that I experienced had gaslighting baked into the recipe. The setting of normalcy and upper middle-class privilege in which it occurred served to conceal it in plain sight. The gaslighting was so effective that I did not believe I was being abused at the time and would not think so for thirty years.

During those intervening years, I stumbled through life in the approximation of This Is Fine-ness. I really thought my childhood was basically okay and that I was reasonably well-parented. It followed that I had nothing to complain about, no excuses for my low functioning. It followed that I was given every opportunity, every material need, every privilege, and had failed entirely due to my own personal flaws.

The gaslighting continued for decades as we pretended to be an intact family of people who loved one another (as long as nobody talked about Feelings or The Past).

It took me until my mid-30s to recognize that I’d actually been emotionally abused and neglected as a child.

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I came to this realization through a couple of guides.

Brené Brown’s books made it clear to me that shame ran strong in my family home. I began investigating further, with childhood trauma books like Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (Lindsay Gibson) and Complex PTSD (Pete Walker). And the words of trauma experts like Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, and Gabor Maté. Some of the therapists I have worked with have also reflected to me their dismay at my childhood experiences.

All of this has given me the same uncanny feeling. That strange sensation of seeing yourself described in a book, or a podcast, or on the face of an empathic person. A horrifying, dawning realization that my past was not what I thought it was. And then cascading revelations: My parents are not who I thought they were. And I am not who I thought I was.

Part of the realization was a kind of ecstatic Aha, a true thunderclap revealing. My meandering, frustrated life was not a mystery, and was not my fault. It was in fact a studied phenomenon in the human experience. And what’s more, I was behaving, and suffering, exactly as expected. I’m not so unique, or uniquely awful. I’m just a person carrying a heavy load of trauma from my childhood.

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And yet, I continue to gaslight myself. Because emotional neglect and emotional abuse are much more subtle than some more visible forms of trauma (war, car accident, assault).

We had nice station wagons. I was well fed, clothed, housed, educated. I was yelled at, big deal. And I was never hit. So imagine when I came to the chapter in Complex PTSD entitled: “What If I Was Never Hit?”

This chapter, and the work of Lindsay Gibson, illuminates one of the subtleties of emotional neglect and abuse. The type of people who emotionally neglect and abuse their children can simultaneously be great “providers” of material care. They may excel at feeding, housing, and clothing their children. Furthermore they can be high functioning in society, and appear nice and charismatic in social situations. They can even be kind and attentive to their children in limited circumstances.

And yet these same parents can grievously injure their children through repeated patterns of emotional abuse and neglect. This abuse and neglect happens at the same time as the material care, the careers, and the family Christmas photos.

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The simplest way I can describe an emotionally abusive and neglectful home is that the adults inappropriately use a child to serve their own unmet emotional needs. This is the reverse of how things work in a healthy family. In a healthy family system, the caregivers serve the emotional needs and development of the children.*

*If you need justification for this, I’ll put it this way. No child asks to be born. The parents are 100% responsible for creating a conscious human being. That being is born utterly dependent upon its caregivers for survival. And so the caregivers bear total responsibility for the welfare of that child. If they’re unable or unwilling to meet this responsibility they should not have children.

In an abusive or neglectful home, the caregivers abdicate this responsibility to the point of reversing the situation. The relationship between caregiver and child is centered on the needs of the caregiver. The caregiver is so unwhole that they use the child to regulate their needs, to help make them whole.

As an adult I can now identify humans with these unmet needs. I find them enormously difficult and exhausting to be around.

For a child, though, such a relationship can be crushing, annihilating. Because the child does not have the internal resources to manage the needs of an adult. But they will try, because of their existential need to be in connection with their caregivers.

The child’s universe is very small and is dominated by the suns of their caregivers. A universe without those suns is unimaginable, terrifying. So the child will do anything, will use whatever resource and ingenuity they have, to stay in connection with their caregivers. They will bend beyond breaking, they will obliterate their own needs, their very identity, to please the unpleasable caregiver.

The damage is destructive to life. In a healthy family, essential attachment wiring happens in the first months of life. The child also learns to regulate their emotions and take care of themselves, based on the modeling of their caregivers. These are critical periods. If they are squandered, in some ways, the damage is permanent.

More fundamentally, the child is being taught what life is. In this case, life is suffering. Life is scary. In life, no one will help you, and no one can be trusted, not even those who supposedly love you. So: Life is alone.

Because these lessons are so foundational, so early, so deeply carved into stone, they feel like immutable laws of the universe. They don’t invite questioning in the same way that gravity, or death do not.

And so the child stands on building blocks that look like this:

□I can’t do anything right.

□□I am unlovable.

□□□I am alone.

And becomes an adolescent, an adult, on this shaky ground.

And then, the bill comes due. We see mental health challenges: Depression, anxiety, addiction, self-injury, and self-destruction.

And we simply wait to see when

and how

the child will pay.

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“We’re not questioning whether the parents love them or not. We’re questioning how responsive were the parents able to be, given their own stresses, to the child…We’re not blaming the parents here. Nor are we suggesting or accusing them of not loving their kids.

But when we ask these adults….

Were you ever sad or upset as a child?

Yes.

Who did you talk to?

The answer is gonna be nobody. Or I talked to my friends or maybe my sister.

And the next question is. Well, if you had a child who is sad or upset, who would you want them to talk to?

And that’s when the penny drops. That precisely when it came to sharing their most difficult emotions, they were quite alone. Not because their parents didn’t love them. But because the parents were too traumatized, distracted, distressed, busy themselves. And so when the child is alone with difficult emotions, that’s when trauma happens.”

Gabor Maté on Therapy Chat #79

2 comments

  1. I relate to this alot. 🧡🧡🧡🧡 Definitely interested in some kind of community although the online ones don’t seem to work in my experience. Deep communication is an in the moment, time sensitive experience that includes alot of non verbal. At the same time alot of people like us have so much trauma that attempting intimacy IRL is too triggering. Perhaps we could try to create a hybrid experience?

    Like

    • Yeah this resonates. I’ve had limited success with Zoom connection with the right culture of folks. it is possible to have a pretty deep connection digitally but it takes a lot of container building and shared values.

      Like

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