Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes, including low self-esteem. Using denial, misdirection, contradiction, and misinformation, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s beliefs.
Now, Gaslighting is particularly nasty form of abuse. It’s NOT fun. It’s also a lot more common than most people realize, and something many people engage in, possibly without being aware of precisely what they’re doing, but probably aware of it getting them their ends.
A current example of this would be the whole ‘white guilt/ institutional racism/critical race theory’ hysteria, where the target group has been, via such things as the 1619 project covertly sowed disinformation (which historians say not accurate, and even the NYT has backed away from the historical accuracy of) to doubt their own memory, perceptions and indeed judgement. It’s certainly intended to lower the victims’ self-esteem and lead them into cognitive dissonance. ‘Mostly peaceful’ dissonance, as the media puts it.
You know, there’s a simple empirical test for what the actual reality in this is, a test proven by hundreds of millions of people, repeatedly, over millennia: no group voluntarily moves towards worse conditions, where possible, groups – not just individuals but substantive numbers of that group, and always those who can – the wealthy, skilled, qualified — will leave persecution, and settle in the best they can get without that, or at least less persecution. Ask the Jews.
A friend, Julie Pascal, once illustrated it far better than Wikipedia did. I’m going to sort of paraphrase and expand her illustration. I am sure she did it better. A young boy acquires a new stepmother, and moves to a new house. He wants nothing more than to loved and accepted (this is important). On the first day he leaves his bedroom and walks through to the living room. His new step-mother screams at him “You bad child! How dare you! You walked on the cracks on the floor!”
Now, the boy had no idea he wasn’t to walk on the cracks. But he is contrite. He wants to be loved and accepted, remember. He apologizes, asks if he can fix it or do anything to make up for it.
And he is very careful not walk on the cracks. Only one problem… he can’t see any cracks. He is foolish enough to say so, and gets screamed at again. So he spends his time trying to avoid something he can’t see… that he’s eternally in trouble for standing on, and desperately trying to appease.
There are no cracks. Even if there were, she neither cares nor would it make any difference if he stood on them. And no matter how he tried, he could not ever win her good graces. The entire point is have the poor child desperately trying to appease, do anything he possibly can for her. That’s what she wants, nothing to do with cracks. If he could levitate – she’d change the rules. It’s the abuser’s game of Calvinball, that you can’t win.
If you play, that is. Realistically, if the kid hadn’t cared and hadn’t wanted acceptance and been desperate to please and appease, well, it wouldn’t have worked.
So: how does this all tie into writing: Oddly, quite positively to some extent – for me at least. I’m not going to play Calvinball, and the various abusers gas-lighting all the writers and Cons so desperate to please and appease them… well, that’s their problem. One can, by the way, always tell the difference between gaslight and some genuine problem which can be resolved. Genuine problems don’t have moving goal-posts, people are eager and willing to show you in detail what they are, not vague accusations and demands ready to be moved. The complainants want solutions and resolution, not continuation and it is a norm for both sides make genuine compromises, and concessions… from both sides (not I have demanded 100% of x and give you nothing, but will settle – today, for 50% and tell you that’s a concession. And next week I want the rest. I’ll take 50% of what is left again… and tell you that’s concession, and so on.)
How it worked for me… and I was indeed desperate to please and appease, and had no idea where the cracks were. I couldn’t even see them. You see… I had my first book accepted, bought. My editor – whether on purpose or simply as an accident, gaslighted me incredibly effectively. He told me it was nearly a great book, ready for publication. It just need some improvement in places.
I had, obviously, polished that book before submitting it. Polished and polished again. I was more than willing to believe I need to fix some areas, but I seriously couldn’t see those cracks in the floor. So I asked where they were. I didn’t get screamed at, but I got: ‘I can’t remember, you look.’
So I did. I read each sentence from the back of the book, to pick up errors. I picked through every line, every paragraph, every word and polished. And resubmitted. And got ‘a bit better, nearly there.’ This went on for several iterations. And on what proved to be the last one… I accidentally sent the same draft back, not the latest. It was entirely an accident, but I was told it was now right. And then I realized I’d sent the wrong one… but I had for once the brains to keep my mouth shut. Whether it was deliberate or not I will never know, but it did make for a much more polished draft.
And I think, unconsciously, and with no ill intent, many authors do the same… to themselves. Maybe they’re even right, there is something wrong they can’t put a finger on. But it reaches a point where it isn’t really improving. When, honestly the pen-ultimate draft was actually better. I think that’s a lot sooner than most of us accept. We want to please, desperately.
But generally, most of the audience really isn’t an abusive roach. They just want an entertaining story, and they are surprisingly forgiving and nice, and aren’t looking to tear you down. Actually, they give you back appreciation on your effort. The ones that don’t: walk away. You never win at Calvinball.