“friend says ‘what’s gaslighting? i’ve never heard of that.’
‘it’s when someone undermines your trust in your own perceptions and you feel crazy because your instincts and intuition and sometimes even plain old perceptions are telling you one thing, and words from someone you trust are telling you something different.’
‘oh.’ (looks it up).
‘oh,’ friend says again, reading. ‘but gaslighting seems to mean when someone does that to you intentionally. i don’t think he was doing it to me intentionally. actually, it’s even harder to pin down because i don’t even think he was fully aware he was doing it and he got upset when i talked about it. but he was. and it makes me question my sanity.’”
- from nora samaran’s on gaslighting
people often come to me for support through conflict. one of the most common questions i get asked is whether someone is gaslighitng someone else. i also help folks name conflict as gaslighting when they originally minimized the harm as simply disagreement or misunderstanding.
being able to sense the difference between gaslighting (where harm is caused through abusive power imbalances, which warp our sense of reality) and disagreement (which involves a stable and balanced power dynamic with room for dissonant points of view) is crucially important for being able to discern who it is safe to rest your trust in.
when i first started connecting deeply with my current partner, i was constantly feeling triggered, on edge, and defensive. at that point in my life, i didn’t have ptsd - i was living in the trauma which lead to the ptsd. i was caught somewhere between a flight and freeze response, often collapsing into myself and feeling very unsure about what was true in the world.
my partner also has a history of trauma (i mean, let’s be real here, who doesn’t?) and often felt similar to me (triggered, on edge, defensive), especially when we were in conflict. during those days we both sometimes felt unable to approach low impact conflict (a 1 - 3 on a scale of 10 in severity) without the conflict escalating quickly into a trigger fest.
now, almost one year later, we aren’t living in that kind of turmoil anymore - we have become more conflict comfortable and trigger nimble. we still get into arguments and have moments where we feel super triggered, but now we are learning to steer through conflict in more solid and stable ways. together we crafted and collected tools and strategies to address conflict in ways that are more grounded, safe, and embodied than before.
one of the biggest triggers for me, my partner and so many people i have witnessed, is not knowing the difference between when we are in conflict and when we are being gaslit.
so many of us have been gaslit our whole lives. we may observe our parents gaslighting each other and then have those cycles turned onto us. in this way being gaslit becomes part of the fabric of our dysfunctional attachment. this way of relating, this use of power to get someone to doubt their reality, then replicates itself in our lives over and over again.
we normalize gaslighting.
many of us never learn how to fully trust ourselves.
and because we are fish and gaslighting is water, it can feel impossible to grasp what is happening to us. and yet, even in this haze of unsureness, persistently - in the realm of our body - something feels off.
i’ve come to describe this off feeling as ‘the slanted house’.
when i was a kid i spent a lot of time at science world, where kids learned about science. there were always different experiments on display, and most of them engaged us at the level of our tactile and embodied senses. one experiment took place in a small house. from the outside it looked like a kids play house, constructed in a standard north american way, full of right angles and straight lines. when i entered the house, the door lead to a small empty room with a square tiled floor - but something about it felt off. i walked around the house and began to feel a bit nauseous and off center. as i walked round and round, i sensed that one corner of the house felt higher than the rest and one corner felt lower than the rest.
the house was slanted.
the slant was so subtle, though, that my brain-body got confused being in the house. my body could tell the house was slanted, but my mind felt attached to the perceived, expected, relied- upon right angles. and the conflicting information from each system lead to confusion and dis-ease.
this sense of being off center - feeling like things are off even though they appear ‘just as they should be’ - this to me, is the clearest way i know how to describe the embodied experience of being gaslit.
the slanted house functions by tipping our sense of reality (our sense of what is true about being in our bodies) off center, literally.
the slanted house metaphor also works as an explanation for why it is so hard to unlearn abusive behaviours. if we grew up in a slanted house, this type of disequilibrium is all our bodies know. so when we eventually enter into a house that is all right angles (or a relationship that does not involve unstable, slanted power dynamics), our whole body is likely to feel totally off and wrong - even though we are actually somewhere stable, perhaps for the first time.
this is part of why, when i first fell in love with my partner i often felt triggered when they were not gaslighting me. i was triggered by the absence of the aching comfort of codependency and gaslighting.
if living in a slanted house is all you’ve ever known, it can be difficult if not impossible to imagine or sense possibilities for connecting that feel/are more stable and nourishing.
in a sense, the patriarchy is a slanted house.
and something similar could be said for other systems of power as well.
it’s important to know when you are being gaslit, when your reality is being chipped away at. even if you can’t grasp what is happening with your mind, when your body feels like it’s in a slanted house, you can use that as a signal to alert you that something is off.
and there is something so deeply, viscerally satisfying and liberating about being able to name it. to say “you are gaslighting me” and to be right!
there is a sweet victory in stepping out of the ties that bind.
we need to be able to say no, firmly and clearly.
firm boundaries are a necessary, life-giving survival skill.
and...where it becomes complicated, is that we can experience the slanted house feeling for more reasons than just being gaslit.
we can experience flashbacks (a present-moment, embodied memory of abuse from our past) triggered by conflict: the body’s wisdom is often less black and white than the trauma-mind craves.
trauma exists in the body in ways that are non-linear.
as does healing.
and out beyond the complexity of the body rests even more nuance.
here, in the embodied grey, we may notice that reality is itself often tenuous and to some extent co-created.
here is how i know this to be true: i live with (what often feels like some unnamable combination of) c-ptsd, chronic fatigue, anxiety, depression, mania, fibromyalgia, and ADD - all of which have their roots in trauma and stem back intergenerationally and ancestrally. i’m also a writer and a spiritually engaged person who senses and understands the world in non-linear and obscure ways.
all of these factors combine to make it so that i often don’t remember things. sometimes i won’t remember the beginning of the point i just started making. often i need to write things down, set alarms, or have reminders emailed to me (ie: embody my memory in tools outside of myself).
my partner also has ADD and ptsd. when we get into arguments it can be very confusing because we both deal with patchy memory. often one or both of us feels like we are being gaslit (ie: we experience the slanted house feeling) when the other person is not actively gaslighting us.
by taking an outsider perspective to our conflicts, we’ve learned that it’s helpful to understand gaslighting and disagreement on a spectrum.
to our minds the spectrum looks something like this:
intentional gaslighting - conscious, non-consensual power-over
this happens when someone is aware they are gaslighting you or aware they are lying to you in order to undermine your power and sense of self/reality. this involves a conscious relationship of power-over that is not consensual and is abusive. this way of relating is both very common and also less common than we might think (/than our trauma brain may crave).
for example: i notice that my dad gaslights me all the time, and i think he does it somewhat on purpose because he learned to gaslighting intergenerationally, as a coping tool. my dad gaslights me because it's one of the only ways he knows to exert/maintain control.
at the same time, i've noticed that often when i feel gaslit (experiencing the embodied sensation of the slanted house) by my closest people (my partner, close friends, etc), what is actually happening falls on a different place within the spectrum, such as.
shadow gaslighting - unconscious power-over/under
“‘shadow gaslighting’ is when these disowned parts of ourselves manipulate people in our lives in order to serve their own purpose. an unconscious part of self expresses itself and pursues its own agenda but goes unacknowledged in our awareness.
other people in our lives, especially our spouse, may sense our shadow at work, and because we deny the presence and influence of shadow unconsciousness in us and in our behaviour, these other people feel an incongruence in us: what we say does not match how they experience us.
they may take us at face value, wanting to believe what we tell them about our intentions, feelings etc, but underneath, at some level, the incongruence undermines their trust in us and perhaps their trust in their experience, in their self.”
when i discovered shadow gaslighting - i wept.
finally, a way to understand the difference between intent and impact when it comes to gaslighting! so often i see myself and others gaslighting people completely unintentionally. the impact remains the same (harm still occurs) and at the same time the difference in intent warrants shadow gaslighting to live at a different place on the spectrum.
and then other times, the conflict doesn’t involve gaslighting at all...
disagreement - dissonant perspectives on reality, stable power balance
it is possible to see something differently from someone else and for that person to not be gaslighting you.
for example: my partner and i frequently forget how something happened or remember it in different ways. at first we found this difference in our realities disturbing. we had built trust with each other partially through co-creating a nourishing shared sense of reality that validated our experiences, intuitions, and understandings of the world. to realize that we didn’t share the same perspective or memory of something ranged from mildly uncomfortable to deeply disturbing and confusing.
to be honest, if i didn’t have as robust of a conflict tool box as i do, it’s possible i would have broken up with my partner (who is wonderful to me almost without exception); accusing them of gaslighting me and never looking back. i would have felt safe at first: temporarily high on a cocktail of fight or flight hormones. but eventually i would have come down (or crashed down) and realized there might have been another less dogmatic way of looking at things. i might have felt regret, loneliness, and isolation. i might have felt like i abandoned myself and someone who loves me. my reactivity would have caused me harm and potentially lead me to gaslight someone i love, unintentionally, all in the hopes of keeping myself safe.
my partner and i began experimenting with not using the word ‘gaslighting’ to describe our disagreements. we would describe the body-based sensations of feeling like we were being gaslit (which is how we discovered the slanted house feeling), and we learned to ask questions and get shared clarity on what was being said (which is not necessarily the same things as agreement). sometimes, we practiced accepting that we just saw things in different ways, knowing we were not trying to hold power-over each other and that we were safe.
and other times, we realized that conflict can actually just be based on misunderstandings...
miscommunication - confusion about intention or details, obscured resonance, stable power balance
my partner and i both have a tendency to slip into what we call ‘lawyer mode’ when we argue. we both enjoy arguing and chewing on ideas. we both fight to win. we’ve even incorporated some of this sparring into fun and consensual edge-pushing, which leads us to increased intimacy. and at the same time, lawyer mode can also lead to miscommunications where we don’t even notice we are on the same page. these miscommunications can look like a disagreement or even trigger feelings of being gaslit.
one tool we’ve started using when our conversations feel circular is asking each other, “what do you want me to understand about this?”
often when we answer this question, we discover that we were fighting to feel heard on something we feel much the same way about. with this knowledge, we can put down our swords and drop out of our trauma responses, choosing to reinvest in our embodied sense of trust in one another.
and sometimes we arrive at this renewed sense of trust body first. we use tools like play, laughter, hugging/connective touch (and taking space too), instead of talking it out - which we may choose to step away from because things feel too heated, triggering, or circular (ie: we’ve left our window of tolerance).
it can feel very confusing to know where the conflict you are experiencing lies on this spectrum between gaslighting and miscommunication, so i recommend tapping into your embodied senses.
how does my body feel right now?
what does my body want me to know?
am i inside or outside of my window of tolerance?
is this working for me?
am i able to show up in love right now?
i also choose to share vulnerably with my loved ones when i am feeling triggered or confused. i choose very carefully who i keep close to me. me and my kin, we shape realities together - in ways that make space for resonance and dissonance, but not for nonconsensual power imbalances and abuse.
in this way, i’ve learned to extend my trust toward and away from others based on my embodied, intuitive connection and sense of safety with that person.
clear and measurable agreements are also helpful for setting boundaries and creating structures you can lean on for clarity during conflict resolution. the photo featured in this piece is a picture of the commitment map my partner and i created when we first started dating. that map hangs above our bed and is a touchstone for us both.
like most people with ptsd, my body is both a great source of knowledge and a tool for discernment that can become, in some ways, disregulated. when i am receiving differing or confusing forms of sensation/knowing, i turn to tools like tarot, journaling, magic, or working with a counsellor or other support professional to aid in my discovery of a more clear and integrated sense of my experience.