This episode is Part 2 of Anne’s interview with Dr. Stern.
Part 1: “I Think My Husband is Gaslighting Me”
Part 2: Everything You Need to Know About Gaslighting (this episode)
What does gaslighting look like?
How do successful, intelligent women end up in relationships with manipulative gaslighters?
How can victims begin to seek safety from gaslighters?
Dr. Robin Stern is back on The BTR.ORG Podcast answering these questions and more. Tune in to the podcast and read the full transcript below for more.
Let’s Talk About Gaslighting
“I don’t know if you’re right or you’re not right. But I know that I just can’t be with you anymore.”
– Dr. Robin Stern
Gaslighting is so difficult to identify that many victims don’t even know that they’re being abused.
For some victims, it’s helpful to know that you don’t have to be able to articulate what’s happening – you just have to listen to your heart as you recognize that what’s happening is not okay.
If He’s Gaslighting You, BTR.ORG Is Here For You
At BTR, we know how painful it can be to live in the confusing world of grooming and gaslighting. At one moment, things may be crystal clear, and the next you may feel like you’re living in a puddle of mud and confusion.
Consider attending a BTR.ORG Group Session today as you begin your journey to healing.
Welcome to BTR.ORG. This is Anne. Dr. Robin Stern and I had such a great time talking last week. She’s from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. We ended last week talking about when abusers abuse by claiming they are being abused. When they abuse their victims by lying about their own feelings, manipulating them or telling some kind of sob story to make their victim seem like the perpetrator.
Dr. Robin Stern (02:04):
It’s what you do about your feelings and with your feelings and in a relationship, how you bring your feelings in in those moments of co-regulating.
Can Therapy Help Him Stop Gaslighting
There’s a pitfall with abusers and therapy. The pitfall is that they know what the right answer is. They know that if they say they are being abused, then someone will be like, those are your feelings. I truly believe that a lot of the time they are lying because they know what they need to say to gain empathy or to gain validation. When the compulsive liar, when they tell you their quote unquote feelings, I’m not saying that we should discount people’s feelings. That is not what I’m saying. But a known compulsive liar and a known abuser, knowing that they are going to lie about their own feelings in order to manipulate people.
Dr. Robin Stern (02:58):
Yes, very often. Absolutely.
Gaslighting is How They Manipulate
For someone to say, I’m going to take this known manipulative person and this known compulsive liar and be like, oh, you’re feeling sad? Okay. And not be like, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. This is how they manipulate. So they might not be feeling sad at all. We don’t actually know how they actually feel because they won’t ever tell you.
Dr. Robin Stern (03:19):
And we don’t know how other people feel. We can only know when they tell us. And if they lie to us as well as themselves, especially to us, there’s no authentic communication. The goal is not to sit there and say, oh, so you’re feeling abused or you’re feeling sad. Let’s talk more about that. So then what did you do? If somebody’s telling you in a moment about an interaction, what was the interaction? What are the consequences with your wife when you feel that? Well, the consequence in this case was violence. And that’s not okay. That’s abuse.
Gaslighting Examples – He thinks His Emotions Justify his Choices
To just follow that a little bit farther, they think that their emotions will justify their choices when they don’t justify them at all. Because I feel shame and I might eat ice cream. I’m not going to yell at someone. I might feel sad. And I’m not going to lie to them and go solicit a prostitute. There is no logical connection between their feeling and their choice to lie. But they like to make some logical connection there, which is that gaslighting? But the reality is, when there’s no reality at all, that this caused this, when that’s just not even a thing at all.
What Does Gaslighting Look Like?
Dr. Robin Stern (04:38):
Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m fascinated by that and have always been fascinated by the logic that people get locked into such that they can’t get out. And they’re buying their gaslighter story. It just reminds me of somebody I’ve worked with whose boyfriend was very controlling and jealous.
And so they would walk around the neighborhood and she would be friendly and talk to people who said hello to her on the street. And then they’d go for dinner and she would sometimes see people they knew and she would be friendly. He accused her of flirting. And he just didn’t like it. He didn’t like her diverting her attention to anyone else. And accused her of not caring about him and loving him enough to be focused on him. Ultimately, he came to the conclusion that it would be good for their relationship if when they walked down the street she kept her head down and she didn’t make eye contact with anyone.
And then when they went to dinner, it would be good for their relationship if she always took the seat where she looked at the wall.
Dr. Robin Stern (05:43):
The first time he said it to her, she’s like, what? That’s kind of crazy. But then when he stepped her through the “logic,” his reality, she thought it made sense.
When you said logic, did you use air quotes?
Dr. Robin Stern (06:00):
Do Male Gaslighters Present Manipulation as Logic?
So to me, that’s not logical at all. And logic is kind of high up on my value system. So these are like red flags to me. But have you found that gaslighters, they start thinking that it is logical, even though it’s just not even remotely logical?
Dr. Robin Stern (06:17):
Absolutely. I mean, this is how she presented in therapy. It was heartbreaking. So Dr. Stern, when we walked down the street and I looked down at the ground and we sit in a restaurant and I faced the wall, we are not fighting anymore. He’s loving. He’s wonderful. But I feel weird about it, because I thought it was ridiculous when he told me. And I didn’t think it was right. And why should I have to look down? But then when I tell him that, he reminds me that it’s just an easy one, two, three. You look down at the street. You sit and face the wall. And we’re a loving couple. You look up at other people. You just are friendly in the restaurant. And we’re fighting all the time. Don’t you see? It just makes sense.
This is how abuse escalates with a controlling gaslighter
My guess is, I mean, I don’t know what happened after this, but like there were going to be other things that he was like, OK, now that you look down and sit and face the wall, now I’m going to tell you that if you loaded the dishwasher different, we wouldn’t fight. Or if, you know, then it’s going to continue. Did she notice that this was spilling over into other things? Or did this solve literally all of their problems?
Dr. Robin Stern (07:38):
It solved their problems until the next thing. When it was about what she should wear on the street.
Dr. Robin Stern (07:46):
And the thing about it that was so hard for her was getting the courage to simply say, I’m not going to do that anymore. We’re just going to have to talk through what happens when I don’t. And it took a long time for her to feel ready to say that sentence. Because in that kind of relationship, if you can see it clearly, which she came to see it clearly, that doesn’t mean you’re ready to do it differently.
Do you feel stuck with a gaslighting manipulator?
Dr. Robin Stern (08:22):
Because the price you’re paying is the loss of the relationship. And one of the things that I say to people all the time, you’ve got to be willing to make a sacrifice. Because often, in these very manipulative gaslighting relationships, there’s something you’re there for that feels good to you sometimes. Maybe it’s just having a partner. After a while, it doesn’t feel good. Of course, when you’re devastated. But in the decline through the stages of gaslighting, you may still think that guy is so handsome and he’s my soulmate. And I just love the way he looks at me. So no, I’m not going to risk that. Or he’s a good guy. After all, we made a life together. And so he’s a little difficult. And so I feel depressed sometimes. Like maybe I’m too sensitive.
Or “no relationship is perfect.” I hear that a lot. In mirroring and the developmental process, in this section, you talk about some of the things including childhood experiences that can set an individual up as prey for gaslighters.
“Why do confident, competent, emotionally intelligent women find themselves in situations with gaslighters?”
I’m curious about this because in our community, we don’t really see a certain type of women who is more probable a victim of gaslighting because at least in my community, it happens to victims of betrayal across the board, even women with otherwise healthy attachment styles with their family or other people. So because our community is comprised of women of every demographic and it’s happening to business executives and teachers and therapists and everyone, in your view, why do confident and competent and even emotionally intelligent women in all walks of life find themselves in these situations where they’re being gaslit?
Dr. Stern’s Experience
Dr. Robin Stern (11:18):
That’s a great question. I’m going to use myself as an example because in my former marriage (note former). I was married to a good guy gaslighter, and he wasn’t always that way, but when he was triggered, he would resort to gaslighting as a technique to control the moment. He and I, and I wrote about this in my book, The Gaslight Effect, he and I had a very different conception of being on time and what that meant.
So he was always late, but not just five minutes late, could be twenty-five minutes late, forty minutes late, we’re sitting down to dinner, I’m waiting for him, and when I would say to him, I don’t like that, it feels disrespectful, it is disrespectful, what can I do to help this not happen anymore, is there anything I can do, can you work on this, whatever lovely, kind, but firm communication I could come up with, and this was at the time where I was taking a lot of notes and keeping track of the gaslighting going on in my practice.
This. This is what it looks like.
And he would say to me, he did say to me, I’m not the one who has a problem with time, you are, your parents were very uptight, and they taught you that you had to be, people had to be on time, and it meant something different than it actually means in the world, and if there are many women who wouldn’t care, you’re uptight, so don’t give me a hard time.
I thought, no, that’s not right, I may have had a different upbringing than you, and you may have learned different things, but it’s disrespectful, being a few minutes late is different than being consistently very late, so no, I’m not the one with a problem, and if we have a different conception, we need to organize our dinners differently, no, you’re the one with a problem.
“Maybe He’s Right”
Here I was, somebody very confident in my own opinions, writing about gaslighting, knowing that this was a gaslighting interaction that we were having, and at the same time, beginning to think, over time, maybe he’s right, that was pretty interesting to me, it was absolutely the reason I said I need to write this book now, because if I was experiencing that, knowing what I knew, knowing that gaslighting takes time, that you can go through stages, I was writing about it, I was taking notes on my patients who were going through these terrible interactions, and some of them feeling really distraught most of the time, and sad and joyless in their life.
When women accommodate so much that we lose ourselves
That was happening to me, what’s happening to people when they don’t even have a word to put to it. So when I began to unpack that, wasn’t about attachment styles, it wasn’t about early learning in some ways, but it was in other ways, because I did learn, and most women have learned to be empathic, to stand in somebody else’s shoes, most women have learned to try to understand, to try to accommodate, and accommodating in a relationship is a wonderful thing, we all have to accommodate at one time or another.
But accommodating so much that you’re living in somebody else’s shoes, and allowing that living in somebody else’s shoes to diminish your feelings, allowing yourself to stay there so long, that you’re not even paying attention to your feelings, that is, I believe, why I ended up second-guessing myself, even though I knew he was wrong, I could feel that shift inside too.
Who are we accommodating? What behaviors are we accommodating?
One thing that struck me is that you also need to know what you are accommodating, it’s one thing to accommodate someone who’s telling the truth, it’s another thing to accommodate lies, like that’s a totally different scenario, so if someone says, I’m so sorry I was late, my tire blew out on the freeway, and I had to stop and change my tire, and it’s true, then it’s easy to be accommodating, then that’s an understandable thing, and you’re empathetic, and everybody’s got problems, and we all want to work together. It’s an entirely different thing for someone to say, I’m so sorry I was late, my tire blew out on the freeway, and that’s why I’m late, when they were having sex with a prostitute, that is an entirely different thing to accommodate, and sometimes you don’t know what is what for a while, and it really does take paying attention to what we call around here as your sacred internal warning system, but like something is not right here, like this sounds like I should be accommodating, because I should be kind and understanding when someone’s late or other scenarios, but like it doesn’t feel right, this doesn’t feel the same.
“Sometimes accommodating is really… where you’re more interested in explaining his behavior”
Dr. Robin Stern (16:14):
Yes, and sometimes accommodating is really about not the story that you’re told, which maybe you even figured out he’s probably lying, but then you’re going into what I call the explanation trap, where you’re more interested in explaining his behavior. Well, I wonder why he felt like he had to lie tonight. Maybe his whole world was very all over him. I don’t know if he’s lying or he’s not lying. He’s probably lying, but I’m just going to let it go, because I don’t want to be like his controlling mother. So rather than thinking, do I want to be with somebody who’s lying, you are trying to figure out his psychology, and it keeps you connected.
When you say it keeps you connected for our listeners, what that means is it keeps you in proximity to the abuse, because they’re not going to stop being abusive. Well, they might. Hopefully they will at some point, but they haven’t stopped right now. So you’re experiencing the harm real time. The only thing you can do as a victim of this type of abuse is to separate yourself through space, through mental space, through physical space, some degree of separation from the harm, because if you’re in proximity to it, it’s going to hurt you no matter what you think about it. Just like Robin, I mean like an amazing, super smart professor at Yale kind of thinking, well, maybe he’s got a point, even though you knew that he didn’t.
“I don’t know if you’re right or you’re not right. But I know that I just can’t be with you anymore.”
Dr. Robin Stern (17:50):
I’ve heard from people all over the country when I published my book. People would say things to me like, are you in my living room? Are you like listening in the kitchen? And people who were super smart, super successful would call me and say, I know he’s lying. I know it. But when we’re together and I say, you are lying, he convinces me that I must be crazy. I mean to the point where someone told this wonderful woman I was working with that it wasn’t him that her friend saw on a dating site, even though her friend saw him on a dating site while they were together. It wasn’t him. Her friend must have seen an old picture of his cousin who looks like him. Some people knew it was. She absolutely knew what it was. But she sat with him while he showered her with you’re so special to me and how could you ever think that I would do that time and time again until finally she said after really working on herself and what she wanted, she said, I just can’t be with you anymore.
I don’t know if you’re right or you’re not right. But I know that I just can’t be with you anymore. So to your point of being proximal to the abuse, as long as you stay, you’re at risk. But the minute you can get away, you’ll at least have some contact with your inner knowing. What did you say you call it?
Your Sacred Internal Warning System
We call it your Sacred Internal Warning System. We teach all about that in The BTR.ORG Living Free Workshop.
Dr. Robin Stern (19:37):
Yeah. So it’s hard to contact that when there’s so much noise. And when you’re fighting so hard.
It’s our experience that when women do get some distance, they’re able to see it so much more clearly. I’m guessing that’s your experience too. Can you talk about that?
“Clear some space to hear yourself”
Dr. Robin Stern (19:54):
I encourage people to just like go shopping on your own. Just go to your friend’s house, just take a pause. Just get away. To clear some space to hear yourself when you listen to yourself. And you can access your sacred knowing. You will begin to think this is not okay. And it’s often in my experience why people have that wake up call just in a moment that they’re pausing. Or just in a moment. Somebody described to me that it was in a gas station where something happened with the credit card. And so she had to sit in the car longer than a normal time. And I don’t know what. Maybe a half hour. And she said in that space and time it was the first half hour that she’d been without him for days. And she heard herself saying this is not okay.
And after that she left him. And in that case she never looked back. It’s not usually that clean a break and that immediate a response. But often it’s a third person who will say, wait a minute. What are you doing? I haven’t seen you in months. Or you don’t seem like yourself. And then you have to answer to that inside of yourself if you’re willing to listen. That no I’m not the same self I was. Maybe I’m not even the same strong self that I was before I got into this relationship.
“When you talk on the phone with your husband, you sound like a completely different person.”
I remember my sister telling me when you talk on the phone with your husband you sound like a completely different person. That was at the beginning and I kind of brushed it off at that point. But I think back on that now and think wow if I had I really listened at that point that would have maybe saved me five more years of abuse. Robin, Dr. Stern, you are incredible. I am going to immediately schedule another interview with you because I have a bunch more questions on my list and I am so appreciative of your time and all of your hard work. Her books are on our books page. They are incredible and they have helped so many victims of emotional and psychological abuse. So thank you for your life’s work that has helped women get to safety all over the world. Thank you. Thank you.
Dr. Robin Stern (22:30):
And thank you. I’m loving our conversation. I’m loving your filling in where I left it blank and I’m loving your saying to me but wait a minute isn’t this or a little bit of that and thank you for your wisdom and your deep knowledge and for giving that to so many victims of emotional abuse. And I look forward to our next conversation.