“Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation that leaves the victim feeling as if she has become unmoored from reality.” - Deborah Tuerkheimer
Our newest series would not be off to a good start without a post devoted to the big g-word. You guessed it. Gaslighting.
When we think about gaslighting, we tend to picture the cheating boyfriend or the lying husband. Who we don’t usually think of is the new mom at the park telling her crying baby, “You’re not hungry. You ate before we came,” or the older mom chiding her teen, “You’re not depressed. You’re just being dramatic.”
While we’d all like to believe that gaslighting is a rare thing for mothers to do—it’s a type of emotional abuse after all—the uncomfortable truth is that some of the biggest gaslighters out there are abusive moms. As someone who specializes in the mother wound, gaslighting is one of the top five biggest things that comes up in my private practice. Why all the silence beyond the couches in offices like mine? The answer: the unfair stigma that comes with saying anything remotely less than sunshine and rainbows about mom.
But here’s the really important part that the people who perpetuate this stigma often forget: Gaslighting (and any other type of mistreatment or abuse) doesn’t hurt less just because the person doing it happens to be a mother. In fact, the argument can be made that it actually hurts more due to the fundamental nature of the mother-child relationship.
In this blog post I’m choosing truth over stigma. I’ll be going over what maternal gaslighting is, how gaslighting sounds when abusive moms do it, and why moms choose to gaslight in the first place. At the end I’m giving you empowering ways you can respond to any future attempts by your mom* to gaslight you.
*Keep in mind that while our content here at the Mother Wound Project is focused on moms to dismantle the unique stigma of having mommy issues, that doesn’t mean you have to stop there. Feel free to sub in your other parents/caregivers regardless of gender. As the saying goes, if the shoe fits wear it. Okiedokie. Let’s get started!
What is maternal gaslighting?
Gaslighting, like blame-shifting and guilt tripping, is a type of manipulative emotional abuse. It’s used by people in positions of power to dismiss, dissuade or discredit those they regard as beneath them. If you don’t think mothers are in a position of power in our culture (and therefore in our families), consider the following:
A mom tells her side of a story.
Which is more likely to be believed?
If you guessed the mom, you’re correct. 9/10 times we side with moms instead of children, and this is a trend that continues well past when children turn 18. Long story short, we’ve been taught to give mothers the benefit of the doubt.
Remember, the fact that women lack privilege in relation to men in our society doesn’t mean women also lack power in relation to their children. Ageism is a very real thing, and it’s alive and well. Who can still be physically assaulted without consent in the US, the UK, Australia, and Canada just to name a few? The answer: children.
To learn more about the importance of intersectionality we highly recommend the work of Kimberly Crenshaw. And to learn which countries have done the right thing and banned hitting kids, check out this resource. And now for more on gaslighting.
Who experiences gaslighting?
If you’re someone who’s experienced the mother wound and your mom has been present in your life even for just a short length of time, chances are you’ve been gaslit by her several times. This comes down to 1) the simple fact that gaslighting is extremely prevalent amongst moms who cause the mother wound and 2) it’s rarely a one time thing.
Of course abusive moms are not the only people who gaslight. Gaslighting happens in other abusive parent-child relationships, as well as in romantic relationships, platonic relationships, and workplace relationships where there’s an imbalance of power. It’s this power dynamic that makes gaslighting both effective for the gaslighter and tough for the gaslightee to recognize. Let’s talk about how to recognize it.
What are the signs of gaslighting?
Before you can respond to being gaslit by your mom, you need to know when it happens. Thankfully there’s several signs of gaslighting you can look for. Red flags that could mean you’re being gaslit by your mom include:
Feeling not good enough
Doubting your own reality
Questioning your sanity
Feeling anxious “for no reason”
Making excuses for your mom
Feeling tense or nervous around your mom
Talking with your mom about anything contentious makes your head spin
Using self-deprecating language
What does gaslighting sound like?
As far as the actual words go, gaslighting by abusive moms shows up in a variety of different ways. And let’s just say that abusive moms can be particularly talented when it comes to gaslighting. While you were out there pursuing your regular person hobbies, these moms were carefully honing their gaslighting game. Moms who gaslight sound like:
“It’s not a big deal.”
“You’re so sensitive.”
“I’m always walking on egg shells around you.”
“That never happened.”
“You misunderstood me.”
“It’s all in your head.”
“You’re remembering it wrong.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You’re imagining things.”
“I’d never do something like that.”
“It was just a joke.”
“You always twist things around.”
“I never did that.”
“Are you always this dramatic?”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“You need help.”
“It’s your mental illness making you think this.”
“You made it all up for attention.”
How to respond when your mom gaslights you
You can’t convince your mom to hang up her gaslighting ways, but you can choose how you respond. Remember, gaslighting is a type of emotional abuse that’s harmful not only to relationships but to your sense of self and to your mental health as well. As adults one of our options when it comes to gaslighting is to end our relationship with the gaslighter entirely. When the gaslighter we’re cutting off is a parent, this is referred to as estrangement or “going no contact.” For some people this is the only reasonable choice they have. If, however, you want or need (say if you’re a minor) to stay in the relationship with your mom, there are things you can do to care for yourself.
Remember it’s not your fault
How your mom chooses to behave is her responsibility. Full stop. You are not at fault for her gaslighting you, no matter how much she may try to guilt trip you.
Validate your feelings
It’s okay to feel sad, angry, frustrated, or hurt in response to your mom gaslighting you. Feeling upset about emotional abuse is a normal reaction, even when the person being abusive is your own mom. Remember to allow your valid feelings to be with you.
Seek support from others
Don’t suffer alone or in silence. Reach out to trusted friends, family members, or mental health professionals who will believe you and offer tangible support with gaslighting or any other type of emotional abuse.
If you can set boundaries with your mom around gaslighting, do so. The next time your mom tries to gaslight you, consider saying things like:
“Gaslighting is not okay. Please stop.”
“I remember what happened.”
“I know you want me to pretend this didn’t happen, but I’m not going to.”
“I’m not being too sensitive.”
“My feelings are not up for debate.”