We see people with a wide range of experiences. It’s common that some people we encounter in our work are recovering from gaslighting—a term that has grown in awareness in recent years. Trauma Informed Care (TIC), can help guide us to be supportive of those we serve who are recovering and healing through gaslighting experiences.
Sometimes people experienced gaslighting within systems where they’ve previously sought help – this is a type of sanctuary trauma. As a result, they may feel slow to trust and defensive. As practitioners and human service professionals, here’s how to recognize when a client is recovering from gaslighting so we can better hold space for them to heal.
What is Gaslighting?
Although the term “gaslighting” has become more ubiquitous in recent years to describe deception from public figures, the term has been around since the 1940s. The term was derived from the play Gas Light and the subsequent film, Gaslight, from 1944.
In the Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer film, a woman is deceived by her husband, who murdered her aunt. He tricks her in manipulative ways, including slowly dimming the gaslights in her home to make her question her own mental state. From this dark tale, the term gaslight was born.
Today, gaslighting can occur in many different relationships and systems. Some of the folks we work with may have previously had their concerns minimized or disregarded by professionals and people they trusted. For example, medical gaslighting occurs when healthcare professionals diminish and downplay disabling or dangerous symptoms, often due to prejudices and -isms (racism, genderism, age-ism, and on).
Subsequently, victims of gaslighting might feel defensive—like they must “prove” their needs—or they may have lost their trust in systems altogether. They’ve been mistreated by systems when they sought help, so now they may feel hopeless and afraid. This is also a moment of feeling powerless which can result in triggering someone back to an unhealthy adaptive behavior and/or revisiting past traumas.
Gaslighting can also happen in the workplace and the home. It may come from partners, bosses, friends, and family members. People may have been told they’re “too sensitive” or “too reactive.” Someone may have even called them derogatory terms (like “crazy” or worse). These actions can profoundly impact any victim of gaslighting, especially when it comes from someone that they should be able to trust and feel safe around.
It’s essential to recognize that gaslighting is manipulation and a form of abuse, one in which the person who experiences gaslighting might not even be aware while it occurs. As a result, people are left not only with a mistrust of those around them but a mistrust of themselves and their own perceptions, making it an especially cruel experience. It takes away a person’s belief in themselves and what they previously thought they knew to be true.
People who have experienced gaslighting may often have a sense that they’ve lost control. The effects of gaslighting can run deep. They may have a diminished sense of confidence and low self-esteem. They may not trust themselves enough to recognize their own power and ability to step out of a negative situation. Experiencing gaslighting may also lead to confusion and anxiety—everything feels unsafe and uncertain.
Holding Space in Trauma Care to Overcome Gaslighting
So how can we serve clients who have experienced this type of abuse? How do we use Healing-Focused Care to create a safe, nurturing space for overcoming gaslighting?
Like any form of abuse, holding a safe and respectful space for people who have experienced gaslighting is key to beginning recovery. One of the most beautiful and compelling aspects of Healing Focused Care (HFC) is that it offers a foundational approach to serving others while putting the served person in charge of their healing. In other words, HFC is empowering, which as we define it is surfacing the person’s inherent power rather than installing power.
In HFC, we focus on healing trauma while validating and honoring the person’s experience and self-ascribed identity. We help them recognize and bring forth their inherent resilience by treating them with respect, dignity, and honor for their identity and experiences.
The first step in effectively serving someone in any situation is building trust and rapport. Often this relationship is built by listening with an openness and understanding of who our client is. We want to see their authentic self and work to understand how we can meet their needs.
Building rapport can take time, especially when someone has experienced gaslighting and thus has a shaky sense of trust in themselves and others. By listening and expressing our empathy, deep understanding, and respect for their identity and experience, we can slowly start to build that connection.
It’s the sense of honoring a person’s identity that is so crucial to effective healing-focused care. When someone’s identity is dishonored or ignored, it may retrigger those past traumas from negative experiences and systemic inequalities.
Even if two people have very different journeys in life, they may still empathize and understand each other’s experiences. Offering care requires us to empathize with the experience and emotions and depersonalize hostility and reactivity.
Sometimes, we may encounter folks that aren’t yet ready to be receptive to our assistance (for example, if we are a court-appointed treatment counselor or parole officer). However, we can still guide the conversation with empathy and build those critical connections. And in time, based on our experience and those we share with, the person will settle in and engagement/rapport/connection will ensue. Those are the number one indicators of a positive outcome in any service relation (mandated or voluntary) in any human service setting.
Rapport is something that can take time, but when we understand, relate, and validate the emotional aspects of our client’s experience, we can start to create that trust and safe space. As conversations start to build and we communicate and connect, trust forms, and growth happens. That growth will eventually lead to positive outcomes.
When someone has experienced gaslighting, they’re often in a state of trauma response, which means they’re reactive and defensive, and reasonably so. They aren’t in a headspace where they feel comfortable thinking through actions and reactions because they’re trapped in a protective fight, flight, or freeze mode. Empowerment is the counterbalance to defensiveness. When we support those we serve to lift themselves up, our clients reconnect with and trust their guiding values and intuition. The defensive posturing retreats, and they can better process and reason. In short, they can get out of their reactive brain and into their responsive, thinking-through-things brain as well as being better able to express their feelings.
As we build rapport and trust, the served person or client starts to shift away from their trauma mode—they can recognize how certain behaviors may empower them or add to their disempowered feelings. This might be something like, “When I don’t use alcohol to numb my emotions, I can be a better parent to my children, which is a connection I want to rebuild.” Which is change talk, for you MI fans.
Because the HFC approach to Trauma Informed Care helps clients forge their own journey and build confidence and self-trust, it can be an effective and empowering way to heal the effects of gaslighting.
Whenever our clients feel supported, they thrive. Of course, it doesn’t mean they’ve completely healed from the trauma of gaslighting or any other abuse, but they are on their way to healing. Offering empathetic Healing Focused Care and support can create a space where it feels safe to take those first steps on their journey.
If you and your team are looking for ways to implement a Healing Focused Care model to support your clients, please reach out. Share is here to help you find ways to support and empower your team so they can, in turn, support and empower their clients and communities.