The Gaslight Effect

The Gaslight Effect cover art
The Gaslight Effect

Don’t Be Afraid To Speak Your Truth

By Dr. Robin Stern

She told me with great pride stories about her work as a draftsperson during the Second World War, and I basked in her glow when she talked about creating murals for department stores. she especially liked talking about how she designed Christmas murals using Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Around Christmas time – I remember going to the stores to see Rudolf for myself – I thought it was great – I was so proud!

So, it was confusing to me when she told me that she had given up many work opportunities after getting married, at the insistence of my dad, who was very clear about his version of husband/wife roles….men worked, women stayed home.

My mother told me that after giving in to my father’s wishes, she re-oriented her personal vision to be a stay at home wife and mom – even though she continued to do some outside art and drafting work (witness, Rudolf); but, over time it became harder and harder for her to take risks in the workplace and in the community. Through my teenage years, I witnessed my mother forgo many opportunities, not daring herself to take risks, and wondering what got in the way of her taking risks in her relationship with my dad.

I knew I didn’t want to be my mom – reticent to be in the world and afraid of taking up the cause with my husband. I became committed to being emotionally fearless.

During my young adulthood, I went from living that commitment to fearlessness, to falling back into what I had seen modeled in my home. It was very hard for me to recognize that I fell into those traps especially because I had set my mind not to.

When I was fortunate enough to become a mom myself – first to a wonderful son, then a beautiful daughter–I was committed to teaching them how to tap into their authentic voices, live with integrity, and bring their voices into all aspects of their lives. I knew it would be particularly challenging for my daughter – as many women continue to have a hard time being fearless in the world, and the world is still having a hard time receiving their fearlessness!

Through my experiences as a mom, with friends, and as a psychotherapist in private practice, I could see fearlessness as a determining factor in people’s ability to either flourish and thrive in relationships in the world, or cower and give themselves up. My commitment expanded to helping women be fearless and bring their voices in truth to their relationships – and I became a founding member of the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership – where passion, courage and voice forms the foundation for being a leader in your own life. My work with young women at Woodhull and my interest in authentic voice, along with over 20 years of private practice experience working with women, many in destructive relationships – was a big part of my inspiration to write an empowering book on how to spot and survive emotional manipulation of a particular kind: gaslighting.

Gaslighting is the systematic attempt by one person to erode another’s reality, by telling them that what they are experiencing isn’t so – and, the gradual giving up on the part of the other person. Gaslighting takes two – one person who needs to be in control to maintain his sense of self, and the other, who needs the relationship to maintain her sense of self and is willing to acquiesce. The Gaslight Effect happens when you find yourself second guessing your own reality, confused and uncertain of what you think, because you have allowed another to define reality and tell you what you think — and who you are. Gaslighting can be maddening in the early stages and soul destroying when it fully takes hold. In my book The Gaslight Effect , I describe what it is like to be on the receiving end of this type of emotional abuse – in love relationships, in the workplace, in family…and, then, I take readers through the steps necessary to empower themselves to transform the relationship and opt out of the Gaslight Tango. The Gaslight Effect names this insidious type of emotional abuse, that has, to date, been too much under the radar – and, in naming and understanding this abuse, it can be recognized and healed.

In The Gaslight Effect I encourage women to be fearless about their right to be treated well, to be fearless about insisting on their own point of view, to be fearless about carving out their lives, with their values. The good news is that when you are fearless, you are empowered and you can heal or opt out of gaslighting or any other destructive relationship dynamic.

And when I talk with my daughter about my own experiences with my mom, and in my own life, I strive to do better than my mother did with me. My mom did her best and I love her for it – still, I want to do better and hope that one day, my daughter will do better still. I tell Melissa, my daughter, in words, I show her in actions, about how to stand up for herself. And I’m fiercely fearless in telling her how much I love and adore her…. And, how proud I am, of her courage and fearless convictions.

I am proud and delighted to say that now, at seventeen, she is, in fact, every bit fearless. And – I remind myself how important that is to me, every time that she asserts herself in a way that begins to drive me crazy (but proud, nonetheless)!! Not only is she fearless, but charming in her consciousness of how she acquired the emotional competence to be so!