Gaslighting, brainwashing, cults, hostage situations, and totalitarian propaganda have a common basis. They use similar techniques to confuse, intimidate and disempower people. These methods are used by abusers of all kinds for the purpose of controlling other people, and promoting the abusers’ interests.
Partners of sex addicts have often been lied to and manipulated into doubting their own sanity, hence the nickname gaslighting after the classic film. Once exposed to this process it is difficult to restore your own sense of stability and control over your life.
Writers have recently found parallels with related techniques in the tactics of President Trump and his inner circle. These tactics include such things as anti-intellectualism, fear of difference, disagreement as treason, seeing life as eternal warfare, scapegoating of minorities, militarism, control of mass media, hostility to education and academia, and rampant sexism.
But it is one thing to understand the tactics and the resulting disempowerment of a person or group of people. But it is at least as important to understand (and protect against) the internal psychological process at work.
Shock, trauma, and dissociation
A recent article in The Atlantic describes a gradual process of an authoritarian takeover built to a great extent on what they call a “culture of threat” or an “aesthetic of menace.” They site as an example Donald Trump’s frequent references during his campaign to violence, incitement of violence, threats against his opponent, verbal assaults and talk of assaulting women.
This talk of doing something shocking or unthinkable is not designed to win over the audience but to scare them. This fear can vary anywhere between a sense of shock and an outright traumatic stress response. But it is outside the norm in a way that makes it impossible for people to integrate it into their thinking. When this happens one is likely to experience dissociation, meaning a “zoning out” or temporary experience of the brain going off line. This maneuver is sometimes described as “ritual abuse” in the brainwashing of cult followers and in other abusive situations.
In this state, critical thinking and judgment may be impossible. We may shake off this feeling and return to normal thinking but something of the fear remains, making the manipulator more high profile in our minds. In gaslighting, the victim remains in a constant state of fear and insecurity which exaggerates the tendency to focus almost exclusively on the abuser.
Confusion, conformity, and loss of self
Both the authoritarian power figure and the emotional abuser constantly challenge everything that you thought you knew about your world; social institutions, values, science etc. Nothing is true or false any more, so the ground starts to move underneath you.
Once alternate sources of information, e.g. the media, one’s family, etc. are discredited or taken over we are vulnerable to the ever present messages of the abuser to define our reality. Other sources of input are labeled as fake and disloyal. We then adapt to a world in which propaganda is as real as it gets. This is not mental stability.
The psychological experience at work here is derealization,”a subjective experience of unreality of the outside world.” Nothing is familiar and there is no solid foundation to our experience. This is a seriously disordered state which undermines any attempt at independent thought or action.
The internal parallel experience of unreality is called depersonalization, “a sense of unreality in one’s personal self.” Conformity to whatever the dictator or abuser says is good or true is rigidly enforced. In a world in which any deviation from authority is viewed as treason, we come to distrust our sense of ourselves as independent agents. In the treatment of betrayal trauma in a spouse, this is sometimes referred to as “role collapse,” the erosion of who we thought we were.
In the end we accept someone else’s definition of reality and we accept someone else’s definition of who we are. And again the net result is that we focus on the abuser and become cut off and mistrustful of others.
- Reality check not fact check
Ultimately our sense of what is real rests on trust. We trust the group consensus of a relevant group as to the truth of a fact, a scientific truth and even a core value. We get these ideas from our community, our family, our curiosity about the world and our accumulated fund of general information. This basic trust in our world begins very early in life. Therefore, if we have a disrupted early attachment history we may lack basic trust, making us all the more vulnerable to having our sense of reality disrupted.
Recent writing about “inoculation” against mind control techniques stress a historical framework and an intellectual awareness of the authoritarian playbook. And while this is certainly important it is not enough.
When a manipulator wants to redefine what is true or real in order to sow fear it is vital that we respond by connecting with other people. It is not enough just to try to gather facts and information, especially in the face of gaslighting techniques. If there is no one to give us a reality check then all the information in the world will not make us safe.
There is nothing wrong with demanding proof in the face of lies. But the ultimate proof will be found in the shared views of smart and knowledgeable people.
- Resisting normalization
Our natural tendency is to try to fit our experience into some known way of understanding things, i.e. normality. Something new, even something bizarre or dangerous, may not seem obviously abnormal at first. As the saying goes, “The new comes dressed in the clothing of the old.”
We want to be open-minded. We want to give people the benefit of the doubt. Often we feel a tug-of-war between a gut sense that someone is hazardous to our wellbeing on the one hand and a desire to make excuses for them on the other. That is when we need to listen to the disruptors, those who are oppositional and irreverent. Speaking the truth in these circumstances requires messaging that may seem crazy or over-the-top. But we need something powerful to pull us back from the unconscious abyss.
Examples of such bravery in the current public arena are Andrew Sullivan, in his wonderful New York Magazine article, Ari Melber by incorporating an “abnormality” segment on his Sunday show, Keith Olberman, and many others.
And of course comedy and satire are especially important in helping us see the absurdity of attempts to normalize the abnormal. This is because comedy functions by raising to consciousness and validating what we have repressed into unconsciousness.
- Taking care of your brain
The brain and mind are delicate mechanisms and need to be handled with care. What you listen to, whom you talk will affect your ability to keep your balance. Your sanity is partly a matter of conscious choice.
As we know, the biggest danger is fear. In a gaslighting situation the tendency is to become isolated and hypervigilant. We can end up mistrusting everybody, even those closest to us. And when exposed to toxic paranoid thinking we can easily become paranoid ourselves. Fear is just a signal to renew our determination and hope.
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