Elayne Savage, PhD
Author, Professional Speaker, Psychotherapist and Blogger on
How Not to Take Rejection and Disappointment So Personally
When someone lies to me I get a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I'm sure it's because I grew up in a confusing and chaotic world of Alternative Facts. Falsehoods. Deceptions. Deflections. Concealment. Evasion. Misrepresentation. And Secrecy.
As much as I try to wear my Big Girl pants, any flavor of lie can cause a gut reaction. And this includes lies by omission – deliberately withholding important facts.
I know much of my overreaction comes from stockpiling early experiences.
I hear similar stories from workplace and therapy clients about the times they felt betrayed by a person or a group that they trusted.
Even small lies can seem big to a little kid – like when you asked a question and were given whatever information was handy at the time because the grownups probably didn’t know the real answer.
This is especially true for those of us who are overly-sensitive to these kinds of things.
And all too often, the feelings of the young child become superimposed on the functioning of the adult.
I hated it when I was the one accused of lying: “Don’t tattle” they'd say when I tried to report a behavior that made me uncomfortable. “Your Uncle would never say something like that. You’re just imagining it!” It's like I get blamed and accused of lying!
How rejecting it is to have perceptions and feelings discounted and invalidated!
I began to doubt my own perceptions and question what I thought I saw or heard or did.
I remember how badly I wanted a poodle skirt in Junior High School. My dad said we couldn’t afford one so I went to several stores to get ideas. Then I bought an inexpensive, plain felt skirt (pink, of course) and made a wonderful fluffy gray poodle to stitch onto it. I made little individual loops of gray yarn for the ears, chest, and tail. Then I made a rhinestone collar and gold leash. I was really proud of that skirt — it looked as good as store-bought.
I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. My aunt asked me where I bought the skirt so she could buy one for my cousin. When I told her I made the poodle, she said, “You’re lying. You couldn’t possibly have made this skirt.”
I was stupefied. Then I actually began to doubt if I did indeed make the poodle. After all, she spoke with so much authority when she told me I was lying that I believed her.
If our impressions are discounted often, we learn to discount ourselves as well.
Do you remember when you were little, thinking your mom or dad looked upset, and asking, “Are you sad?” And did they ever quickly say, “No, you’re imagining it.”
I was always getting confused about things like that. I began to regard my own senses as unreliable guides. I didn’t know what was real and hardly dared to ask. If I risked saying how I felt, they’d respond, “You must be kidding.” I perceived the underlying message to be, “Are you crazy?”
I can remember how members of my family seemed to be blathering nonsense, discouraging any clarification yet expecting me to guess their meaning.
When I was able to put words to it, I realized it was a combination of vague generalities, distorted reasoning and constantly changing the subject. Drama and chaos served to distract from goings-on that really needed attention.
There seemed to be an unspoken family rule against asking questions to clarify and define.
It felt like walking through the Looking Glass where "Everything Up is Down. Everything Down is Up." A surreal and crazy-making Wonderland-ish quality with a parallel universe, an alternate reality.
As the Cheshire Cat said, “We’re all crazy here.”
And now it's like déjà vu when daily news reports recreate that same crazy-making experience – complete with denials, distractions, alternative facts and gaslighting.
So, what exactly is gaslighting?
When I was a psychology doctoral student gaslighting was a term we used to describe narcissistic, sociopathic or abusive relationships where one person purposefully denied the perceived reality of the partner.
The term comes from the 1940’s film Gaslight with Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton, about a woman whose husband, in order to distract her from his criminal activities, manipulates her into questioning her perception of reality, He deliberately dims the gaslights in the house, and when his wife comments on it he tells her she’s “imagining it.“ She begins to believe she is going insane.
Gaslighting has become a popular term used to describe techniques now prevalent in The White House and Congress.
According to Frida Ghitis, CNN Opinion Contributor, these include
saying and doing things and then denying it, blaming others for misunderstanding, disparaging their concerns as oversensitivity, claiming outrageous statements were jokes or misunderstandings, and other forms of twilighting the truth.
Over the years I’ve blogged about mystification, Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing’s observations of communication styles in highly dysfunctional families – attempts to befuddle, cloud, obscure, and mask what is really going on.
"Gaslighting" has taken on some of the same meaning as Laing's "Mystification" ideas.
Interestingly, Laing's article begins with: "You can fool some of the people some of the time . . . ."
I really don’t like being fooled.
What if someone believes their own lies? Does repeating a lie make it appear true?
And what if someone is fooling him or herself? What if their reality is different from that of most other folks? What if they have difficulty distinguishing Fact from Fiction? Reality from Fantasy?
And what if they believe their own lies, and when someone tries to correct them, they seem to cover their ears and sing loudly to block out the truth.
Deceit, lying and compromised reality testing are included in several entries of the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) of the American Psychiatric Association including:
The section on Delusional Disorder
False beliefs based on incorrect inference about external reality that persist despite the evidence to the contrary . . .
The section on The Ten Personality Disorders
Distorted thinking patterns
Problematic emotional responses
Over- or under-regulated impulse control
Friedrich Nietzsche really nailed it: “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
© Elayne Savage, PhD
Elayne Savage, PhD coaches world-wide on how not to take rejection and disappointment so personally in relationships and the workplace.
She is a trainer and keynoter and the author two internationally acclaimed relationship books: Don’t Take It Personally! The Art of Dealing with Rejection and Breathing Room – Creating Space to Be a Couple.