Gaslighting is a term that has been trending since 2018. According to Dictionary.com, gaslighting is a verb, meaning to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity”. While “gaslighting” is an easy word to throw around, it has grave implications. Gaslighting is an “extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity”.
Gaslighting is most understood in the relationship realm, but it has also been applied to other arenas. Elephant Journal published an article about spiritual gaslighting, which criticizes the so-called spiritual shaming of people who do not always feel or perpetuate “good vibes only”. Medium recently published an article – Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting – asserting that we will be encouraged to forget everything that has transpired during the COVID-19 crisis.
What Medium fails to mention, however, is the ways we are gaslighting each other right now. Social media is a veritable cesspool of gaslighting. People spend hours each day telling other people how they should feel, madly composing essay-length rants in the interest of shaming “the other” into abandoning their own feelings and perceptions. Even if we don’t contribute to the diatribe, there are few among us who can say we don’t have strong opinions.
This goes back to the principle that Process managing partner, Justin Etling, often repeats: Life isn’t this OR that. Life is this AND that. We would experience much more internal and external peace if we could accept that life can be summed up by the phrase, “yes, and…”
In Tricycle magazine, Lin Jensen wrote, “The Zen Buddhist does not ask what’s right and wrong but rather, ‘What am I to do at this moment?’” What if we removed Buddhism from the equation and simply said, “The peaceful human does not ask what’s right and wrong but rather, ‘What am I to do at this moment?”
This is Traumatic and Your Response is Personal
Trauma is defined as a “deeply distressing or disturbing experience”. We can probably all agree that COVID-19 has been deeply distressing. For some, that distress has manifested as illness or death of a loved one. For others, it has manifested as job loss and financial insecurity. For still others, it has manifested as feelings of powerlessness. One viral post circulating social media talks about how we are not in the same boat, but we are in the same storm. This might be one of the most useful observations out there. Our response to trauma will vary widely. Some people will have the tools and resources to remain largely unaffected. Others will not.
This is a particularly difficult time for people with a history of trauma, which means that people with substance use disorder are disproportionately affected. According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, “Research demonstrates a strong link between exposure to traumatic events and substance use problems…People with alcohol or drug use problems are more likely to experience traumatic events than those without these problems. Many people find themselves in a vicious cycle in which exposure to traumatic events produces increased alcohol and drug use, which produces new traumatic event experiences, which leads to even worse substance use, and so forth. Just as traumatic events and substance use often occur together, so do trauma-related disorders and substance use disorders”.
There are many articles (and even more people) propagating advice about how to “make use” of this traumatic time. All the unsolicited advice may trigger feelings of shame or frustration, and invalidate your experience. If you are finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning or struggling to be productive, that’s normal. You are not alone. You don’t have to write a novel or learn a new language. On the other side of the coin, if you are finding yourself busier than ever, that’s also okay. There is no wrong way to respond…only a myriad of human ways to respond.
What Am I To Do At This Moment?
The next right thing is going to look different for everyone. If you’re struggling to function, maybe the answer is to ask for help. If your sobriety is suffering, maybe the answer is to honestly talk about your feelings with another person in recovery. If you are feeling exhausted and overworked, maybe the answer is to rest. If you are immunocompromised, maybe the answer is to extend your time away from others. If you are unemployed, maybe the answer is to look for a side hustle. If you’re not struggling, maybe the answer is to enjoy it.
Most complex questions have painfully simple answers – and this one is no different. Here’s what it boils down to: Be kind. That kindness starts with yourself. Offer yourself a little grace – no matter where you’re at. You’re doing the best you can – and so is everyone else. Just as it’s unhelpful to judge yourself harshly, it’s also unhelpful to condemn others. People don’t change when they feel shamed – they change when they feel loved. It’s easier to be compassionate toward others when you’re focused on learning how to treat yourself in a loving manner. That might sound counterintuitive but, when you are preoccupied with being kind to yourself, you don’t have time to get worked up over the question of whether someone else is wrong. You’re simply asking, “What do I do right now?”
Accepting that you can be right – and so can someone with whom you disagree – is a novel way of living in the world. But when we stop trying to control others and embrace the truth of our own experience, our lives become simpler, and our capacity for compassion expands.
Autumn Khavari is the Process Recovery Center’s in-house writer. She received an education in Substance Use Counseling from Beal College in Bangor, Maine.