I Survived My Gaslighting Family, but I'm Still Getting Over It
A sexist father and addict mother did their best to psychologically manipulate their daughter. She wasn't having it.
One thing you should know about me is I have always been righteous, almost to a fault. You might think my parents instilled this in me. It would make sense to learn a sense of fairness from my family.
I didn’t learn it through their example: My gaslighting family modeled the exact opposite. With substance abuse issues, untreated mental illness and serious anger management problems, my family reeks of dysfunction and emotional abuse. Their belief system, imparted by my father, is lacking in terms of right and wrong.
What It’s Like to Have Gaslighting Parents
My father is conservative in the worst way. He has deeply rooted, antiquated ideas about everything, including gender and anyone who is different from him. My father views women as lesser than men, not as worthy of respect or jobs outside of a home (or traditional woman’s job like teaching). He asserted those ideas over and over as I grew up both through his actions, like favoring my brothers, and his words.
“Women shouldn’t earn as much as men. They call out when they’re on the rag.”
“A woman shouldn’t be in politics. She’d be too busy running her mouth and gossiping, not leading.”
“Leave the big decisions to the men. They think logically. Women are always blaming their hormones.”
“Have you ever heard a hormone? It sounds like this, ‘Ohhhhhh,’” he’d say as he rolled his eyes back in his head and crudely imitated a woman enjoying sex in front of me when I was a young girl, snickering at my discomfort.
My mother and siblings went along with his beliefs. Sometimes they’d egg him on, encouraging him with their own remarks. Other times, they’d just laugh.
The unspoken family motto is, “Toe the line and talk the talk or else.” No one acknowledges the “or else” but me, the only one who always goes against the family grain.
“You take everything too personally. Just like a woman,” my father would sneer whenever I voiced my opposition to his words or actions. “Well, I am a woman,” I would think, not understanding why my chromosomes made me less than in his eyes.
Gaslighting Signs Were There. I Just Didn’t Realize It.
From the beginning, I was different from my parents and siblings. Instead of conservative thoughts and values, I’ve always been a progressive and quick to champion the underdog. Rather than aspiring to be a teacher or secretary or something else traditional, I dreamed of being an artist or writer and making my ideas seen and heard.
While my dad was the one with the loudest voice and most hurtful, biased opinions, everyone else was always quick to fall in line. Except me. Always the outlier. This made me, a person with a vagina, the perfect scapegoat and a second-class citizen within my own family unit.
An article in a 2019 edition of the American Sociological Review argues that gaslighting is a sociological problem. They state that it is a type of abuse rooted "in social inequalities, including gender, and executed in power-laden intimate relationships."
Now I understand that this is what my family did to me to keep me in my place. Growing up, I had no idea whether or not I should trust what they were trying to teach me. On the one hand, they were my family. Family is supposed to care for you and have your best interests at heart. On the other hand, it just felt deeply unsettling and wrong. None of it made logical sense.
I was constantly belittled and demeaned. Still, my father looked to me, the oldest daughter, to step in and be a parental figure to my younger siblings when my mother’s addiction and mental illness left her unable to safely parent us.
I took years of psychological manipulation from them. My mother would stand in the kitchen holding a bottle of narcotics after I’d voice my opinions. She’d shake them into her hand, never taking out fewer than three. "If you didn't do this, I wouldn't need these pills," she'd say. "I wouldn't drink."
My dad would yell and throw things and hold me responsible for her benders. If only I wasn’t so strong-minded, they tried to make me think, if only I’d stay in my place and keep my mouth shut, my mother wouldn’t drink or use pills. She wouldn’t make my father angry.
"If you could be this way, it'd be easier," they all would say in their own words as if I could fundamentally change myself and end the drama within the family.
It was all my fault.
I’m Still Getting Over My Family Gaslighting Me
I have since set very firm boundaries with my parents, much to the dismay of the rest of my family. My mother is not in my life. I limit my time with my dad so my children don’t absorb his toxic worldview—particularly my daughters. I want them to grow up knowing that they can be and do whatever they want, and they aren’t limited by what someone with a penis says they can and can’t do.
Tensions run high over my decision to enforce boundaries. A few times a year, one of my siblings tries to convince me I'm overreacting and being cruel simply by protecting myself and my children from the vitriol and dysfunction—that things weren’t as bad as I remember and I’m just giving in to my weak feminine sensitivity.
Occasionally, I receive an unexpected package for my kids or have a quick, pleasant text exchange with my father. Then I wonder: Am I being too harsh? Should I give them another chance? Is it wrong to keep their grandchildren away?
I voice those thoughts to my husband, my close friends. "No," they tell me and then they rattle off a list of things my family has done that justifies my decision to break the cycle. And I remember that I'm not the one in the wrong. I'm not the one that committed atrocities against myself. I did nothing wrong to warrant the gaslighting other than just being born the way I was.
After my doubt wanes, the anger inevitably creeps in. I’ve spent an entire lifetime fighting to be valued and heard. It’s weary and unfair and it makes me so mad not just for me, but for everyone else who is fighting a longer fight for value and respect just because of the way they were born. And it doesn’t have to be this way for anyone.
To other women out there that feel silenced, I hear you. I’m listening.