The phrase "gaslight" creates confusion in people's minds whenever it comes up in a conversation. Thanks to the 1944 movie 'Gas Light' featuring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, the term gas-light became a popular phrase. The movie shows the husband tricking his very loving and trusting wife into believing his sense of reality, rather than her own, and making her think she is crazy. What exactly does this word mean now?
If you run it by a psychologist, it refers to the act of diminishing another person's reality by undermining facts and their feelings. Victims of gas-lighting are targeted by turning them against their own beliefs and how they should be feeling. The term has become popular as more people are realising their self-worth and recognising emotional and manipulative abuse. We all have been gas-lighted at least once in our lives. What happens when it is done by someone very close to you? More importantly, your parents.
In the movie, the husband deliberately lies and tricks her, maintaining that his wife is clearly not in her right mind. But there is a more subtle form of gas-lighting often found in Bangladeshi culture and society. Not only can your spouse or partner do it, but it can even seep into parenting. I have often found examples where my friends' parents are being emotionally manipulative when it comes to their children not conforming to society's rules.
A friend of mine complained to me once when she was studying abroad. During her last semester, she was beyond stressed out and was constantly crying and having bouts of panic attacks. She decided to tell her mother and ask for help in cutting back her stressful habits. To her surprise, her mother berated her for uttering the word stress because she does not believe a mere college student can have stress, she completely disregarded her feelings and told her to be strong like her cousins; if they can do it why can't you? was her answer.
Years later, when my friend started going to a therapist for extreme anxiety, her mother was baffled as to why she never got to know of her daughter's predicament. Till this day she maintains that she never knew her own child was having anxiety attacks and ignores the fact that she compares her with her cousins. Once during a particularly big argument when she was accused of dismissing her daughter's feelings, my friend was labelled with the classic 'beyadob' or mannerless tag, once again rendering her thoughts and opinions as useless.
Most Bangladeshi parents do it subconsciously due to their parental instinct to protect their child. It is usually difficult to detect but can easily get out of control and strain the incredible parent-child bond. When left neglected, it can manifest into long-term anger towards the parent and impact our mental and even physical well-being.
Parents in Bangladesh believe that only they know what is best for their children. Most of their beliefs revolve around how we must present ourselves to the world lest people think low of us. The usual 'What will people say?' is one of the driving forces of their gas-lighting tendencies. Our emotions are often disregarded as frivolous and ridiculous. Since they believe they can do no wrong, they never acknowledge their mistakes and apologise for them. These in turn create toxic environments in which the victims begin doubting themselves, questioning his/her self-worth. Even if the parents's intentions are not bad, it sends the children the message that their feelings do not matter.
Recent research and books like 'Gaslighting: Recognise Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People' by Stephanie Moulton Sarkis explain how people, including parents, can consciously and subconsciously affect children with their manipulative behavioural patterns and the effects they leave on their minds.
In a developing country like Bangladesh, where gas-lighting is not recognised, these parental attitudes are regarded as normal. Parents playing the victim in a problem and acting they are the ones wronged, being overly controlling and making the children feel worse about themselves in daily situations, can all cause immense mental harm to one's well-being. Psychologists now confirm that even adults who have faced some form of gas-lighting from their parents, experience difficulties to express themselves, not trusting friends and family and feeling withdrawn and anxious.
Of course parents should be appreciated for everything they do for us, after all, most of them mean well at the end of the day. But they need to realise the emotional well-being of the child and be empathetic towards them.
Many parents are unaware of their toxic methods in preserving control over their children and using it as a defense mechanism. If a child disagrees with your perspective, instead of saying something along the lines of "Do not be selfish, you are so ungrateful" try to step into your child's shoes and try to look at the situation from their perspective. Parents who feel overwhelmed when children do not share the same views as they do, should not force their own experiences or inner feelings onto their offspring. Self-awareness and recognising that a child is growing up to be an individual being, should bring in more positive changes to a parent-child relationship.
People who feel like they have been affected or been victims of this method, please do not think relationships between you and your parents cannot be remedied. If you recognise some of the signs of gas-lighting and your feelings are bubbling to the surface, you can try to learn to validate yourself. The most crucial step should be to compare their perception with yours and accept that you are capable of judging your own reality.
Melisa Khan is a freelance writer.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.