Gaslight Words, Naming, A Trusted Witness

Doggedly committed as I am to therapy modalities that diverge from the “talking cure” I must admit that I love words. In the last few years, maybe since the internet became such a rapid-fire vehicle of fad and fashion, I have noticed with curiosity how certain words and phrases seem to be echoing everywhere, suddenly out of the blue. About a year or so ago, I noticed first with one client, almost every utterance ended with…”do you know what I mean?” At first, I thought she must feel uncertain about whether or not I am hearing or understanding her, a typical neglect issue. Then I began noticing those words everywhere, and still do. I have heard something similar with the term “gaslight,” which has become a household word. I don’t recall hearing it bandied around until somewhat recently. 

I remember the old classic movie, Gaslight, from which it emerged. Always a Hitchcock fan, I loved it, although it was not Hitchcock, but similar in vintage and style. For those who have not seen it, it is well worth watching, the story of a beautiful, wealthy young woman being swindled into believing lies that cast her perception/sanity into question, enabling her handsome and conniving beau to viciously rip her off. I won’t spoil it here, but rather say that “gaslight” has evolved into a verb meaning deception such as to confound one’s own perception of reality, even sanity, into confusion, doubt, or outright disbelief. It is truly “crazy-making.”

An undeniable factor in what the lasting impact of trauma and neglect will be, is the response, or not of important caregivers or important others, to a child’s distress. Parental, or authority denying, ignoring, minimizing or outright blaming for the child’s experience may be even more injurious than the original injury. Sadly, we know how much this happens.

In the case of neglect, where there is often “nothing” to point to, it can be all the more confusing. The child may wonder, “why do I feel so bad?” or so hated, worthless, forgotten, excluded… all the ways that a child of neglect will feel. It is insidious. And the more we learn as a field about developmental trauma including neglect, because it defies perhaps our deepest human and mammalian need: the need to be attached and connected, is perhaps the most devastating trauma of all. 

I had one client who struggled to make sense out of her history, and when she finally did, and tried to talk to her mother about it, her mother’s retort was “Unless you say that did not happen, we simply can’t have a relationship.” The young woman felt ripped apart, rather like “Sophie’s Choice.” She felt in a position to choose between herself and her own integrity; and her essential longing and need for her mother’s love. She could not resolve it, her mother ultimately died, and she was left haunted with the pain, remorse, guilt and confusion.  This is a big part of why I am on a mission to “correct” or re-cast the story of “nothing happened to me.” Not in a gaslighting sense, but rather in a “fact-finding” sense.

An undeniable factor in what the lasting impact of trauma and neglect will be, is the response, or not of important caregivers or important others, to a child’s distress. Parental, or authority denying, ignoring, minimizing or outright blaming for the child’s experience may be even more injurious than the original injury. Sadly, we know how much this happens.

Naming

I recently heard a story where, in light of the horrors of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, interest returned to research about a Pulitzer Prize awarded in 1932 to New York Times’ chief correspondent to the then Soviet Union, Walter Duranty. Perhaps Duranty was the “father” of “fake news” now 90 years ago. Then, without the internet and the instantaneous wildfire of world events, the reporting in the Times carried even more weight than now, and a Pulitzer is a weighty honor. In the 1930’s it was Stalin whose decrees led to mass deaths of Ukrainian citizens. Scholars studying the history and looking to rescind the prestigious award found in Duranty’s reports that Stalin was the “strong leader” that the Ukrainian people needed.

One example of Duranty’s “airbrushing history” was his use of the word “malnutrition” to euphemistically describe the widespread famine that plagued Ukraine, leading to hungry Soviet soldiers systematically going door to door, confiscating food from Ukrainian citizens. They seized grain, vegetables, livestock – whatever people had – resulting in mass starvation and death. Duranty’s prize-garnering reporting shrouded such facts in confusion. Both the Times and the Pulitzer Prize Board, even if they “distance themselves” from Duranty’s reporting, have resisted rescinding the prize. They believe they are “making up for the paper’s past shortcomings” in their sharp reporting of current Russian war crimes. Perhaps it is no accident that “gaslight” has penetrated our common lexicon.

One example of Duranty’s “airbrushing history” was his use of the word “malnutrition” to euphemistically describe the widespread famine that plagued Ukraine, leading to hungry Soviet soldiers systematically going door to door, confiscating food from Ukrainian citizens.

A Trusted Witness

Another source of internal chaos for the neglected child might be parental narcissism. 

The parent might be so wildly intrusive, overbearing or doting that the child might not even recognize how completely unseen and unheard they are. They might instead feel guilty, ungrateful and ashamed for not feeling cared for; or simply perplexed about what is “really going on.”  Even more so when the parent has their own tragic trauma history. The child is left to wander in a lonely daze. In Amy Tan’s beautiful Where the Past Begins, a Writer’s Memoir, she poignantly declares, “loneliness is not about being alone. Loneliness is about not feeling understood,”a hallmark of neglect. When there is parental narcissism, I often say, “There is no you!” Is there any wonder that the child would feel so empty?

It is absolutely true that words do not take us nearly far enough to heal from trauma and neglect. We need a full tool shed of modalities addressing body, emotion, brain and spirit. And yet words do matter also. John Gottman, the marriage researcher in developing his model of emotionally coached parenting, reminds us that when we accurately name the emotion that the child is feeling in the moment, that in itself serves to calm their nervous system down. Of course, in a full-on trauma state, it is not quite so simple, but accurate naming is the soundtrack for the essential mirroring function. I learn who I am by being seen and known by another person and putting words to my experience. If the words are accurate, I learn how to accurately name my experience and ultimately express it. Then I am able to connect with another. These are but a few of the missing experiences that come with neglect. 

For many a child of neglect, the language of emotion is a torn-out page from their personal “dictionary” and from their internal world. It may be a gibberish of sensation or physical pain, a cavernous void, or a “simple” non-category having no reference. Or it may be bursts of activation, seeming out of control, “metabolically expensive,” or nonsensical. Often a child of neglect will unwittingly choose a partner who, much the opposite, seems floridly or “disproportionally” emotional. Much as they “seek” to learn, it may be a bitter struggle to find equilibrium and harmony between them as they each wrangle with the missing part of the Self that they see in the other. Oy vey! No wonder relationship is so hard!

For the decidedly self-reliant child of neglect, for whom disavowal of interpersonal need is on the order of survival, the value of a “trusted witness” may be a hard sell. That does make sense. Especially if that witness is a paid professional. Even the adjective “trusted” may seem oxymoronic. However, the injury of neglect and of gaslighting being so very endemically interpersonal, the power and impact of being accurately and authentically seen and heard and understood by another person is ultimately a gamechanger. At least as far as I am concerned. Much as I love and believe in Neurofeedback, for example, without the accompanying psychotherapy, it is, as our dad used to say about reading poetry in translation: “like kissing a bride through a veil.”

John Gottman, the marriage researcher in developing his model of emotionally coached parenting, reminds us that when we accurately name the emotion that the child is feeling in the moment, that in itself serves to calm their nervous system down.

Today’s Song:

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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