As we noticed the topic of “gaslighting” coming up more and more in conversations, my partner and I decided to watch the 1944 film with Ingrid Bergman that spawned the term. In the film, and in common usage of the word, a “gaslighter,” for their own selfish gain, consciously manipulates someone into doubting themselves.
The classic gaslighter is a sociopath, calculated and relentless in breaking down their victim’s self-confidence, self-esteem, self-trust, and even their sense of sanity. This sort of gaslighting is extreme and, one hopes, relatively rare. But I see a much more common, subtle and insidious form of gaslighting all the time in my work and life. I’ll call it “shadow gaslighting.”
It’s generally understood that we each have an unconscious aspect of self that influences us and drives our behaviour from beneath conscious awareness. This unconscious self is sometimes called the shadow. Our shadow includes the parts of our self that we have disowned or denied because they are frightening, disappointing, socially unacceptable, or because they threaten our positive self-image.
“Shadow gaslighting” is when these disowned parts of ourselves manipulate people in our lives in order to serve their own purpose. An unconscious part of self expresses itself and pursues its own agenda but goes unacknowledged in our awareness.
Other people in our lives, especially our spouse, may sense our shadow at work. Because we deny the presence and influence of shadow unconsciousness in us and in our behaviour, these other people feel an incongruence in us: what we say does not match how they experience us.
They may take us at face value, wanting to believe what we tell them about our intentions, feelings etc, but underneath, at some level, the incongruence undermines their trust in us and perhaps their trust in their own experience. Here’s a story to help illustrate –
“I’m not resentful!”
Louise was shocked to discover that her husband Francois was considering leaving her. She knew things had been bad since the baby was born, but she was blindsided by his revelation that they were actually on the brink of divorce. When they came to see me it was quickly obvious to me that Francois held strong resentments toward Louise; resentments that spanned years and ran deep. And yet, interestingly, he would not admit to having resentments. It became apparent through therapy that he was unwilling to admit to being resentful because it would contradict the image he had of himself. “Resentful” was a human quality that Francois would not allow himself, and so he had driven it underground where it persisted unconsciously as shadow material. While Francois desperately tried to hide his resentment with denial (“I’m not a resentful person! You’re imagining it!”), the resentful part of himself grew more insistent. It was demanding to be seen, to be acknowledged and confronted. His resentment, long buried, was now breaking through to the surface of consciousness.
Francois’s resentment broke through the shadow realm into the surface of consciousness while we worked in session. This is not uncommon. Often an individual or a couple comes to see me when a powerful aspect of their unconscious shadow is working its way up into awareness. Subjectively, this feels like breaking down. Something feels drastically wrong, and so a person might decide they need help… fixing… therapy. If the timing is right I can potentially help this person as they retrieve the disowned parts of their self and attend to their developmental tasks.
The necessity of self-confrontation
In this particular case, I could see Francois struggle to confront the long-held, unacknowledged resentments that were coming to the surface and threatening his self-identity and his marriage.
For Francois, resenting his wife was incompatible with being a good person and a good father. To acknowledge that he was resentful meant that he would not feel like a good person or a good father, and so he hid it from others and from himself.
Confronting his resentment was viscerally agonizing for Francois. He choked and sobbed and wrung his hands. But he saw it through. In no uncertain terms he managed to face his resentment and to own it, right there while his wife watched and listened. Francois was resentful, and he said so.
Of course this was painful for Louise, but also a relief. At least now she could feel congruence in Francois. Because he was now able to confront (and tolerate) his resentment, his shadow would no longer need to gaslight her in order to protect him from the intolerable feelings of “being a resentful person.” Francois grew his capacity for tolerating these uncomfortable feelings and in doing so he become more congruent.
I see some version of gaslighting by the shadow in virtually every single person I work with or have any type of deep relationship with (including myself). I’ve come to believe that we ALL have disowned parts of ourselves that threaten to contradict or reveal the personas we present to others and identify with.
Examples of unconscious “shadow gaslighting”
Here are some ways that we unconsciously or semi-consciously “shadow gaslight” a spouse or partner –
- We might say “I feel hurt” when our shadow feels angry. (Anger has been disowned.)
- We might say “I feel angry” when our shadow feels hurt. (Hurt has been disowned.)
- We might say “I’m not attracted to that person” when we do not trust our attraction or eroticism. (Attraction and eroticism have been disowned.)
- We might say “This is all your fault” when our shadow feels the burden of responsibility, but is unable to tolerate it. (Responsibility has been disowned.)
- We might say “No, no, everything is OK” or “This is all my fault” when we are unwilling to risk conflict. (Conflict has been disowned.)
The list goes on and on. In every case, our words protect our shadow and belie the deeper truths of our desires and fears.
It’s important to understand that these are not outright lies or manipulations; we are not, after all, fully conscious of what they are based upon. When we are unable to confront the needs, and hence the influence, of our own shadow, our partner feels our dissonance and this creates anxiety, mistrust, distance, conflict.
Persistent gaslighting by the shadow is a significant but poorly understood cause of confusion, regret, bitterness and blame in a marriage or relationship. If we’re willing to acknowledge the existence of shadow within ourselves and within our relationship, we may be able to retrieve some of the disowned parts of ourselves that are creating unrest. If we understand the needs of these shadow aspects and attend to them, greater integrity and truth-telling becomes possible.
Through mindfulness practice, therapy or other means we may gain the insight, courage, and humility required to retrieve our shadowy parts and bring fuller congruence and awareness to our behaviour in our relationships and in our lives.
Working towards personal integrity
This retrieving of shadow, of the parts of self we’ve disowned, is an act of integrity. When we say someone has “integrity”, what do we mean? Usually we mean that we experience them as congruent; their speech matches their actions. We deem them trustworthy.
One way of understanding personal integrity is this –
Integrity is strength obtained through wholeness.
“Acting with integrity” doesn’t mean acting according to some high moral code as much as it means expressing oneself as a whole person; not necessarily whole in the sense of not having different “parts” or a variety of voices, but as someone one who has done some work with their unconscious shadowy parts and has built a relatively honest relationship with them.
This work is probably never complete, but is a lifelong journey. There are milestones and significant accomplishments along the way but no definite end. It’s unlikely that we ever become fully conscious beings with nothing to hide and no shadow to protect, although that is a worthy ideal, and is perhaps one way of understanding the quest for spiritual enlightenment.
Interestingly, if we deny the existence of shadow, of the disowned fears and desires in our self and others, we will always take literally the failures of integrity we see around and within us. We will judge harshly and assume we are being treated with hurtful intention. If, however, we acknowledge the existence of shadow, and recognize how shadow protects itself by acting out from beneath conscious awareness, we may respond appropriately without undue judgement and bitterness.
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