Ep 48: Gaslighting and Emotional Manipulation

Episode Summary

Stephanie Sarkis, author of Gaslighting, explains how parents should handle emotionally manipulative teenagers, partners, and ex-partners. She also shares strategies for preparing your teen to deal with emotionally manipulative people in their own lives.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

When her article on gaslighting for Psychology Today went viral, Stephanie Sarkis knew she’d found a topic people were interested in. Millions of people read and shared the piece because they identified with being in the type of relationship Stephanie wrote about, where subtle manipulation tactics make you feel bad about yourself.

That’s what inspired her to write the book Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People–And Break Free.

Gaslighters are often very charismatic and they start by flattering you and telling you how incredible you are. Next, they try to isolate you from others by telling you not to trust your friends and family members, or that you are unsafe without the gaslighter around to protect you.

The best thing to do when you encounter people like this, Stephanie says, is to cut them out of your life, block their phone number, block their emails, block them on Facebook, and stop reading their letters.

However, if the person is your spouse or ex-spouse and you have kids together, it’s very difficult to cut them out of your life. So I asked Stephanie what to do in these situations.

She taught me how to avoid saying things to your kids that can be used as ammunition by the other parent. She also revealed how to deal with “Flying Monkeys”, or people that the gaslighter sends to talk to you and tell you that you’re over-reacting and you should give the gaslighter another chance.

Another important topic we covered is what to do to prepare your teenager for dealing with emotionally manipulative people. Stephanie emphasized the importance of warning them about the signs of gaslighting early, before they get involved with a gaslighter. Because when a teenager gets into a relationship, especially with a gaslighter who is telling them how great they are, it’s a very difficult time to “talk sense to them”.

She talked about what you can say to warn teens about emotional manipulation ahead of time so that they will have their defenses up when they see this type of flattery being used on them.

She also explained how to set and enforce healthy boundaries with your teenager.

Another interesting topic covered in this episode is how to communicate your own needs to your teenager in a non-confrontational way. Stephanie has some great tips for how to get teens to help out and act more respectful.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1.  Warn your teenager about emotional manipulation tactics:

“If you’re on a first date and the person starts talking about how you’re the most wonderful person they’ve ever met and they’ve never felt this way before, that’s a red flag. It feels great to hear those things but we have to really pay attention because that’s a manipulation tactic.”

-Stephanie Sarkis

2.  When you come home and find dirty dishes in the sink:

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3.  Get your teen to clean their room when company is coming over:

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4.  Appreciate the small progress your teen is making to reinforce it:

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5.  When your teen lies to you, use humor:

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6.  Call your teen out when they speak disrespectfully to you:

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7.  When your teen gives you the silent treatment, wait until they are talking again then say:

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8.  When your teen isn’t talking to you, say this:8.  When your teen isn’t talking to you, say this:

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Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Make You Teen Feel Safe Talking About Emotional Abuse:

There are people who will make your teen feel bad about him or herself either with obvious verbal abuse or with more subtle unconscious emotional manipulation. Talking about the more subtle forms of abuse, when we get a feeling someone is crossing the line but aren’t 100% sure, is difficult. It feels vulnerable to share about these experiences. But you want your teen to talk to you about this stuff so you can coach them on how to respond. One solution is to share your own story of a time when you suffered emotional abuse of some kind. Or when you realized someone was making you feel good only so they could use you for something. Write about a time when someone used emotional manipulation on you. Then choose a day this week and make a plan to speak with your teen and tell them the story.

2.  Set Healthy Boundaries with Your Teenager:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: … in the time. I found out about you from your book, which is called, ‘Gaslighting, Recognizing Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People and Break Free’. I just devoured this book. I saw it at Powell’s in Portland, and picked up a copy, and really just kept dog-earing pages like, “Oh, wow, this is interesting. Actually, this sounds like a thing that teenagers do.” So I was super interested because it’s a concept that people have maybe heard about, gaslighting, but you for the first time sort of started to get like … codify it and figure out the science behind it. So what inspired you to be so interested in this subject, and how did you then go become the book writer of the Gaslighting book?

Stephanie: So I work primarily with people with ADHD and anxiety, and I noticed a pattern of people winding up being in these dependent, abusive, relationships, where I think sometimes when you have ADHD or anxiety, you unconsciously seek out someone that may seem like they have their act together, and can help you … not so much help you. I just noticed that people that are vulnerable are prone to getting into relationships with someone that turns out to be a narcissist or sociopath. I think also because people with anxiety and ADHD tend to be more sensitive to other people’s feelings and needs, I think that the gaslighters prey on that.

Stephanie: So I started noticing that more, and more, when I met with couples, and for individual therapy as well. Then I wrote the article on Psychology Today, 11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting. Then that went viral. The term gaslighting, we’ve used that to talk about emotional abuse for … the movie came out in the ’40s, but we first started using it to talk about emotionally abusive behavior in the ’60s. But it really hasn’t shown up regularly until now, in the last four or five years, or so. So I’ve noticed more, and more, people coming in realizing that, “Oh, I was in an abusive relationship.” And they didn’t know it, because this type of abuse … sometimes people don’t always consider the emotional type of abuse to be abuse.

Andy: Ah, I see that. Okay, so what then exactly is gaslighting and what distinguishes it from other types of abuse?

Stephanie: So gaslighting is a way to keep you off kilter. It’s a way to manipulate you, and to make you feel that you can’t trust yourself. You need to rely on the gaslighter’s version of reality. The purpose of that is just to gain power and control over you. So it is a part of emotional abuse, and gaslighters will tell you things like, “What you’re seeing and hearing, isn’t what you saw and heard.” Or, “I never did that,” or even if you know the person did it, and you have obvious proof of it, they will still deny it. Or they’ll tell you, “Well, everybody thinks you’re crazy.” Or they’ll say things like, “Oh, your friends, or your sister, knows that you’re crazy. So if you try to leave, if you go to tell them, they’re going to know who the real problem is.” That kind of thing.

Stephanie: So people feel trapped in it because they feel like they’ve relied more, and more, on the gas lighter. So that becomes the only person that they’re communicating with or spending time with. That’s exactly what the gaslighter wants. They want your undivided attention, the way they do that is to isolate you.

Andy: The thing that struck me in reading this book is, wow, this isn’t like something that there’s just a few of them out there. This is pretty common. And the more I read this, I was like, oh wow, I know multiple people that display a lot of these … and people are on to like a spectrum, I guess, a gaslighting spectrum or whatever. And some people are more than others. But I think, even if you aren’t necessarily like, “Oh wow, I’m in an abusive relationship.” Or, “I have a friend who’s really emotionally manipulative.” By uncovering what these tactics are. You start to see them and the people that you know, and the strategies that you talk about in this book, I think just help you regain your power in your relationships a lot.

Andy: So what are the things to look for in terms of the strategies that gaslighters will use to achieve that, to separate you from other people, and make you depend on them?

Stephanie: Well, first they do a thing called love bombing, which when you first meet them, they will shower you with affection and tell you how wonderful you are. That’s really nice to hear, but the gaslighter will overdo it. The purpose of that is to reel you in. Then once they know you they’ve got you hooked, then they do a de-valuing thing, which means that you fall off the pedestal they put you on. And it’s a long way down, and you never get back on that pedestal again.

Stephanie: So what I tell people is, you’re on a first date and the person automatically jumps into, you’re the most wonderful person I ever met, and I’ve never felt this way before. That’s a red flag, even though, again, we like hearing that stuff, it makes us feel good. It gives us a dopamine boost, right? But at the same time, we have to really pay attention that that’s a manipulation tactic. So that’s called love bombing, and that may last for maybe a week, two weeks, as long as you get hooked in the relationship. Then all of a sudden that drops, and then the abusive behavior goes gradually. So it’s not something they’ll overnight, they are abusive, which is one of the issues that why people are in these relationships, is that this isn’t something that happens overnight. This is a gradual ramping up of abusive behavior. So it’s that proverbial frog in boiling water, frog in the frying pan, or whatever it is, that you turn gradually turn up the heat.

Stephanie: So that’s one of the main issues is that this is really insidious, and really quiet at first. It’s making comments about what you look like, or your friends, and then it starts ramping up and maybe hiding your things, and telling you how irresponsible you are. And splitting, like you mentioned, splitting is when you try to pit somebody against somebody else. So like I mentioned the whole sister thing. So, “Oh, your sister said that you’re no good. You’re a liar.” So what they’re trying to do, is even though your sister never said that, they want you to distance yourself from your sister, because maybe that’s a source of support for you. So now you’re relying more on the gaslighter. So that’s splitting.

Stephanie: The de-valuing again, is putting up on a pedestal and then knocking you down. That either you are wonderful and a hundred percent great, or you’re nothing. That’s how the gaslighting views people, all or nothing.

Andy: So what is a flying monkey and how do you spot one coming at you?

Stephanie: So the term comes from Wizard of Oz, that the wicked witch would have flying monkeys go do her bidding for her. So what that is, that’s when you try to leave, you have flying monkeys, or mutual friends, family members, say to you, “Well, you know, they really miss you and you should contact them.” Because the best thing to do when you’re with someone like this, to leave, is to block their phone numbers, block their emails, have no contact with them. That’s not always possible in some relationships if you have kids together, but usually having no contact is the best way to go. So you’re trying to just go on with your life, rebuild, and you have people come in and tell you about your ex or that they really want you back. This is just a way that the gaslighter tries to get you back into their clutches, because gaslighters have this bottomless pit of narcissistic need, and they need someone to fill that pit and it’s bottomless.

Stephanie: So that’s also why when you’re in a relationship with a person like this, they tend to cheat often, because they’re always looking for someone else to fill that need because the newness of the relationship wears off. So again, they’ll send flying monkeys out. So the best thing you can do is just say to them, “You know what, that’s a no fly zone. We’re not talking about him.” Or that we’re just not going there. So that’s the best thing to do is just tell people that you refuse to talk about, and getting messages.

Stephanie: I remember one client said to me, “Well, I don’t want to be rude to my friends and family.” I said, “But you can still say, I’m not going to talk about them and do it in an assertive way. That’s not rude, that’s just setting boundaries for yourself.”

Andy: One thing that strikes me, that’s kind of difficult with this, we focus on teenagers. How to talk to teenagers about difficult things. It strikes me that one thing … one place where this happens is when your teen is in a new relationship with someone and as a parent, you can see what’s going on. But especially if it’s in this early love bombing phase, where this person that they’re involved with is really showering them with praise. It’s really hard to be the parent and say, “Hey, I don’t think this person is very good for you.”

Andy: So do you just have to wait for the love bombing to fade out? How do you navigate those waters as a parent if you see your teenager starting to get into a relationship with someone that is demonstrating these kinds of behaviors and manipulation?

Stephanie: First, it starts even before that, educating people as to what a gaslighter is and what to look for. Because when you’re a teenager and you meet your first love, you’ve got your oxytocin going, your bonding hormone, and everything’s great. Maybe there is love bombing, so-

Andy: Sure. It’s a really tough sell to see.

Stephanie: It is, and you’re the parent, so the more you say, don’t go out with a person, the more your kids are going to want to go out with them. But again, it’s educating them so that when they get into this relationship, they see any of these behaviors, it gives them a red flag. Also, just to make sure that there’s open communication, and say, “I know that this can happen. I just want you to keep your eyes open for it, and come to me at any time and talk about it.”

Stephanie: It’s hard, but you want to be as nonjudgmental as possible. If you say anything bad about the partner, kids again, will try to latch onto that relationship. That’s their way of individuating, they’re trying to separate from their parents. This is one of the way that they do it.

Stephanie: So with the kids, you have to just again, tell them what a gaslighter is, open communication, nonjudgmental. If they’re in this type of relationship, you can say to them, “Hey, I have some concerns about this relationship and this is what I’ve seen.” Or sometimes parents will say, “I notice you haven’t been yourself lately, and I’m wondering if there’s anything you need to talk about. Just to know that sometimes people don’t always have your best interest in mind, and it’s something that I want you to know you can talk to me about it.”

Stephanie: Now obviously if there’s physical abuse going on, because unfortunately gaslighting can lead into physical abuse, of course you have to intervene. Again, you can intervene at the early stage of relationship, but again, teens, kids, tend to hold on tighter to their partner. So it’s tricky, it’s tricky. So a lot of it’s just letting them know and open communication, and just checking in with your kid and saying, “Hey, how’s everything going with so-and-so? Do you have any questions because I know that this is kind of new for you? I just want you to know there’s healthy relationships and unhealthy relationships.” And also teach them what a healthy relationship is, which is you have open communication. If you bring up an issue with someone, that person listens, and they don’t blame you for bringing up an issue, which is something that gaslighters do. So not only do we have to tell kids what an unhealthy relationship is, but we also have to tell them what a healthy relationship is as well.

Andy: The be non judgmental, I think is just so important for everything with teenagers. Because the more you say, “Oh, hey, I don’t like this person, and I don’t think you should be with this person.” Then that forces your teenager to then cognitively kind of double down on the fact that, well I am fine and I can handle myself. I am going to be with this person.

Andy: So then when the love bombing is over and when they do start to notice things, they’ve now locked themselves in deeper. Just because if they now go to you and say, “Oh, hey, I don’t know what to do about this relationship because it’s not what I thought it was.” Now they’re like losing to you almost because you had said that, “I don’t think this is good for you.” And they had said, “Well, I’m fine. I can handle myself.” Once that happens, then it’s like you dig into these sides. Then it becomes really, really, hard for what you want to happen as a parent, is you want the kid to be able to come to you and say, “Hey, can I talk to you? I don’t know, I’m in this relationship, and I don’t know if it’s quite healthy or not. I can’t really tell.”

Andy: Because a lot of times with gaslighters, you kind of have a feeling that something is off, but they keep you on your toes a little bit and you can’t quite tell. You just want them to be able to talk to you about those things. So I think that non-judgmentalness is so important. And also maybe sharing a time when you’ve been in a relationship with somebody, or a time when you’ve gotten sucked in, and you’ve thought someone was just the greatest, and then you realize later on that they were manipulating you.

Stephanie: Right, and a side piece to that. So when you do that, you want to make sure you don’t give too much details because your kids are going to get really grossed out. So, you want to just say that there are sometimes people … that you could say, well, one time in a job, because we had gaslighters at work too. So you can say, “One time in a job I had this person, and they stole my ideas, and then they told someone they didn’t do it, so that kind of personality is what we’re talking about.” Because kids have this idea that you only had sex once to make them and that was it, and you didn’t enjoy it. So they really don’t want to hear about your past relationships.

Stephanie: So I think it’s really important just to say that there are people that you’re going to meet that do this kind of behavior. And you can say, anybody’s run into this. You could say I’ve done it at work, or I knew someone in high school, but you don’t want to give them too many details too, because then the kids will just go la, la, la, la, la, cover their ears. So you want to be careful.

Andy: That’s so true.

Stephanie: Yeah, and we tend to over explain as parents. We tend to just tell them everything and we don’t really need to do that. But I think it is important, totally agree that it’s important, to bring up that you’ve been through that too. So it’s not so foreign.

Andy: So yeah, I like that because you talk in here about how friends, a lot of times, it’s not just romantic things, it’s relationship with your friend. It’s people at work that do this to you. It’s even your … people in all areas of your life can be gaslighting you. So I think being able to not come to your teen from a place of like, “Well, don’t get taken in by these people because that will happen to you, and that’s not good.” But coming from a place of like, “Hey, I’ve gotten taken in by people who I thought were just the greatest, and then came to realize later on they just were using me for whatever, my ideas, or just so they can use my car in high school.” Or whatever the thing is.

Stephanie: I like your judgemental parent voice too. But it’s one of those things to step back and go, well, the feeling I’m having of judging this, what is that about? Is it me protecting my kid? Or is it me maybe not feeling comfortable with them dating yet? So you have to look at why you’re having that feeling, and again separate out from that. It’s really hard, I’m not saying it’s easy at all, but again, your kids are more likely to talk to you if you’re nonjudgmental.

Andy: A section in this book that was pretty big that I found really fascinating is on co-parenting. A lot of times it’s the ex-partner who is the gaslighter and it’s this parent who’s trying to figure out how do I now raise these kids when I have to share custody with this person who tells them bad things about me, and is emotionally … tries to get back at me almost by telling the kids, “Oh, don’t listen to your mom, she’s just trying to control you.” And, “You don’t have to do that. I’ll just buy you one.” Obviously, if it’s a gaslighter in any other area of your life, just get out of the relationship, stop communicating with the person. But this is a situation where you’re stuck with this person. So in that situation how do you approach it?

Stephanie: Well first I’ll just add that when you’re sharing a life experience with a gaslighter do not bring up the parent, the other parent, because you just don’t want to go there. So when you bring up past experience with gaslighters, talk about work, or high school, or something like that, but don’t talk about the other parent. So that’s one guideline.

Stephanie: The other one is to have a really detailed parenting plan worked out, and you can go to a parent coordinator for one of those, or go to a mediator. The parenting plan says that you cannot speak badly about the other parent. You cannot leave any documents about custody or divorce out when the children are present. You can’t talk about any legal stuff while the kids are present, even if they’re just in the house because little pitchers have big ears, kind of thing. And also sometimes gaslighting parents will leave documents out so the kids can see them. Or also put in the parenting plan that no financial issues are going to be talked about by either parent to the children, and messages are not to be sent. Also, parenting plans give really detailed instructions as to how you’re going to communicate with the other parent.

Stephanie: So again, that parenting plan, it’s one of those things that if the gaslighter they’re bad at following boundaries, that you can always default to, “Hey, the parenting plan says this.” Then it’s the court not you saying it. So that is your fall back plan.

Stephanie: Also again, you don’t want to try to beat the gaslighter at their game, because you’re going to lose, because these people are master manipulators. So if you try to gaslight back, it’s going to backfire on you. And also keep in mind too, that this is your child’s parent. You may think that they’re a terrible parent and you wish you’d never met him, but it’s your kid’s parent. So there’s that bond that a kid has with their parents, it goes beyond rationale and it’s there. So that’s where you want to make sure that you don’t say anything badly about the parent, even if you really want to. That’s something best to be saved for going to your own therapy, or talking to your friends when your kids aren’t around, and venting, but not to your kids.

Stephanie: Also keep in mind too that sometimes gaslighting parents will try to pump kids for information about what’s going on at home. Again, kids have that loyalty to both parents. So whatever you’re saying about the parent, just picture that being brought back to the other parent and that’ll really get gaslighters going.

Stephanie: So, again, I really recommend getting a parent coordinator, and quite a few parent coordinators are well versed in how narcissistic personalities work. And it keeps you moving forward with getting your parenting plan together. It even goes down to, well if your kids younger and they don’t drive yet. So let’s say that you have an exchange point, well you wait there for 20 minutes and after 20 minutes you can go home. I’ve seen parenting plans that actually have that in there. Because a gaslighting parent will say, “Well, I’ll be there in a few minutes. I’ll be there in a few minutes.” And they don’t show up, or they show up an hour later just to get you riled up. So that’s actually put in the parenting plan. I’ve seen extremely detailed multi-page parenting plans. Again, that’s the best way to do it because gaslighters tend to not respect boundaries and rules.

Andy: Yeah, right. Wow, that is so cool. So how do you set that up? Is that something you have to set up before the divorce is finalized, and it’s part of the divorce paperwork, that there is a parenting plan? So then is it possible to do that if the divorce paperwork has already been done? Can you still now somehow create the parenting plan and get it legalized? Or has the ship sailed on that?

Stephanie: Well, I’ll just add a caveat that all the laws differ by state, but usually you can do a parenting plan after the divorce papers have been signed. You can sit down with a mediator, again a parent coordinator, sometimes a court appointed parent coordinator. Sometimes you can go ahead and just make an appointment with one. Sometimes gaslighters tend to not want to go to a parent coordinator because they they don’t want to be exposed, so to speak. But you can have this done at any time, and again, it’s an agreement just that you’re going to follow certain boundaries.

Andy: Doesn’t it seem like the issue with that is that then the gaslighting parent is going to use it as fuel to say, “Oh man, your mom’s making me do all typical … Your mom’s making me do all this crap, just like she does to you guys. And trying to control me.” Et cetera, et cetera.

Stephanie: That’s a good point. But what parent coordinators say is, “Well, you both sign this, so this applies to the other parent too.” Good parent coordinators will say, actually talking to your kids about that is a violation of the parenting plan.

Andy: Right.

Stephanie: Then you’re in contempt of court. So then you’ve got a lot backing you up as far as consequences to that. But again, a good parent coordinator will point out that this is equal for both parties. That nobody’s, quote unquote, won here, because gaslighters are really into winning. So they are in to winning or losing, the black and white stuff. So you talk about, again, keeping the focus on the fact that you want your kids to be happy, healthy, and safe, and that’s-

About Stephanie Sarkis

A therapist in Tampa, Dr. Stephanie Sarkis specializes in ADHD, anxiety, & gaslighting. She is a bestselling author,  American Mental Health Counselors Association Diplomate, and a Clinical Mental Health Specialist in Child and Adolescent Counseling – one of only 20 in the U.S.

Stephanie is also a Florida Supreme Court Certified Family and Circuit Civil Mediator, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and a National Certified Counselor.

She is a blogger for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post.

Dr. Sarkis has a PhD, EdS, and MEd in Mental Health Counseling from the University of Florida. She maintains a private practice in Tampa, Florida, and she has written a total of seven books.

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