Will the Real Gaslighter Please Stand Up?

In this essay, J talks about the non-physical kind of abuse called gaslighting, particularly how the media she consumed and the traditional household in which she grew up perpetrate this toxic behavior. Read more as she unpacks this term to spread awareness on how it’s manifested in our lives and how we can cope with being gaslighted.



What is Gaslighting?

Months later and the Philippines is still in quarantine. If you live in an area with a stable internet connection, you might have scrolled a thousand times past the term gaslighting. Gaslighting refers to the psychological manipulation of a person wherein the perpetrator leads the victim to question their own reality. In 1944, there was a psychological thriller movie entitled Gaslight. In a nutshell, the husband manipulates his wife into thinking that she’s insane when she’s not.


Fast forward to 2020, as of this writing, the hashtag #gaslighting has over 243,000 posts in Instagram alone. Although it seems that a lot of accounts are already talking about this in the hope to spread awareness, I still see people throw this term around like it’s nothing. There are indeed red flags when it comes to gaslighting. However, I believe that misusing the word may contribute to the stigma associated with psychological trauma of gaslighted victims.


With the rampant ways in which netizens use the term, will the real gaslighter please stand up?


Gaslighting in Media


Asian Bad Boys

In the early 2000s, I used some of my free time to watch TV in the background while I ate my snacks. And Meteor Garden was showing almost every time. It’s a story about 4 rich boys called F4 who had a reputation of ruling the school because of their influential and rich families. Their lives shook when a poor but feisty girl named Shan Cai decided to fight against their reign.


(Spoiler alert)


At first, I hated Dao Ming Si, the leader of the pack, because he was an arrogant, aggressive, and entitled boy. But then something shifted and he started to show care for Shan Cai. Believe it or not, I ended up feeling kilig over their story, though I still believe that Shan Cai and Hua Ze Lei (Dao Ming Si’s best friend and the “nice guy”) should have ended up together.


I seemed to have fallen into a pattern because when Full House (a Korean series starting Rain and Song Hye Kyo) was shown in primetime TV, I behaved the same way. The main guy named Justin was a popstar icon and got into trouble with a writer named Jessie over ownership of a house. The pair fought like cats and dogs which, I guess, made it so charmingly cute when they started falling for each other. Classic Asian bad boy-feisty girl love story.


When both shows became available on Netflix, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to rewatch them. By that time, around 2019, I was already subscribed to the feminist mindset. Which was probably why I couldn’t finish it like I usually do when I binge watch series. Warning: more spoilers ahead!


Dao Ming Si sexually assaulted Shan Cai in an early episode! Justin left Jessie out of the house until she was cold and sick! How the heck was I falling for these terrible, terrible characters? And then when these guys started to “fall” for the main girl, suddenly they’re the best ones? Even when they’re doing the bare minimum to be nice? Well, of course they’re going to be nice; they’re already attracted to the girl!


Excuse my intense ramblings but I can’t believe most of us grew up watching these TV shows and thinking, “Oh this is normal. When a guy shows that he hates me or is mean to me, I can fix him and we’ll end up together in a cute way.” Or maybe, “I see. So I can treat girls in a trashy way then show them little bits of kindness when I start to get attracted to them and that’s a cute love story.”


Raise your hand if you bought posters and notebooks covered with the faces of these Asian bad boy characters.


Grand Gestures

It’s not only in Asian shows that these classic bad boys are present. In award-winning films like The Notebook, we are also made to see these characters in rose-colored glasses.


Remember how Noah refused to pursue Allie until she said yes to a date with him? He went to great heights, literally, by hanging on a ferris wheel! Well, who could say no to that? Allie did. Twice. She even said, “...because I don’t want to.” Noah then threatened to let go of the bar, potentially falling to his death, just so he could force her to say she wants to go out with him. Boys, girls, and non-binary folks, forced consent is NOT consent.

Allie saying no to Noah and being coerced into going out with him


More films and shows like Fifty Shades trilogy, Pretty Little Liars, and Twilight romanticize grand gestures that mask the problematic nature of their relationships. The idea that you can fix a broken person or mask inappropriate relationships by romanticizing them is just twisted. Even crowd favorites such as Friends and How I Met Your Mother fall in this bucket. Both Ross and Ted have their share of huge egos that they can’t handle career-oriented women who know what they want.


Relationship Influence

This is not to say that victims of abuse are at fault for subscribing to these stereotypes. I just wish there was some sort of guide when we watched these on-screen stories that say, “Hey, this is not what love looks like, okay?”


The common plot cycle that we get from rom-coms when applied in real life is not the kind of relationship that’s stable and loving. When your significant other hurts you whether physically or not, then lovebombs you or performs some grand gestures so you’ll forgive them, but then do practically nothing to change their hurtful behavior, that’s manipulation.


It’s the emotional and psychological kind of abuse that makes you question whether it’s your fault that they hurt you. This is also gaslighting. In some cases, the kind where they actually tell you it’s your fault. The kind that makes you defend their ill actions to you against your concerned loved ones. The kind that always finds excuses for themselves because “they love you”. The kind that values their needs over your consent and boundaries.


"The common plot cycle that we get from rom-coms when applied in real life is not the kind of relationship that's stable and loving"


Gaslighting at Home


Let’s zoom in further to another unit that influences our impressionable young minds. Some homes actually exude an environment that encourages emotional and psychological abuse excused by the word parenting. In most Asian households, filial piety is expected. Even though this forms a large part of Asian joke content, it does mirror reality, which is probably why people find these jokes hilarious.


At a very early age, I and my siblings were taught to use words of respect to the elder like “po” and “opo”. We were taught to make mano. And, of course, to NEVER talk back. Because talking back to elders meant disrespect.


Sticking to these traditional family values proved to be very difficult for me. My teenage mind couldn’t understand why I still had to be composed and calm when an elderly relative was shouting. When I asked him to stop shouting, he clapped back, “I’m not shouting. This is my normal voice!”, while shouting even louder.


Whenever we had arguments or I made a mistake, I didn’t get a chance to fully explain myself. Even worse, past mistakes I thought were forgiven were instantly brought up like fresh wounds. It made me feel like I did everything wrong. I was called an ingrate for breaking down in front of him after months of quietly crying. He manipulated me into thinking that talking about my feelings was selfish, because he said that if we swapped lives, then I’d see he had it worse than I did. That I’d understand everything once I’m older. (I could go on, but then you’d never finish reading this article.)


Well, I am more than a decade older and I do understand, but not in the way he thought I would. Because now, I know that my feelings are valid. Talking back is not absolutely a bad thing. On the contrary, being able to talk about feelings without disregarding each other’s state of mind is very much healthy. I now realize that while they said they deserved respect from us, they actually were just demanding authority over us.


Gaslighting Ourselves

Yes, you read that right. As individuals, we are subject to internalized gaslighting. When we consume media that romanticizes gaslighting or live in a household that equates gaslighting with respect for elders, how can we not develop the same mindset and live it as our truth?


Personally, I’ve fought against self-doubt and engaged in self-sabotaging behavior. This is because there are days I believed in what the gaslighters taught me. Whenever I start to succeed, I question my credibility. Am I the right person for this? What if one day they realize that I’m just faking it? Sounds familiar? You may recognize it as a more famous term called the impostor syndrome.

TED-Ed video on Impostor Syndrome


Whenever my inner critic’s voice is louder than my self-esteem, it’s difficult to trust in my own strength. I apologized profusely for things that aren’t my fault. Sorry, I need that report sent to me at the end of the day to meet the deadline. I didn’t know how to accept compliments. Naku, hindi naman. (I’m sure that’s not true.) Up to now, I still overexplain myself due to my fear of being misunderstood and hurt.


But what’s worse is that some of the toxic behavior from before rubbed off on me. I began bringing up past mistakes in present arguments and talked over other people’s feelings as if my feelings were always more important.


It became hard for me to argue with people because most of the time I saw their objective criticisms as personal attacks. Such is trauma. Only with the proper support system and many hours of introspection was I able to realize that this cycle of gaslighting needed to end with me. I apologized to the people I’ve hurt who I am still in touch with. I am still a work in progress, though.



Now What?

I saw gaslighters in the TV shows and films I loved when I was a kid. I was manipulated by a boy when I was a teenager into excusing his psychological abuse because “he loves me” ( and thank God, that’s over!) I came across gaslighters in the comfort of my own home as a child. Even now in my twenties, I have conversations with people on the internet who make me believe that my feminist mindset is selfish and unkind. And sometimes, I still suppose that they are correct.


If you’ve encountered gaslighting, chances are you may experience a warped sense of self. With this, it’s easy to fall into instances where you may be gaslighted (or gaslight yourself) and you wouldn’t even notice because it has been a normal occurrence in your life. Here are some suggestions on how to reclaim your boundaries and self-esteem.


Pause before apologizing.

Take a quick pause whenever you feel the need to apologize. Victims of gaslighting have been observed to say sorry profusely even when there’s nothing to apologize for. This is because they were usually made out to be the bad person or the scapegoat.


As I mentioned before, I personally am unlearning this tendency with the help of my support system, because unconsciously making something your fault when it’s not is unhealthy. This is important especially when your boundaries are being disrespected. Like, when I call out some pals for their sexist jokes or they poke fun at things inappropriately, I sometimes hear them reply, “you’re too sensitive.” Hmm, am I really too sensitive or are they being offensive?


Practice introspection.

Things tend to fall into patterns. Look within yourself to identify yours and try as much as you can to break away from them. Learn more about your boundaries and stick with them unapologetically. Recognize when your inner critic is being mean and unreasonable.


Whenever my mind is cluttered or when I am not sure of my current headspace, I meditate from 5-10 minutes and write down my feelings. I read them again and practice some breathing exercises to ground myself back to reality.



Pursue help.

For victims who experienced gaslighting over a period of time, it may be difficult to get on with life alone. I encourage you to pursue professional help if capable or even just an accountability buddy to help you out in your self-care practices. Always remember that you don’t have to go through this on your own.


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I hope that you now have a better idea on the real gaslighters in your life. They may not admit it themselves or even apologize for the damage they have dealt. And that will be a hard pill to swallow. The journey to healing is difficult and progress is not linear. If you or anyone you know need to talk to someone about your current mental health state, dial 0917-899-USAP (8727).


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