The Downside of Relationships: Projection, Gaslighting, and Sick Family Systems

For all you ladies (and men) in difficult, toxic relationships out there that feel crazy. You’re not.

Your gut instinct tells you something is wrong. Believe it. The polyvagal theory explains why.

I have unfortunately experienced this feeling several times over a lifespan. At the age of nine, I told my parents they were toxic to each other and to get divorced. How do I know? I have an entire 9-year-old Megan diary that talks about it. They were mentally sick individuals that put their children in danger daily. And fortunately (or not), that and multiple other life experiences also make me good at what I do for a living; detecting when someone is not being honest and being able to bring that to light. I call it breaking reality.

I witnessed events that harmed friends, questioned whether I should tell those friends what I experienced for fear they will not believe me and lose the relationship. But, my choices then were to stay miserably quiet and suffer the stress of knowing that a person I cherish was being purposefully hurt and lied to, or to tell them the truth. I chose the truth every time. At least, it was my truth. At the end of the day, it would be revealed no matter what place I had in the situation.

Unfortunately, this caused the loss of some relationships. However, I knew people have the right to choose what they believe, and that is a process that I cannot control in life. So, I moved on knowing I did what I could, at least. In total, the truth was revealed every time, and I was able to repair these friendships.

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Why mention this?

Because this is a common situation I often counsel others on. And, my answer is always the same. I cannot tell you what to do or give you advice. I cannot make people change, and I cannot fix the situation. Neither can you (client).

I can say that you are right.

Your gut instinct is a physical sign that something dangerous threatens your safety. You detect that something is amiss and your body tells you that. From an evolutionary perspective, humans have three nervous system states in response to environments. Depending on the cues picked up through neuroception, the nervous system will enter the states of safety/engagement, fight or flight, or freeze.

However, people who have been constantly dismissed, discredited, blamed, shamed, gaslighted, and lied to (by omission or outright denial), have endured developmental trauma, begin to ignore these physical signs. They deny their feelings and their reality because the messages sent to them by others told them to do so, and reinforced each other.

It must be true if your family told you this and your partner. Right?

In dysfunctional family systems, rarely do those members want to hear your truth. And, if it is a distressful situation, they might outright refuse to consider anything you say. Often people in this situation will begin to doubt their own reality, their feelings, and accept responsibility for the actions or feelings of others. What do you do when you express your feelings, concerns, or witnessed truths to others and they tell you you are crazy?

Welcome to gaslighting. You are not the only one.

Your nervous system is constantly scanning the environment for threats of danger or signs of security. As mammals evolved they learned to survive in numbers. Thus, mammals also had to develop ways to stay safe and communicate in groups and to signal and pick up on signals of danger others give off. It unconsciously detects incongruencies, changes in others’ behavior, tone of voice, the content of what is said, moods (anger, rage, addiction, avoidance), and overall relationship environment.

If you have found yourself in a toxic relationship, you may have noticed inconsistencies, asked about them, investigated further, and were met with a host of angry, defensive responses, or even none at all. Silent rage- that deafening silence where the individual in question chooses to use silence and affection as a weapon by withdrawing it from the relationship when faced with questions or accountability.

Gaslighting is a tactic that abusive individuals use to manipulate their victims into believing they are going insane. Essentially the abuser uses constant denial, lying, misdirection, and contraindication to keep a victim from the truth. It effectively keeps their secrets alive, all the while manipulating the image of their character perceived by others. It takes the focus of attention off the person in question and places it upon the suspicious person. It projects shame and deception on the person who is investigating while not addressing what is being questioned at the same time. This alone keeps people in toxic relational patterns for long periods of time; sometimes for life. It is a common behavior related to narcissistic and other personality disorders.

It sounds like this: “How dare you. You are the crazy one. You need to see a shrink. You’re the one with a diagnosis. I have never been to therapy, and I certainly am not going to start. You’re the one who needs help. How can you believe I would do something like that to you? You are the problem. You bitch. No one will believe you if you tell them. You deserve this. You are a shit spouse. I wouldn’t have to avoid you/react angrily/cheat/lie/hit/steal/etc you if you only did what I think you should have done.”

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We all have the right to ask questions. Questioning is not accusing. And one person certainly is not powerful enough to control the actions of someone else.

At nine, I had no understanding of this. All I knew was that living as we did in my family of origin felt so awful that dying looked like the better option. When put into that perspective, I chose to leave my family altogether. Over time, they each had to face their own hells. When in situations with friends, I respected their choice to stay with their sick spouses but left the relationships for self-preservation. When seeing it pop up now in current familial situations, I thankfully have a strong boundary system on board to know not to personalize it. I refuse to take responsibility for the actions of others, the projections, or shame attacks purported by such people sadly unwilling to face their reality that they choose to spread their misery onto others through nasty, gouging attacks.

The reactions of others are not in your control.

The only aspect of life we can control is ourselves. We make hundreds of choices daily in interactions and behaviors, and it is that power of choice that most forget. We choose how to react or respond to situations, and we cannot control how other people do so. Trying to do such is called manipulation, and it is a dishonest maladaptive coping mechanism.

Ie. I’m not going to tell my wife/husband I’m drinking/using drugs/cheating on/lying to him/her because she would be mad at me and throw me out of the house/divorce me/take my kids away.

I remind my clients of this, and that they have a plethora of choices. And that every choice they make to deny their feelings is still a choice. Not addressing problematic situations is still a choice. And we can choose to react or to respond. We can choose to receive and believe these toxic messages sent by other mentally unsound individuals, or we can choose to develop inner boundaries and to get to know ourselves intricately- character defects and all. No one knows you better than you do. So, if someone accuses you of doing something you know you did not do, or having a heinous character, how do you react?

You don’t have to defend yourself.

Maybe I’m just old now and lack the energy to, but I stopped trying to defend myself against false accusations a long time ago. My attention is needed for more pertinent matters, such as family and career. If someone says I engaged in an action/event I know well enough I did not, then I do not take that message in on a personal level. For one, I left high school about 27 years ago. And two, I know myself better than anyone else. NO one else can define me unless I let them.

I respond that it makes me sad to hear that, but that I refuse to argue about events that are not factual and negate from bigger issues. And, I have known for a long time that I absolutely cannot make everybody like me. No matter what I do in life, some people will choose to dislike me because I have the wrong hair color, color of skin, butt size, or pattern of skirt they hate. Again, these are factors well beyond my control. Again, this is a fight that I am just not willing to take on. My time is most necessary for the important things- like my children. If I tried to fight every one of those battles against people that are projecting their own misery onto others, then I will end up going their crowd of destruction and grief. No thank you, I choose happiness.

So, my advice for individuals who get caught in such toxic cycles of relationships is to choose honesty with oneself and to decide what is tolerable versus what one cannot ignore. I also implore them to trust their instincts and to find out the reason they exist. Sometimes nervous systems are altered and not functioning properly, and sometimes reality is there is something to worry about. But, never stop questioning. Making sense of mysterious events is a natural human tendency, and there is no wrong in inquiry.

It is only through these means that a person can examine their own values and make choices that are appropriate for their lives. What is right for me is not right for another person and I certainly cannot make that decision for anyone else. However, I can point out that dishonesty with oneself is the greatest deception of them all.

Ask me how I know. Addiction is a sick, terrible disease. It is the only one that will convince you that you don’t have it all while killing you.

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