Public Policy / Consulting

For more information on my work as a consultant and advocate on public policy issues, please visit my LinkedIn page. I provide consulting in government/public affairs; communications/interpersonal communications, networking/career and management/ issues management. You may reach me at sheri@sherbilderback.com. Thank you!

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My journey with Gaslighting & Establishing Healthy Boundaries

This morning I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and couldn’t sleep. It was my favorite sleeping weather. Just love the sound of the rain hitting the roof. Yet when you have epiphanies and inspiration, at least for me, they tend to come. You can fight it, or you can work with it. This morning in the early hours, I had the inspiration and knew I wanted to share because it could help others.

Gaslighting. The term “gaslighting” came from a 1944 movie by that name. I recently experienced gaslighting. I have in the past too. I think it came up because as an empath – someone who literally “feels” the emotions of others, has incredible intuition, who can “read between the lines” and who likes to be of service to and help others, and express and embody unconditional love without judgment – it makes one more susceptible to the behavior. As an empath, it’s time for me to learn how to set appropriate and healthy boundaries around gaslighting behavior. That’s why this happened. A nice, juicy opportunity to bite into and exam, and then learn how to create new boundaries. Being a life coach can be so fun – we get to coach ourselves! Live it to give it.

Gaslighting is a source of manipulation, but it’s worse than regular ‘ole manipulation. It is worse because it literally is trying to change reality, change someone else’s reality – a literal rewrite of history or experience. It often comes couched with intense anger and attack. The explosive anger that especially as an empath knocks you completely off-guard. That is exactly what it’s designed to do. Knock you off guard and distract from and reprogram the situation.

Someone is angry at you because of issues of guilt they have. You might have done something or shared something that then “triggered” something in them, even if it wasn’t anything you did wrong. The other person cannot face something, and you hitting their trigger forces them to look at it. They can’t handle that. They project onto you. But more than that, they then gaslight you.

They tell you that you are crazy, they tell you that you are disturbed, you’re weird, no one else they’ve ever known has felt the way you do. No one else in their life of vast and knowing experience or in human history has ever acted or behaved the way you do or did. They rewrite the facts to cover up something they did that they can’t face, and your reality becomes expendable. They do this subtly over time, slowly, to where you don’t notice at first, and to where they literally start to believe their own press and their rewritten story, and then attach more “righteous” anger to it. They are the victim, always. It’s not them. It’s not their fault.

A LPC friend told me this week that every time a memory is retrieved it is changed, even subtly, and add some intention and guilt and shame over it, and it is changed more. Then the next time the memory comes up and something is triggered, they rewrite it and change it even more. That was fascinating to me. So memories don’t stay in a perfect box each time we look at them, and when you combine it with someone who cannot handle a memory as it damages their ego self (ego in a psychological way, not a bad way), then there is a great deal of revision taking place.

Then they tell their story with the rewritten facts, with their spin, to others to gain support for their narrative, and then they use the “others” against you as a weapon. The “others” think you’re crazy too. The “others” think your weird, or nuts, or whatever. The “others” think you boil bunnies. (just love to say that, lol! Included the link for the younger folks who never saw the movie Fatal Attraction) Etc. and so on. They don’t talk to you first. They go to someone else to build their case before they talk to you, to further blindside you. They rewrite and create their case first so they have it wrapped up to use against you to stop you from doing whatever it is you feel or said or did because they cannot handle it. Many times, it is because they cannot handle their own emotions of guilt and shame. Again, projection, so they shame you. And then they react to you as if you are shameful.

This is a massive violation of trust. By the time you’re in the conversation, you feel confused, disoriented, asking yourself is this really happening? Why is this person so mad at me? Then you realize. They really aren’t mad at you. They are mad at themselves. They cannot stand their own guilt and shame over their behavior, so they make it about you. You made it up. It never happened like that. You’re crazy. It’s disturbing. You’re weird. You boil bunnies.

I dated a man for two years when I was earning my MBA on the side. I graduated in 1996. It was July 1995. He had been gaslighting me. I was so busy taking over my department at work – youngest ever to do it – and working on my MBA that I didn’t notice he was slowly eroding my faith in myself, my own judgment, what I knew to be true and my own reality – and what was true reality. One night I went out with a friend. He didn’t like it. He was always jealous. He showed up at my house, had a friend drop him off after they went out, was in my house when I got home (I stupidly had given him a key) and was mad that I was drunk….in my own damn house. Lol. It wasn’t funny at the time though. Then he walked home. I’ve fuzzed out some of the details over the many years – and that’s something that can happen anyway in gaslighting. It twists reality so much that you end up by the time a conversation is over not remembering how you got there in the first place. I remember that feeling vividly.

His name was Jason. He was mad. The next morning, I called my work voicemail, even though it was a weekend, and he knew this was the first thing I did every morning. He had called my work and left me a voice mail breaking up with me on my work voicemail. I was shocked. I was upset. He and I had talked about marriage, said we loved each other, and this was out of the blue. He did it to gain control over me. Already I had withdrawn a great deal from my friends given his gaslighting behavior, yet I still had them, and I still was a strong enough person. But I was not at all strong enough at that point to walk away, even though as soon as I got him back later that day, I knew it was the beginning of the end. I couldn’t take anymore change at that point.

We continued to date, but things had shifted. I “knew” what he had done. He had been emotionally abusive throughout our whole relationship. I began to talk to my friends, tell them what things had happened. They told me what they had already seen on their own and were just waiting for me to talk to them about it. He was the classic narcissistic example. When I began to distance myself, he conveniently got “sick” with some mysterious disease.

During this time, a funny story, he had told me that when we were married he was going to buy a BMV. He, not we. Keep in mind I made a lot more coin than he did, so it was rather ironic. He couldn’t have afforded a beamer if his ass depended on it! He said that he would drive his company car during the week and that he’d drive the BMW on the weekend. I asked, what am I going to drive then, the company car? He said no, you can’t drive the company car. His intention was for me to be car-less. And as if I could not buy my own car anyway. I filed this away.

After Christmas, so about six months later, I gave him back all the things he gave me, told him he could keep what I had given him, I wrote a check to him for a tennis bracelet he had bought me and then I promptly exchanged the bracelet to “cleanse” the whole thing. I broke up with him. Then he stalked me. Full out. I called the cops. They talked to him. The stalking stopped. (I later had several other men stalk me – those I’ve dated, those I haven’t dated, men I don’t even know, etc. Always an adventure!)

What did I do? I went out on a weekend on a whim and bought a BMW – because I could. Satisfying. And I swore that would never happen to me again.

Looking at things now, I see it clearly with a spiritual group leader and entire group I was in – a concerted organizational attack of gaslighting. The attempt to deliberately shift reality, to rewrite history, to tell me and everyone else that I was “crazy and dangerous” – true cult-esque behavior. Of course, I left that group several years ago, and I have flourished with my own non-profit. I never knew until this morning, thanks to this experience this week, that the organization had gaslighted me. I see it so clearly now.

I see it with a past supervisor at a non-profit with the manipulations after they found out I was looking for a gig and how they behaved when my Mom was in the hospital. I walked away in both of those cases, definitely the right choice. Yet that is not always the right answer. I’ve experienced it now with a dear friend, though of course, not to the degree of the other experiences. I will not walk away from my friend. My friend is a good person in the core and someone I highly value in my life and hope to for years to come.

Your feelings are your feelings. You do not need to explain them or justify them. Your feelings aren’t wrong or bad. They may be inconvenient for someone, but they are not wrong or bad. If someone attacks you for your feelings, or tries to tell you that you have feelings that you don’t, it’s not about you – it’s about them. The Four Agreements – “don’t take things personally.” If you have a conversation where you feel it’s surreal and you stepped into an alternative universe – that is exactly what happened!! You did!! Because it is an alternate reality, with rewritten facts by the other person for them to gain a feeling of control and feel better or find safety for themselves. That’s why they call it a “defense” mechanism. It happened to me this week.

However, truly, it is not always deliberate. I believe the case with Jason was deliberate. I believe the case at the former non-profit was deliberate.  I believe the case with the organization was completely deliberate, and there was some intro-projection of grief going on by the group leader (think Mars & The Real Girl – rent it, watch it, learn it, love it! A different brilliant LPC that I consulted with on ministerial issues a few years ago taught me about intro-projection at that time; I wrote a prior blog post that gets into that more).

I believe there are folks that have no idea they do this. My friend has no idea. It doesn’t make them a bad person. It is a defense mechanism, a coping mechanism for themselves. They cannot handle the truth. They cannot face what is within. They are not truly awake and have not done that level of self-work, and do not have that level of self-awareness. They are trying to find safety and feel safe, and to feel safe, they need to have things fit into a neat box. If it’s outside that box, it’s not safe, it’s not in control.

The answer is not to defend yourself. The answer is not to defend your reality. It doesn’t fucking matter what the other person thinks or tries to tell you – what anyone thinks – reality is reality. It’s not a matter of communicating more and finding understanding. Because the conversation isn’t about understanding. The conversation is about control. The person’s need to feel in control. Your normal healthy efforts to communicate and find understanding just don’t work. It actually makes it worse – it allows for you to be manipulated more as you seek to find common ground. Somehow you just end up feeling dirty in the end because you take on stuff that is not yours. That’s an empath problem too – you need to always ask yourself “is this mine or is this theirs/other?”

There is only one response. To do nothing. Do without doing. Respond and do not react. Do not defend. Do not get angry back for the way they treated you for the entire thing. Don’t justify. Don’t explain. Don’t do it. Yeah, so I tried to explain and do the understanding thing. Then I realized after a day or so that through this discussion I had learned some stark new truths about my friend and the situation, quite eye-opening. So now I know. Or if you’ve experienced it too, you now know. Now that I know, I can hold unconditional love and practice healthy boundaries.

The effort is to practice unconditional love and withhold judgment of them. Getting upset or reacting gives away your power – it hurts you and the other person. Recognize they are doing the best they can with the tools they have in their toolbox. Not that it gives them a right to do it, but you can set new boundaries and not allow it in the future – by not engaging. Argument does no good, conflict does no good, trying to get them to see something they clearly are not emotionally prepared to see both will not work and likely could be harmful them and their sense of worth and ego. And I don’t mean “ego” as in a bad way, I mean their ability to cope with their reality. Remember, it is a defense mechanism for a reason.

If you step back, hold it in your hand, become the observer, you can see it and read it like a book. O.k. well then again, I’m an empath so I do read between the lines. But if you really look at it, it’s in the black and white letters, not the between. Interestingly, I did share this with a LPC friend of mine this week. I shared and came up with any culpability I might have in the situation. She really didn’t see any other than sharing my feelings about something, which is not wrong or bad. She immediately named it as gaslighting. I had never said it to her, but I already knew that’s what it was. Naming it helps – a lot!

If it’s bad, you can just walk away. Like I did with Jason. Like I did at the old gig. This time is different than those experiences, and I choose not to. Rather, I choose to know that this dear friend of mine is a deeply flawed human being, who is a good person, who I care for deeply as a friend, and I wish them all the happiness. Not at the expense of my own of course, but all I need to do in this situation is not engage anymore. Yeah, I know, easier said than done, but practice makes the master! Lol. This is my continued life lesson of enforcing healthy boundaries. Now I am at the beginning of understanding a new boundary that needs to be held, and more importantly, how to do it! That’s often the tricky part right there.

Unconditional love does *not* mean unconditional boundaries. Healthy boundaries dictate that it is not o.k. for someone to yell/rage at you. It is not o.k. for someone to throw up smoke screens. It is not o.k. for someone to call you names, deride you, tell you how you would feel or should feel, tell you that you are crazy or to lie or to cheat or to try to make you doubt yourself because they cannot handle what really happened or your feelings or their own. From four different experiences that I shared above, you can see there are as many different levels of response you may choose, just as there are different people in the universe. Each situation is unique.

Knowing your own reality, you do not have to explain it or justify it to anyone. Anyone. You do not need to apologize. You need to be you. Respect yourself. Stand in your integrity. The spirit in me, honors the spirit in you. That kind of thing. It does not mean you give your power away. You just be you. And when it happens again, do not engage. Hold Love…and hold boundaries. Namaste.

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