I didn't mean to start any trouble. I just wanted to have fun swimming with my family.
Gaslighting—it's a really trendy phrase right now. Dictionary.com defines it as "to cause (a person) to doubt his or her sanity through the use of psychological manipulation".
Basically, a person makes you question your version of reality.
I've had it happen a lot.
An abusive man who stole my credit card and turned me into the bad guy when I found out.
A dad who invalidated any feeling we had that he didn't like.
Friends who broke the house rules and called me "Benedict Arnold" when I told the guy in charge.
And in this case, a stranger in our apartment complex.
Wanting a Family-Friendly Atmosphere
Everything started out fine. It was a hot Texas summer day, so the pool was packed. We were there with a neighbor friend and her daughter.
About 30 minutes into our fun and relaxing time, a man (apparently named John) sat down about 15 feet from us, with two full-size speakers in tow. And as one does when they bring speakers somewhere, he started blasting his music.
And as life would have it, his music happened to be of a genre known for having plenty of swearing and other inappropriate content.
I had recently heard a story on the radio of a wife who confronted a convicted child predator when he was sitting at the community pool, watching everyone. He listened to her and left.
I figured I'd be brave like her, so I exited the pool and walked over to him.
The conversation went something like this:
Me (with a polite smile): Hi! Do you know if this music has any cuss words in it?
John (in an offended tone): Why would you ask me that?
Me: Well, are these your speakers?
Me: That's why.
John (again sounding offended): But why would you ask me that?
Me: This music has words in it, and I don't know the song. If it were classical music and without words, I wouldn't have come over.
John: I can't believe you would ask me that! Seeing that he was clearly upset, and me having an intense fear of confrontation that had already started manifesting, I took a (metaphorical) step back to ease the situation.
Me: I'm sorry. How could I have said it better?
John: How long have you lived here?
(I wasn't sure at the time how that was relevant.)
Me: Six years.
John: I come here all the time. I was teacher! I care about children.
Me (still in diffuse mode): That's awesome! I always wanted to be a teacher. So, how could I have said that differently?
He continued rambling, occasionally reminding me that he couldn't believe I asked him that. Since he obviously was never going to answer my question, I ended the conversation by telling him to have a good day.
The Emotions that Followed
As I stepped back into the pool, wondering what I had done wrong, I felt embarrassed. I was embarrassed that I had made a little scene. I was embarrassed because I saw some people staring at us while we talked. I felt like everyone had their eyes on me.
We decided to leave and go to a different pool in the neighborhood.
As the day passed, I became angry at him. I had just asked a simple question. My daughter's ears were extremely close to those speakers.
I started to realize that he asked me how long I'd lived there as an attempt to pull longevity on me; basically, "I've been coming here for (x) number of years, and everyone loves my music and loves me."
Sure, the childless 20-somethings probably love John the party guy. I probably would have at that age. I was angry because my child was there, and I was angry that he never asked anyone if his loud music would bother us.
Seems rude, selfish, and inconsiderate to me.
Then I started feeling angry at other people from my past. I was gaslighted in the examples above. I've been gaslighted many other times. And most of the time, I hadn't done anything wrong.
After several hours had passed, I finally became angry at myself. I have almost always just let it happen. Didn't stand up for myself. Why am I such an easy target? Why do I acquiesce and let people do this?
I would definitely consider myself a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). And according to my research, HSPs are more likely than the average person to succumb to gaslighting.
Basically because we often put the needs of others above our own. So when John felt offended, I instinctively started worrying about his feelings and put my concern for what my child might hear from his music on the back burner.
Coming to that realization sucks. My child should come first. But like I said, it was an instinct and not intentional.
So in the future, how am I going to prevent myself from doing this again?
First, by recognizing the signs:
A gaslighter might:
Deny something even happened
Say it's just my imagination
Minimize my thoughts, emotions, and experiences
Try to make me feel silly or stupid
Lie or omit information
Blame me for their reaction or behavior
Second, by protecting myself in these ways:
Trust my intuition
Notice and listen to my emotions
Speak confidently (even if I don't feel confident!)
Be compassionate to myself (not just to others)
Today I will remember...
I can stand up for myself in a polite way, being compassionate toward the other person but ultimately putting my own needs first.