Gaslighting: What it is, and How to Recognize it

It wasn’t until after my first marriage that I first heard about the concept of “gaslighting,” and as soon as I understood what it meant, I thought, “Wow! I wish I’d known about that years ago. That perfectly describes my 6 years of marriage.” I’m hopeful that I can save you years of pain and frustration by sharing this information with you now.

The term comes from the 1944 black and white film, “Gaslight,” which I’ve actually taken the time to rent on Amazon and watch for myself. It’s dated, but still a wonderful psychological thriller, and I definitely recommend it. In the movie, the main character marries a man that seems perfect in every way. He’s charming, handsome, wealthy, and appears to be completely in love with her. After the wedding they move to his ancestral home where things slowly and insidiously start to unravel. The woman’s belongings keep going missing and appearing in strange places, and the gaslights (from which the movie gets its name) keep turning on and off at strange times.

When the woman tells her husband about these peculiar occurrences, he tells her that they aren’t actually happening and that she is losing her mind. He even goes so far as to get a psychiatrist to examine her and back up his claims of her insanity. His insistence on her mental instability is so pervasive that she actually starts to believe that she is going crazy until the big reveal in the end, when we find out what his devious plan was the whole time. I won’t spoil it for you.

“Gaslight” is a wonderful example of the slow, methodical and insidious nature of gaslighting. It’s a long game power play where the perpetrator slowly makes the victim question her/his own reality. The Psychology Today article, “11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting” by Stephanie A. Sarkis, PhD, describes gaslighting this way, “Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.” The slow and methodical nature of gaslighting is what gives it such power. Because of the steady and mounting message the victim receives that her/his senses can’t be trusted, it begins to feel like the truth.

11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting by Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D.

According to Sarkis, there are 11 warning signs of gaslighting to watch out for, and I’d like to explore them here.

  1. They tell blatant lies
  2. They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.
  3. They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
  4. They wear you down over time.
  5. Their actions do not match their words.
  6. They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you.
  7. They know confusion weakens people.
  8. They project.
  9. They try to align people against you.
  10. They tell you or others that you are crazy.
  11. They tell you everyone else is a liar.

Let’s explore these symptoms in more detail. I think that the first two make a good pairing. Gaslighters love to lie. They use it as a tool to confuse you. Even if you have a recording of them doing the thing that they’re lying about, they will continue to lie and tell you that it didn’t happen. They’ll do it with a straight face and belittle you for trying to stand up for yourself, truth and reality. Why do they do this? Well, because over time it makes you start to question the nature of truth and facts. It makes you think that maybe nothing in the world is certain, which is exactly what they want. When you no longer know the nature of truth, you are easily manipulated to believe whatever the gaslighter wants you to believe.

Number three, using what is near and dear to you as ammunition against you, is a potent tool. My ex-husband used to use my religion against me–attempting to control me based on religious beliefs about gender and relational power dynamics. I’ve worked with clients who intimidated their partners into staying with them by saying that they would take away their children if they left. Remember that this is a power and control tactic. It’s not based in reality, but because it touches on deep-seated fears, beliefs, or values it works to intimidate and control the victim.

Number four, “they wear you down over time,” is an important one. Gaslighters start out with a friendly and welcoming demeanor, and charm their victims into trusting them, and then over time begin to introduce their power and control tactics one subtle drop at a time. By slowly chipping away at the victim’s reality and relationship to truth, victims often don’t realize that their worlds have become more and more confusing until they don’t trust their own senses at all, which leaves them in the precarious position of looking to the gaslighter to tell them what to believe. This is exactly the outcome that the gaslighter wants.

Number 5 is probably the biggest give-away of a gaslighter. “Their actions don’t match their words.” They tell you that they are going to do something, and then they don’t do it. They tell you something was done, and you then find out that it wasn’t. They make promises that they don’t keep, and then they tell you that they never promised it in the first place. If you start to notice this trend, run!

Number 6, “They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you” works like this. The gaslighter has told you that you’re crazy and don’t know anything one too many times, and you’re starting to think this person is a bully and you need to get out of the relationship, leave the company, or even the country. Then, suddenly the gaslighter does something nice for you, gives you a gift or a compliment, a tax break, etc. You think, “well, maybe they’re not so bad. Maybe I was over-reacting,” and then the gaslighting resumes even stronger than before.

As the victim’s confusion deepens, number 7 comes into play, “They know confusion weakens people.” Our ability to trust our own senses and interpretation of reality gives us a rootedness in life. By eroding your ability to trust that you know what is true and not true, the gaslighter is literally cutting you off at the root, leaving you weakened and dependent on them for support. That is the entire point of the gaslighting process.

Number 8, “They project.” This one is super weird when you experience it. You confront the gaslighter about bad behavior, and instead of taking responsibility, they accuse you of doing whatever it was that they did instead. For instance, my ex-husband used to accuse me of being bad with money when I would talk to him about the fact that he had just emptied our bank account. Gaslighters do this because it distracts you from the reality of what happened and makes you start defending yourself instead.

Number 9, “They try to align people against you.” This tactic may or may not be reality.
Gaslighters tell their victims that others are against them, and that the only person that the victim can trust is the gaslighter. Remember that they lie, so they may be making it up, but they may actually go so far as to poison people against you. I had an ex-boyfriend who called me “psycho-bitch” to anyone who would listen. By making people believe that I was crazy, he isolated me from my support system in an attempt to make me more dependent on him. This tactic also served to make people question the validity of my statements, especially about him and the way that he treated me.

Number 10, “They tell you or others that you are crazy.” I touched on this earlier, but this one is super important and bears repeating. I find that the operative word tends to be “psycho.” If anyone ever calls you psycho, run. If they call their exes psycho, run. If they call their family members psycho, run. Don’t look back. This person is very likely a gaslighter.

Number 11, “They tell you that everyone else is a liar.” Your world is already on shaky ground. You don’t know what is real and what isn’t anymore. You’re not sure that you can trust your own senses or that you’re mentally sound. Then, the gaslighter tells you that your family, the media, your friends, other countries, or some group are always lying to you. Since you don’t know what’s true anymore anyway, this gives the gaslighter the power to shape reality to his/her own benefit.

Anyone can fall victim to these tactics. This isn’t something that only happens gullible people. It happens to smart, educated and powerful people all of the time. If you’re reading this and recognizing that there is a gaslighter in your life, don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. Don’t try to change the gaslighter or reason with them. It won’t work. Just leave.

It will take time for the world to start to make sense again after being gaslit, and that’s OK. Give yourself the patience and gentleness that you were missing with the gaslighter while you heal and find your footing again. The important thing is to just be with yourself as long as it takes to get to the other side of healing.

The Healing Power of Yoga

It is my fervent belief that yoga saved me from a life of chronic illness, but when my neurologist at the time, Dr. Purcell, suggested it, I didn’t have any idea of the healing powers that yoga offered.  I was just so desperate to be well that I would have done anything that might actually help.  It was only later that I came to understand why yoga healed me the way that it did.  

It shocked me at the time that my nausea went away almost instantly after starting yoga classes.  I couldn’t account for it, but I was grateful for it beyond words.  The constant year-long nausea and vomiting had been the worst part of my illness, by far.  After that, I quickly re-gained the strength, stamina and motivation that had abandoned me, and I began to live again.

It took years to obtain the diagnosis that eventually led to a coherent treatment plan.  It wasn’t until well after I recovered that the label “spasmodic torticollis” came into my life.  I had to google it to understand exactly what it described, having never heard of it before.  It’s such an unusual and odd sounding term that when people ask for my diagnosis and I give it to them, they usually give me a blank look and say, “What was that again?”

In his book, Healing Yoga: Proven Postures to Treat Twenty Common Ailments—from Backache to Bone Loss, Shoulder Pain to Bunions, and More, Loren Fishman, MD has a fortuitous little blurb about my condition.  He writes, “A third condition that occurs in the neck isn’t as common, but if you’ve had it or even if you’ve seen it on someone else, you won’t forget it.  It’s called spastic torticollis—literally spasmodic turning of the neck.  It happens when one group of muscles gets really tight and turns the neck.  Sometimes the head turns in jerking motions, and sometimes it turns and stays in an unnatural place.” (Fishman 122-123).  

For some time after recovering from the worst of my illness, I had the jerking motions Dr. Fishman describes above.  My head would involuntarily turn to the right over and over.  It was embarrassing.  During the day, when I was in public, I would fight the head turning with everything that I had, and completely exhaust myself.  At home, when I was alone, I would relax and let my head do what it would, leading to half watched TV shows and great difficulty in keeping my place when reading.  Fishman writes, “This is a condition so painful and so intransigent that you may need a yoga therapist or a doctor who can give an injection that will alleviate it at least temporarily” (Fishman 122-123).  

Dr. Fishman’s assertion that spasmodic torticollis is extremely painful is, I think, the reason that my diagnosis and treatment took so incredibly long to obtain.  I don’t have much pain at all.  I have the odd headache, and my neck and shoulders tend to be a little bit sore, but I really don’t have significant pain.  In the very beginning of my illness, my ears and my scalp on the left side of my head hurt, making it difficult to sleep or wear a headset, but that pain went away fairly quickly.  

Doctors kept asking me about pain, and when I said I didn’t have much, they immediately dismissed me as a “hysterical woman” trying to get attention for something that wasn’t really very bad.  I would like to point out that pain is not the only thing that makes an illness terrible.  In fact, I probably would have preferred pain to the ongoing nausea and vomiting that I endured for a year and a half.  At least people that are in pain can eat, and they don’t starve to death.  

However, Dr. Fishman is right about the injections.  Every three months I go in to see my current neurologist, Dr. Matich, who is wonderful and warm and helpful, and she uses a machine to measure my involuntary muscle contractions.  She does this by inserting a probe into each affected muscle and listening to the sounds they create through a special machine.  Sometimes my muscles whoosh and growl like storms.  Dr. Matich then injects botox into the extra loud muscles to help them relax, and I can hear the muscle-storms grow calm.  Over time, this has been a helpful addition to my care, but I honestly don’t think it’s nearly as helpful as yoga.

In Healing Yoga, Dr. Fishman describes how “Laboratory and clinical studies have confirmed that pain from upper cervical joints and muscles can be referred to the head” (Fishman, 121).  I think this was exactly the complicating factor in my own illness.  I believe that what happened to me goes something like this: the whiplash injury that I endured caused the upper cervical muscles in my neck to go into spasm, which irritated muscles and nerves in my head, leading to migraine symptoms, but no pain.  I had the visual disturbance, nausea, vomiting and cognition problems that go with severe migraine, but the pain never showed up, which confused everyone—including me.

If he had known about me and my illness, I believe that Dr. Fishman would have backed up my neurologist’s suggestion that I treat my symptoms with yoga.  Dr. Fishman writes, “Appropriate yoga is good for almost anything that ails the neck and for pain referred from the neck to the head. . .  It improves suppleness of the neck muscles and increases the versatility of the joints so they can move more easily in many different ways.  It refines the coordination of the various muscle groups, so muscles aren’t pulling against each other with such ferocity” (Fishman, 123).  I believe that these benefits are part of the reason that I began to feel much better quickly after beginning my yoga practice.  With my neck muscles in spasm, I needed something to interrupt the process of pulling muscles irritating the tissues in my head, and yoga miraculously did that for me.

However, I think there was another contributing factor.  I think that the muscles, nerves, and other tissues in my neck and my head were terribly inflamed by the whiplash injury, at least partially causing the migraine symptoms.  Multiple studies have shown that inflammation is a leading factor in many of the chronic illnesses that people suffer from, such as fibromyalgia and chronic back pain.  Treatments for pain often focus on decreasing inflammation using NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories), such as over the counter ibuprofen, or stronger prescription versions, like Naprosyn.  Many people, including myself, take a daily turmeric pill, which is a spice used in some forms of cooking, because it’s been shown to have anti-inflammatory qualities. 

I didn’t know it at the time that I started my yoga practice, but yoga decreases inflammation too.  Dr. Fishman writes, “We physicians can’t do much apart from medication for swelling of joints; your body can do more by itself, using a molecule called PGC-1alpha. This is a potent endogenous anti-inflammatory that reduces swelling anywhere it occurs in the human body.  Gentle activities such as yoga and tai chi, and especially yoga done for long periods of time, encourage the body to release this miraculous substance from your muscles” (Fishman, 122).  The joints in my neck were certainly inflamed after the traumatic whiplash injury that I suffered, and I believe that getting involved in yoga significantly helped to reduce that swelling through the release of PGC-1alpha.  How miraculous!  

Because of its anti-inflammatory effect, I believe that yoga should be a frontline treatment for any physical ailment that is caused by inflammation.  Can you imagine the wellness that would result if doctors would prescribe yoga for arthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain, and any of the other ailments that they usually prescribe pain medication for?  I truly believe that the world would be a much healthier and happier place.

Speaking of happiness, I’d like to say a little about how chronic illness affects mood.  Dr. Fishman writes, “. . .chronic pain does more than cause people to lose days of work.  It’s depressing.  It produces anxiety.  It makes life so hard that sometimes it doesn’t feel worth living.  I think it’s extremely important to address pain that could be or is becoming chronic and end it as soon as possible” (Fishman, 86).  While Dr. Fishman talks about chronic pain being depressing, I would like to add that chronic illness is depressing whether pain is involved or not.  Before my injury and subsequent illness in 2011, I was the happiest I’d ever been.  I had found a group of people where I seemed to fit in completely for the first time in my life.  I was active and social and enjoying every minute of it.  Then, the whiplash injury happened, and my happy life became very small and extremely unpleasant.  

As I sought help, doctors kept telling me that my symptoms were the result of anxiety, and they kept pointing out how anxious I was in the appointments, and how sad and alone I was.  I argued that I was anxious because I kept seeking help from professionals who dismissed my symptoms, and I was depressed because I was terribly ill and unable to do the things that made my previous life so wonderful.  But the doctors continued to insist that my symptoms were the result of anxiety and depression, not the other way around.  I found this incredibly frustrating and demeaning, and it’s refreshing to have Dr. Fishman acknowledge that chronic illness leads to a life that doesn’t feel worth living, because it absolutely does.

However, it appears that the psychological effects of chronic pain and illness are even worse than I previously thought.  Dr. Fishman writes, “. . . there is a less-recognized reason: chronic pain that lasts more than a year seems to have negative effects that last much longer.  A study done at Northwestern University shows that a year of chronic back pain actually shrinks the gray matter in the brain by as much as 11 percent, the equivalent of ten to twenty years of normal aging, and that loss is directly related to the duration of the pain” (Fishman, 86).  Ten to twenty years of normal aging caused by one year of chronic illness!  Honestly, that blows my mind, but I’ve seen it happen.  

In my own case, after my illness went into remission, and I got treatment that made sense, it took a couple more years for me to be able to focus on reading a book, or to be able to write the way that I had prior to getting sick.  I’m sure that recovering from brain atrophy was one of the reasons that it took me almost 10 years to get my book project together.

My grandmother became ill within the past few years.  Within a year of getting sick, she went from a vibrant older woman who managed a home of her own and loved to sew quilts, to a woman who needed 24-hour care and couldn’t recognize her own grandchildren.  Now she’s living in a nursing home that specializes in dementia care, and I’m certain that her illness was a major contributing factor to her mental decline.

Truly, we must take chronic illness and chronic pain seriously.  It not only decreases life satisfaction, causes anxiety and depression, it actually causes brain damage.  The good news is that in addition to other wonderful effects we’ve already discussed, yoga can help with the terrible mood and brain problems brought on by illness.  Fishman writes, “Clinical trials confirm that yoga helps reduce distress and depression and promotes a sense of calm well-being” (Fishman, 191).  He also explains that yoga is being used to treat PTSD. “The Naval Medical Center in San Diego and other military VA hospitals are offering yoga to help Marines, soldiers, sailors and others wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Preliminary military studies have found that the calming effect of yoga can assist PTSD patients in dealing with hypervigilance, flashbacks, depression and anxiety” (Fishman, 201).  Honestly, I think yoga is the cure-all that people are looking for, but it is under-prescribed and under-utilized.

Please spread the word about the healing effects of yoga.  Even though it’s more work than taking a pill, I think it’s more than worth the effort.  It saved my life.  It could save yours too.  Dr. Fishman lists multiple ailments that he has personally and effectively treated with yoga, including: back pain (both neurological and musculoskeletal), rotator cuff syndrome, headache, weight control, bone health (osteoporosis), insomnia, scoliosis, premenstrual syndrome, depression, restless leg syndrome, bunion, and plantar fasciitis.  While this is an extensive list, I’m willing to bet that there are many more conditions that would respond positively to treatment through yoga, and I encourage you to give it a try.

The Importance of Belonging Instead of Just Fitting In

Depressed people often tell me that they spend most of their time pretending to be happy. They feel that they must–that it’s expected of them. They say that they are exhausted by keeping up the pretense of cheerfulness, and that it feels like a mask that they wear to fool the people around them into thinking that they’re “normal.”

Every time someone tells me that they wear a mask of cheerful pretense, the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby pops into my head:

“Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?”

Clearly this sense of wearing a mask to fool the world is not new or isolated. In fact, I would bet that we all have done it from time to time. Some of us are better at it than others. Personally, I’m terrible at it. When I try to pretend, I come off as cold and stiff, and everyone knows that I’m not acting normally.

Susan David, in her TED Talk, “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage,” says that “being positive has become a new form of moral correctness.” She calls this “a tyranny of positivity.” I agree with her. Somehow pretending to be happy is seen as better than living an authentically felt life, and people are shamed for being “negative,” or displaying emotions seen as “bad.” As a result, people walk around wearing happy faces, but feeling dead inside.

You may wonder, what’s bad about pretending to be happy? Isn’t that the point of “fake it ’till you make it?” The answer is that pretending to be happy cuts us off from authentically connecting with other people, and authentic connection is one of the greatest and most basic needs of human beings.

Below is a picture of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which came up regularly in my college psychology courses. Starting from the bottom of the chart, you’ll see the most basic human needs for food, shelter, water, and clothing. Once those are satisfied, the next level is for safety. Directly after basic survival and safety comes love and belonging, including a sense of connection. Connection is not a luxury–something that might be nice to have one day. Connection is number 3 on the hierarchy of human needs. It’s that important.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a scalable vector illustration on white background

However, there is a big difference between belonging and fitting in. Fitting in happens when people conform in order to be accepted into a group. Fitting in is that lonely feeling of wearing a face that you keep in a jar by the door. It’s the exhaustion that you feel after pretending to be happy all day when you want to cry on the inside. Fitting in does not fill that basic need for connection. Instead, it makes us feel even more lonely than being alone.

Belonging, on the other hand, is the feeling of ease that you have with a trusted friend. Belonging is the knowledge that it’s OK to show your authentic feelings, because the person that you’re with will understand and will continue to support and love you. It’s only in belonging that the basic need for a sense of connection is fulfilled.

In order to have true belonging, it’s necessary to be vulnerable, and while the idea of vulnerability may be so uncomfortable that it immediately makes you want to stop paying any attention to what I’m saying, please stay with me. This is important.

In her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brene Brown explains that “in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen.” In order to feel that authentic connection that is one of our basic human needs, we have to be able to take off the mask, stop pretending to be happy when we aren’t, and show our true faces. The longer that you’ve been pretending, the more vulnerable this will make you feel.

When I work with clients on their need to belong, they often tell me that the idea of not pretending is preposterous, and that there is no way that they would allow themselves to be so vulnerable. I tell them that the fact that they had such a strong reaction tells me that vulnerability and the ability to be authentic is where the true work is for them. If you’ve had a strong reaction to the idea of being more authentically vulnerable with people, the same goes for you.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you go around telling your deepest darkest secrets to everyone you meet. Being vulnerable with people is a process. It doesn’t happen all at once. If there is someone that you think you might like to get closer with, reveal something small to them and see if they can handle it, and if they share something small with you in return. If so, try sharing something a little bit more personal, and so on. Creating true connection takes time, and you should only share your most personal stories with people who have earned the right, and have shown you that they are worthy. This is the way to build authentic connection with people who are safe.

Will there be times that you will pick the wrong person and get hurt? Of course there will be. However, building belonging in your life is worth the risk.

Belonging heals. In tribal cultures, when a member of the group is sick, the entire community takes part in the healing. The whole group comes out and dances around the fire, sings, or talks with the sick person. While these treatments aren’t necessarily scientific, people often do get well simply because the entire group showed up for them. Can you imagine how it would feel if your entire community showed up for you when you needed them?

Because so many people in Western culture confuse fitting in with belonging, and refuse to take the scary step towards vulnerability, the power of authentic belonging has eroded. When people are depressed or sick, they tend to end up more isolated than they were before their illnesses, and their isolation makes them sicker.

I would like to challenge you to examine your relationships. How many of them are based on fitting in and how many are based on true belonging and authentic connection? If you don’t have many authentic relationships, take the leap into vulnerability with the people that you feel have earned the right to it, and start building true belonging into your life. You’ll be glad that you did.

Healing Our Problematic Relationship to Anger Through Healthy Boundaries

Society’s relationship with anger is problematic as it’s an emotion that often gets confused with aggression. However, they’re not the same thing. Anger is an emotion that everyone experiences from time to time, and it’s perfectly healthy to do so. However, acting aggressively, while sometimes important for self protection, mostly causes unnecessary pain in the world.

When clients ask me to help them with anger problems, it’s frequently divided down gender lines. While there is some overlap between sexes, men tend to tell me that they lose their tempers too easily, yell, swear, frighten those around them, and sometimes hit–both objects and people. They ask me to help them to get a moment to pause and consider their behavior before they respond because their aggressive behaviors are damaging their relationships, or causing them legal problems.

Women, on the other hand, tend to tell me that they can’t access their anger. They say that people treat them terribly, but instead of becoming angry, they become sad or depressed. They blame themselves. These women feel immobilized by their own inability to get mad enough to set boundaries or create change in their lives and relationships.

I don’t believe that these gender differences in relationship to anger are actually biological. Instead, they are a product of society’s penchant for gendered child-rearing. Boys are taught that they are not allowed to cry; that tenderness, kindness and sadness are not masculine, and that the only acceptable emotions are happiness and anger. Girls are taught that they need to be nice and sweet and happy all of the time, and they tend to be punished more severely than boys are when they become angry or say no.

These gender stereotypes in relationship to emotions are extremely damaging. Boys that buy the message to “man up” (one of the most damaging phrases in the English language), end up unable to access hurt, sadness, kindness and compassion. Instead, they jump directly to anger when they feel any of the other emotions coming on. They believe that if they’re not happy, then anger is the only other acceptable thing to feel.

On the other hand, women who buy the “nice girl” message tend to have problems recognizing when their boundaries have been crossed. They tell me that they know that they should be angry, but they can’t access the feeling. Instead they blame themselves, thinking that they were somehow not good enough, and that if they could just be better, then people would treat them right. However, it doesn’t work that way, and they wear themselves to a nub trying to be “good enough,” (whatever that even means).

In therapy with the angry people, I work with them to pause when they feel the fire of anger rising within them and then feel into what lies underneath. Anger tends to be a secondary emotion that covers up an unconsciously rejected underlying feeling . For instance, instead of allowing feelings of hurt, a person may jump right over emotional pain and straight into anger. Other emotions people tend to bypass in favor of anger include: sad, vulnerable, rejected, and disrespected.

Once these angry people are able to tap into the underlying feeling, which can take a lot of work by the way, I encourage them to verbalize that feeling. Verbalizing it to the other person involved is best, if possible. However, if it’s not possible to tell the other person how you feel, saying to yourself, “Wow. I’m feeling really hurt right now, and it’s OK to feel that way,” is powerful. The more that these people do that, the more that they can override their childhood programming that anger and happiness are the only appropriate emotions.

On the other side of the coin, when I’m working in therapy with people who can’t access anger, I help them to give themselves permission to feel angry. What I’ve found is that these people often have anger and aggression confused. I explain to them that anger is healthy and normal, and that feeling the entire spectrum of human emotion, including anger, is a good thing. I help them to understand that being angry doesn’t have to mean that they behave aggressively. Sometimes, all it means is that they say, “Wow. That made me really mad!”

Then I work with them to understand the importance of boundaries in a relationship. Having bought into the idea that they have to be “good” and “nice” all of the time, they often fail to stand up for themselves when they need to, which is just as damaging to relationships as having angry tirades.

How is it so damaging, you ask? Well, here’s how it works. People that are trying to be nice all of the time tend to allow people to take advantage of them. If you’re thinking that other people shouldn’t try to take advantage, you’re right. They shouldn’t, but they do. Once these opportunists realize that the nice person won’t say no or get angry, they continue to take advantage, but also lose respect for them, leading to treating the nice person even more disrespectfully. If the nice person continues to try to curry favor with the disrespectful one, the relationship can become abusive. However, what often happens is that the nice person eventually builds up so much resentment that he/she lashes out uncharacteristically, or quietly leaves the relationship.

In the end the outcomes of both strategies are the same. The angry and aggressive person ends up alone because eventually people get tired of being bullied. The good/nice person ends up alone because he/she eventually becomes resentful enough about being taken advantage of to leave.

The solution to both of these problems is healthy boundaries. Here is an outline of the differences between healthy and unhealthy boundaries:

A. Collapsed Boundaries (The Good/Nice Person)

  • You can’t so no, because you are afraid of rejection or abandonment.
  • Your identity consists of what you think others want you to be. You are a chameleon.
  • You take on other’s problems as your own.
  • You share personal information too soon, before establishing mutual trust/sharing.
  • You feel responsible for other’s happiness and fulfillment and sometimes rely on your relationships to create that for you.
  • You compromise your values or beliefs to avoid conflict.
  • You tend to absorb the feelings of others.
  • You lose control of your emotions easily.
  • You have no balance of power in relationships. you tend to be either overly responsible and controlling or passive and dependent.

B. Rigid Boundaries (The Prickly Person)

  • You are likely to say no if the request involves close interaction.
  • You avoid intimacy (pick fights, stay too busy).
  • You fear abandonment OR engulfment, so you avoid closeness.
  • You rarely share personal information.
  • You have difficulty identifying wants, needs, or feelings.
  • You have few or no close relationships. If you have a partner, you have very separate lives and virtually no shared life.
  • You have difficulty asking for or receiving help from others.

C. Healthy Boundaries

  • You can so no or yes, and you are OK when others say no to you.
  • You have a strong sense of identity. You respect yourself.
  • You expect reciprocity in a relationship–you share responsibility and power.
  • You know when the problem is yours and when it belongs to someone else.
  • You share personal information gradually in a mutually sharing/trusting relationship.
  • You don’t tolerate abuse or disrespect.
  • You know your own wants, needs, and feelings. You can communicate them clearly in your relationships.
  • You are committed to, and responsible for, exploring and nurturing your full potential.
  • You are responsible for your own happiness and fulfillment. You allow others to be responsible for their own happiness and fulfillment.
  • You value your opinions and feelings as much as others.
  • You know your limits. You allow others to define their limits.
  • You are able to ask for help when you need it.
  • You don’t compromise your own values or integrity to avoid rejection.

If you recognized yourself in either the collapsed or the rigid categories, don’t be too hard on yourself. Knowing that boundaries are a problem for you is an important first step, and you can start today to work towards learning how to set healthy boundaries for yourself. My boundaries tend to be on the collapsed side, but they’re getting better all of the time, and I congratulate myself each time I say no to something that I don’t want to do, even though my impulse is to say yes, because this is what progress looks like.

You may also notice that your boundaries fall into different categories based on the relationship or the setting. For instance, you may have rigid boundaries at work and collapsed boundaries at home. Or, you may have collapsed boundaries in romantic relationships and healthy boundaries with friends. This is completely normal. As Louise Hay says, “the point of power is always now.” You can start today to change these behaviors and work towards happier and healthier relationships.

Be gentle with yourself as you start to make changes to your boundaries. This is a process. If you find yourself being unnecessarily harsh as you start learning to say no or ask for what you want in a healthy way, just acknowledge it and try again. This could look like, “Whew, that came out a little rough, let me try that again.” Usually people are extremely understanding when you explain that you’re working on a personal growth project.

As your boundaries get healthier, you’ll notice that your relationships with others become healthier, and that you attract healthier people and experiences into your life. It’s worth the work, and I encourage you to get started now.