When People Lie to You
Like most therapists, I’ve had many clients come to harm because they believed someone else’s lies over what they knew to be the truth. The term for when someone intentionally tries to invalidate or undermine our beliefs or feelings is gaslighting. This subtle power grab to make us mistrust ourselves is manipulation meant to convince us we don’t or shouldn’t think or feel a certain way and are wrong about our facts.
Here’s an example. My client Dawson was planning to take his family to visit his parents in another state. Dawson had a strained relationship with them and hadn’t seen them in a long time, but his children were excited to see their grandparents. Speaking to his mother the day before their journey, she confessed she and his father felt “a little sick,” but she swore they’d tested negative for Covid so it was safe for the visit to proceed.
However, Dawson’s visit was cut short because his parents got sicker and by the time he and his family returned home, they were too—and tested positive for Covid. Dawson’s husband was furious that his parents-in-law lied to them, but Dawson made excuses for his mother (his father mostly went along with whatever Mom said), then said he actually couldn’t remember exactly what she had told him about testing negative. Maybe, he thought, he was mistaken and she hadn’t said that at all.
In our session, Dawson slowly began to acknowledge that his mother had lied because she wanted to see his family and had put her needs before their health. He recognized that gaslighting was an all-too-common occurrence during his childhood which had caused him to harbor constant self-doubt and high amounts of anxiety.
Along with parents insisting “you don’t feel or think like that,” being intentionally lied to by parents is a sure way to undermine your sense of self and ability to self-validate. In my 35 years of practice, I’ve run across numerous cases of clients being sexually abused by a neighbor or family member, telling their mother and Mom denying it could have happened. In these cases, Mom couldn’t bear the truth, often knew about it the abuse, and didn’t want to confront it, or was too ashamed to take action.
Fact is that parents lie just as any other adults do. As children we view them as all wise, all knowing, all powerful. It’s terrifying to view them any other way or as not having our best interest at heart. Growing up means it’s time to view them realistically—from fallible to outright pathological. When your parents lie to or gaslight you, call them on it and confront them. If you do it every time, they’ll either stop doing it or you’ll have a valid reason to tell them why you can’t trust them and want to have less contact.