Stonewalling and Gaslighting

If you have personally experienced stonewalling or gaslighting from another person, you know first-hand how abusive it can be.  On the other hand, if you have ever been the person doing the stonewalling or gaslighting, you may not realize what is going on or the effect that it is creating.  It’s important to recognize what these two things are, as well as know what to do about them when it happens.

Below are descriptions of what stonewalling and gaslighting are, as well as what to do if you are experiencing this, and what to do if you find you are engaging in these behaviors.

What is stonewalling?

Let’s start with the basics: What is stonewalling?  Stonewalling is, simply put, when someone completely shuts down in a conversation.  In other words, stonewalling is when you are so overwhelmed your brain and body simply stops.  This commonly comes across as someone walking away mid-conversation or ignoring.  Have you ever had the feeling of being so angry or upset at a situation that forming words or cohesive thought is impossible?  And the only way to curb that feeling is to completely separate yourself, avoid, or block?  That’s stonewalling.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting, on the other hand, is making another person feel they are going crazy and trying to convince others that a person is crazy.  Gaslighting can also be purposely making someone question themselves or making them feel guilty about things they did not do.  

To be abundantly clear: Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse.

One example of this is Person A having experienced a traumatic event, and Person B saying that experience never happened or it was not as bad as Person A believed it to be.  If Person B constantly does this, Person A might start to question themselves and believe their experience were not real or valid.  For further reading, the Duluth Model provides more examples of different types of abuse.  Gaslighting is a form of maintaining control and power in a relationship in an unhealthy way.

Ok, now that we’ve defined stonewalling and gaslighting, let’s discuss what to do if you’re experiencing or participating in either.

What to do if you are being stonewalled

Seek support

This can be from friends, family, coworkers, and/or a therapist.  Being on the receiving end of stonewalling can take an emotional toll.  Having support to process these experiences will be helpful.

Acknowledge your own feelings

Your feelings are valid. When it feels safe to do so, acknowledge and discuss with your partner what you are feeling and witnessing.  Remember to use “I-statements” and not to jump to blaming and criticizing.

Chances are, if your partner is stonewalling, you might not be too far behind.  Specifically, in a romantic relationship, you and your partner feed off each other’s emotions.  You might be starting to feel heated or overwhelmed too.  Take some time away from the triggering conversation, do something soothing, and when both of you are feeling more calm and able to think clearer, the conversation can continue. 

What to do if you are being gaslighted.

“Remind yourself of your inherent value”

(from the National Domestic Violence Hotline website).  It is the other person’s choice to gaslight, and that is not your fault.   

Seek support!

Just like with being stonewalled, getting support from people you trust is going to help.  You might start to question yourself and your experiences when being gaslighted by another person, so having people who believe you and can empathize with your experience is going to be highly beneficial.

Create a space of emotional safety for yourself

Where are spaces where you can openly and safely express yourself and feel heard?

Remember, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse

Are there other areas in your relationship where abuse might be taking place and where you are made to feel “less than”?  Create a safety plan for yourself if you ever need it, and know of hotlines or places you can go if the other person’s behaviors become too much to take on.

You can only change yourself

If you find that you are spending more energy on trying to change the other person, realize that it might be time to take steps to care for yourself.  If you are not allowing space to take care of yourself, then it will be impossible to be present within that particular relationship.  Also know that you are allowed to step away from a relationship where someone is gaslighting you – just make sure you have ways that are safe for you to do so. 

What if I’m the one stonewalling?

Check your pulse and do something soothing

This might sound silly, but if your heart rate is running a mile a minute, the chances are high that your brain and body are in the flight/fight/freeze state of mine.  When you are feeling overwhelmed, it is the natural, protective instinct for our nervous system to kick in and get us away from a situation.  The key here is to bring your heart rate back to normal.  If your pulse is high, that is a physical cue for you to do a relaxing activity.  Once your pulse is back to its normal rate, you’ll find that it is easier to converse and think more broadly, and therefore connect with the other person.  

Be preventative

In the moment, it can feel as though your emotions go from 0 to 60 in an instant.  However, when you slow that process down, you’ll find there are warning signs and steps that come before you start to stonewall, shut down, and walk away.  Create a scale from one to five: One is when you feel neutral and calm, and five is when you are stonewalling.  What feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations are you experiencing at two, three, and four on the scale?  Once you see those warnings signs, think about what is effective at those times.  Examples could be: Telling the other person you need a few minutes away from the conversation, taking deep breaths during the conversation, or politely expressing your needs and feelings to the other person via “I statements.”

What if I’m the one gaslighting others?

Get some help and perspective

If you are being accused of gaslighting, seeking a counselor who is very direct might be a great fit for you.  It can be a space to think about the reasons behind wanting to control the narrative, encourage ways to take responsibility, and challenge your perceptions of how you think.

Practice empathy

In addition to counseling, it might be helpful to slow down the conflict and the conversation with the person you might be gaslighting.  Take some time to step into that person’s shoes and think how they might feel in those moments.

Conclusion on Stonewalling and Gaslighting

Stonewalling and gaslighting are two concepts that permeate a lot of relationships – and they can be difficult to overcome at times.  Regardless of whether you are the person conducting these behaviors or if you are on the receiving end, there are ways to navigate through these situations. 

Contact me today.

About Michael Hilgers, M.MFT

I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor working remotely with clients around the world. I believe that everyone has the potential to change; to create new paths, to go in new directions. Life is hard. Counseling can help.

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