Part One: Toddler Nation

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Posting on behalf of Kim Rosenberg

Part One: Toddler Nation

I once worked as a childcare provider for the doctors and nurses at the VA hospital in the toddler room. I loved it because toddlers are funny little tyrants. They bite and scream and fall to the floor when they don’t get their way. They are the center of the universe. Other people only exist in relationship to them. If they see it, it’s theirs; if they want it, it’s theirs; if you’re touching it, it’s theirs. If you get in the way of what they want, a tantrum is likely.

Every toddler’s two favorite words? NO and MINE. They’d use all caps, if they could type.

The thing is that for actual human toddlers, all those challenging behaviors like screaming at the store when we don’t get a Hot Wheels, we grow out of in time. Eventually, we learn that we aren’t the center of the universe. We learn that other people have feelings. We learn how to cooperate and follow the rules, when we play together; we learn it feels good to share, and hopefully, we learn how to take care of our biggest emotions like anger and grief.

Unless we don’t.

I’ve been thinking about the adults in our world who seem to have never grown out of toddlerhood. Watch the news, read the paper, scroll through your newsfeed, and see adult toddlers throwing tantrums because they didn’t get their way. They didn’t get elected or their candidate lost, they weren’t picked for the committee they wanted to be on, they didn’t get served fast enough or their order was wrong. Things did not go their way and it was someone else’s fault, so they threw a tantrum and retaliated. They’re holding on to a grudge like it’s a life vest. But it’s not.

We call people who persistently act this way entitled or narcissists. To me, they’re adult toddlers and not cute at all. They lack self-awareness and empathy. They use manipulation and gaslighting to gain power and control of the people around them. This is not a stage of development or something situational but a toxic and persistent pattern of behavior in which other people don’t matter, the rules and laws don’t apply to them and everybody else is to blame for everything, always.

According to professionals who study these things—psychologists, sociologists, criminologists—this behavior can’t be therapied away or punished away. They aren’t interested in changing. They don’t think there’s anything wrong. Their behavior works for them. And, if there is something wrong, it’s somebody else’s fault, not theirs.

I’m no stranger to gaslighting. For fifteen years I lived with someone who could’ve given lessons. Come to think of it, he did. To me. It’s why this subject fascinates me. In intimate partner violence, it’s the way an abuser maintains control. It’s common in abusive relationships that the one doing the violence blames the one on the receiving end for the abuse.

Gaslighting and manipulation happen in all types of relationships though. It might be with a friend or neighbor who lies and spreads gossip about you, or with a boss who makes sexist or racist comments and if you object, tells you you’re being too sensitive or emotional. It could be with a colleague who undermines your work, lies to your boss and takes credit for what you’ve done. It could be with an official you helped elect who lies to constituents, divides the community, and dismisses inconvenient rules or laws. It can be a church that refuses to acknowledge the sexual abuse of kids by clergy, or a cult that requires its members to drink the Kool Aid. You can see it play out on the public stage in the media, and in politics both small town and nationwide.

As I was researching the subject, I found dozens of books and scholarly articles published in the last 5 years about gaslighting by narcissists in the workplace, in social relationships, in the media, and in our public and political life. So, I guess it’s a thing, and it helps to know some of the persistent characteristics of people who behave this way.

They’re charming and nice if you’re not a threat and don’t cross them. If you do, they retaliate. Maybe they use lies and gossip to discredit you. Maybe they use threats or hate mail. Maybe they use the legal system to threaten you like the woman who called the police on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park.

If you call their behavior out, they ask you to prove it, regardless of the evidence. They say that you overreacted or are too emotional. They never accept responsibility for their actions.

They can’t let go of a grudge and man, do they have a list of grudges from years ago to now and a long list of people they believe wronged them. They don’t cooperate or compromise. They’re the finger pointing ‘mansplainers, even if they’re women. They’re always right. They lie and misrepresent inconvenient facts to make their argument.

They spread rumors, half-truths, and lies to divide people and communities. They’re two-faced—nice in public but not so much in private. They’re the screamers at Walmart, at public meetings and whenever the server at the cafe gets their order wrong. They’re the women you see turning to whoever they think is in charge when things don’t go their way. They want to speak to the manager or call the police.

They treat people they think of as less than them—service workers, people with less education or status, people of any marginalized group—like something they stepped in.

They blame their behavior on other people and never take responsibility for their actions. Since other people are always to blame, they play the victim like pro sports.

If they apologize, which is rare, it’s a performance loaded with excuses like I’m sorry but… or lacking awareness of other people like My apologies… followed by all the reasons they aren’t sorry and it’s somebody else’s fault.

The main grab for people with these character traits is always about power and control of other people. In Gaslighting: Recognize Emotionally Abusive People, Dr. Stephanie Sarkis calls their true believers, the “Flying Monkeys”. Flying Monkeys, just like the ones in the Wizard of Oz, help maintain social control by targeting anyone perceived as a threat with stuff like hate mail, threats or acts of physical violence, posting lies and gossip on social media or in the physical or virtual community where you live or work.

In a relationship with someone like this, you’re going to need some firm boundaries and a whole lot of distance because you can’t change, contain, or control them. It’s not your job and they aren’t interested anyway because other people don’t matter, the rules and laws don’t apply to them and everybody else is to blame for everything, always.

In a personal relationship or a work relationship you always have the choice to leave or limit your contact (and in a work relationship you better document everything) but what about in politics or on social media? And what you can do if you’ve been the victim of gaslighting.
Stay tuned for Part Two.

Kim Rosenberg