This is Yellow, This is Blue: A Visual Guide to Understanding Gas-lighting
It can be difficult to find a succinct and helpful tool to spark a dialogue about emotional abuse. Gas-lighting, most specifically. Emotional abuse, in general, is difficult to explain to people because there's no broken bones, no visible bruises, no stitched up skin, no discernible sign of physical trauma. I'm not here to say that one is better or worse than the other (clearly, they are both horrible and difficult to overcome) but with more "invisible" evidence of emotional abuse, it can be frustrating to know that what folks went through was damaging, demoralizing, and destructive but then still have the added knowledge that there will be people who don't believe them -- who say they're exaggerating -- who don't understand. People understand a broken bone. They don't understand a broken sense of self. Maybe they think get over it or get over yourself or we still talkin' about this? The recovery period isn't as clear cut as wear the cast for x-number of days, get the cast off, do some physical therapy, and then you're good to go, making sure to exercise some additional caution to prevent re-injury. Emotional abuse, emotional trauma can last for a very, very long time -- possibly even for a life time. Emotional abuse rewires your brain, it reconstructs your ability to trust yourself and others, and it takes dedicated work, every single day, to assure yourself that you are safe and you are loved and you are doing OK.
Here's an analogy I crafted to explain how gas-lighting works. For each image, ask yourself: what is yellow? What is blue?
Let's walk through this:
Image One: The word yellow is colored blue and the word blue is colored yellow -- so they're both yellow and both blue? Are we only looking at the colors and not the words or are we only looking at the words and not the colors? How do you determine what someone means when they tell you something is yellow or something is blue?
Image Two: This one's a little more complicated because it has a background. If the word is yellow but its colored in blue yet the background is yellow....and the word is blue but its color is yellow yet the background is blue....what's yellow and what's blue mean here?
Image Three: Even wilder. The word is yellow but its color is green and the background is kind of a turquoise, maybe? And then the word is blue but its color is white and the background is pink....so....what's yellow and blue mean here?
Image Four: Deep breaths -- you still with me? Here, the word is yellow, the color is white, the background is black...and the word is blue but the color is black and the background is white. What's yellow and blue mean here, friends?
Image Five: Well. In this one, the words are yellow and blue, the color is grey and the background is a different shade of gray. So what's yellow and blue mean here? Take your time. I'll wait.
Image Six: For a real twist, yellow is yellow and blue is blue and there's nothing behind that straightforward vibe besides white noise. Here it's easy to assess what's yellow and what's blue, question mark?
A skilled manipulator drags "the people they love" through all of these scenarios -- and more -- sometimes in the context of the same conversation about the same topic. By the end, you don't know what's yellow and what's blue or what they mean by yellow or blue or maybe your false sense about whatever the premise is makes it so you misunderstand what's yellow or blue or maybe you see what's yellow and what's blue but they still insist you don't.
"But you said yellow," you'd say.
"No, I said yellow," they'd reply calmly without blinking those pale blue eyes of theirs.
Multiply that by the amount of interactions and communications someone may have with an abusive person over the span of a relationship and it's not hard to see how they -- as well as folks in their shared community -- could be mislead or duped or controlled -- leading to folks having an increasingly difficult time trusting their own instincts or seeing the situation for what it truly is.
This What is Yellow - What is Blue? visual is a tool to share with folks who might be less inclined to understand on their own. Hopefully, it helps illustrate why it's hard to recover from such abuse -- when it's not colors but, instead, feelings, beliefs, trust, justice, compassion, care, love. If you've been spun around and turned inside out and upside down, well... It makes it very, very hard to open up to "real" instances of these things, especially love. It's hard to risk it, after being so completely decimated by someone you believed loved you.
This process of learning to trust one's self and learning to trust others is very slow and very difficult. It helps to ask questions. It helps to be a good listener. At least once a day, this line from the Ani DiFranco song "Hell Yeah" floats through my head: If you don't ask the right questions, every answer feels wrong. We avoid the "right" questions a lot -- because they might mean we have to do work, to make changes, to grow. That's an investment that many of us don't want to make because it may divert us from a path or cause us to recalibrate our lives.
It ain't necessarily fun. But sometime you come up with cool analogies, so that must make it worth it, yes? No? Yellow? Blue?
For anyone who's experienced emotional abuse, sharing this tool with your support system may be a good entry point to explain what it feels like to have gone through a painful experience that wasn't as concrete as a broken bone. It can help explain why it's hard to unlearn or move quickly past this kind of abuse. For many, it may be a necessary, daily practice to say out loud "This is yellow. This is blue. And I know this because..."
It takes immense strength, courage, and outside support to remove one's self from an emotionally abusive situation. If you or someone you love is in such a circumstance, know that you are not alone. Help is available:
- Crisis Text Line offers 24/7 support.
- The National Domestic Violence hotline offers 24/7 support.
- Online therapists, such as BetterHelp, offer affordable counseling options.
- If you are a student, contact your school counsel or your school's counseling center.
- If you have a friend or family member that you trust, reach out to them right away.
- If you make art, start making art about what you've experienced -- this can be extremely healing and very revealing about how you feel.
- Try acupuncture or therapeutic massage. Many practitioners are highly skilled in alleviating the effects of emotional abuse. So much tension is housed in our physical body.
Recovery from emotional abuse can take a long time -- and there is no one right way and certainly no easy fix involved. Embrace your instincts here and follow where your gut leads. It may happen that you, as I like to put it, "hit the big slide" (a la Chutes and Ladders) and that can be discouraging. But it's as the saying goes: it's not the falling down, it's the getting back up that matters. Feel your damn feelings, honor them, name them, and put them to work in your favor. Don't feel obligated to force a smile on your face and refuse to look at what feels ugly or difficult. Your support system loves you -- they will go on this journey with you.
I know this because I live this.
Some days feel impossible. But other days? They are so clearly yellow and blue.
Be safe and well.
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