Dr. Robin Stern: Welcome to The Gaslight Effect podcast. I'm Robin Stern, co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center For Emotional Intelligence and author of the bestselling book, The Gaslight Effect. I'm an educator and a psychoanalyst, but first and foremost, I'm a wife, a mother, a sister, aunt, and healer. And just like many of you, I was a victim of gaslighting. Please join me for each episode as I interview fascinating guests and explore the concept of gaslighting. You'll learn what it truly means to be gaslighted, how it feels, how to recognize it, and how to understand it, and ultimately, how to get out of it.
Dr. Robin Stern: Before we begin, I want you to know that talking about gaslighting can bring up challenging and painful emotions. Give yourself permission to feel them. Some of you may wanna go more deeply with your emotions. While some of you may hold them more lightly, no matter what you're feeling, know that your emotions are a guide to your inner life. Your emotions are sacred and uniquely you respect and embrace them for they have information to give you. If you want to listen to other episodes of The Gaslight Effect podcast, you can find them at robinstern.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for being here with me.
Dr. Robin Stern: Welcome everyone. I'm really thrilled today to introduce Ian Nichols from the World of Horror. And Ian invited me last week to be on his podcast. It's only a podcast. I went on the podcast. We talked about horror and gaslighting, which, uh, to, uh, to move away from the humor for the moment is actually quite horrific. And, um, coming back to the subject of horror, we were able to weave in and out of some, uh, fun conversation about my relationship with two horror and horror movies and, uh, and the real tragedy of horrific gaslighting. So I'm just delighted that you said yes to this podcast. Ian, so tell me why did you say yes? Let's start there.
Ian Nichols: I mean, I, you know, I'm the kind of person who's a bit of an open book for, for better or worse. You know, I wear, I wear all the stuff on my sleeve, and so the opportunity to be able to share my experience with others and, and perhaps give, you know, shine some light on what it can be like to experience gaslighting from, from my perspective, which I, you know, everyone's perspective is different. To be able to share that and hopefully, you know, in, in the end, help people in a way,
Dr. Robin Stern: Well, so grateful for that. Easy. Yes. Let's start with the horror piece of it. So, um, you called or wrote to me and seemed surprised that I wrote back immediately and said, yes, I really wanna do this show. So tell me what was behind that, that impetus that you had to reach out and why you decided to focus on gaslighting in your podcast, and why you were surprised that I said yes.
Ian Nichols: Yeah. Um, I think, you know, we chose the to do a bit of a gaslighting series, talk about six old movies that would, that would feature gaslighting, and we just did it for fun. There was no premeditation aside from like, what a, what's a theme that we could do? And we chose that before Miriam Webster named Gaslighting as the Word of the Year for 2022. And all of a sudden it became more germane. We thought we were gonna be a little playful with it. And then upon reflecting some more, we decided actually maybe we want to take a more serious approach and, and maybe even open people's eyes to what gaslighting looks like, what it doesn't look like, and any other extraneous details that, that we're missing when we're talking about gaslighting. And I, so I, I reached out to, you know, I did a quick Google search.
Ian Nichols: I found your amazing website and materials, and I thought, you know what, Ian, just shoot your shot, ask, ask, ask away. Worst she could do is is not respond. Second worst to say no. And best scenario is you saying yes. And I was so surprised simply because, you know, it's a, it's a horror movie, podcast we're covering, you know, a mature material. B I thought, gosh, her schedule must be crazy
Dr. Robin Stern: Yeah. Well, and I wanted to do it the minute I read your, your email, because I thought if you, if you and your co-host Christian were willing to take on the subject of gaslighting, and if you thought that that was horror, then I wanna say, say yes to you. Yes,
Dr. Robin Stern: And when somebody is insisting on their reality in a way where you can't grab your own and put your arms around it or stand on the floor that you used to think was there mm-hmm.
Ian Nichols: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: And I also appreciated that when I asked you if you had your own experience with it, you said yes. Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: So I wonder if you can talk a bit about that.
Ian Nichols: Yeah. Um, you know, this is all pretty fresh for me too. I would say in the last five months, I've actually been processing the, the abuse in childhood and at workplaces and in a romantic relationship where gaslighting showed up. But I didn't label it as, as that, I think it started really, really young, uh, with my parents. They thought I cried too much. They would call me a crybaby. They would say I was too sensitive. Um, and so as, as a child, not having the words to express how I feel both physically and emotionally, rather than my parents approaching me with curiosity and, and help, it was too much of a burden for me to cry. And I definitely, I was a crier. I, I absolutely, as a child, I didn't throw many tantrums, but I definitely cried a lot. And a lot of that stemmed from other abuse, but it was bookended by, well, you're just too sensitive and you cry way too much. That's, that's what this is. And from there, it, you know, further into adolescence and being a teenager, um, you know, my mother was, um, an alcoholic is an alcoholic. And so the older I got, the more, you know, the more quick witted I got, and the more things that didn't appear right as a child became much more apparent, just, just like any teenager, right? We catch on to those imperfections, um, in our parents that we didn't think were there.
Dr. Robin Stern: So, Ian, can I, can I jump in for a minute? So, before, before you become a teenager, when you were earlier on and your parents were telling you about who you were, when your parents defined who you were, did that become your self-definition? Or were you thinking, I'm not a crier, I'm not a crybaby, I just am upset right now, or I'm not too much, I'm just upset right now and there's, and there's something wrong with them for calling me a crybaby? Or were you like most of us where we love our parents, we know they love us, why would somebody who love us tell us something about ourselves that wasn't true?
Ian Nichols: Yeah. Um, I definitely assumed that identity of being a crybaby, even to this day when I cry, which is like, I'm, I'm processing the fact that that is an extremely appropriate and healthy reaction to a plethora of, of feelings. And I still am just like, there's a little tiny voice that's much quieter than it was that tells me that I am a crybaby. And I remember, especially during college years, when things are just insane, you know, like, college kids are not
Dr. Robin Stern: And so how has that impacted you to take on their reality of you?
Ian Nichols: I mean, you know, the biggest thing, or at least the theme that I'm grappling with now, is it's impossible for me to connect with people on, uh, a deep, intimate level because I am not willing to show that very human side of me, essentially, that does react to pain or fear or stress or trauma through tears,
Dr. Robin Stern: So how do you know that, how do you know that your friends see it? I mean, how does it, what does it look like? Like you're sitting at a party and or you are having a one-on-one conversation, and do you check out somewhere in between? Do you, um, uh, change the tone so it doesn't hurt so much? Wh how do you try to manipulate the world inside of yourself so that you're not on the verge?
Ian Nichols: Uh, humor always, always that always keeps me from crying is cracking a joke. And, and
Dr. Robin Stern: Easier to laugh than to cry.
Ian Nichols: Exactly. It's more fun too.
Dr. Robin Stern: Yeah. Tell me more about the early definition time. What was that like
Ian Nichols: As a child?
Dr. Robin Stern: Yeah,
Ian Nichols: Yeah. Um, that was, it's, again, it's something I'm still processing. I am now realizing what my childhood was within the, just the last five months. Everything is kind of surfaced.
Dr. Robin Stern: And so can, I can ask a question, what happened five months ago that you're beginning to process it? Did you begin counseling or therapy or get meet a new person in your life who's encouraging this?
Ian Nichols: Yeah, it was, um, this, this might be when I get emotional, I was in kind of a, a deep depression that followed a couple failed dating experiences. Um, I think with, with two men who caught onto the fact that I, you know, am not a vulnerable person and that I come across as perfect or so my therapist, uh, surmised. And, um, that was really frustrating because it occurred to me at the time after my therapist literally said to me, you know, it took a, I've been seeing her for three years, and she said, it took a year to feel connected to me that, for her to actually feel like I was opening up, which is like, that blew my mind cuz I was like, I was in therapy, like, how was I not opening up? But of course, I trust her expertise and I took that to heart and it was just a major breakdown where I realized that the treatment that I received from my parents set me up to this point where their behavior started coming back to me. Everyth. And everything was reframed in this kind of structure of, Hey Ian, you're like, you're closed off. You are absolutely closed off because it might happen again. And that's what happened five months ago,
Dr. Robin Stern:
Ian Nichols: Right. Right. Be judged for it, or it's too much, someone can't handle it. You know, that's, and just like my parents couldn't handle it, that's what I expect to experience. Again, just like my last relationship, my partner couldn't handle it. Like, of course it's gonna happen again.
Dr. Robin Stern: Yes. And I'm sorry for your pain. I mean, that is really very, very deep. I can feel it while you're talking and I so appreciate your being vulnerable. Um, and at the same time, it's not just about your partner or your parents not being able to take it. It's about you're then suddenly because they can't take it, you're getting blamed mm-hmm.
Ian Nichols: Yeah. I mean, it definitely, it felt like I was at fault. I'm like, in my last relationship, which was really unique, I was dating a Chinese immigrant, so he was fluent in English, but I would say he was fluent in conversational English and in, um, you know, a bit more academic English. He was not fluent in emotions. And there would be times where he would provoke me in certain ways and I would just lose it. I, I would just break down. I would be so angry, I'd be crying, and he would sit in silence and he would wait for me to finish. He wouldn't argue. He wouldn't provide any opinion. He wouldn't say anything. He would wait until I calm down and then he would ask me to sit next to him. And he would say, in my culture, extreme emotion is very feminine and I am not attracted to femininity.
Dr. Robin Stern: Wow.
Ian Nichols: And it had me thinking that I was completely and totally overreacting to the situation, and I brought too much to the table. And it was unfair to him because of the cultural differences and of the, the, the, you know, language gap.
Dr. Robin Stern: Well, and not to mention that he also told you, um, in maybe a very kind, calm way, but certainly not in a very kind way. I'm not attracted to this part of you and I'm not attracted to you when you are like this mm-hmm.
Ian Nichols: Yeah, absolutely. And it's, and it's also one of those things, things too, where I was just like, why can't you be attracted to feminine parts of people? You know, people are complex. I don't understand why I have to put on, you know, stoicism. I, I had somewhat of my wits about me and that I knew that what he was doing was really wrong, but I wasn't sharing it with anyone because I was ashamed of my behavior that led to that.
Dr. Robin Stern: Wow. So you were ashamed of your behavior, not ashamed of the relationship
Ian Nichols: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: Or, or not, um, self-conscious in some way that you would be with somebody who would say something like that to you rather than saying, you know what, um, I don't know what I'm struggling with, but I, I have an issue around this kind of, uh, big expression and I'm gonna work on that because that's not okay. I need to be here for you. No, that didn't happen.
Ian Nichols: Nope. Not at all. Not at all. And, and, you know, a lot of those times when the breakdown would come, it only happened a few times. I'm saying a lot, but it only happened a few times. But they were obviously very pivotal and memorable moments. But when it would happen, I was kind of provoked. Like he would almost sort of bully me and make fun of me for just the smallest things. But of course, the relationship was so tense and, and, and, and lacking so much emotional intimacy that those moments hurt more than he in intended. And which is fine because impact is super important. And it would al always put me in a state of reaching that precipice. And a few, maybe two or three times, it did get to that point where I quote unquote overreacted and, and was embarrassed by it.
Dr. Robin Stern: So I don't believe in overreaction. Right. I believe that overreaction is a reaction to something that maybe more than you had anticipated reacting to, or that you would, if you're unpacking it, that you would say, well, wait a minute. I was not just reacting to that. I was also reacting to this. And so it felt like a big reaction, bigger than I expected, but saying it's an overreaction means it was not okay somehow.
Ian Nichols: Right,
Dr. Robin Stern: Right. And, um, I don't believe that to be the case, especially when it's talking, when you're talking about feelings. Maybe, um, you might have felt uncomfortable with what you did about those feelings mm-hmm.
Ian Nichols: Absolutely. There, yeah. There, there was an extreme lack of emotional intimacy otherwise. Yeah. I mean the, you know, and plenty, plenty of reasons for that. Um, I, I don't necessarily think, you know, it's my fault. I feel like I, I tried very, very hard, but there were other circumstances that, that I think allowed for that lack. And so,
Dr. Robin Stern: Well, didn't he tell you that when he said a big expression of emotions is too feminine? And I'm not attracted to that he said to you, but mm-hmm.
Ian Nichols: Right. And it was, you know, it was so jarring that happened. You know, we'd been dating six months and then we moved in together to his house that he owned. And so I already felt very vulnerable, um, living in someone else's property. And that, that first outburst or first reaction, uh, was, you know, it happened within the first two weeks and it really caught me off guard. The, I didn't realize what I was, who I was moving in with, or even what I was moving in with, honestly,
Dr. Robin Stern: Mm-hmm.
Ian Nichols: The, uh, kind of two pronged. Um, the first part was it's a cultural difference. There's a language barrier, right? So that was my excuse to quote unquote, keep working on it.
Dr. Robin Stern: You explained it away.
Ian Nichols: I did. And I, I really thought I explained it away, especially with, well, you work on relationships to make them better. You improve communication to make them better. You don't just dip out. Um, which is also, that is also a thing that my parents, especially in teenage years, you know, you don't quit a thing just because, fill in the blank. And so I was thinking, I'm in my mid thirties now. I can't just quit something because I don't like it. I need to work on this. And that, that narrative drove me to stay in it for a year.
Dr. Robin Stern: Mm-hmm.
Ian Nichols: Um, I, so I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was, um, 20 years old, 1919. And so therapy had always kind of been on my mind as, as something that I should do or I, I need to do. And I saw therapists here and there, but I started working at a tech startup, um, at the time. And they had unlimited, it was insane, unlimited, fully covered mental health care. So I could see a therapist without a copay and I could see them as much as I wanted. So I hopped into therapy on, you know, a weekly basis. And I've been doing that for three years and just, you know, based on principle also, I think that it is kind of the minds movement and exercise routine. I just think it is a healthy routine to be in, especially as someone who, who is neuro divergent. Yeah.
Dr. Robin Stern: And was it your therapist who suggested gaslighting might be going on for you? I mean, what was your aha moment about? Wait a minute. This is like gaslighting. Somebody is trying to manipulate my reality, or they did for years.
Ian Nichols: Yeah. It definitely was my therapist and it was probably within that first year. But as I mentioned before, I was not entirely vulnerable with my therapist for that first year. So it actually wasn't aha, an aha moment. It was simply kind of a passing, like, oh yeah, you're right, that is gaslighting, and then move on. So it is an idea that I'm coming back to and revisiting in a way where I hope that it gives me the language and, and, and process of thought to unravel all the things that I need to unravel.
Dr. Robin Stern: Well, how about if we unravel one together right now, is there some particular moment in time or dinner table conversation or, um, off the, um, off the cuff comment that, that you sit with or did sit with and ruminate about that? Um, is we could unpack a little bit through the lens of gaslighting, whether it's from your relationship or from your early experiences with family.
Ian Nichols: Yeah, there are a bunch of little things, aren't there? I think, you know, the biggest the biggest thing that comes to mind is m my dad was, my parents are still married. They, you know, my dad had a busy schedule as like a high school basketball coach and high school teacher, and he wasn't around a lot. And, and he also was dealing with some, some really traumatic stuff himself. And so there was a period of time where he was extremely neglectful and he desperately wished to, you know, brush anything under the rug, including my mom's gaslighting of me. And he would say as when I was a teenager, and even honestly maybe six years ago, he would say, keep in mind she's really, really stressed, so you need to cut her some slack. And it was that piling on of like, my mom is invalidating me, right? And then my dad is saying, well, it's okay that she does that because she has her own problems. And that is something that just, you know, even though it's proximal to, to the, to my mother's behavior that sits strongest with me, especially as a teenager, hearing that and from someone who wasn't around, someone who wasn't even probably supporting the person who, his partner, who needed the support so she could get off my back
Dr. Robin Stern: When you say it weighs heavy, um, what does that feel like, look like, sound like? What does it mean to you when you think, okay, my dad said that I should cut her some slack cuz she's really stressed out?
Ian Nichols: Yeah. It, it pulls down on my sternum. I can feel my sternum being drugged down to my stomach where my abs are tightening and breath is becoming more shallow and whatnot. Um, it's a very frustrating
Dr. Robin Stern: Mm-hmm.
Ian Nichols: Feeling.
Dr. Robin Stern: Yeah. It's a big feeling, obviously. Yeah. Can you talk through, through your tears and, um, uh, which make a lot of sense to me, your tears by the way, um, and kind of grab hold of the idea that you could even have compassion for your mom and even understand that and still find the way she talked to you and her invalidating you completely acceptable. Like you can understand, hey, you're stressed out, but I can't be around that.
Ian Nichols: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: Yes.
Ian Nichols: And I always default to that because I am an empath and I believe that everyone has their own experiences and that everyone should have room to, you know, confront those traumas. And at the same time, the part that infuriates me is that you don't that on others. Right. That's not what you do. You don't put the work on others, you don't do it for children. You don't put it on the kids.
Dr. Robin Stern: You don't put it on the kids. You're absolutely right. And what's different about being gaslighted by parents and devalued and, um, invalidated, and then to have the other parent make an excuse for being invalidated is that there you are, you're, that is your, the air you breathe, that is where you're living, right? So it's not like having a friend who, um, with whom you feel invalidated and, uh, you can make some excuses, but you say, you know what? I just can't take it anymore. I'm just not gonna see that person mm-hmm.
Ian Nichols: Thank you. It's, it's definitely something that I try to remind myself that there's strength in, in this vulnerability and in the anger that there's good, healthy strength in the anger that I feel towards my parents and, and the anger that I feel for me as a child, especially.
Dr. Robin Stern: Yeah. And it serves to make, to make you more compassionate as a partner, maybe one day as a parent, certainly as a friend.
Ian Nichols: I certainly hope so.
Dr. Robin Stern:
Dr. Robin Stern: And it, it's so true. Mm-hmm.
Ian Nichols: I have v l c, very little contact with them. Um, I consider myself in complete control of how I will say I consider myself in complete control of when I communicate with them. I do not have control after many, many times of expressing boundaries on communication of when I am reached out to, um, which is very frustrating. I hope to move forward with something that is more concrete, maybe in the form of a letter, because I need a break from their presence. Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: Mm-hmm.
Ian Nichols: It's triggering and I am, I am absolutely willing to step in, obviously step into head spaces where I can be vulnerable in process. Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: Mm-hmm.
Ian Nichols: Yeah, safe
Dr. Robin Stern: Food. What are, what are your amazing snacks?
Ian Nichols: Um, so I go, I I I've been over the last few years, I've also been dealing with like, what's my relationship to food? What do I consider quote unquote healthy? What do I not? And I do think there is food that is mentally healthy, but maybe not so nutrient dense, you know what I mean? Um, so I actually love like hostess cupcakes and I'll get, uh, you know, veta shells and cheese.
Dr. Robin Stern: Oh my
Ian Nichols: God. Yes. I know. It's like, it's so funny because on the days when I'm like doing fine or whatever, I eat those things and I actually don't feel good. And the days when I'm emotionally wrecked or perhaps just on the precipice that food does not make my body feel bad at all. And it, it's just that confirmation of, you know, like, this is a safe and actual healthy thing to be eating right now.
Dr. Robin Stern: Yeah. It's your mental health snack. I love it. Yeah. So listeners, um, I hope that you'll make a list of your healthy emotion snacks mm-hmm.
Ian Nichols: I am still working on that one, Robin
Dr. Robin Stern: I love that you said that because it is about practicing. It's about, you know, does this work for me? It does. Okay, I'll do it again. It doesn't mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern:
Ian Nichols: Exactly. That's, that's exactly where I'm at. Finding that balance, finding what works for me, and hoping that there's, there's an outcome that, that I'm comfortable with.
Dr. Robin Stern: Yes. And keep going until you find that one.
Ian Nichols: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: So what would you advise other people who may be listening right now? I hope they are. Um, you've given them a beautiful gift. What would you advise them when, if they're struggling or when they're struggling, particularly with family members, uh, who are gaslighting them or, or people who, uh, in their personal life, in your personal life who have misunderstood what their role is as a partner in terms of your expectations, right. And have, um, undermined you or, or invalidated you and challenged you, weaponized your own feelings.
Ian Nichols: Yeah. I think when it comes to romantic relationships, in my experience, it's really hard. It's, you know, how I feel like a lot of people do think that they need to work on the relationship or work on themselves in the relationship when that might actually not be the case, especially if you're being gaslit. And I don't have good advice on when to exit because you are so deeply connected to that relationship, whether or not it's, it's healthy. And I, you know, I, I don't actually know what the answer is. I think talking to a therapist is one good way to get someone to help you realize, um, the state of, of the dynamics in your relationship, but you feel so deeply intertwined, um, that it's really difficult. I think when it comes to parents, you know, it's really frustrating to have family that you don't want to be around. And keep in mind that just because they're blood doesn't mean they get a pass to treat you that
Dr. Robin Stern: Way. Can you say that again for our listeners? Just because they're blood.
Ian Nichols: Just because they're blood doesn't mean they get to treat you that way. And that's a fact that
Dr. Robin Stern: That's a fact. Just because their blood doesn't mean you have to take it.
Ian Nichols: Exactly.
Dr. Robin Stern: Thank you, Ian. And what, what's next for the horror show?
Ian Nichols: Yeah, for the horror show, really excited. Um, we are about to, I, I don't know when this will be up this episode, but, um, probably by then we're gonna have our, our first gaslighting, uh, episode where you are a guest and we're really excited to, to start this series of six episodes where you come talk to us about gaslighting, what it is, what it isn't, um, and, you know, in relationship to, to horror movies and just the understanding that it is horrific. And so over the next couple months, we release, you know, biweekly, um, over the next couple months we'll be talking about gaslighting in light of some, you know, really popular horror movies.
Dr. Robin Stern: Oh, I can't wait to be part of that. And, um, I thank you so much for your generous and vulnerable sharing today and for your strength and for saying yes to everyone listening. Thank you for showing up today. I know that you'll take away many meaningful moments from this podcast, um, from listening to and being with me and, and with Ian today. And, uh, thank you listeners. I look forward to, uh, hearing your, or seeing your reviews of all the podcasts that you like. And, uh, you can find me at robinstern.com or on my socials. And thank you for showing up today and being with me and with Ian. Thank you for joining me for today's episode. I hope you found today's podcast helpful and meaningful. If you want to listen to other episodes of The Gaslight Effect podcast, you can find them at robinstern.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with the handle at Dr. Robin Stern. The Gaslight Effect podcast is brought to you by the Gaslight Effect Reduction Company. This podcast is produced by Ryan Changcoco, Mike Lens, and me. The podcast is supported by Mel Yellen and Gabby Co, Suzen Pettit and Marcus Estevez