Go ahead, get trampled by a rhino.
Go ahead, get mugged and left for dead.
Me, I'm just your mother, what do I know?
I only bathed and changed and nursed you.
Go ahead and leave me, I deserve it.
Let me die alone here, be my guest.
When it's too late, you'll see, just wait,
Mother knows best!
—Mother Gothel, Tangled (2010)
Right now, my two oldest girls are obsessed with the movie Tangled. Everyday Alexa is booming the soundtrack on repeat.
But as I’ve listened repeatedly, I noticed more and more the psychological impact that Mother Gothel has. She isn’t the villain because she kidnapped a baby—yes, that’s bad. But what makes her a villain is how she manipulates and controls Rapunzel, most noticeably through: Gaslighting.
Gaslighting is the act of crazy-making. It’s a way of controlling another person by making them question themselves, their emotions, and their reality. It’s calling a person selfish when they’re just trying to take care of themselves or set a healthy boundary.
It’s throwing back a person’s emotions—instead of listening/validating—and saying, “Your emotions aren’t my problem. That’s your fault.” Or claiming, “I never said that!” when they clearly did.
It’s making a person doubt their ability to succeed at a task by making you feel that if you were to ever leave, you would leave “safety” and doom yourself to a miserable life of failure, loneliness, and pain. What was that thing they convinced you was so bad to do? Oh, just take a job. No, not something major like, “Don’t join a cult! Are you crazy?” But, “Don’t leave me because I need to be in control, not you.”
If you listen to Mother Gothel’s song Mother Knows Best you’ll hear many examples of gaslighting. She makes Rapunzel doubt herself by pointing out made up character defects such as: not being able to survive on her own, sloppy and clumsy, “Plus, I believe, getting kind of chubby.” And if injury weren’t enough, she adds, “I’m just saying because I love you.” This is what makes the victim feel so crazy. It’s the combination of harm with something that should feel good: Love.
Hopefully you see now why victims of gaslighting, narcissists, and abuse of all kinds have such a hard time opening up to themselves and others.
What’s more is how at the beginning of the film, Rapunzel is seen doing what seems like an impossible amount of chores only to realize it’s only 7:15! Victims of gaslighting are very productive, active people. So when they’re criticized for not doing enough, that’s what is crazy. If they weren’t doing enough, it would likely make sense.
Now, let me be bold and give a few suggestions for those of who you want to know how to help without it turning into gaslighting:
*Scott, B. & Briere, J. (2006). Principles of Trauma Therapy: A Guide to Symptoms, Evaluation, and Treatment (DSM-5 Update).
†Canadian Psychological Association (2017). Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists (Fourth Edition).
Lee Atwood manages his private practice, Relevare Counselling, in Calgary, AB, and offers in-person and online services for mental health issues such as: sex/porn addiction, marriage and family issues, depression/anxiety, men’s issues, spirituality, and helping people on their journey of recovery and healing.