How a History of Gaslighting Affects Your Marketing Language

In this era of fake news, “alternative facts,” and the courageous efforts of many marginalized groups to make their voices heard, it’s almost become a buzzword. We now know it’s a real thing–but it still affects us in lots of insidious ways.

For several years, I’ve been noticing a trend in my work with clients: trauma from the past tends to surface whenever our work involves putting words to what they are offering the world.

Over and over again, I’ve seen clients struggle with developing their marketing language.  I noticed it first in my website design clients, but it carried over to print work, and especially my branding work.  Clients would have a hard time writing basic homepage copy, and absolutely Freak Out if I asked them to complete Features and Benefits worksheet.

(Features and Benefits are one of the cornerstones of business copywriting.  Features are the details of the thing you’re offering, and Benefits are how they benefit the customer. If you want to know more, I’ve written a post about them.

E.g. Feature:high-speed internet::Benefit:you spend less time waiting for your movie to download and more time actually enjoying the movie.  Both F&B’s are important.  Features allay fears and give people an idea of what to expect from your thing.  But Benefits are what actually sells.  People only care about how your thing is going to make their lives better.  So getting both right is important.)

Now, writing is never really easy, and the stress of the blank page is enough to make anyone nervous.  I get that.

But, I began to notice something else.

Many of my clients have had difficult childhoods.  And while I’ve never set out to attract those clients, I figured it was a vibrational thing and I was merely drawing the clients to me who were like me.  After all, my childhood wasn’t easy, either, and I had no problem holding their pain when difficult memories would come up.

But I started to notice some patterns about when those memories would come up–namely, when we would work on marketing copy and language.

Right in the middle of discussing seemingly benign marketing copy, many of my clients would completely break down.  Memories of past abuse would come up in the middle of a session.

I’ve heard, “I have no idea why I’m telling you this, but it’s just so in my face right now” hundreds of times.

So, I’d listen, make sure they were okay, and gently guide the conversation back to our work.

But over time I got curious: why did all of my clients go to old trauma memories when we would talk about language, and what was the block around creating that language?  Why was it always so hard?

Well, a few months ago I read this article on Why Survivors Lose Their Voice and I got some pretty powerful insight.

It describes how our basic ability to speak and even form words can get squashed if we have a history of abuse, especially gaslighting (when someone denies or discounts your experience for their own).

This is not something that happens just on an abstract or conceptual level, but something that actually takes place in the physical structure of the brain.

And among other things, the article talks about the fact that Broca’s area (the language center in the left hemisphere of our brain that creates language from our personal experiences) literally turns off when traumatic stress is being recalled or remembered.

So, the main part of our brain that assigns words to our experiences shuts down when we experience or remember traumatic events.

We literally lose the ability to form language and describe our experience.  This is why victims with PTSD often can’t restructure their experience.

And this isn’t just an emotional response; this is physiological.

And so I began to wonder … if every time we attempt the detailed, specific work of creating Features and Benefits, are my clients getting triggered because we’re using a part of their brain that has fallen out of use and is now getting overstimulated?  Is this why so many of them struggle to give a detailed list of Features?  A list of what they do?

Obviously, the answer was yes.  And I could relate to it in my own business, too.  Features and Benefits aren’t a cakewalk for me either.

So then, what about Benefits?

An even bigger struggle my clients have is with listing the Benefits associated with their services, i.e. how they are making someone’s life better.

There is a corresponding Benefit to every Feature, so for every talent, skill and offering you bring to the table, there is specific advantage that you are offering to your client or customer.

And, as it turns out, there is another part of your brain that shuts down.  It’s called the hippocampus, and one of its main functions is to relate different parts of your experience together.

So, as you sit with a friend, feel the breeze on your face, feel the sadness of her story, watch the sunlight on the trees and smell the lavender in the air, your hippocampus keeps track of all of them even as they’re being stored in different parts of your brain and keeps them linked together so we remember it all as one event.

Erm, yeah.  If this part of your brain is a little locked up, it makes sense that it would be difficult to list your gifts and then relate them to how they specifically benefit others.

This part of the brain assigns importance to events and memories by helping us remember who was with us, what they meant to us, and what the experience was like.

This is crucial in figuring out the most important ways that someone would benefit from your services and products.

No wonder we struggle with this.

The article goes on to talk about how this loss of relational ability can actually lead to dissociation and an inability to defend ourselves over time.

While that doesn’t have as much to do with my particular work as the other parts, it’s interesting to note how much prolonged trauma can affect our ability to think, form words, and process what is happening to us.

Now, most of my clients have done a ton of work.  They are largely successful, capable leaders in their industries and have ample skills in self-referencing and self-awareness.  They’re ‘woke’.

And it’s my suspicion that getting triggered by their marketing strategy is a sign of how far they’ve come.  Brand and marketing strategies are surprisingly deep work, and not something that people take on unless they’ve already developed a bunch of skills and capacity for growth and self-care.

And so, being an entrepreneur is triggering.  But it doesn’t have to be for forever.

Over and over again, I see clients get better and improve.  Many of my clients find more joy and ease in their marketing language, and therefore in their lives.

Like any other skill, we’ve greased the neural pathways with repetition and exercises.  And we’ve thrown in a little increased joy for their work to ease the journey.