A type of emotional abuse, gaslighting distorts the victim’s perspective of reality, sowing seeds of self-doubt. It is manipulative, cruel, and primarily used by abusers with narcissistic tendencies. Gaslighters will lie about the details of a situation and blame the victim instead of taking responsibility for their own part. As if that’s not hurtful enough, they will then insult you by telling you that you’re too sensitive or weak to handle feedback. Their goal: to make you feel small and worthless, stripping away your sense of self as well as your self-esteem.
As dreadful as this feels when someone does it to you, it’s ten times worse when you gaslight yourself. Many times, people who gaslight themselves remain unaware of it due to childhood abuse. For example, you’ve set a weight loss goal and have been diligently following a healthy diet and exercise routine. Along comes a particularly stressful day, flooding your mind with childhood memories of your parents harshly criticizing your weight and looks. These negative reminders leave you feeling defeated; you return home to binge on comfort foods. Alternatively, self-gaslighters may find themselves overly dependent on social media for connections, comparing themselves to others who brag about perfect lives leading them to feel worse about their own. The more you gaslight yourself, the less you trust yourself and others. If you feel as though this describes you, I have listed examples of gaslighting and self-sabotaging behavior. Recognizing the signs is the first step forward to ending it.
1. You invalidate your feelings by excusing others’ bad behavior. It’s nice to give others a break - but not when their behavior towards you is nasty or disrespectful. We all have bad days, but only insensitive, arrogant people disregard the feelings or situations of others.
2. You always second guess your decisions. If you were raised by parents who constantly pointed out your flaws or mistakes, you might often feel frightened of making decisions on your own. This leads to staying in jobs, relationships, and situations that others would have left. If you need constant reassurance, it’s a good idea to discuss this with a mental healthcare professional.
3. You have a strong inner critic. It’s difficult to move forward when your self-talk is full of negative or pessimistic criticism about what you think, feel. or do. When adults grow up in families that were riddled with criticism and disdain toward trying new things, dreaming, or thinking out of the box, it teaches the child to be a conformist to avoid being called out. This limits growth because taking risks is too scary.
4. You blame yourself for everything. Gaslighting yourself often involves self-blame. You tell yourself that if only you had been more self-sufficient your parents would have loved you more or if you had been thinner, a better athlete, or less of a bother you’d have more friends. Basically, you believe everything is your fault regardless of any negative choice others make.
5. You doubt your memories. This happens to many survivors of childhood abuse who are gaslighted. Other family members insist that what happened to them wasn’t a big deal - even when their abuse included physical violence. When everyone close to you tells you something is not a big deal and it’s time to get over it, you begin believing it and feeling bad about yourself for being too sensitive.
The good news is you don’t have to continue living like this. You can free yourself from the gaslighting and self-sabotage with these 4 methods.
1. Be aware of what is happening. Start writing down everything that happened and recall whose voice you hear when you experience negative thoughts or feelings.
2. Re-frame self-defeating thoughts with a positive affirmation. For example, re-write one of your negative scripts. Change "I am a failure at relationships," to "I am a good listener and help people feel cared for."
3. Focus on self-awareness. To gain the clearest picture of yourself, begin journaling using the free-writing technique. Don’t pressure yourself with an assignment. Instead, allow your words to flow about a typical experience you frequently find yourself in - without judgment. Don’t edit or sensor your words, as you become your own worst critic.
4. Ground yourself. Since reality doesn’t always feel stable, keep yourself in the present as much as possible. We cannot change the past, but we are in control of the present. Engage in things that relax you and bring joy.
Validate what you do that matters and remind yourself that your past story is not in control of who you are today.
Being gaslit by someone who is supposed to love you is a terrible form of abuse but continuing that abuse by living a life of self-sabotage or self-gaslighting is a tragedy. These strategies can help, and if you need further guidance, be courageous and engage with a mental health care professional. You are worth it; don’t let your past dictate today or your future.