Recognizing Gaslighting and Overcoming its Traumatizing Effects

Have you ever experienced gaslighting? When it happened to me I didn’t realize what was going on. I thought I was losing my mind, and if you’ve seen the 1944 movie “Gaslight” starring Ingrid Bergman, you know what I mean by “losing my mind.” The person doing the gaslighting often tries to make the victim doubt themself by questioning or condemning their perception of reality or their feelings. They want to confuse you so that you don’t trust your own judgement. The gaslighter may appear at times to be friendly, caring or looking out for your best interest, so if you are a trusting person, this makes the situation very difficult to see and resolve. You are experiencing a cognitive dissonance because you struggle to make sense of why someone who cares about you, or is supposed to care about you, would purposefully try to manipulate you. The options appear to be, this person is lying, or I am crazy. That’s a tough place to be especially if you’re afraid to confront them, and you don’t want to lose them.

So how do you navigate this?

This is a great article that outlines what to do in this situation. To summarize the 8 steps:

  1. Make sure it’s gaslighting – if it’s causing you to doubt yourself and feel unwell, there’s a good chance it is.
  2. Take some space from it – this will help you stay calm and connected to your truth so that you can stand up against it effectively.
  3. Collect evidence – just be sure to practice self care with this and not let it overwhelm you.
  4. Speak up about it – the person gaslighting may realize it’s not worth it, or not working if you can stand up for yourself.
  5. Remain confident in your truth – but don’t get drawn into conflict. Leave the conversation if necessary.
  6. Practice self-care – this builds resilience to stand up against the behavior.
  7. Involve others – not to take sides, but to be objective.
  8. Seek professional support – don’t be afraid to lean on a pro if you’re really struggling.

When to leave?

What did I do? I left the situation. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life. The person had been a very close friend and collaborator, but I knew that I needed to trust myself, and if they wouldn’t change, I had to do the only thing that was truly under my control, get out. At first it felt liberating. I had done a very scary thing in order to protect myself. That was great! What I wasn’t prepared for were the lingering doubts that I had about myself, compounded by the fact that others didn’t see this person the same way I did. It’s a bit similar to the family abuser who is selective about who they abuse. Those who are close with the abuser who don’t experience abuse have a really hard time believing the person being abused, further adding to the doubt and trauma of the experience. When I started to doubt myself even after leaving, I chose to keep looking within to understand where that doubt was coming from.

Beyond Gaslighting

Gaslighting wasn’t something I knew about before my own experience. It actually wasn’t even something I was aware of as I was going through it. It took stumbling upon the idea a few years later for me to make the connection, to understand why I was so confused and in so much pain during the gaslighting. One of the things I realized was that I was likely a good target because of past trauma or training making me easier to manipulate. In retrospect, I know that I’ve always tried to see the good in people and have definitely avoided personal arguments and conflict at all cost. The idea that I might say something that would upset someone and push them away felt traumatic for me so I avoided it. I’ve since worked on that part of myself, mostly cultivating a deeper sense of self love and respect so that I don’t feel the need to receive love from others — at all cost. Said another way, I reset my nervous system to understand that I will survive even if someone doesn’t like me. So it’s ok to do things that may push someone away if it means I am taking care of myself.

This isn’t to say that it’s your fault that you’ve become entangled with a gaslighter. Their behavior is never your fault. How you respond to it though is your right. Regardless of why you’ve found yourself in a gaslighting situation, my hope is that you find a way to support yourself and take the necessary steps to either put up the required boundaries or remove yourself from the situation entirely. Once you feel safe and secure, if there’s deeper work to be done, then you can explore it should you choose. It’s taken me awhile to peel back the layers, but I have a much greater understanding of who I am and what my truth is. I know you can get there too!

Authors note: I decided to revisit the idea of gaslighting after feeling similarly about the way in which Donald Trump and others were manipulating the facts regarding the alleged election fraud and who won the election. I found myself seeking information online to hear what their positions were, but all I did was expose myself to gaslighting, pure manipulation intended to make me, the reader, doubt myself and the facts. If you’re also struggling with the disinformation campaign my only advice is to shut it off if it feels triggering to you. Take care you yourself out there!

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