Freedom From Being Believed: Gaslighting
Have you ever had someone call you “too sensitive” or “crazy”? Has your recollection of events been questioned, yet you feel sure you’re in the right? If so, you may be a victim of gaslighting. Gaslighting is commonly talked about in terms of intimate relationships. However, many individuals also experience gaslighting in several ways. Gaslighting is a psychologically manipulative tactic to get a person or group of people to doubt their reality and memory.
Sometimes it can be challenging to recognize when gaslighting is happening, but a starting point may be to be aware of common gaslighting phrases. Some common phrases may include: “you’re making things up,” “that never happened,” “you’re being dramatic,” or “you’re blowing things out of proportion.” Another way to know when gaslighting is happening to you is to recognize the symptoms. When a person is constantly gaslit, they start to show signs of lowered self-esteem and emotional dependence on the individual who is gaslighting. During a conflict where someone is gaslighting you, you may experience a range of emotions from confusion and anger to frustration and find yourself going in argumentative circles both out loud and in your mind. This type of back-and-forth is exhausting and can affect your self-trust. Once you can effectively recognize when gaslighting is happening in the moment, then you can start to break the cycle.
Another way to recognize when you are experiencing gaslighting is to reach out to your support network. It may also be valuable to check in with our support systems when unsure whether we have experienced gaslighting. Since we are all humans, we are not infallible, and there may be instances where we experience gaslighting. There may be other instances where we're mistaken in understanding the situation. Having trusted friends and family to help us parse out our mistaken perceptions can be helpful for those times when we were not experiencing gaslighting.
The goal of gaslighting is to have the receiving person doubt their perception. For the person doing the gaslighting, their goal may be to avoid accountability. This creates immense internal confusion, which then chips away at your ability to trust yourself and your memory. Gaslighting lies on a spectrum. Some people don't know they're gaslighting and are largely unaware of how their behavior affects others. But some individuals are very well aware of what they are doing, and it is done with intention and without remorse. Often people who are dealing with gaslighting wonder about the person's motives. If the gaslighter doesn't know they're gaslighting, it gives them a sense of hope. Regardless of the person’s motivations, you can still set appropriate boundaries in the relationship.
To combat this, stand firm in your truth. That means believing in yourself, your feelings, and what you know to be true. It means owning your perception (i.e., what you saw, heard, and felt). It sounds like "I know what I saw" or "Don't tell me how to feel; this is how I feel." It’s okay to turn to supportive loved ones for validation, but we can also learn to value ourselves from within. Next time you have an urge to ask someone to validate a thought, perception, or feeling, take a moment to sit with it and affirm it for yourself instead. It may be difficult at first, but the more you practice, the more you will trust yourself. After taking the time to stand firm in your truth, it may be beneficial to check in with your support system.
When we reach out to our support system to share our reality, what is happening, what we know, and what we've seen, witnessed, and experienced, we further integrate our truth into our minds. Once you stand firm in your truth, it may be beneficial to check in with a mentor or trusted friend who can help you process your experience. Sometimes our support network may offer different perspectives on a situation, which can help us evaluate whether the gaslighting was intentional or accidental. Nonetheless, when we experience intentional or accidental gaslighting, the more we stay quiet and downplay our realities, the more likely the seeds of doubt will grow over time. Sometimes we need external validation from our support system to build our inner confidence, especially when we’ve experienced gaslighting. You can reduce the psychological and emotional hold that gaslighting has on you when you share your truths with safe people.
Another way to stand firm in our truth is to practice mindfulness. The first step is simply listening because gaslighting can alienate us from our thoughts and feelings. Begin by noticing basic needs like hunger, tiredness, and thirst, rather than pushing them aside. Then, start taking a second to step back to see your emotions. You don’t have to change your feelings or shame yourself for feeling them: simply validate your own experience.
It can be helpful to write things out as they are happening to ground yourself in the truth further. Journal about your experiences, and get into the habit of reviewing your writings. Keep a record of what is happening. A journal is a great way to maintain a record of what is happening over time. Journaling will help you feel confident about what you know to be true.
At times, people may choose to have a conversation with the person who has gaslit them. It may be beneficial for you to carefully evaluate whether it would be safe or helpful to enter a conversation with someone who has gaslit you. I would encourage you to self-reflect on your mental health and needs to determine whether a discussion may be necessary. If you choose to have a conversation with the person gaslighting, know your purpose when entering the conversation. What would you like to accomplish? Resolve? What are the main points that you would like to get across? A person who is gaslighting may blatantly lie, shift the narrative, or try to minimize how you feel. Entering the conversation knowing your purpose will help you remain centered on a path versus veering in the different directions that a gaslighting person may take you. Permit yourself to leave the conversation when you recognize signs of your reality being denied and minimized.
Remember: The goal of the person who is gaslighting is to have you doubt your perception, so walking away before the gaslighting gets severe is a way to maintain your perception of events. Don’t worry about trying to “outsmart” the person gaslighting. The best way to outsmart someone gaslighting is to disengage. You can show up to the discussion with a mountain of evidence, videos, recordings, and more, and a gaslighting person will still find a way to deflect, minimize, or deny. It is more worth it to walk away with your perception intact.
When responding to gaslighting, you may say things like: “My feelings and reality are valid. I don’t appreciate you telling me that I am being too sensitive,” “Don't tell me how to feel; this is how I feel,” “I am allowed to explore these topics and conversations with you,” “I know what I saw,” “I will not continue this conversation if you continue to minimize what I am feeling,” “I hear you and that is not my experience,” or “we remember things differently.”
It can be very disorienting to have a conversation with a gaslighting person. It knocks you off your center and changes the path of the discussion to something that now blames you and your feelings for "blowing things out of proportion" when you are just sharing your feelings.
It is more than OK to walk away and grieve the reality that your needs in the conversation may not be met. Standing firm in your truth and leaning into your support system can help ground you back into reality. Lastly, practice self-compassion for what you are enduring in the relationship; this will help you navigate the feelings associated with being gaslighted.