One of the most popular episodes of The Relationship Guy podcast so far has been the one where I talk about gaslighting, from July 2021.
It is a term that has become commonplace in the media and is, in my opinion, used far too frequently to describe someone’s behaviour that can be seen as manipulative and controlling. That can be abusive enough in its own right, but gaslighting takes it to a whole new level.
It is an insidious coercive type of manipulation – please listen to the episode to find out all about it.
Gaslighting is something that is done by one person to another, but there is something that you can do to yourself that can be just as destructive, if not more, as the voices in our own heads carry significant power – and that is Self-Gaslighting.
Yes, would you believe that you can actually doubt and criticise yourself so much that you can make yourself dismiss your own emotions and question your own reality.
Do you ever hear yourself ask these questions when something is going on that you are uncomfortable with:
“Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought”
“They didn’t mean to hurt me”
“I am being overly emotional”
“I am making something out of nothing”
“It’s all in my head”
“It must be my fault”
And you may even tell yourself to accept responsibility for any issue, regardless of where the responsibility lies, constantly seeking validation and reassurances.
You probably ‘should yourself’ a lot too, as you try to live up to self-imposed or expectations of others. (If you have worked with me, seen me speak, or seen my documentary, you know what we do with shoulds).
We can put these into two categories: Minimisation and self-invalidation.
Why would you self-gaslight?
Well, there are a few reasons for it, but ultimately it is because you have learnt to question yourself so much that you don’t trust in your own thoughts and decisions and have started to or have lost all sense of self.
You may have experienced this in childhood, where you were always blamed for things, were told things would happen and they never did or when they did happen you were told it was not the way you saw it. Your feelings were never validated, your needs never met and you are used to thinking that “it must be me that is the problem”.
I have clients now that believe this about themselves based on their childhood experiences and in some cases are being reaffirmed over and over by family members to this day.
You could have been in an abusive relationship for such a long time that you have come to believe that the abuser is always right, that the punishment for holding your ground is severe enough for you to begin to keep quiet and it has gone so far that you now believe what you stopped standing up to.
You may have experienced a traumatic event that has left you full of remorse, shame or judgement of you. One client related a story of when they were sexually assaulted and beat themselves up for a long time for ‘allowing it to happen’. But being unable to stop it due to paralyzing fear and in such a state afterwards that she never reported it. Having never been able to face the trauma she held onto all the self-abusive thoughts and feelings.
You fit the external narrative so well that it is now your internal narrative too. All of the problems that you face are because of you.
This self-talk can result in a storm of emotions, ranging from anxiety, depression, confusion and shame. But even these can feel like imposters because they aren’t tangible, related to anything real. You may even tell yourself that you shouldn’t be feeling them at all.
In the most extreme of cases, it can create a split in your personality, as though you are two or more different people. The person who knows what is happening, or has happened who knows they aren’t wrong or to blame, but have to own it and be responsible regardless. It is the ultimate in self-rejection.
So, that is what it is and why you do it. But what can you do about it? There are a few things you can do so put some of these into practice and see what works for you.
Firstly, let me say that you could be enmeshed in this process and so don’t be mean to yourself as make the changes that you need to make, it is a process and could take some time. Just acknowledge the little steps you take as you change.
Get to know and understand yourself, recognise what triggers you and the patterns of behaviour this causes. Once you do this it is easier to adjust yourself when they happen, challenge what you are doing and look at the reality of the moment.
Write things down in a journal, look at how you are self-gaslighting if what you are thinking today is different to what you wrote down at the time.
Validate and don’t judge your thoughts. Show yourself some compassion and honour who you are, what you think and feel. Affirm that you can believe in and trust yourself.
You likely learnt how to self-gaslight when in times of stress and in survival mode. It could have become your protective mechanism. Tell your brain that it no longer needs to use this to protect you, you are safe to look at things and not use this technique to keep you stuck any longer.
Find people that you trust and can share with. Change your relational patterns of those that you invite into your life and spend less time with the people that trigger you or are responsible for it in the first place.
Create a new mindset when you are around people who you know behave this way, not allowing them to challenge you internally, even if you let them do so externally.
Be your friend! Until it becomes your reality, imagine you are talking to someone you deeply care about and think about what you would say to them.
Working on yourself is the key, changing who you have around you and the relationship you have with yourself. Face the traumas of the past that keep you stuck and internalise new positive messages.
It can be a challenging experience and feel like you are fighting against yourself due to the constant self-discrediting and so a coach or therapist with experience in this field can help you to safely dig deep, heal and believe in you.
Be good to yourself.