There is a lot of information out there these days on the concept of gaslighting. The term gaslighting originated from an old 1938 play titled “Gaslight’ where the protagonist’s husband slowly manipulated his wife into believing that she is going mad. He does this by dimming “gas” lights every night without her knowledge and then convinces her that she imagines it (while doing other things also). The husband uses persistent denial, misdirection, lying, and other manipulative tactics to ensure the wife feels unsure of her sanity.
Gaslighting is now used to describe an often-elaborate technique of deception and psychological manipulation over an extended period. The intention is to undermine another’s confidence in their ability to distinguish truth from falsehood and then dependence on the gaslighter’s thoughts and feelings for clarification. Persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying renders the other to question their thoughts, feelings, reality, and even sanity.
The purpose of this blog is not to review how others may be gaslighting you, nor how you may be gaslighting others. There is plenty of information on this topic, and I encourage you to learn more if you feel this may be occurring to you. This blog intends to examine the idea of self-gaslighting.
What is self-gaslighting?
As clients enhance their understanding of their own experience with the psychological tactic of gaslighting by others, that experience can become deeply internalized, resulting in self-gaslighting. Self-gaslighting is essentially our constant questioning of ‘self’ and the ultimate denial of our own experience resulting in a damaging reduction in self-confidence and self-validation. Self-gaslighting doesn’t have to occur in response to another person; it can also happen when denying our own internal experience in response to events in our life both in the present and past.
What does self-gaslighting look like?
Self-gaslighting often looks like the suppression of thought and emotion. Let's say someone in the past or present did or said something insensitive or hurtful. You might notice that your feelings are hurt, but you tell yourself that you are making a big deal out of it or are being too sensitive. You notice an emotion but then instantly and impulsively jump to the conclusion that you have no right to feel the way you do. You essentially go from point A to C without considering B.
Self-Gaslighting is a personal attack on ourselves and a denial of our own reality as a way of avoiding uncomfortable emotions.
Similar to when another gaslight us, we can do this to ourselves in much the same manner. We may convince ourselves forcefully that something other than what we have experienced is the truth, denying what we think or feel about a situation, blaming ourselves for our thoughts and emotions, questioning our motives as irrelevant or overbearing. Self-gaslighting is an offensive and defensive mechanism. You are telling yourself that you are wrong, bad, and then ‘squash’ the emotions that are generating the thoughts. We want to take the heat off ourselves, so we ignore ourselves. Self-gaslighting is self-emotional abuse.
How did I learn to self-gaslight?
Such behaviour often has roots in our past. We may have seen our parents or other role models avoid discussing their emotions or being too preoccupied with their own feelings that they didn’t have time/or notice our own. We may have been told or perceived that we did not have the right to express our thoughts and concerns to enhance self-understanding, so we did what we could to survive and just avoided such complex emotions altogether. Our developing brain may not have had a chance to do the inner work of self-exploration. We were too preoccupied with the external world and our survival. We never really got an opportunity to explore our own emotions and their connection to thoughts. Just as if we never learned to swim growing up, we may now find that we avoid the water and even fear doing it because it is so foreign to us. Emotional skills are no different.
Steps to Stop Self-Gaslighting
If some of what you are reading applies to you, self-awareness is a powerful first step. There is no need for shame, but there is a need for self-compassion. Understanding your deeper motivations to avoid those powerful thoughts and emotions and to minimize your experience can go a long way to changing self-gaslighting behaviours.
Feeling and thought exploration is just as important as noticing when we are physically ill. It is observing what we are experiencing in our body and brain to enhance awareness. This is the only way to seek out a way to soothe our mind (and our body) and seek clarification. A great way of doing this is to speak about our thoughts to others, writing them down and even through movement. If you notice self-gaslighting, consider the following questions:
How has self-gaslighting served my past survival?
How has self-gaslighting helped me cope with difficult people in my life?
Is self-gaslighting helping or harming me?
How is self-gaslighting hurting me?
What is something I can do to practice self-compassion rather than self-denial and emotional suppression?
What am I noticing in my emotions, thoughts, and body as I explore this idea?
Like other harmful actions, self-gaslighting happens when we try to control what’s happening to us by controlling our thoughts and emotions. No one likes to “be in trouble” with others, engage in conflict or feel emotionally uncomfortable. To dodge these uncomfortable feelings, we try to take the heat off the situation by denying our own experience. Often, we avoid our emotions because they are more painful than we can tolerate. This results in self-denial and a no-holds-barred approach to deflecting and pushing our emotions away.
So how do we work on challenging this form of gaslighting? It is deceptively simple: We affirm our experiences and our emotions. Then we do the work to explore what our emotions are noticing and trying to tell us.
Important Note About Self-Gaslighting
So there is no confusion; it is worth talking about what isn’t self-gaslighting. As you consider, if you are someone who self-gaslights, there must be an understanding that this is not a way to indulge in false assumptions. While it is critical to self-validate our emotions, it is also crucial that we seek to understand those emotions and the thoughts that go along with them. Emotions are facts as they are generated from the brain, primarily an area called the amygdala. The amygdala’s primary job is to seek potential and actual threats and warn us by activating our sympathetic nervous system (flight-fight-freeze). When they are generated, they are “in fact” occurring. The next step is to question if they need to be generated at all without self-denial and emotional suppression. The thoughts connected to our emotions may not be based on facts.
A term called ‘emotional spill-over’ is worthy of consideration here. When we do not give ourselves time to reflect on our thoughts connected to powerful emotions, we can generate the spilling over onto unrelated events that follow. Just as a cup filled past the brim spills over onto the table, emotions can spill over into situations that have nothing to do with the original issue. It does no good to deny that the ‘spill’ has occurred, so we need to acknowledge that it may have happened mindfully. Studies show that we must engage the prefrontal cortex (the ‘thinking’ part of our brain) to regulate emotional behaviour. We must think about what is going on, rather than pretending it is not happening. The amygdala and prefrontal cortex (emotional and thinking parts of the brain) work best when working in harmony.
Go ahead and say you disagree with your experience if you honestly do and as long as you do so gently. Since it is complicated to prove whose perspective is correct, stay humble and realize your memory or interpretation could be wrong. Look at your feelings and thoughts, ensure they are separate from others, and then try to address those with self-compassion, even if there is disagreement on the details.
Our emotions are our robust brain detectors. The brain is noticing something that requires further investigation. It is causing our brain to detect a threat based on our present or our past. Without sufficient inquiry and exploration, we cannot decide whether we need to re-evaluate our thoughts and assumption and acknowledge critical self-surviving clues or to make a change in our lives. To avoid investigation is to neglect the brain's abilities to alert us to potential danger. (See my blog titled “The brain is not designed to make you happy, say what?”)
Scientists pinpoint area of the brain that regulates emotional spillover
It’s Tempting to Mask Your Emotions, but It Won’t Do You (or Anyone Else) Any Favors
Image by John Hain from Pixabay