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What Is Self-Gaslighting?

How we pick up the torch from the gaslighter and turn it on ourselves.

Key points

  • Being gaslighted can eventually make someone become a self-gaslighter.
  • Questioning the reality of one's wounds can generalize to questioning everything about oneself.
  • Overcoming self-gaslighting begins with changing one's response to the past.
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Most of us have heard of gaslighting. It’s a form of emotional abuse that uses manipulation and minimization to make someone question their reality.

Self-gaslighting is when we pick up the torch from the gaslighter. We internalize their abuse (or lack of protection from it) and begin to gaslight ourselves. For me, it’s sounded something like this:

“Maybe it wasn’t that bad.”

“I didn’t experience ‘real' trauma."

“If I were a stronger or more spiritual person, I wouldn’t feel this way.”

“He didn’t actually mean what I thought he meant.”

“She didn’t believe me because I’m not worth believing.”

“I should be over this by now, instead of having it impact every aspect of my life.”

Currently, in my 40s, I can see that I’ve been gaslighting myself for most of my life. It ran so deep; I became a psychologist who specialized in trauma, but still couldn’t believe or reconcile my own traumatic past. It was like a ghost that haunted me, but I kept thinking, “I’m being too sensitive, I’m probably overreacting.”

I did this to fit the external narrative. My stepfather was never going to admit the lies or abuse he carried out and my mother turned a blind eye. The first social worker I spoke to in my childhood said, “emotional abuse isn’t a reportable situation.” In my developing brain, I learned that the problem wasn’t going to be resolved out there, so it must reside in me.

This resulted in a storm of emotions ranging from anxiety, depression, confusion, and shame. But even my symptoms felt like imposters because they weren’t related to anything “real” and I was telling myself I shouldn’t be feeling them at all.

In my experience, this created a split within my psyche, as though I were two different people sandwiched together: The one who knew what happened—who knew it was wrong and that I wasn’t to blame—and the one who had to take responsibility just to survive it.

Living in survival mode for several decades, I tried attending to my emotional dysregulation but it was like cutting off the top of a weed. The root still ran deep and when the weed popped up again, even stronger, it was evidence for the original gaslighting: See, I am fundamentally broken.

The invisible nature of gaslighting and self-gaslighting

One of the insidious things about gaslighting and self-gaslighting is their invisible nature. It makes them hard to identify. I remember wishing I had bruises as a child. I thought, Maybe the social worker would have listened then.

It’s easy to question invisible wounds, and once I started questioning the big things that happened, it generalized to everything. Am I deserving of care, good things, or my accomplishments? I started to feel like I couldn’t trust myself at all. I was constantly searching for an irrefutable truth but everything looked more like a spectrum of possibilities. The constantly moving gyroscope was operated by an unrelenting critic, always pointing her finger directly at me.

I’ve learned that it isn’t unusual for kids who experience “invisible bruises” to make up stories related to their pain. I see this as a genius attempt to keep the origins of the problem “out there” where it belongs. But eventually, even this can lead to self-gaslighting because when the lies are found out, the child thinks, See, it must be me.

I recall when I was in 8th grade, I was at a sleepover with several girlfriends. Early in the morning, I started pretending to be sleep-talking about things related to my stepdad and wanting to end my own life. I wasn’t actually suicidal, and I wasn’t lying about the nature of the abuse I was experiencing, but I felt like I needed to amplify it through the veil of my “sleep-talking.”

A few friends began speaking back to me, trying to elicit more information and I felt a sliver of being seen. They hear me, they see my pain. But several others thought I was being dramatic or attention-seeking, they saw through the charade and left the room. The split between the two groups was a mirror for my sandwiched self, the split between my great need and my feelings of self-disgust.

This was 34 years ago but I’m wincing as I write about it, like it just happened this morning. I still hold great shame about my response to the abuse I was experiencing. It felt like an obviously failed attempt to make sense of it, to get some help and I took it as another sign of my brokenness. Why would I do something like that? Maybe my parents are right about me, I am a selfish liar.

And this is how the cycle repeats itself: Every attempt to share the root becomes an opportunity to be the weed.

But here is the fact of the matter: These roots aren’t even mine. They didn’t originate in me. These thoughts that I am a liar and manipulator were deliberately planted and then tended to throughout my childhood.

Today, if someone said to me: “I don’t believe you. You are a liar. You made the whole thing up,” I would be appalled, and rightfully so. I can’t imagine any scenario where I’d say this to another human being and I don’t want to keep saying it to myself.

Instead, I can practice being a witness to my own pain. I can respond to my feelings with permission, compassion, and validation.

Seeing the truth behind self-gaslighting

I’ve learned that writing is a powerful way to see the truth of my self-gaslighting, to see its origins more clearly. And I can share these deeper truths with people I trust.

We may not be able to rewrite the past, but we can change how we respond to it. I will no longer make myself the problem. I will no longer accept responsibility for the wrongs done to me. I will not doubt my worth or my gut just because other people could never validate them. I will protect myself, love myself, and trust myself. I extend this message to anyone who identifies with this post.

  • If you wonder if your trauma was bad enough to feel as bad as you do … it was.
  • If you wonder if you deserve support or the things you’ve achieved ... you do.
  • If you wonder if you can recover from a lifetime of gaslighting … you can.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock