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Gaslighting

7 Things Everyone Should Understand About Gaslighting

1. Other people may disengage from you.

Key points

  • People you know and love may look the other way and act as though gaslighting didn’t or isn’t happening.
  • Experiencing gaslighting can create trauma.
  • Sharing your secrets with a mental health professional is often the way to heal your pain.
Kristin Meekhof
Source: Kristin Meekhof

Gaslighting can happen to the best of us. When it happened to me, I didn’t even recognize it. Other experts pulled me aside and explained what I couldn’t see.

Gaslighting, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is “to manipulate another person into doubting his or her perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events.”

One of the painful parts of the gaslighting experience is knowing that not everyone will believe your story. You may feel like you are “on trial” whenever you share your story. It may feel like you need to present your “case” with supporting evidence, details, and eyewitness accounts. Someone told me unless I had a recording of the incident, it would be "like it didn't happen." This process can be emotionally and physically exhausting and even traumatic.

Learning how to cope effectively will help you manage your emotional pain. And part of coping is understanding some aspects of being gaslit.

  1. Understand people may disengage from you. People you know and love may look the other way and act as though it didn’t or isn’t happening through a process called “moral disengagement,” a phrase coined by pioneer psychologist Albert Bandura. He wrote a book by the same name. Bandura said a person convinces themselves that the rules of a particular ethical situation do not apply and can even rationalize it or blame someone else for it. In other words, even if people witness and believe you, they may distance themselves from you and not want to get involved.
  2. Write in a journal. When you’re experiencing gaslighting, it can be confusing. Writing out your thoughts can give you mental clarity. The act of writing the words around your invisible pain makes your suffering visible. Journal writing can help you develop words around your distress and vulnerability. Keep the journal because you may need it in the future, as it can serve as a record of your circumstances.
  3. Share your secret with a trusted mental health professional. Keeping secrets can be painful. It can cause more hurt, emotionally and physically, when you’re actively concealing your feelings and experiences. In general, once you experience gaslighting, you start keeping secrets. At some point, you may have decided not to disclose how you were feeling and being treated. These burdens are wound tightly around the belief that you lack control over your future. Revealing them to a trusted professional, like a therapist, can help you decrease the anxiety.
  4. Maintaining your image is hard work and creates more stress. We’re hardwired to belong, and rejection is painful. It is normal to fear rejection. While you may be concealing your suffering, keeping up a favorable image of yourself to present to others can be just as stressful. Now you’re trying to not only hide your anger and hurt, but you are also trying to appear strong when in reality, you are emotionally raw and vulnerable. This can also be the reason your emotional pain can increase.
  5. Remember, you’re not to blame. Anger at the self is common, but remember you’re not to blame. Due to the nature of gaslighting, it typically involves a powerful situation in which you depend on the other person for some support (i.e., financial, emotional, family), and fear keeps the fire lit. This fear can turn inward and shape into anger, anxiety, and depression. It isn’t unusual to believe that you could have stopped it, but remember, the very power structure makes it difficult to exit the relationship.
  6. Get a physical exam. Painful, traumatic events, like gaslighting, can cause physical problems. Your doctor may be able to offer help for your symptoms, like headaches, sleepless nights, or upset stomach. It is important to tell your doctor everything. Not disclosing to them prevents them from being best able to help you.
  7. Seek out a mental health professional. Gaslighting experiences are often best shared with a mental health professional who won’t judge you but can guide you through the traumatic experience of being gaslit. A blind spot can form when you are in this type of situation, and a mental health professional can see the larger picture and provide clarity and support.

Sharing your secrets with a mental health professional is often the way to heal your pain. Finding this trusted expert can help you rebuild your life after loss because when you’ve been gaslit, you’ve likely lost trust in others and yourself. It is also normal to suffer other losses, such as friends, colleagues, and even family members who didn’t believe you or failed to offer help and support. Remember, you are not your experience with gaslighting, and it is possible to shape your narrative into one of healing.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Facebook image: Just Life/Shutterstock

References

Bandura, A/ (2016). Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves. New York, NY; Worth Publishers.

Meekhof, K., Windell (2015). A Widow's Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First Five Years. Naperville, IL; Sourcebooks.

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