The concept of gaslighting is widely known as a form of emotional abuse, control, and manipulation enacted on someone to make them question their thoughts, feelings, reality, and even their sense of sanity.
Sara Kuburic, MA, CCC, also known as @millennial.therapist, advises that gaslighting can be experienced in many contexts and look like:
- Ignoring your needs/boundaries in an effort to prove yourself.
- Feeling incompetent and like a failure.
- Inconsistent words and actions from the gaslighter.
- Feeling confused about what you are expected to do.
- Receiving contradictory feedback.
- Negative reactions when you try to assert boundaries.
I’ve personally experienced gaslighting in the workplace and a couple of my past relationships. It really is a tumultuous experience to wrap your head around and untangle from. Generally, it’s only once you’ve managed to get some distance that you start to realize how impactful and toxic the behavior is.
Many depictions of gaslighting in the media and most psychological research are centered on the core idea that gaslighting is externalized – meaning it’s something someone does to others or has done to them by another person.
An aspect of gaslighting less spoken about is the concept of self-gaslighting, the process of internalizing this deeply problematic behavioral approach to the ways we talk and think about ourselves.
The more I’ve read about this, the more I’ve discovered it’s a behavior that I – and many people I know – struggle with.
What is self-gaslighting?
Just as when someone else might gaslight you, self-gaslighting is when you deny your own experiences, feelings, emotions, or reality.
It can begin as simple doubts over how you reacted or responded to a scenario and escalate to darker thinking about your value and purpose in the world.
Self-gaslighting becomes the process of questioning everything you do, think, or say, constantly feeling uncertain of who you are and how you’re experiencing the world.
Self-gaslighting can be a lingering byproduct of having been gaslit in previous relationships, as it takes time to rebuild trust in the reality of our worldview and perceptions.
But you don’t necessarily need to have experienced externalized gaslighting to fall victim to self-gaslighting. It can simply be something you’ve learned to do over time, never questioning how you talk to or think about yourself in these unhealthy ways.
5 self-gaslighting phrases you might be using
Rachel Otis is a Somatic Therapist based in California who believes in the power of the mind-body connection for healing. In her work, she’s supported clients who have experienced gaslighting – both externally and internally – helping them recognize their experiences to overcome them fully.
She provides the following examples for what self-gaslighting can look and sound like:
“I am too dramatic, emotional, sensitive, and crazy.”
This phrase relates to the ways we think about our emotional reactions. Thinking that expressing or feeling an intense emotion is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ is a core sign of self-gaslighting.
“Maybe it’s all just in my head!?”
Self-gaslighting is categorized by doubt and uncertainty. Many of us often go through an emotional experience, only to dismiss or undermine its impact or severity. This phrase is a classic ‘sweep it under the rug’ thought that only serves to downplay your lived experiences.
“I am not enough. There’s something wrong with me.”
Whether it’s imposter syndrome, being passed over for a promotion at work, or being ghosted by your latest crush, it’s easy to see these experiences as being caused by a lack in ourselves. Although it’s good to question our role in certain experiences, there’s also an array of details that have nothing to do with us.
“It’s all my fault anyway.”
If you’re someone who readily takes the blame, believing they’re at fault anytime something goes wrong, despite there being other parties involved, you may be experiencing self-gaslighting. Yes, in some scenarios, we are at fault, but not all the time. Taking ownership is essential but not for the failures of others.
“I love them, so I should just do what they ask.”
Standing up for ourselves in our personal relationships can be difficult if we’re prone to self-gaslighting. Thinking or feeling that loving someone means you shouldn’t have a voice or express the gamut of your emotions can have a longer-term negative impact on how you view yourself and your worth within the relationship.
How can you overcome self-gaslighting?
The first step to overcoming self-gaslighting is coming to terms with the idea that this is something you are enacting upon yourself and accepting that you’ve been doing this.
It can be challenging to admit we may have been acting in ways that could be causing us harm or further trauma, but our minds are complex. Sometimes we act in ways that can prove harmful in the long term because the behaviors were, at some point, a way of protecting ourselves.
Once we can acknowledge this is something we’ve been doing, the next crucial step is to thank our minds and bodies for the work they’ve been doing to protect us so far – even if it was harmful. To help build better self-understanding, you can explore the questions:
- How has self-gaslighting served me in the past?
- How has self-gaslighting helped me cope?
- Why has self-gaslighting become something I turn to?
- Why does self-gaslighting no longer serve me in my present and future?
- Who can I be without self-gaslighting dominating my thoughts?
Otis advises the subsequent work involves revalidating who we are, what we feel, and how we experience our lives. She says positive affirmations can help to counteract some of the self-gaslighting phrases we may have been using and offers the following as a starting point:
“My emotions are valid, and I have the right to express them.”
This may feel odd or false at first, and it’s essential to allow yourself to be curious about the feelings this affirmation may evoke without judgment or criticism.
Otis also says to explore the connection with your body as you work through this process, acknowledging where the phrases of your self-gaslighting are most deeply felt and easing your way through what you feel without judgment. Release the emotional and physical sensations as you process this new understanding and connection with yourself that you’re establishing.
While self-gaslighting may have served to protect you in the past, and it may have even become a comfort, a way of steering away from other fearful or traumatic thoughts, this behavior cannot serve you in the long term.
Create space to begin proactively letting go of this behavior, honoring its role in your life up until this point, as you start to move forward with a new, balanced and positive relationship with yourself, your thoughts, and your emotions.