Ahh, the gaslighters of the world! They brighten or dampen the flame according to their own agenda and leave their targets rubbing their eyes and wondering… what just happened? It’s subtle at times, egregiously blatant at others. But it’s always a twisted manipulation that makes you second-guess yourself. And, once you’ve become accustomed to doubting yourself, courtesy of others, you start gaslighting yourself.
Gaslighting is an emotionally abusive, insidious tactic used to make another person question their feelings, memory, reality, and sanity.
The name comes from a 1938 play and then a 1940 movie called Gas Light.
In a devious plot to have his wife committed to a mental institution, a husband plays with his wife’s mind. Every night he dims the gas lights a little more, then questions his wife’s sanity when she notices the subtle changes.
This kind of manipulation continues—all intended to make his wife think she is going crazy. He brings other people into the manipulation, as well, so his wife becomes surrounded by skeptics and critics.
To steal his wife’s inheritance.
If you are thinking about divorce, and don’t know what steps to take, fearing you may take wrong ones, feel anchored and read our popular “36 Things to Do If You are Thinking About Divorce.”
Today the term gaslighting is used to describe the creepy, narcissistic, sociopathic, conscienceless, entitled, lying method of making another person self-doubt.
It’s a power-play.
The gaslighter will use any number of tactics in a passive-aggressive way to plant the seed of insanity in a target. Common phrases a victim will become accustomed to hearing include:
- “I never said that!”
- “That’s not what happened at all!”
- “Your ‘proof’ is fabricated.”
- “What are you talking about?”
- “It’s all your fault! This wouldn’t have happened if you had/hadn’t….”
- “You’re too sensitive!”
- “No, you’re overreacting.”
- “You’re obviously tired.”
- “Have you been drinking?”
- “Even your friends are starting to ask questions.”
- “How could you possibly forget that?”
The gaslighter may even go so far as to change the victim’s environment to instill doubt about her memory.
And lying, whether directly or indirectly, is always at the heart of gaslighting…
…even when you are gaslighting yourself.
But why would you do something so awful to yourself? And how can you even do something like that when you “know” the truth?
The key to understanding gaslighting is its insidious pervasiveness. It’s not a one-and-out occurrence that would otherwise lead you to simply “block” someone from ever having contact with you again.
Understand more about the many shades of abuse. Read “Leaving an Abusive Marriage? There are Steps to Take First.”
Gaslighting works drop by drop, one oddity and one questioning head tilt at a time.
What does this have to do with relationships and divorce?
Gaslighting and Divorce
We have all witnessed more than a tolerable amount of gaslighting in politics, and most recently in war and divorce, which can be its own kind of war, can have more than its share.
If your husband routinely ignores or even criticizes your feelings, you may have started doing the same to yourself.
“Hmm. Maybe I am too sensitive. Maybe I did overreact and he’s right – I expect too much, complain too much, ‘feel’ too much. Yes, maybe my memory is starting to go.”
“Maybe I need help.”
And voilá! Suddenly you—the one who would never talk to your spouse or a friend that way—are gaslighting yourself.
Suddenly you are questioning your own feelings and responses, suppressing your thoughts, becoming self-critical, or doubting your own reality.
If you have been living in an unhappy or even abusive marriage, you may now be overthinking when to leave your husband.
You may not trust yourself to make that kind of decision. After all, you’re the one who’s at fault, right?
And nothing is more important than getting real… about what is real.
Here are five suggestions for how to stop gaslighting yourself.
Ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend if I heard her talking to herself this way?”
Why is it that we give ourselves license to be unkind to ourselves in ways we would never be with anyone else?
Would you ever speak to a loved one in a way that made her doubt herself, not like herself, not trust her own experiences?
So why do you think it’s OK to run those negative tapes in your own mind?
The fact that you’re “speaking” them internally doesn’t make them any less damning. On the contrary, it’s the internalized, subconscious tapes that do the most damage.
Dig deep and ask whose opinion this really belongs to.
If you have unknowingly eased into the practice of gaslighting yourself, take the time to do some personal-history sleuthing.
Who has instilled in you the notion that you can’t trust your own perceptions, opinions, preferences, experiences, and memories?
Did it start in childhood and therefore feel “natural” in your married life?
Did a parent disapprove of who you were and what you did, and steer you away from self-confidence?
Did your husband berate your feelings, responses, needs, and complaints? Or did he chisel away at your sense of self and gradually subordinate you to his own wants?
The objective here is to stop owning what doesn’t belong to you!
Step away from your thoughts and see them as their own entities.
Thoughts, after all, are “things.” They are not your identity or the source of your worth.
They carry great power to influence your feelings and shape your behavior. But they are also under your authority.
When you recognize a negative thought creeping up or silencing an otherwise natural, healthy expression, pause.
Acknowledge this thought as a visitor knocking on your door. “There it is again!”
Do you let it in or shoo it away? (You don’t, after all, have an open-door policy…do you?)
Give yourself the grace of a balanced point of view.
The difference between gaslighting and not gaslighting yourself doesn’t lie in perfection.
The abusers in your life may have taught you differently (despite their own glaring imperfections) but being human doesn’t forfeit your reality.
It’s healthy to examine your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
It’s healthy to recognize when and how you can do better.
It’s also healthy to be able to laugh at your mistakes and to know and accept your strengths and weaknesses.
Speak to yourself with externalizing affirmations.
In order to stop gaslighting yourself, you have to recognize when the gaslighting is happening – both externally and internally.
Slow down. Hit pause. Don’t “open the door” to your uninvited thoughts.
When someone says, “You’re too sensitive,” for example, you have a choice.
You can automatically fold and tell yourself, “Gosh, y’know, you really are too sensitive. Get a backbone. And next time, don’t say anything.”
Or you can tell yourself, “I know what I heard. And I know what I felt when I heard it. I’m entitled to my feelings. If this person doesn’t want to discuss how we can better communicate in the future, that’s not my problem.”
Your feelings are as worthy as anyone else’s.
Your reality is as worthy as anyone else’s.
Relationships can (and should be) a safe haven – physically, emotionally, spiritually. They provide, ideally, a reflective context for honest expression, growth, and healing.
Consider reading, “27 Cautionary Signs You are in a Toxic Marriage.”
Unfortunately, abusive tactics like gaslighting undermine that potential. Instead of healing, they destroy. They create a war zone within intimate, isolated spaces.
Knowing the signs of gaslighting from others is the first step toward recognizing when you are gaslighting yourself.
And recognition is the first step in healing.
How to stop gaslighting yourself?
In two words.
Learn what is possible for your life.