By Kristin Minto Snowden MA, LMFT
Gaslighting happens anytime you allow another person to invalidate your experience and tell you what you should think, feel, or believe. Basically, you make a choice (unconsciously or consciously) to allow another’s reality to supersede your own.
It’s important to explore why you would trust another’s input above your own experience. What messages have you received in life that your intuition is off? How long have you allowed another’s input to cause you to second-guess your own? Those are just a few important questions to ponder.
It’s also important to understand the toxic cycle of gaslighting. Often, a person being gaslighted is extremely uncomfortable with confrontation. You may avoid thinking about it or shut down in the presence of it. You may struggle with “agreeing to disagree” and instead feel compelled to defend yourself and your reality. If so, this may be due to a deep underlying yearning to prove your worthiness and value to your partner. To heal, you must become comfortable with the fact that your partner may not agree with your experience but that has no bearing on your value and worth. That, however, is not an easy transition for some people to make.
There is also something called the empathy trap. The most “understanding” people—those who can easily see another’s point of view and feel strong empathy for their circumstances—are the most susceptible to gaslighting. Why? Over-empathizers may put more value into showing they “see” their partner and “understand their partner’s perspective” than into honoring their own reality and experience. To heal, these individuals must learn that they can understand and validate another person’s point of view without completely discounting their own experience. But, again, this is not an easy transition to make.
People who have been gaslighted are not weak and helpless. They have a perfectly capable head and heart. They just need to hold firm to who they are. They need to trust their intuition about what is right and wrong. They need to know they are capable of making healthy choices when given the space, confidence, and support to do so. The remainder of this post focuses on stopping and overcoming the effects of gaslighting.
How to Stop the Gaslighting
If the catalyst for gaslighting is forfeiting your values, reality, and sense of self, then the antidote is to reclaim those things. If you’ve been gaslighted, you need to sharpen and empower your intuition. That is an extremely difficult process, especially if you’re still engaged in a relationship with a gaslighter.
Below is a list of ways to improve or re-create your reality, one step at a time.
- Create a List of Your Values: Make a list of things you want to be remembered for, things that are important to you, things you cannot live without (i.e., being kind to yourself and others, religion/spirituality, spending time with loved ones, traveling, doing your best in your career, being a good parent, etc.)
- Create a List of Your Non-Negotiables: List things you will absolutely not stand for in your life and relationships (i.e., no name-calling, no cheating, no emotional or physical abuse, no criticizing, no drugs/alcohol, no stealing, no mocking your weight/intelligence/choices, etc.)
- Keep a Journal: Write down your daily thoughts and feelings. Don’t censor yourself or pause while writing. See what themes, feelings, observations, and experiences come from your journal.
- Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness is making yourself aware or “mindful” of what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling in your body. The ultimate goal is not to judge or push back on what you’re thinking and feeling, it’s to allow your thoughts and feelings to exist and pass through you. That may sound overly simplified or unnecessary, but you will be amazed to realize how much time and energy you spend fighting off or distracting yourself from what you’re really thinking and feeling. If you practice mindfulness, you can plug back into your authentic thoughts and feelings and regain your sense of who you are.
- Spend Time Alone: Build a tolerance for it. Do it under your terms, filling your time alone with things you enjoy doing. Find out what thoughts and feelings come up for you when you’re alone. Notice if you experience feelings of doubt or insecurity.
- Spend Time with Friends and Family: Make sure these are healthy friends and family members, not gaslighters who are happy to invalidate what you feel and what you’re experiencing. A healthy, compassionate loved one is not someone who is less broken than you and able to “fix” you, it’s someone who can sit with you in your discomfort and tolerate it, instead of trying to fix it.
- Get Comfortable with Being Flawed: You’re allowed to sometimes be wrong, unpleasant, disagreeable, and a contrarian. We are all flawed, imperfect individuals. But we are always entitled to respect. We are always worthy of love and belonging
- Complete Step 4 of the 12 Steps: Step 4 of the 12 steps reads: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” With this step, you create a total picture of yourself—your good, your bad, your strengths, your weaknesses, your positives, your negatives. The point of this brutal process is to clear out your dirty laundry, to realize where you have shame, and to no longer be controlled by that shame.
- Complete Step 9 of the 12 Steps: Step 9 of the 12 steps encourages you to make amends, wherever necessary, to those you’ve wronged. Identifying and owning where and when you’ve fallen short and admitting it to another person is a courageous act that can free you of shame, sharpen your instincts, and increase your self-esteem. This step helps you own your mistakes, learn from them, and make things right.
- Don’t Defend or Debate What You Know to Be Your Truth: Resist the urge to defend your experience, value, and truth. Agree to disagree. You don’t have to take on the gaslighter’s truth. During your next argument with him/her, say something like, “That’s your opinion and I disagree,” or, “I’ll think about what you said, but right now it doesn’t feel right for me,” or, “I hear what you’re saying, but my experience is very different from yours.” This is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but you should try your hardest to avoid “hustling” for your worthiness and truth.
- Don’t Confuse Empathy for Another with Gaslighting: You can understand another person’s perspective and appreciate where that person is coming from without giving up your truth. You can agree to disagree. You can take the other person’s feedback into consideration. The fact that you “understand” what that person is saying or experiencing doesn’t mean you have to take on that person’s experience as your own.
- Never Invalidate Your Experience or Feelings: Trust that you know who you are, what you stand for, what you’re feeling, what’s important to you, and what your intuition is telling you. You should never have to invalidate your experience or feelings to be in a relationship with someone else. Your loved one should be allowed to experience whatever he or she experiences. But that should never discount or negate your experience or feelings.
- Hold Others to a Similar Standard: Taking the suggestions listed above is difficult but can lead to a healthier and happier way of living and interacting with others. As part of this healing process, you should expect the important people in your life to behave and respond similarly. If you work hard on keeping your side of the street clean with these steps, you should expect others to reciprocate.