Gaslighting is a deliberate process where one person sets out to destroy another person’s relationship with reality. It is often a feature of abusive relationships because a person who no longer trusts their own judgement is easier to harm and control. It’s also very normal for abusers to tell their victims that nothing happened. There was no punch. There was no shouting. It didn’t happen. The victim is mad.
When you hear day in and day out that you said things you are sure you never said, did things you do not think you did… you question yourself. If the person you love and trust keeps telling you that you’re imagining things, the damage can be done long before you notice what’s happening. You end up not trusting your memory or judgement and that’s terrifying. You’re so busy trying to hold on to a viable reality that you don’t see what’s being done.
I got out. What I’ve only just started dealing with is the legacy of gaslighting. I’ve not seen much about the aftermath which is part of why I’ve only just realised that there is one,for me.
If someone states as fact that I’ve done or not done something, where I think the opposite is true, then I fall straight into total panic. It’s easily done. A misheard word, a misremembering by someone else, a misreading, a misinterpretation… but I don’t default to assuming the other person made a mistake. I go straight back into that headspace where my reality was broken and I didn’t trust myself to know if something that hurt was in my best interests or not. I recognise it now as a form of triggering that makes me largely unable to deal with this kind of situation.
I can be put here by accident – we all make mistakes and many people pay less attention to their words than I do. What we remember is not always what the other person remembers – usually that’s fine, it’s when it gets thrown at me as unassailable fact that the panic kicks in. I can also be panicked by people ascribing meaning to my actions that was not what I meant at all and refusing to let me explain how I see things. I’ve gone a few rounds with this without recognising that triggering was part of the process. Evidently, I can be triggered by anything that looks like gaslighting and while it’s happening, I have no way of even thinking about whether this is an intentional attack or just poor communication. I don’t experience it as either, initially. I experience it as me being an awful failure of a human being who should crawl off somewhere and die quietly, because that’s where it puts me.
This is one of the things that makes triggering so difficult to deal with. While it’s happening, you often can’t tell it’s happening – a previous reality asserts itself over the top of the one you are currently in. You’re back in the place or the headspace where the trauma happened. It doesn’t leave room for questioning it, or thinking about the mechanics of what’s happening. With gaslighting, being put back there suddenly is terrifying and disorientating. It reasserts a former reality that wasn’t real and that was all about trying to break me. I feel the things I used to feel, and they are not good and further, they rob me of all means of dealing with whatever’s caused the trigger. If I’m panicking because I no longer know what’s real, I can’t deal with the other person’s mistake. Or my own.
I’m working on a strategy to cope with this next time it comes round. Here’s what I’ve got so far: I am entitled to feel however I feel regardless of whether it makes sense to anyone else. I am entitled to have opinions, even if they are at odds with other people’s opinions. I am entitled to feel safe, so if I’m not feeling safe I should step back from a situation and make some space to get myself on a better footing before I try and sort anything out. I do not owe anyone a response or explanation straight away, I can have more time. There are usually other people who I can check in with about what I said and did, and how it might be interpreted. I should do that as soon as I can. I have people I can trust to help me navigate. I need to develop these ideas when I’m not triggered so that I have them in my head when things go wrong.
I recognise that what has happened to me was not of my making. That makes it harder to deal with alone. However, the support of people around me makes a lot of odds. Trust is something I find difficult, but increasingly I think trust is the way out of this for me. It is in trusting the people who think I am sane enough, and good enough that I can build resistance to the triggering.
May 21st, 2019 at 9:34 am
I am grateful for this and for you taking the time to put it into words. This is and will be a help to many of us.
May 21st, 2019 at 9:49 am
That’s my hope… it’s not any easy thing to find words for, I am finding.
May 21st, 2019 at 1:32 pm
I grew up in a family that gaslighted as the norm. What helped me was writing everything I saw or heard down. I have lots of journals from the age of eight. The other thing that helped me was finding people on the outside who could verify what I was thinking. However, it is a long process that involves learning to trust yourself and not others. If you are dependent on others, then it is hard not to go along with the gaslighting. I think that independence is key to overcoming gaslighting.
May 22nd, 2019 at 7:43 am
Thank you for sharing this. and bloody hell, that’s a thing to have gone through.
May 21st, 2019 at 6:09 pm
Thank you. I need to study gaslighting even more. I may have been gaslit in the past and in turn gaslit others (only in the past, I hope) 😢 thank you
May 22nd, 2019 at 7:42 am
All power to you for facing up to that as a possibility. If your reality has been damaged and what you’ve done has come from a place of damage, keep sight of that as you go. I’ve seen this happen to other people and if you’re being manipulated, it’s hard not to have that impact on others. Probably the only reason I didn’t pass much along is that my tendency is to step back from conflicts and you’ve made me realise some things about how that’s functioned in my life. thank you.
May 22nd, 2019 at 2:07 pm
May 22nd, 2019 at 3:58 pm
I found this article. I think I am not a gaslighter and have been gaslit. I may have occasionally acted poorly but am not a “true” gaslighter. My ex was/is.
May 23rd, 2019 at 6:57 am
Acting poorly because your reality has been badly damaged is, I think, not uncommon. I’m glad you feel more confident about where you are with all of this.
May 23rd, 2019 at 2:30 pm
May 22nd, 2019 at 1:26 pm
We have never met face to face, but you strike me as eminently sane and balanced.
Triggering is real, gaslighting is real, and your feelings and reality are valid.
May 22nd, 2019 at 1:35 pm
Thank you. One of the things I used to hear a lot of was ‘yes, people act like they like you but this is because they don’t know what you’re really like…’ I believe it a lot less than I used to, but it is hard to evict from my head.
May 22nd, 2019 at 1:50 pm
It takes a long time to evict messages from abusers from one’s head, sadly 😦
May 22nd, 2019 at 3:28 pm
This is really good insight. Many people have been gaslighted intentionally or unintentionally (including by living with those with severe mental illness and/or substance abuse etc.), and so many of us just give up figuring what is true and what isn’t. It can be very helpful while you are in the middle of being gaslighted, since dissociation can be a good coping mechanism if genuinely needed, but afterwards it can hard. Your insights about what you are entitled to are really good. Best wishes with it–
May 23rd, 2019 at 8:19 am
thanks for this – and I heartily agree, when you’re in there, it becomes just about survival and coping and a distorted reality that sort of works can be a better survival tool in the short term than trying to unpick it all. And sometimes you don’t even know your reality has gone of the rails, that’s just the way things are now and that it could be different becomes invisible.
May 24th, 2019 at 4:13 pm
Yup. I’m writing that book on tarot from the perspective of having been dead three times and being friends with a lot of DID folks. It deals with some of this sort of thing. Now I just need to keep putting it on the computer–it’s mostly all done on scrap paper, but…I get tired.
June 19th, 2019 at 3:34 am
I’ve just started a blog and well, the first I wrote was about ME being the perpetrator of gaslighting. I didn’t physically hurt anyone, but verbally, I might as well have thrown daggers everywhere.
It began when I learn more about psychology and how scary it is to manipulate people into bending their principles and beliefs for you. It looks like they’re being educated, but they’re not. I learned to judge myself and for the first time, I shuddered when I saw myself in so many characteristics of a gaslighter in a Medium article meant as a dark humor.
And then, two type of people are born into this: the ones who move on and continue to gaslight and the ones who falls into a panic because all of a sudden, you might have been wrong all these times. And there’s probably no turning back from what you’ve done.
You start gaslighting yourself.
June 19th, 2019 at 6:45 am
Thank you for sharing this – it sounds like a hard path to walk. But, anyone who wants to change can change, and old patterns of learned behaviour – either what we’ve learned because it was normal or we learned because it got us what we wanted – can be changed.
October 10th, 2019 at 2:28 am
I loved the part where you said “I do not owe anyone a response right away”. In my experience with gaslighting the person would always be like we need to talk right now and I would have to argue that I need time and space to think. It’s all about control. It’s an awful thing to be in the middle of, I’m glad you got out and can now reflect on the experience.