Self-gaslighting is a phenomenon in which individuals manipulate their own thoughts and feelings, causing them to doubt their own perception of reality. This internal process leads to a relentless questioning of one’s thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and intuition, often resulting in self-doubt and self-criticism. Those who engage in self-gaslighting may heavily rely on external validation or feedback from others to gauge their worth and make decisions. It is important to distinguish self-gaslighting from gaslighting, the later involves another person manipulating someone’s perception of reality to the extent that they begin questioning their own sanity and memory.
Why does it come to self-gaslighting?
Self-gaslighting is a trauma response that occurs due to abusive relationships. Often, individuals who have been gaslighted by a parent or partner find themselves engaging in self-gaslighting. I have also witnessed self-gaslighting in clients who experienced neglect during their childhood. It is during these situations that individuals start convincing themselves that they don’t require anything or that having wants is somehow wrong. When someone constantly disregards your needs and desires, it can lead to the development of defense mechanisms as a means of survival in abusive circumstances. Through my observations, I have identified several defense mechanisms commonly associated with self-gaslighting:
- Minimization is a defense mechanism where individuals undermine or diminish the significance or importance of their own thoughts, feelings, or actions. It often manifests in phrases such as “It’s not that bad” or “I’ve seen others in worse relationships.”
- People-pleasing (fawn respond) refers to the tendency of individuals to prioritize the desires and preferences of others over their own needs and wants. This behavioral trait is often rooted in the strong desire to be liked or accepted, as well as going to great lengths to avoid upsetting others or causing any form of disagreement. They may find themselves constantly seeking validation and approval from those around them, going as far as sacrificing their own well-being and personal boundaries in the process.
- Denial is a defense mechanism employed to shield oneself from confronting painful or distressing thoughts, emotions, or realities. It manifests as the rejection of the existence of a specific situation, event, or truth, typically with the aim of preserving one’s self-image or evading emotional discomfort.
- Rationalization is a defense mechanism where individuals justify or explain their or others thoughts, feelings, or behaviors in a manner that alleviates discomfort or conflict. This defense mechanism involves coming up with different reasons or excuses for one’s actions or beliefs. For instance, he behaves this way because he had an abusive childhood.
What are we protecting ourselves from?
Self-gaslighting serves as a way to shield ourselves from the pain we carry within. It often stems from a deep desire to be accepted or, conversely, a fear of rejection. This fear of rejection may originate from experiences of frequent rejection during childhood. Whether it was directed at our emotions, our thought processes, or even our very presence, we may have felt unwanted and burdensome to our parents. Consequently, we develop defense mechanisms as a temporary means of protecting ourselves from potential rejection. Paradoxically, these defense mechanisms can manifest as self-rejection, as we deny our own feelings, thoughts, desires, and instincts.
What lies beneath this fear of rejection? The fear of being rejected can stem from a fundamental belief that we are not good enough and that we do not deserve better.
Also, in self-gaslighting there are two sides
In this article, I am focusing on individuals who find themselves in abusive relationships and subsequently resort to self-gaslighting. However, it is important to note that the abusers themselves can also engage in self-gaslighting. We convince ourselves that our abusive behaviors are not our fault, placing the blame on the other person. Our energy becomes centered on criticizing and correcting our partner. We justify our abusive actions by finding excuses or attributing them to external factors, such as saying, “Well, if he hadn’t forgotten to call me, I wouldn’t have lost control.” In essence, we shift responsibility onto the other person, downplay our negative actions, or make justifications- using the same defense mechanisms mentioned above.
Signs of self-gaslighting
Second-guessing your feelings involves downplaying or doubting your own emotions. It often manifests in self-talk such as “I’m too sensitive,” “I’m being overly dramatic,” or “I must be crazy for feeling this way, everyone else sees things differently.” You invalidate your own emotions and convince yourself that your feelings are not valid or justified. By comparing your reactions to others and assuming that their perspective is the “correct” one, you undermine your own emotional experiences.
Rationalizing toxic behavior involves making excuses for someone’s harmful actions or shifting blame onto yourself for the way they treat you. It entails dismissing your own feelings and perceptions in favor of the other person’s perspective. For example, saying things like, “I’m sure they didn’t mean to hurt me, it’s all in my head.”
Questioning your memories involves doubting your ability to recall specific events and, in some cases, even creating false memories to avoid confronting uncomfortable truths. You undermine your own recollections and manipulate your perception of reality.
Constantly apologizing involves saying sorry for things that are not your fault or within your control. I notice this tendency in my female clients, who often apologize excessively. For instance, apologizing for crying, expressing emotions, or simply apologizing without a specific reason. It is a common word used in everyday conversations. This behavior can stem from various factors, including societal expectations, cultural conditioning, and a desire to maintain harmony or avoid conflict. Apologizing excessively may be an attempt to please others, prevent disapproval, or alleviate feelings of guilt or shame.
Avoiding conflict involves conforming to other people’s opinions or beliefs, even if they contradict your own. Over time, this behavior can lead to questioning your own thoughts and values. By prioritizing harmony and avoiding disagreements, you may suppress your own authentic voice and sacrifice your individuality. This can result in feelings of inner conflict and a diminished sense of self.
Downplaying your achievements involves dismissing your own hard work, dedication, and perseverance. It manifests as a lack of belief in your abilities and talents. Additionally, comparing yourself to others is a common pattern. You undermine the value of your own accomplishments and diminish the recognition you deserve. This can stem from various factors, such as imposter syndrome, fear of being perceived as arrogant, or setting excessively high standards for yourself.
Downplaying your needs and wants involves considering other people’s needs as more important than your own. You may feel guilty when setting boundaries or saying no to others. Additionally, you may struggle to express your needs or even have difficulty identifying what you want.
Perceiving normal behavior as something exceptional involves seeing regular or expected actions within a relationship as extraordinary or noteworthy. When someone is in an abusive relationship, they may see basic kindness or decency as special because they are used to being mistreated all the time. This can cause them to have a distorted perception of what is normal or expected in a healthy relationship.
What to expect when we are working through self-gaslighting?
Because self-gaslighting can run deep and is a trauma response, it is likely beneficial to seek support from a trauma-informed professional. What can you expect during the process of working on yourself?
Self-doubt is indeed a common experience for clients who engage in self-gaslighting. They frequently question their decisions, feelings, and thoughts, even when the choices seem clear to an outsider. As a professional, it is important for me to refrain from pushing them in any specific direction. Instead, I prioritize helping them learn to distinguish between their own authentic feelings and desires versus the expectations or desires imposed upon them by others.
One technique I use is guiding clients to tune into their bodily sensations when making decisions. I encourage them to ask themselves how a particular decision feels in their body. We also explore the alternative scenario of not taking a certain decision and examine how that feels in their body. This exercise, known as sense checking, is valuable in developing self-awareness. Initially, they may not notice significant differences, but with consistent practice, they gradually learn to discern their true feelings.
It is crucial to recognize that if someone has experienced manipulation, their sense of reality may be clouded, leading to heightened self-doubt. Working through these doubts and learning to trust one’s own perceptions and experiences is an essential aspect of the healing process.
Also, it is important to be aware that it is common to experience feelings of uncertainty. The objective is not to achieve 100% certainty. Instead, it can be helpful to “cement” certain decisions as a starting point. For instance, acknowledging preferences such as “I like pasta,” provides a solid steppingstone from which to build upon. When everything feels uncertain and fluid, having these steppingstones can offer stability amidst confusion. By creating multiple steppingstones, you can establish a stronger sense of stability. As you progress and gain more stability, you can look back and sense check if the decisions you have cemented still align with your current needs and desires.Still liking pasta?
It’s important to acknowledge that not every decision will feel completely certain or clear-cut. In fact, some decisions may have very close 50-50 split. With the information available, it may be challenging to come to a definitive conclusion. It is common for individuals to get stuck in these types of decisions, fearing the potential regret.
However, it’s crucial to recognize that experiencing regret is a natural part of life. It is impossible to go through life without any regrets. Rather than focusing solely on avoiding regret, it is more beneficial to learn how to process and let go of regrets when they arise.
Initially, it can be challenging to identify our own wants and needs, leading to a sense of confusion. It becomes important to constantly ask ourselves, “What do I want?” and pay attention to how our body reacts in different situations. Is our motivation driven by our own desires or influenced by the expectations of others? As we gain a better understanding of our wants and needs, we may encounter feelings of guilt or fear of rejection when expressing them. Guilt and/or shame is a complex emotion that often leads us to prioritize the needs of others over our own. It can be uncomfortable to sit with this guilt and not act upon it. However, it is worth the challenge. Learning to do what we want, even in the face of guilt, is an important step towards self-empowerment and personal growth.