Content Warning: Discussion of Psychological Abuse, gaslighting, terms such as crazy
With November being Family Violence Prevention month, I want to talk about a form of emotional abuse that is perhaps more insidious than physical violence: gaslighting. As a specific form of emotional manipulation, gaslighting causes one to call in to question one’s own sanity. A partner purposefully (or sometimes non purposefully, through psychological defense mechanisms) attempts to exert control on the other by making them psychologically unstable.
This makes the gaslit partner have to rely on the other while they contemplate their sanity. Gaslighting makes you feel as though you are going crazy and, even deeper, like you’ve lost yourself. You begin to doubt everything that makes up who you are – your beliefs, your values, your worth, your reality. And when that happens, what are you left with? In some ways, you feel like an empty shell of your former self.
“He told me that I was the reason he was depressed and angry all of the time. He said that to me whenever I got angry about something he had done, or a poor choice he had made for the family. And it’s not like I acted bad when I was angry, I just wanted to talk it out. It got to the point where I couldn’t let myself show my anger anymore, because somewhere along the line I started to believe that my anger was the problem, and not his behavior that led up to that. It’s actually funny to think that I believed my angry reaction was the problem, and not the fact that he stayed out all night with friends and got fired from work. But this whole thing had me going to different psychologists and counsellors for years, trying to get help for my “anger management” issue. Everything that went on in the relationship, we both started to blame on my anger. It took a long time for me to figure out that I wasn’t the problem”.
If you find yourself in this situation, the first step is to recognize that you are gaslit, and how drained you have become. This can be extremely difficult, since one of the very side effects is believing you are the source of the problem. However, some clear signs you are being gaslit in a close relationship are:
- constantly second-guessing yourself and your choices,
- having trouble making decisions,
- frequently asking yourself, “Am I too sensitive?,” and
- making excuses for a partner’s behaviors to family or friends.
The next step is to ensure your safety in whatever way you can. If you are physically safe, the next steps in this process involves discovering yourself again, filling your “empty shell” once more. Here are small ways that can begin the process of rediscovering yourself:
Write down what you value. What do you value? Family? Spirituality? Respect? Write down your top ten and rank them from most valued to least. Then, think about ways you use these values in your life with others.
Write/type a paragraph on all the roles that you have. Ask yourself “who am I to others?” Perhaps you are a parent, aunt, cousin, friend, grandfather, teacher, etc. List them.
Carve out time to reflect on your own unique qualities. What makes you stand out from the others? Is it a quirky personality? A sarcastic sense of humor? Reflect on these positive qualities
Explore your character traits. The VIA character strengths can help you figure out your top character traits. This positive psychology tool provides you with a list of your top character strengths. Read the list and reflect on the traits. Do they accurately capture you?
Write a list of your qualities, beliefs, and values that guide how you treat others. Ask yourself based on your values, roles, qualities, and character strengths, which of these guides how you treat other human beings? Then reflect on if you are being treated in the way that is important to you.
Validate yourself. Emotions are normal human experiences. The brain creates these emotions for good reasons – we can’t control our initial emotional reaction. (We can, however, start to control the way we behave when we feel emotions intensely). It is important to remind yourself that all of your emotions are okay to feel.
Check in mindfully on a daily basis.
Take time out of your day to do a brief mindful exercise.
S – Stop
T – Take a moment and take a breath
O – Observe what is happening in each of your 5 senses. What are you seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting? Observe what is happening internally. Non-judgmentally ask yourself “What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What body sensations am I experiencing?” Just notice these things and move on.
P – Proceed
Take it from a survivor, it can take time to understand that you are not the problem. Like fuel to a flame, gaslighting can leave you feeling as though you’ve exploded into pieces of your former self. It’s time to collect those pieces and bring them back into wholeness once more.
Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.