Gas lighting: Five steps you can take to heal
I was in my early 20s and in a bad relationship with someone who was quite a bit older than me. I got used to him being the one who determined the course of the relationship. But when I suspected he was cheating on me, I went through the papers in his brief case.
Even now, I am not proud of this. But I found some letters from another woman (this was before emails, or mobile phones, existed).
It took me a few hours to summon up the courage to challenge him. And when I did, my ex-boyfriend swore I was imagining things. He opened his briefcase and, sure enough, the letters had disappeared.
He insisted I had imagined ‘the evidence’, because I needed to find something to justify my own lack of trust. He said it was my own insecurities that had made me spy on him. He made himself the injured party and made me doubt my own reality, which is a very scary thing.
This is an extreme example of gaslighting, in the news again because of some behaviours in the reality TV show Love Island. It is when someone – intentionally or not – overwrites your own memories or perceptions with their own and the expression comes from the 1943 Hollywood move, Gaslight.
At its worse gaslighting can corrode your sense of self. You question your memories, your perceptions, your instincts. You may even doubt your own sanity. It is a form of emotional abuse and if you have ever experienced it you will know that it can take a long time to get over.
Recognising gaslighting for what it is, is a good start. Here are five other things you can do to help you heal.
1. Own your own truth and take responsibility for your own recovery. Read as much as possible about the psychological impact of gaslighting and get your experience validated by people who know you well and whose opinion and views you trust. Get the help of a therapist, or coach, if that is the right route for you. You survived the gaslighting and by rebuilding trust in yourself you will get through the recovery.
2. Work on cutting down the amount of time you spend ruminating on “What really happened”. This is a tough one. Anyone who has ever experienced gaslighting will know that it is in the wee small hours, when we are at our most tired and vulnerable, that the mental whirlpool can take over. Try to set aside the impulse to come up with a binary view that depends on you being “right” and the gaslighter being “wrong” (or the other way around). The truth is that things are seldom that clear-cut, we all make mistakes and you probably made some, too – but that doesn’t give anyone the right to gaslight you. It can help if you set aside time for this kind of processing and reduce the time little by little until you don’t need to do it anymore.
3. Let go of the feeling that the gaslighter needs to ‘own’ what he or she did. The chances of them doing so are slim to non-existent. Keep in mind that you can’t change the behaviour of others, you can only change the way you respond to it. Don’t give them the power of keeping you stuck in a situation that has caused you harm.
4. Don’t beat yourself up for having made yourself vulnerable. Gaslighting often happens to people who are especially emotionally open, empathetic and compassionate, with a tendency to give others the benefit of the doubt. These are qualities to be valued and not ashamed of. Getting caught in a cycle of self-blame is not going to serve you well. Remember that this didn’t happen to you because there is something wrong with you that needs to be fixed.
5. Use your awareness of what gaslighting is, and how it feels to be on the receiving end of it, to challenge it when it shows up, even in a mild form, in people around you or even in yourself. So-called mansplaining is a good example of this – it is not deliberate man-ipulation but when a man condescendingly explains something to a woman that she already knows, it is a form of everyday gaslighting and needs to be called out as such.
It is possible to recover from gaslighting if you deal with the effects. With my cheating ex-boyfriend it took longer, because I didn’t have a name for it. I’d like to say that I kicked him out and moved on. But the truth is that I told myself he had lied because he really loved me and closed my mind to the evidence that was staring me in the face.
Reader, he left me for the other woman.