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What Self-Gaslighting is and How to Combat It

Gaslighting is a term that often comes up in my therapy sessions, usually within the context of problematic relationships. It refers to a form of manipulation where the victim hears false information, questions their own reality, and may start to believe the abuser’s “truth”. However, I’ve noticed that when working on self-esteem issues, self-gaslighting is a particularly sticky form of toxicity that may prevent us from creating a healthier, realistic narrative.

Some signs of self-gaslighting might include:

  • Telling yourself that your emotions are “stupid” or not real.

  • Telling yourself that your emotions don’t make sense.

  • Telling yourself that your needs are “too much” to ask of someone else.

  • Telling yourself that you are “a bother” to others when expressing an emotion or need.

There are a variety of reasons why self-gaslighting may occur, and it’s important to understand its roots in trauma wounds. This puts us in a better position to question the false information we may be feeding to ourselves, especially if it’s preventing us from healing. For example, if we can recognize a false thought such as, “The abuse was my fault,” we can logically remind ourselves that it’s a product of our trauma, even if we don’t fully believe a healthier, realistic thought yet.

So how do I stop self-gaslighting?

In a previous post I discussed ways to work on assertive communication with others. When addressing self-gaslighting, I like to prompt clients to practice an I-statement with themselves: “I feel ___ when ___ because ___. I need ___.” A few reasons for this include:

  • It helps us to focus on what emotions are coming up for us. Instead of dismissing them, we label and acknowledge their presence.

  • It helps us to figure out the “why” behind the emotions, or what the emotions are trying to tell us. (For example, anxiety may tell us that there is a threat, or anger may tell us that something wrong is happening.)

  • It helps us to identify what, if any, unmet needs we have to address.

As an example, let’s say that I’m feeling exhausted and aiming to just “power through” my workday. The tendency to power through may lead to lower productivity, getting snappy with others, or feeling less present at work. Practicing the I-statement with myself might look like this: “I feel exhausted when I try to power through the work day because I’m putting the needs of others first before my own. I need to prioritize a good night’s rest tonight and take more breaks during the workday.”

Another example might be dealing with insecurity in a new relationship. I might be telling myself that jealousy is a “stupid emotion” and that I shouldn’t feel it. The effect might be that I shutdown with my partner or become passive in my communication. I might even misdirect my emotions in an unhealthy way, such as accusing my partner of not caring about me. Using the I-statement might reveal an unmet need: “I feel jealous when my partner spends more time with his loved ones without me because I feel less important. I need to remind myself that my partner values me in other ways, and I may need to ask him for some reassurance.”

In what parts of your life might you be self-gaslighting? What does practicing the I-statement reveal about your emotions and/or your needs?


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