How to Survive Gaslighting
By Shelley Flannery
I know what happened. I’m not imagining things.
Am I imagining things?
He’s right, I must be imagining things.
Gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse, is when someone makes you doubt your reality. They repeatedly tell you things didn’t happen the way you remember them, you’re imagining things or you’re insane. In her memoir, An Abbreviated Life, Ariel Leve describes how being gaslit by her mother while growing up was worse than the other types of abuse she endured:
It wasn’t the loudest and scariest explosions that caused the most damage. It wasn’t the physical violence or the verbal abuse or the lack of boundaries and inappropriate behavior. What did the real damage was the denial that these incidents ever occurred.
The erasure of the abuse was worse than the abuse.
Kate Balestrieri, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist and certified sex addiction therapist supervisor, says it’s common for survivors to be plagued by gaslighting long after other forms of abuse have ended.
“Gaslighting is a particularly insidious form of emotional abuse and is one of the most damaging, because it veers toward having the victim of the abuse distance themselves from their intuition,” she says. “When we’re gaslit, we start to believe that everyone else knows better than we do, to doubt ourselves, and that can be very long-lasting.”
And the effects don’t only pertain to your relationship with your abuser. Gaslighting can cause you to doubt yourself in subsequent romantic relationships, family relationships and professional relationships. That’s why it’s important to address the effects of gaslighting even after leaving.
Getting Past Gaslighting
It may take months or years to undo the damage an abuser has done through gaslighting, but it can be done. Balestrieri recommends taking the following steps:
Keep a journal. Write down your account of actions or conversations you think might be twisted or denied later.
“Keep a record of things that happened, so that when they’re challenged later, you can go back to your journal and rest assured from your own words that, yes, in fact, this did happen,” Balestrieri says. “It may not matter to the other person, but writing down your experiences and reflecting on them will help you learn not to doubt yourself.”
Get a second opinion. Try to stay connected to family and friends and ask them for a reality check when you’re feeling doubtful.
“To the extent you can protect yourself from isolation, you can protect yourself from gaslighting,” Balestrieri says. “The more people you have in your corner that you can call and say, ‘I need a reality check,’ the better. If you can have that mirror show up for you in the form of friends and family, then you’re far less likely to fall prey to the ‘truth’ the gaslighter is dictating.”
Seek objective support. Balestrieri says working with a therapist or participating in group therapy can be helpful in rebuilding trust in your intuition.
“I also think joining a 12-step group such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Co-Dependents Anonymous or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous—if any of those apply—can be very helpful for some people,” she says. “Again, the more people you have in your community to run ideas past, the stronger you feel in trusting your instincts.”
Meditate. Balestrieri suggests strengthening your mind-body connection.
“Whether it’s through yoga, meditation or some other kind of thematic therapy, it’s really important to find a practice that allows you to stay connected and grounded in your body,” she says. “The sensations you feel in your body are the first clue that something is not right and it’s important to be in touch with them.”
Gaslighting can be difficult to recognize. Read up on some common red flags in “Gaslighting: Could You Be Missing the Signs?”