The science behind self-gaslighting and how it can hamper your perception of pain.
Gaslighting is when a person denies the reality of another person.
According to Medical News Today, it is a form of psychological abuse where a person makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. People experiencing gaslighting often feel confused, anxious, and unable to trust themselves
Psychologist Dr. Nicole LePera (on Instagram as the.holistic.psychologist) recently put up a post about how gaslighting can affect the person doing it. By invalidating the realities of others, they often end up invalidating their own identity. Gaslighting is an extreme measure people take up when they are desperately trying to avoid their own uncomfortable emotions.
The post got me thinking: how often do we end up gaslighting ourselves because we are too ashamed or embarrassed to accept the reality? How often do we convince ourselves that our pain is not real and we need to do a better job of coping with it?
This article looks at the science behind self-gaslighting and the perils of relying too much on denial as a coping mechanism. It lists some ways you can avoid falling into the trap and how to stop being a victim of self-gaslighting.
“When we tell ourselves ‘I shouldn’t be so upset’ or ‘I should just get over it’ or ‘that didn’t happen that way I’m imagining or being dramatic’ we are gaslighting ourselves.”
— — Dr. Nicole LePera (the.holistic.psychologist)
Tracing the Roots Back to Childhood
Dr. LePera traces this tendency to self-gaslight back to a traumatizing childhood. Expanding on this, relationship and codependency expert, Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT, writes in Psychology Today about the damaging impact parental gaslighting can have on a child’s brain:
- Parents routinely contradict children’s perceptions to manipulate them, to protect another family member, or to hide family secrets.
- Parents also deny children’s needs and feelings, telling them they don’t or shouldn’t feel a certain way or need or want something.
- Children idealize their parents and must adapt to survive. They blame themselves and learn to doubt or deny perceptions, feelings, wants, and needs.
- This can lead to toxic shame that unconsciously colors their entire adult lives.
This is corroborated by further research published in Child Abuse and Neglect. It suggests that parental denial of reality may impair a child’s sense of reality by invalidating their perceptions and memories. The resulting doubts about their truth may result in a feeling of “being crazy.”
Self-gaslighting is an extreme measure people take up when they are desperately trying to avoid their own uncomfortable emotions.
Signs You’re A Victim of Self-Gaslighting
Self-gaslighting often looks like the suppression of thoughts and emotion. When you deny your reality by chiding yourself or undermining the intensity of your pain, you’re gaslighting yourself.
For example, when you’re upset about something, instead of being compassionate to yourself and embracing the sadness, you start thinking, “I’m probably making a big deal out of this situation. There’s no reason for me to be so sensitive about something so unimportant.”
The more your reality is denied, the more you lose your intuition. As a consequence, you lose your ability to trust your perception of reality. You might end up getting confused between what’s real and what’s just a construct of your imagination — to the extent that you might need external validation to determine if your feelings are justified.
Dr. Le Pera calls it “outsourcing your knowing to other people.”
How often do we end up gaslighting ourselves because we are too ashamed or embarrassed to accept the reality?
Recovering From Self-Gaslighting
The truth is: no matter what anyone else has told you or how you've given yourself the permission to feel, your emotions are valid. You have every right to express them the way you want.
This might feel radical at first, but keep repeating to yourself, “My emotions are valid. My pain is real. It might make me too sensitive, but I’m embracing this side of myself.”
Over time, the affirmations will start sounding true.
Aside from that, here are some journal prompts Healthline suggests. Take a pen and paper and reflect deeply on the questions before answering them. You can use your answers to explore the extent of your self-gaslighting and figure out ways how to overcome it:
- How has self-gaslighting served my survival in the past? How did it help me cope?
- How does self-gaslighting no longer serve me at this moment (or in the future)? How am I being harmed?
- What’s one thing I can do right now to practice self-compassion?
- How do I feel in my body as I explore this?
Self-gaslighting might have helped you survive some pretty drastic situations. But once you’re no longer in survival mode, it’s important to honor this skill and gently bid it goodbye.
As psychologist Douglas LaBier writes in Psychology Today, embracing your emotions helps you experience all emotional states — the pleasurable, as well as the unpleasant, undesirable ones — and without judging or chastising yourself. In addition, people who experience more authentic emotions — whether positive or negative — enjoy greater life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms.
How often do we convince ourselves that our pain is not real and we should do a better job of coping with it?
The Bottom Line
If someone tells you you’re overreacting, tell them to shut up and overreact all you want. It’s your natural emotional response to overcome a difficult situation, and no one should be allowed the right to tell you how to deal with it.
At the end of the day, your reality is valid just because you’ve experienced it. Denying that doesn’t mean it’s any less real — even if your brain is the one practicing all the denial.
As Dr. LePera concludes, if you unlearn the need to underestimate the intensity of your pain, you can find freedom. You can also become empowered and learn to place better boundaries around people who have patterns of consistently trying to control your narratives.
Your pain is valid. You have the right to deal with it in whatever way you want for however long it takes you. No one should be allowed to tell you otherwise.