You can stop manipulating yourself or doubting your own experiences.
The concept of gaslighting is coming into wider use — and thank goodness. It refers to when somebody, intentionally or not, makes you doubt your own experience of the world. It’s a common tactic of abusers and narcissists, to keep you from leaving them, fighting back, or telling other people about the abuse. They say “You’re overreacting! It’s not that bad,” “I’m not the crazy one, you are,” “You’re remembering it all wrong,” etc. Eventually you start to believe that the problems you have are your fault, not theirs. You stop trusting your own eyes and ears.
But did you know that you can also gaslight yourself? I do this pretty often, and until I asked around, I really thought I was the only one who had this problem. Here’s a typical example:
I’d been running a low fever for a few days, generally feeling achy and miserable, when I finally called the doctor. Yes, she said, I had an infection, but it was in its early stages. I brought home a week’s worth of antibiotics to knock it out.
By the next day, I was feeling better and felt sure I’d been making it all up. I do this often enough to know exactly what happened: I took two doses of the medicine, and it was enough to clear up my symptoms, leaving me feeling normal. Since I felt fine, I re-wrote the narrative of what had just happened. I started assuming that I hadn’t really been sick, and that I was probably just overreacting, maybe making up they symptoms for attention.
I told the story to my some friends, asking “Am I the only one who does this?” (I was crossing my fingers that I wasn’t the only one, because that would just be embarrassing.) But a whole bunch of people were familiar with the pattern of thought. Nevermind having other people second-guess our suffering, it turns out that a lot of us outright gaslight ourselves. We tell ourselves that our perceptions of the world are just not true, even while the experience we had was just minutes ago.
What’s going on with this attitude?
Well, I noticed that nobody ever gaslights themselves about a good experience. Nobody wakes up feeling rested and happy, and mutters darkly, “I don’t really feel this good. I’m just making this up.” So I suspect that the root of this kind of self-gaslighting has to do with the judgments we pass on ourselves, the difference between what happened, and what we think should have happened.
“Stop shoulding on yourself!” is a pointed joke a lot of psychologists make, a gentle way of reminding their patient to worry less about what should have happened, and focus on what did happen. Stop thinking about what should be, and think about what is. This is mindfulness in a nutshell. Non-judgmentally experiencing your thoughts, your actions, even your body. Not stamping them “Good/Approve” or “Bad/Disapprove.” It’s the revolutionary act of just, well, feeling what we feel, full stop. (It’s way harder than it sounds.)
I think some of us start self-gaslighting when we’ve been gaslighted so many times by other people that it becomes the only way we really see the world. People who have been abused often have the hardest time trusting themselves. But it’s not just them — I gaslight myself because I’m insecure, and I’m a perfectionist — so I don’t like to admit, even to myself, that my life doesn’t always look the way I want it to.
I’m finding that the more I focus on mindfulness, the less I gaslight myself, and the more free I am to trust my own perceptions. It’s because I’m not so caught up wondering what I should feel, or what an ideal version of myself would feel, or how I wish I felt — it frees me up to just take my experience at face value. It’s a huge relief, and it’s making my life a lot less tumultuous.
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