I guess I’m on an introspective binge right now, because this week’s become another intense time of identifying personal struggles I need to work through. After coming to the somber realization that I didn’t let myself be honest about how bad certain people were to me, I searched online for a word to describe the issue. It ended up being self-gaslighting.
What is Self-Gaslighting?
Self-gaslighting is the intrapersonal version of what emotional abusers do to their victims to manipulate their perception of abuse. When we choose to deny or downplay our emotional responses to certain things, we gaslight ourselves into believing that we’re wrong to feel the way we do. We trick ourselves into believing that by having negative reactions to objectively abusive or harmful individuals in our lives, we’re “simply overreacting”.
This is a coping mechanism that we might be tempted to use in response to a traumatic situation. By downplaying the events in our head and denying what we see and feel in the moment, we aim to distance ourselves from the problem. But as we know, this unfortunately doesn’t prevent the situation or toxic person(s) in question from continuing to create an unsafe environment.
One way we self-gaslight ourselves all too often, as discussed by this post I found, is downplaying our situation with what we see as somebody else’s far more traumatic struggle. We might say to ourselves something like this:
“Sure, I don’t feel safe, but at least they haven’t physically harmed me! Things could be so much worse than I think they are. I should be grateful that I have it easy compared to others who’ve suffered more than me.”
See, suffering isn’t a competition. You don’t have to be crucified or lose everybody you love for your pain to be valid. It’s important to have empathy and compassion for those who suffer around the world, to acknowledge that they need help. But it’s vital for our own wellbeing to take the first step away from denying our instincts about what’s happening to us and allow ourselves to firmly speak out.
I have two fictional examples of self-gaslighting to provide.
First (Silent Hill 2 spoiler warning), the final interaction between James Sunderland and Angela Orosco in Silent Hill 2. When James tries to get Angela to admit that she deserved better than the horrible abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, we see her tragically lie to herself.
“Thank you for saving me…but I wish you hadn’t. Even Mama said it. I deserved what happened.”
Yes, you read that right. Angela’s mother told her daughter that she deserved being physically and sexually abused by her own father. It was a lie that Angela was unable to stop believing, no matter what James said to her otherwise.
I found my second example in the show Steven Universe, which has done a magnificent job of introducing heavily mature themes into a show geared more so for kids. (Discussing this scene will spoil much of the story, for those who enjoy the show.) The history of the presumably benevolent “Pink Diamond” is tarnished when her former confidant reveals, while blatantly self-gaslighting, that Pink was responsible for traumatizing her.
“She didn’t mean to hurt me! I just happened to be standing too close to her that time.”
Pink Pearl (or Volleyball as Steven affectionately nicknames her) tries to casually steer any blame away from Pink Diamond, brushing it off despite clearly not being ok. As the audience sees all too easily, she’s definitely traumatized by what was done to her, and it having been an accident doesn’t take away from the fact that Pink Diamond hurt her.
The conversation that then occurs between Volleyball and “Main” Pearl is sad, but powerful. Together, they admit that Pink Diamond, despite her positive traits, hurt them both.
“Pearl: I’m sorry for not believing you. It looks like I’m still making excuses for her!”
“Volleyball: Is that what I’ve been doing? But…she didn’t mean to!”
“Pearl: But you were hurt! Badly hurt!”
“Volleyball: I was badly hurt. How did you stop hurting?”
“Pearl: I didn’t.”
Everything about this scene is a powerful metaphor for the freedom that comes from allowing ourselves to be honest about what’s been done to us. “The truth will set you free”, indeed.
Identifying Self-Gaslighting Instances
I was inspired to write about this after accepting, with a bit of tears, that I’ve gaslighted myself in the past. As my family knows (and as I’ve mentioned here and there in other blog posts), I dealt with my first instance of homophobia when I was a sophomore in college. I lived on a floor with a group of petty, malicious girls who loved to talk about me behind my back, where they knew I could hear them, while refusing to ever come to my face. It was because they never tried to physically attack me or use any gay slurs that I didn’t acknowledge how toxic the living environment was back then. It took their leader becoming bizarrely obsessed with how much time she thought I spent in the restroom, and choosing to stand outside the bathroom door with her best friend whispering ill gossip about me, before I accepted that it was a serious problem.
For some reason, I’d had the hardest time admitting the truth of the situation to my family. I kept dismissing their behavior as anti-social, because our dorm building is filled only with single-occupant rooms, for people who want to be alone. But my constant dismissal of everything led to me having the worst breakdown of my life in my dorm room that February, where I realized how terrified for my safety I was at that point. I still remember having to tell my parents the truth, and hearing my Mom break down over the phone in response. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t allow myself the freedom of admitting what was happening sooner, so that I could’ve been transferred to a safer dorm sooner rather than later.
I also realized in hindsight that I gaslighted myself when I trusted the wrong person with my worries as a gay Christian. When I was attending a home-church I’d been invited to by a friendly young woman my age, I had no reason to believe I couldn’t trust her as a Christian confidant. Well, I don’t remember why we eventually arrived at this topic between us, but one night, we landed on the topic of me being a gay virgin. I want to wait until I’ve met the right guy before I give it away, but my friend treated the idea of me eventually giving it away with blatant scorn. When I tried to reassure her in response that I’d never look down on her if she wasn’t a virgin before marriage, I wouldn’t treat her differently. She brushed my assurance off, and refused to change her tone.
I chose to deny what had happened in that moment, and opted to disregard it. If I hadn’t, I would’ve disowned her and refused to go back to her home-church. As it was, when God reminded me of what she’d said to me, it was the warning I needed to never contact her or her group again, just as I was beginning to wonder if I should.
Going forward, alongside my desire to be more in the moment like I mentioned in my previous post, I refuse to be silent the next time I face a toxic situation or place. If somebody somehow feels inconvenienced by my speaking out for my safety, then too bad. I know which one matters to me more, and I won’t be doing any more compromising.