[00:00] – Introduction
[00:48] – Why understanding toxic shame is important in protecting yourself from gaslighting
[04:32] – What gaslighting is and some examples of gaslighting
[05:28] – The awful effects of gaslighting
[06:24] – My experience of being the victim of gaslighting
[08:22] – Why understanding mental boundaries is vital to protecting yourself from gaslighting
[10:06] – How I was groomed to be a victim by not being different from my abusers
[10:39] – Why variety of perspectives is healthy and necessary for life
[13:47] – How to develop your own mental boundaries
[18:07] – How to respond to someone who is trying to gaslight you
[19:43] – What to do to regain your sanity
[23:07] – Small steps to grow your mental boundaries and protect yourself from gaslighting
“The people who gaslight position themselves as an enforcer of this standard, they’re the judge and jury of what’s normal and correct, and they may imply, or they might overtly say that you don’t have a right to what you think or feel, or ‘No sane person or no reasonable person would be bothered by whatever it is you’re bothered by.'”
“In abuse, you don’t have property lines that indicate what’s yours because you don’t own anything. You don’t have a right to anything. The abuser has all the rights and owns you and can take whatever you have. So if there are no boundary lines that indicate what’s yours and there’s no yours because you don’t own anything, then you don’t have a right to be separate. And if you don’t have a right to be separate, you don’t have a right to be different or unique.”
“Others are entitled to their own thoughts. They even have a right to believe what they choose about you. They have a freedom to judge you and to judge your intentions. They have a right to think you’re terrible and selfish and stupid. They get to think what they want. Their thoughts are their business. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to stick around to hear their opinions, by the way. You can control the access that they have to you, but you can’t control what happens in their head. You’re not responsible for other people’s thoughts. You’re not responsible for correcting them, for punishing them, or re-educating them.”
“Gaslighting only works if the victim takes the bait. The gaslighter needs to deny your reality while clinging to their own, but you can hold onto your reality while accepting that they have a different reality. You don’t need to talk them out of it or to prove yourself correct. You don’t need to justify your perspective or experience, and when you try, that’s playing right into the gaslighter’s assertion that their opinion is the standard.”
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Welcome to the Overcoming Sexual Abuse Podcast, where you get the tools and inspiration to help you overcome childhood sexual abuse. I’m your host, Christina Enevoldsen, certified coach, author, and incest survivor, and I’m here to help you heal and live your very best life.
Gaslighting is when someone tries to dismantle your reality by invalidating your thoughts, observations, perceptions, and feelings. Survivors of abuse are particularly vulnerable. I’ll share how to identify gaslighting, how to escape it, and then how to keep yourself safe from it in the future.
Before we talk about gaslighting, it’s important to remember shame. In episode 3, I talked about overcoming toxic shame, and one of the things to know about shame is that the tribe, whether that’s just one person or the whole world, has rules or standards about what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable. And so shame is triggered when you don’t fit in with that acceptable, or else you fear not fitting in.
Here’s some examples of that. In some groups, it’s preferable to be rich. In other ones, it’s virtuous to be poor. In some families, it’s good to be honest. In other families, that’s frowned on. In some cultures, public affection is accepted and that’s normal. In others, that’s inappropriate.
Whatever your tribe and really tribes, because you’re likely part of several different tribes, there’s a lot of pressure to conform and to be the same. Even though conformity has a bad reputation, there’s a lot of value in it.
Agreed upon rules create this sense of cohesiveness and unity and certainty, and that provides security which the brain interprets as safe and the brain likes safe.
So there’s a lot of survival value in following the standards of the tribe, and there’s so much that we have this internal alarm system that warns us when we aren’t complying, and that’s what shame is. So shame is one of the most powerful and painful emotions because belonging is so important, and that’s because we need other people for our mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
Previous times in human history, when a tribe rejected you, there was no alternative tribe. You couldn’t find another Facebook group or move to another city. That was it. You couldn’t survive alone and you died.
Now, we don’t have the same limitations that we once did. If we don’t get along in one Facebook group, we can find another, and if one job doesn’t work out, we can find another.
However, human interaction belonging is still vital to our survival, so shame still serves an important role. So when you feel shame, that’s the alert that I’ve done something wrong, and chances are when you feel that it feels so strong that you don’t question the standards that you violated. So you’re so busy scrambling to get back into the tribe’s good graces, you don’t question the standards or the tribe, you question yourself, and that makes it easy to be a victim of gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a term from a 1944 movie Gaslight, and there was a stage played by the same name before that, and that’s about a husband who tries to convince his wife that she’s insane so he can get away with the murder that he committed.
And gaslighting in modern day has come to mean the attempt to make someone believe that they’re the problem. It’s coercing them into believing a different narrative, a different reality, and that might mean denying the circumstances or the validity of their observations, perceptions, thoughts, and emotions.
So the gaslighter is trying to protect themselves from their mistakes or failures and their version of reality while trying to dismantle yours. It might not be a particular failure or mistake, it might just be a general sense of toxic shame that they feel, and so they might be trying to toss that hot potato of shame onto you.
So gaslighting often sounds like things, it’s denying, it’s minimizing, it’s deflecting, and some examples of that, you need help, I’m worried about you. This is your issue, you’re the only person I have problems with. You’re making a big deal about this, nobody else complains about it. It’s because of what you did, it’s because of how you are. You made me do that. I don’t remember doing that. I think you made that up, that never happened, you’re imagining things. You’re reading way too much into this. I’m not angry. You’re too sensitive, you’re too emotional. Oh yeah, well you did this. You’re so petty, you’re always nitpicking.
When you’re a victim of gaslighting, it leads to confusion and second guessing yourself, doubting and mistrusting yourself, questioning your memory, your perception, and it erodes your judgment. The people who gaslight position themselves as an enforcer of this standard, they’re the judge and jury of what’s normal and correct, and they may imply, or they might overtly say that you don’t have a right to what you think or feel, or no sane person or no reasonable person would be bothered by whatever it is you’re bothered by.
These things make the victim of gaslighting easily controllable and dependent on the gaslighter. It’s so hard when you’re being gaslit by someone you love, it’s so hard to imagine that someone close to you would intentionally do something this insidious.
I experienced this in my first marriage. Almost every weekend, my husband and I and the kids would visit my parents, and just before we’d head to my parents’ house, my husband would criticize me or accuse me of something, and it was usually something little like leaving the back door unlocked. I’d insist I didn’t come in the back door, and he’d say he saw me, and to prove his point, he’d list all these other ways that I was forgetful or careless. He’d lecture me on the importance of home security, and he’d tell me that he needed to be able to trust me and feel safe with me. And that would continue through the car ride, and then by the time we arrived at my parents, I’d be upset.
And meanwhile, my parents wanted me to be happy around them, being positive and cheerful, kept up the facade. So when I was upset, and sometimes I was even still protesting, my husband’s claims, my parents attacked me too. I was ruining our family time. Why do you have to be so petty? Why can’t you just let it go and let everyone have a nice time? So that was my tribe telling me that I’d done something wrong, actually a lot of things wrong, and I felt shame.
These values and standards that a tribe or a single person has may seem rooted in some ultimate moral standard or some divine ideal, but it’s okay to question these standards. If you haven’t already listened to episode three on toxic shame, I suggest reviewing that and getting the worksheet that goes with it to work out what standards you actually want to live by, what fits you.
And if you simply accept these standards that they tell you that this isn’t okay, this is okay, you have to do this, you can’t do that, consider that those standards actually had a beginning. They started as thoughts that were born in someone’s brain, somebody made them up.
And as we consider those standards or thoughts, we need to keep in mind healthy mental boundaries. One myth about boundaries is that it’s about stopping another person from doing something. And that’s not even a little bit true. Boundaries are about taking care of what belongs to you.
I talked about boundaries in episode six, but I’ll review those things here because if you don’t have healthy mental boundaries, you’re completely vulnerable to gaslighting. So you can compare boundaries to a walled garden, and everything inside your walls are yours to care for and enjoy. And the things outside are not yours to care for or enjoy. You don’t have a right to dictate how others care for their garden, and you don’t have a right to demand what others do in their garden. So boundaries separate what’s yours from what’s not yours, so you can better nurture and protect yourself. So boundaries are really, they indicate this separation.
However, abuse doesn’t allow for separation. It doesn’t allow for individuality or uniqueness. Only sameness is allowed. In abuse, you don’t have property lines that indicate what’s yours because you don’t own anything. You don’t have a right to anything. The abuser has all the rights and owns you and can take whatever you have. So if there are no boundary lines that indicate what’s yours and there’s no yours because you don’t own anything, then you don’t have a right to be separate. And if you don’t have a right to be separate, you don’t have a right to be different or unique.
This was a big issue in my relationship with my mom. As far as I can tell from photos, she liked me until I started talking. And when I started expressing myself, that’s when my mother pulled away. Sameness was the way she expected me to love her. If I didn’t love the dress that she made for me, I was selfish and ungrateful. And I came to believe that boundaries were unloving, that I was actually hurting someone to assert who I really was and what I really wanted and thought. And I learned that squishing myself was actually a loving thing to do and the only way to be loved because I’d be abandoned otherwise.
The truth is that my uniqueness doesn’t harm anyone. I’m not robbing in them of their opinions or beliefs to have mine and variety and differences don’t attack or compete with them.
So we’ve talked about to the value of conformity, but diversity is also
important. My first career was in interior design. And two principles of design are unity and variety. And good design means enough unity to make it cohesive, but enough variety to make it interesting. And the same is true in a good relationship because the foundation of a relationship is based on commonalities. But too much similarity is monotonous and boring.
Variety in all organisms builds strength and helps in survival. For example, planning the same type of trees in a park means that when one gets a disease, likely they all get a disease. However, if you plant varieties, though some may get a disease, others may not. The same is true with biodiversity among people. Royal families used to practice inbreeding to keep their bloodlines pure, but that led to high mortality and poor health and passing on a lot of genetic disorders. Even most financial advisors tell us we need diversity. That spreads risk and improves our overall chance of success because any negative downturns in one area can be balanced by stability in another area.
A variety of ideas and ways of thinking can free us from the power of group think. When people don’t speak up about differing ideas, it can be dangerous. For example, in our political process, when we’re more interested with fitting in and being seen as virtuous, rather than acting according to our convictions, we’ve fallen victim to group think. The more we don’t speak up, the less likely to question and consider the many, many ways to see and do things. And losing sight of that has led to atrocities.
So, nature and history and life experience tell us that variety is necessary for health and well-being. So, consider that your uniqueness and the differences you offer in your relationships and to the world are actually what is needed. And it’s not harmful to be different. It’s actually helpful. Being able to see yourself and function in your uniqueness is vital, not only to your well-being, but to others around you.
Let’s get back to mental boundaries, specifically about one aspect of mental boundaries, which is having your own thoughts. Since your perspective is part of what makes you an individual, being aware of what you think is acknowledging yourself. Mental boundaries means you’re clear about your thoughts versus someone else’s thoughts, and that you’re free to form your own opinions and beliefs.
I remember being in middle school and hearing ideas that were different from what I’d heard from my parents. What I’d heard from them sounded right until I heard other ideas. Until then, in the unlikely event, I’d say anything at all about a topic, I was only parroting what I’d heard from them.
And after that, I was confused. And that confusion was a good thing because it meant new information was coming in. I was learning new things. And the other thing about confusion is that it’s often used as a coping method. Because if you stay in confusion, then you don’t have to take sides or take action. So confusion protects you. But to get the benefit of confusion for it to be a good thing, you need to move out of it. You have to wrestle with it. You have to consider and mull things over and let yourself feel the uncertainty of that.
But remember, we talked about boundaries and being responsible for what’s inside your garden walls. This is part of taking care of what’s yours. We talk a lot about the rights that come with boundaries, but this is the other side, which is the responsibility. And responsibility doesn’t always feel good. Think about this when it comes to abuse. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of stories I’ve heard about people in survivors’ life, especially family, not wanting to take sides, not wanting to be different from the status quo. Oh, just forgive. And chances are, they’re a lot less interested in forgiveness than they are in staying comfortable. Because having your own thoughts costs something. It often costs the acceptance of the tribe.
And it’s not just about abuse by standards who do this. It’s a human thing. And it takes courage to have your own thoughts, even when you have no intention of speaking them. But that is a good place to start if you haven’t owned your thoughts yet. Just give yourself permission to challenge, to question, to examine, explore, search for what you think about other people, about the world, about yourself. It means doing your own study and research and coming to your own conclusions. And that doesn’t mean speaking those thoughts are acting on them. Just be with them and let them be there for now.
As you recognize and honor that you have a right to think what you choose, another part of mental boundaries is acknowledging that others have the same right. Others are entitled to their own thoughts. They even have a right to believe what they choose about you. They have a freedom to judge you and to judge your intentions. They have a right to think you’re terrible and selfish and stupid. They get to think what they want. Their thoughts are their business. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to stick around to hear their opinions, by the way. You can control the access that they have to you, but you can’t control what happens in their head. You’re not responsible for other people’s thoughts. You’re not responsible for correcting them, for punishing them, or re-educating them.
And you don’t need to justify your thoughts to others, and others don’t need to justify their thoughts to you. Accepting that other people get to think what they want doesn’t mean you agree with them. Everyone, and I’m using air quotes, or the majority, agreeing doesn’t make them correct. Even if someone is an expert, it doesn’t make them correct. Even if everyone, an expert, perceives something different from you, that doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. If there’s disagreement, you don’t have to determine who’s right. There doesn’t have to be a consensus.
Alright, so let’s take this back to gaslighting. Gaslighting only works if the victim takes the bait. The gaslighter needs to deny your reality while clinging to their own, but you can hold onto your reality while accepting that they have a different reality. You don’t need to talk them out of it or to prove yourself correct. You don’t need to justify your perspective or experience, and when you try, that’s playing right into the gaslighter’s assertion that their opinion is the standard. It’s the agreement that you need their permission to think or feel the way you do. If you find yourself trying to validate or prove your position, that’s an effect of gaslighting.
Remind yourself that you’re not in court and the other person isn’t your judge, you have a right to your perspective just as much as they do. The only way to get gaslit is if you believe there’s a problem that you don’t perceive things the way that someone else does. When you think that’s a problem, you’ll try to close the gap between what you think and what they’d think. However, it’s okay if you never see things the same way.
You might respond with you’re entitled to see it that way, or that might be how you see it but I see it this way, or that may not make you sad but it does make me sad, or you might remember it this way but I remember it this way, or you don’t have to respond at all. If you honor your own experience while accepting theirs, you won’t be compelled to engage and step into their trap.
If you’re deep in the gaslighting pit, you might doubt your reality or even think you’re crazy. That’s really common. You might need outside validation in that case. Now, I’m going to say this. This is not for the gaslighter. It’s not to prove to them that they’ve been gaslighting you. This is for your own benefit so you know that you’re sane. Because if you take this to the gaslighter, they’ll only double down on their reality no matter how much evidence to the contrary. So this outside validation is to affirm your sanity and this is getting someone else to tell you what’s happening isn’t normal or the other person is controlling you.
I didn’t recognize the gaslighting with my ex-husband until years later. I was blind to gaslighting many other times though and one of the times was with a boss. No matter how much I tried, I could never succeed with him. When I achieved some goal or finished a project, he’d tell me that that’s not what he wanted me to be doing. I didn’t see that as abusive until a friend told me that it wasn’t just frustrating, it wasn’t just discouraging,
that was actually abuse. I also needed outside validation when Don and I left an abusive church even though it was soul crushing to be there. I felt guilty for feeling so much better being away from that and then I read the book Toxic Faith and nine out of the ten toxic traits were things we experienced there. So that was getting outside validation.
Another thing you can do when you suspect gaslighting is to anchor your reality in something concrete. Once I set my boundaries in my relationship with my parents, I recorded all of my communications with them. It was either through email, letters, or I used an audio recorder. And by the way, that was legal where I lived, so check your own jurisdiction to make sure that’s legal. What that did is that helped me hear the exact things that the other person said so that I can compare it to what I remembered. You might also have someone else listen in or read the emails or text or an outside opinion. So you can use something like that to gain confidence in your own sanity.
And I’ll say this again, this proof isn’t for the other person, it’s just for you to be able to trust yourself. However, when I suggest this, this isn’t for existing in a relationship. This isn’t for a long term thing. Because if you’re in a relationship where you feel the need to record everything or need proof of what happened, that’s probably not a healthy relationship.
Remember me sharing my relationship with my first husband and him berating me for supposedly leaving the door unlocked? Well, when I imagine the same scenario with Don, let’s say we’re preparing to leave the house and Don notices the back door is unlocked. He would simply lock it. He wouldn’t need to find the guilty party or accuse me, he would just lock the door and no drama. I hope that gives you some perspective.
Okay, here’s some action steps if you want to start working on this. One is to practice owning your mental boundaries for a week by noticing when someone else has a different perception or opinion than you do. Notice what you feel. Remind yourself that differences are healthy and normal, that variety is necessary. So if you’re afraid of different thoughts, what are you telling yourself that means? What do you think that’s going to lead to?
What outcome do you fear? All right, those are some things to get started.
Thanks so much for joining me. If you want to work on this a little deeper, I’ve created a guide for you so you can make yourself gaslight proof. To download that for free, go to the show notes page at overcomingsexualabuse.com/008.
And when you download that, be sure to accept my invitation to subscribe to my emails and I’ll send you lots and lots of healing tips and resources. I’m bringing you way more on healing, boundaries, self-care, family dysfunction, so be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any of it.