Self Gaslighting: What It Is and How to Stop
More than half of U.S. adults have reported adverse childhood experiences. Learn why childhood trauma can lead to self-gaslighting and how to get help.
Everyone has second-guessed or doubted their own feelings or perceptions at some point in life. But when that self-doubt is related to painful or distressing experiences and you end up feeling responsible for the things that have happened to you, you may be dealing with something more serious: self-gaslighting.
For some people who’ve experienced trauma or have a history of abuse, self-gaslighting may be a defense mechanism used subconsciously to avoid confrontation with the trauma-related person or event.
If you think you might be gaslighting yourself, keep reading to learn more about this behavior, understand where it comes from, and find out how therapy can help.
What is self gaslighting?
Although “self gaslighting” has yet to become widely adopted by mental health experts, in 2020, researcher-scholar Paige Bendt published a paper defining it as “a circumstance where the survivor of sexual assault self-induces themselves as the gaslighter and the gaslightee.”
In an article for Psychology Today, psychologist Ingrid Clayton, Ph.D. broadens the definition of self-gaslighting to encompass the internalization of any kind of abuse from another person and, as a result, distrusting one’s feelings and turning the blame inward.
Self-gaslighting can manifest as self-blaming, self-shaming, or otherwise holding oneself responsible for painful or traumatic events experienced. It is not a clinical diagnosis, but rather a symptom of an underlying problem.
What is gaslighting?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “gaslighting” is defined as a way “to manipulate another person into doubting his or her perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events.”
The term first came into prominence in response to a 1930s play and 1940s film called “Gaslight.” In these stories, a woman is pushed and coerced by her husband to question her own perception of reality—through actions like lying about the dimming of gas lights in their house—for financial gain. The term has become so commonly used since then that Merriam-Webster named “gaslighting” the word of the year for 2022.
Gaslighting can sometimes happen in unhealthy romantic relationships or in romantic, familial, or platonic relationships with people who have narcissistic personality disorder. The term is also often used colloquially to mean deliberately misleading someone for any reason.
Researchers have also identified specific forms of gaslighting associated with different identities, such as racist gaslighting or parental gaslighting of transgender children. Gaslighting is also often used in the context of the emotional abuse or manipulation of women, girls, or other people assigned female at birth (AFAB)—sometimes in an effort to undermine claims of abuse or infidelity.
"It’s all in their head”
For thousands of years, women, girls, and AFAB individuals have been told that many of the issues they’re experiencing are “all in their heads.” The now-outdated diagnosis of “hysteria,” which comes from the Greek word for “uterus” (“hysteria”), was given to (predominantly "female") people who sought medical help for unexplained physical illness. The diagnosis was associated with a wandering uterus due to not having had children.
While the diagnosis is no longer used today, we can see remnants of “hysteria” and “it’s all in their head” in gaslighting. We can also see it echoed when the pain of AFAB individuals isn’t believed by medical professionals, which happens more often to women, girls, and AFAB people of color.
Self gaslighting examples
Self-gaslighting can show up in different ways for different people. The constant, however, is that someone is doubting their reality enough to question their own experience.
Here are some examples of how self-gaslighting can look and sound:
- Convincing yourself that an experience of sexual assault wasn’t really sexual assault.
- Blaming yourself for ongoing verbal abuse from a family member.
- Telling yourself that what you experienced wasn’t trauma.
- Telling yourself that what you experienced wasn’t a big deal or wasn’t all that bad.
- Telling yourself you’re being too sensitive.
- Telling yourself to get over something you’ve decided you should already be over.
- Telling yourself that you deserved to be abused.
Is self gaslighting common?
Self-gaslighting isn’t a diagnosis in and of itself, so it’s difficult to estimate how common the behavior is. That said, given that self-gaslighting can be defined as the internalization of abuse, we do have an outside figure to look to: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of adults in the U.S. have reported that they have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience—a term that covers abuse, neglect, and other forms of childhood trauma.
Why do some people self gaslight?
Self-gaslighting is often a response to trauma. Trauma, which all of us experience to some degree, is the physical or emotional response to distressing life events like sexual assault, a natural disaster, an accident, the loss of a loved one, or another negative experience.
Rather than directing blame or anger toward the perpetrator of trauma or the trauma itself, self-gaslighting can be thought of as an example of the fawn response or people-pleasing—defense mechanisms used to protect oneself against discomfort, danger, or conflict.
Shifting blame or anger can make things feel safer than confronting a traumatic experience head-on. The fawn response is more common among those who have been exposed to complex trauma like ongoing abuse or dysfunctional familial relationships.
People who have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric disorder marked by intrusive thoughts, irritability, and angry outbursts, among other distressing symptoms, and sexual assault may be more likely to experience self-blame.
What are the risks of self gaslighting?
There are a few different ways to understand the impact of self-gaslighting.
First, any form of gaslighting has been associated with extreme self-doubt as well as anxiety, depression, and addiction. Self-blame, which can be a component of self-gaslighting, can also be a contributor to major depressive disorder.
Self-gaslighting can be a defense mechanism protecting someone from directly addressing trauma, so there can also be risks associated with the underlying trauma that has gone untreated.
For young people, untreated trauma can lead to:
- Low self-esteem
- Feeling unsafe
- Emotional dysregulation
- Difficulty with attachment
- Interpersonal challenges
- Lack of impulse control
- Running away
- Substance use
How to stop self gaslighting?
Since people who self-gaslight typically do it to protect themself against conflict, addressing the conflict—oftentimes trauma—is likely the most beneficial path forward.
Adolescents who have a history of trauma may be best supported by the following two evidence-based and trauma-informed therapeutic modalities:
Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy
Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) is an effective mental health treatment for managing the effects of trauma. In TF-CBT, clients can learn to better understand trauma-related thoughts and behaviors, work to develop new skills and coping strategies, and reduce the impact of trauma on symptoms and relationships.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy uses light or sound to stimulate one side of the brain, and then the other, while recalling the traumatic event(s) with the goal of decreasing the intensity of any distressing emotional effects related to trauma.
Find support for self gaslighting at Charlie Health
Charlie Health’s Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) can provide the validating, affirming, and evidence-based care a young person needs to address trauma and trauma responses like self-gaslighting, establish healthy boundaries, and develop constructive coping strategies. Our team of trauma-informed clinicians are experts in supporting people ages 11-30 who are managing PTSD, substance use as a co-occurring disorder, self harm, and other mental health symptoms or behavior related to trauma—without stigma or judgment.
Our IOP is personalized for each client and can incorporate therapeutic modalities that help with the effects of trauma, including CBT and mindfulness practices. In the program, clients will have weekly individual therapy as well as supported groups with others who are managing similar challenges and sessions where family members can also get involved in care.
If you, your teen, or someone you know is dealing with symptoms like self-gaslighting, Charlie Health can help. We're available 24/7 to get you or your loved one started on the journey to feeling better.
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