It's not me, it's you
If you find that: you've lost your sense of self, you question your own reality, you second-guess yourself constantly, you doubt every decision you make, you feel withdrawn or depressed... you may have become a victim of gaslighting.
Insidious form of abuse
Gaslighting is used by abusers to make their victim question their own sanity. It is done by minimising or denying the person's reality by phrases like, “It's all in your head”, “You are being too sensitive”, “Your problem is that you believe your own thoughts” or “I can never tell you anything, because of the way you react”. It is always your fault and never theirs. If you hear any of the above, consider it a red flag and proceed with caution.
Gaslighting is dangerous because the person on the receiving end of it is gradually being stripped of their identity. They will not usually notice it until they can no longer recognise themselves.
I have people contact me saying, "I just want to feel like myself again", "I feel like I am living someone else's life", or "I feel like I am a burden". They tend to blame themselves and feel like something is wrong with them; that they are failing somehow.
When we start working together, they begin sharing the details of situations and relationships with a certain person/people and it becomes clear that they are being manipulated and blamed for things that are not their fault. They were made to believe that if they were doing better, looking better, cooking better, earning more, being intimate more, etc., the relationship would be just fine and they would be loved. In reality, it is a trap that could be very difficult to get out of, because the harder they try the worse it gets.
Anyone can become the victim, because the abuser uses subtle manipulations that are difficult for anybody to work out. With time, those manipulations undermine the mental stability of the person. Needless to say, the abuser is normally a loved one who is supposed to care for the victim and is very much trusted by them. It could be their partner, their parent, or their friend.
If you are on the receiving end of gaslighting, you would find that something just doesn't feel right, but you are not able to understand exactly what it is. Explaining it to others is even more difficult because the way you feel is not logical. And when you cannot understand or explain how or why you feel what you feel, as well as being told that "it is all in your head", you will start having doubts about your own judgement. You will stop sharing how you feel with others and become more and more alone, which in turn would make it even easier for the abuser to do even more damage.
The way out
First of all, start listening to what is being said. Pay attention to the words used - are they trying to make you feel guilty or bad about yourself? Is it implied that you are wrong to feel what you feel? Look out for phrases like, "You are/have always been too sensitive", "You are remembering it wrong", "It's all in your head, you are just paranoid". When you hear those words, it might help if you say to yourself that you have a right to your feelings and that they are valid.
Secondly, ask yourself how you feel in the relationship. Do you find yourself walking on eggshells, being unable to express that you are unhappy about something out of fear of their reaction (such as angry outbursts or silent treatment)? If that is the case, it is important to validate your feelings and start recognising that this is an unhealthy situation, because you should be able to express yourself safely within the relationship.
Thirdly, start paying more attention to yourself. Begin with small steps, such as asking yourself what you would like to eat for breakfast and giving it to yourself or watching your favourite film and enjoying it. This simple practice will give your brain and body the message that you matter too. Your feelings, wants and needs are important too.
With time and practice, it will become easier for you to listen to yourself in more complex situations involving other people, because you will not just automatically dismiss your feelings or your judgement, you will be able to ask yourself what it is like for you to be a part of this interaction and the motives of the person you are encountering.
You might find it helpful to keep a journal where you can write about your thoughts and feelings. Sometimes engaging in meditation practice or just going for a walk may help you connect to yourself better and to get in touch with your feelings.
There is a lot of information on the internet about emotional abuse in general and gaslighting in particular. I find that gaining some knowledge about the concept helps to keep us grounded on our way to breaking the cycle of abuse and beginning to listen to ourselves and stand up for ourselves.
Furthermore, if you feel like you are ready for and would like some one-to-one support, reach out to a professional who specialises in helping clients recover from emotional abuse. You don't have to suffer in silence. I would like you to know that you are not alone.