I saw a post on Instagram lately that basically said that once someone gaslights you, even if you’re no longer in contact with them, the gaslighting can be so powerful and so effective that you stay gaslighting yourself long after you stop contact with them. When I read that, it’s like it shook something loose in me, and I recognized that that is what I’ve been doing to myself since my last break up. Long story short, they were the first person I ever really felt like I loved and could see myself having a future with, and this was my first longterm, healthy relationship. Or so I thought, until I found out that they were cheating on me. I had my suspicions when I was with them, but I trusted them so much, and they assured me that I had nothing to worry about. We broke up suddenly, and I never had any closure from them. I swing back and forth from remembering the good times we had, to remembering that at least some portion of that relationship was a total lie. I feel totally crazy, and I don’t know what to do – how do I stop gaslighting myself and get over this relationship?!
The first thing that I want you to know is that the reactions you’re having right now are completely normal. That crazy-making feeling you get, when you try to reconcile the good parts of the relationship – the fun dates, the intimacy, the bomb sex, the sense that you have finally found your person, the person who makes you believe in a future together and maybe even – egads – a joint bank account, or something equally bananas as that – with the person who lied to you to your face for however long they chose to do that. That’s a normal part of what is called betrayal trauma, and it’s a sign that your brain is contending with cognitive dissonance, or inconsistent thoughts. Dissonance isn’t fun for our brains; trying to reconcile to realities that, by definition, can’t and shouldn’t integrate – my ex loved the shit out of me and treated me better than anyone has ever treated me before; my ex was a lying garbage can who deceived me for months me with a straight face and put my health at risk by having sex with other people without telling me – is a difficult task, and it takes time, and practice to achieve. It also takes something called radical acceptance, a skill taught in dialectical behavioral therapy, wherein people practice accepting reality as is, even and especially the painful parts of it, because to fight that reality only increases suffering. I like to think of radical acceptance like a muscle that you have to work out diligently, and which gets stronger over time – and which doesn’t always perform to the height of its ability every day, nor should you expect it to. The most important thing you can do for yourself right now is go at your own pace.
I can already tell that you’re doing the hard work to heal. You’re searching out things that make sense of your situation, whether that’s posts on Instagram that remind you as you scroll on by that you’re not “crazy” at all, however much you feel like it, and that there was harm done to you that is valid and has real and serious repercussions. This, my friend, is huge. One of the biggest aspects of continuing gaslighting (or, the tactic that abusers use to not only deny and manipulate our perception of reality, but to get us to do their dirty work for them) within ourselves, even after we stop contact with the people who have harmed us, is our willingness to undermine ourselves and our belief in our own pain and trauma. For kind, generous, and empathic folks, we often do this because we subscribe to the idea that our pain is “not so bad,” and that there are others out there who have it “worse than us” who deserve more attention that we do.
While we might think that to be independent, self-sufficient, and without needs makes us deserving of love, it’s actually a sneaky sign of codependence, or the self-abandonment that contributes to feeling alone in a relationship, or as though you’re the one making all the sacrifices and doing all the work while being taken advantage of by your partner. If you can’t believe and validate the pain that you feel when someone harms you, you also can’t believe that you deserve better than that treatment. When you say that what you’ve experienced is “not so bad” it’s a defense mechanism against really feeling the pain of what you’ve gone through, grieving for the part of you that is hurt, and mourning and finding closure within yourself. Closure, after all, can only ever come from within; it isn’t something anyone can give you, and if you decide to wait around for someone else to make you feel better about how they’ve harmed you, you’ll probably be waiting for quite a while. Really feeling that grief can be so scary that it is overwhelming – but grief is just love without a place to go. Grieving the way you’ve been hurt gives that love a direction, though: towards your self. Grieving how you’ve been hurt, and radically accepting how painful that process is, can be a powerful form of self-love that helps you practice identifying the type of love you deserve. It can also help you in the future, because once you understand what you deserve – a real, full, honest love – you won’t settle for less.
So, how to stop gaslighting yourself.
Something I say to most of my therapy clients is just this: By the time they’re coming to therapy (or by the time they’re writing into an advice column), they’re already doing the work on their own. By recognizing how this Instagram post resonated with you, you’ve unlocked something in yourself that is integral to your own healing. You were able to recognize one of the ways that you’re complicit in the perpetuation of your own suffering. I don’t say this to victim blame at all, by the way – I’m not casting any kind of judgment on the fact that you know you’re gaslighting yourself sometimes as you try to make sense of the pain and chaos of the end of your last relationship. When it comes to how we cope with painful or traumatic events, there is no right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy – these types of binaries are unhelpful, and they take away from the fact that every decision we make when it comes to our mental health and healing is done from the stand point of trying to keep us alive and surviving. Self-abnegation is a tricky thing, because it can lead us to so many “unhealthy” behaviors – prioritizing others over ourselves, ignoring our gut instincts, allowing treatment by others that we know wounds us – but the function of those behaviors is still to keep us in close and intimate contact with others, the type of social attachment that we need to survive. Forgive yourself for how you behaved when you thought there was nothing better out there for you. Forgive yourself for buying into the mindset of scarcity and acting from a place of fear. Even those actions were you just trying your best to get by in impossible circumstances, with someone whose heart was not as open and transparent as yours, and without the knowledge you needed to keep yourself truly and authentically attuned to who you are and what you need.
Codependence is a tricky set of behaviors to unlearn. I recently had a talk with a femme therapist friend of mine about the codependence we see in our clients, and how it mirrors our own codependent behaviors we’ve exhibited in our personal relationships, especially over the course of our twenties. Codependence unfolds both on micro interpersonal levels, as a pattern we learn in our individual family systems. Who is the giver? Who is the taker? Whose needs are prioritized? Whose needs are minimized? Why? Under what circumstances do these dynamics change, or are they fixed?
Codependence is also part of the social fabric that we’re all wrapped in: Think of things like heteronormative gender roles, something that we all internalize regardless of what our sexual identities are. If you’re been socialized feminine, for example, you were likely taught to be polite and emotionally accommodating on some level or another. My parents did their best to raise me and my brother completely equally, for example, and even though I was a rough and tumble kid who skewed closer to masculinity (or tomboyishness I guess) in some ways when I was younger (and who, as an adult, demonstrates many behaviors and attitudes that are coded more masculine than feminine, especially in how I communicate and assert myself), in close relationships, I was still unconsciously falling into codependent behavior patterns and self-abandonment. Somewhere along the way, I had learned the lesson that my needs came second – or last – and the only way to be loved was to put others ahead of myself. Selfishness was explicitly verboten; I distinctly remember my mom calling me selfish in a tone of accusation and disappointment when I was a kid who wouldn’t share my toys or wanted to hang out with my own friends instead of my little brother. It’s a small thing – and certainly, learning to share is important – but for a little kid whose parents’ love and care meant life or death, to hear my mom call me selfish in that way did some very real harm; I wouldn’t remember it so distinctly to this day if it hadn’t. Unpacking it in hindsight, I can guess some of the associations that were flying around my child-brain: it wasn’t feminine to be selfish, and I was a little girl; to be selfish was to be doing femininity wrong. And to be unfeminine meant that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, that I was broken, that I was totally unloveable.
This tiny thing that my otherwise loving but extremely overworked and overwhelmed mother muttered at me on a handful of occasions became the core belief I’ve carried into all my adult relationships to date, and it made me a prime target for the very same gaslighting (and self-perpetuation of gaslighting) you describe in your letter.
It’s important to remember that selfishness is a necessary and healthy quality. I don’t mean selfishness as we think of it – correlated with greed or avarice or bullying. But to be about yourself, to hold your self at the center of all that you do, in high esteem and as a top priority? To operate from a sense of groundedness in who you are and what you deserve? To truly love yourself, regardless of how others react to you? That is radical, and there’s a certain, beautiful selfishness in that, and maybe even a little arrogance, too, in knowing that you’re the shit and anyone who doesn’t agree can hit the road. It reminds me of something that writer, educator, and bicon extraordinaire Gabrielle Noel posted about on IG recently – that there’s this pressure for feminine presenting folks to act like we’re humble because it keeps us in our place, keeps us blind to our own power, keeps us abandoning ourselves for the approval or affection of others. When we do this, it’s easy for people to switch the goal posts on us, to make demand after preposterous demand, to tell lie after lie, to recreate a reality around us that we know, deep down, is full of shit, but which we accept any, with a smile on our faces, as if saying, oh yes, this dark and dank room you’ve locked me in is actually full of bright and warm and loving light and is exactly what I deserve.
It’s time to wake up, my love.
Even though you say you’re feeling crazy, I want to point out that there was a part of you that was clearsighted, discerning, and aware, even as you were falling for the lies your ex so painstakingly and skillfully told you. You wrote that you had your suspicions. Think back to the moments where you became aware of your suspicions. What did you notice? Can you remember what was going on in those moments? What did you see? What was your ex’s facial expression like? How were they behaving toward you? Were they making eye contact? What did their voice sound like? Did it sound different? It must have, or you wouldn’t have noticed anything big enough to be characterized as “suspicions.” “Suspicion” is just another word for intuition, and your intuition – the voice that is the truest part of you, that notices things that your rational, conscious self then works so hard to convince you out of, for the sake of politeness, the benefit of the doubt, keeping the peace, whatever – is how you stop gaslighting yourself.
Think back to when you were suspicious. Really put yourself in that place again, if you can. What was your body feeling? Was there tension, tightness, nausea? Were you aware of your chest, your throat, your stomach? Where were the sensations happening in your body, underneath and before you tried to rationalize them away? What would it have been like to make different choices there? Imagine it. Imagine a different story – one in which you trusted yourself this time around. This will take practice. Betrayal trauma is difficult to heal from. Your ex, by cheating on you, told you that this relationship where you were meant to be and promised to be safe, is one where unwitting harm was done to you, and not only was it done to you, it was done to you outside of your awareness and then, when you tried to confront it, they lied again, and relied on your trust, and your goodness, to cover their deceit. That is hard, it is painful, it is traumatic, and frankly it just fucking sucks. Shame on your ex.
But just like you don’t need their approval to love yourself, their bullshit and toxicity also says absolutely zip, zilch, nada, a big ol’ NOTHING about you. Take some time to be still and get in touch with the quiet part of you. That perfect, crystalline, shimmering core of who you are, the part of you that was working, throughout all these lies, the manipulation, the gaslighting, the harm, to protect yourself. That part knew your ex was full of shit, and knows how much better you deserve now. Spend some time with her.
When the panic of cognitive dissonance arises – because it probably will – get still. Take a breath. Remember your intuition and say hello to it. Call it forward. Be curious about it. Breathe with it, and let it step forward instead of trying to rationalize it away. What would it feel like to move forward with curiosity, rather than relying on the comforting familiarity of self-doubt? For sensitive people, it can be so easy for us to doubt ourselves and give others, quite literally, the benefit of the doubt; to assume that others will treat us the way we strive to treat them. I saw a post on Instagram recently that shook something loose for me the way it sounds like this post on gaslighting shook something loose for you – it said, “Stop expecting you from people.” This doesn’t mean that you can’t look on the bright side, can’t hope for and expect the best in folks. But it is an important lesson to learn that not everyone has the same heart as you, and while it’s okay to hope that they do, it is also wise and discerning to be patient enough to wait until they prove that they do. That takes time. Until then, practice trusting yourself.