Most of us have heard of the term gaslighting, which means to be manipulated or undermined in a way that denies one’s reality of an experience or emotion. Being gaslighted frequently causes a person to lose trust in themselves and disconnect in a significant way from who they really are, what they perceive, and what they feel.
Oftentimes, individuals that grow up with this type of intentional or unintentional emotional abuse start to internalize the critical voices that tell them their reactions are excessive, their feelings aren’t valid, and their talents don’t exist. Internalized gaslighting occurs when there’s a formation of a person’s own inner critical voice that mirrors the manipulation and undermining that they experienced in their environment. That inner voice makes us second guess, judge, criticize, and doubt ourselves and everything that we do.
So what are some ways that internalized gaslighting shows up, and how do you know you’re “gaslighting yourself?”
Existing in a perpetual state of self-doubt disconnects us from our internal harmony with our nervous system, our senses, and our intuition. The inability to be in tune with our own “truth” creates a sense of distrust in the body and confusion in the mind, creating doubt in ourselves and inability to get in touch with what we really want and feel.
For example: “I feel anxious about this second date and want to cancel, but that’s just silly. I’m just being picky and too sensitive about the uncomfortable vibes I got from him. I’ll just go and see what happens.”
When the “you” of who you are has been constantly belittled and invalidated, negative beliefs and thought patterns form about the core of who you are. The inner critic that develops continues the cycle of doubting yourself and negative judgements, leading to feelings of low self-worth and self-confidence.
For example: “Ugh, I sounded like I didn’t know what I was talking about during the job interview. The other candidates are probably way better than I am, so there is no way they are hiring me.”
You are so afraid to be dismissed, silenced, or shut down that you learned that it is better to be quiet and keep things to yourself. Eventually, your inner critic will tell you what you have to share is not good enough, important enough, or valid enough. You disconnect from the part of you that feels empowered by expressing your thoughts and feelings and instead feel a sense of shame or dread.
For example: “I really don’t like how my boss treats me in front of her colleagues, but who am I to question her? I’m just an admin. I’ll just have to get used to it.”
When our inner critic tells us that our success is undeserved or can mainly be attributed to external factors, we start to doubt what we have to offer and the gifts we possess, telling ourselves that we didn’t work hard enough or have a real skill or talent. A fear develops that the truth about our lack will come out and everyone will see us for the fraud we really are. We unconsciously start to self-sabotage to validate the internalized belief that we are not good enough.
Example: “I am happy to be promoted, but I don’t know what I’m doing in my new role. Everyone that now reports to me will see that I’m inexperienced and will wonder how I even got this position. They’re going to see right through me and I’m going to fail; I know it.”
So now that we know what internalized gaslighting can look like, how can we stop the perpetual cycle of self-doubt and connect more with our authentic self?
The first step is recognizing that the negative thoughts that we experience are just that: thoughts. Thoughts are expressions of the mind that can create our reality by the repetitive reinforcement of neural pathways in our brain. Once we begin increasing awareness around the change we want to create and start making shifts towards those changes, we can create new neural pathways that support the positive thoughts and feelings we want to have about ourselves.
In order to do this, it is important that we learn the skill of mindful observation. We want to be able to observe the negative thoughts that come to our mind and the corresponding emotions that we experience. The importance of this step is the realization that we can create a separation from our thoughts by witnessing them with recognition but not having to give into the thoughts or “become” them.
For example: “I am feeling terrible about my interview, and I am noticing thoughts in my head telling me I probably didn’t get it and that there are way more qualified people than me. I recognize this to be the inner critic in me coming out. It is interesting to observe these thoughts, and I am noticing a pattern of me constantly talking down to myself.”
In order to connect with the essence of who we really are, we have to identify how we feel and respond to things without any external influence. If your feelings have always been invalidated and your reality has been denied, it becomes harder to discern your feelings from the internalized critic within you. The best way to navigate this is to start paying attention more to your felt sense, which is a physiological response that tells you how you are feeling in any situation. This requires a shift of focus from thoughts in the mind to the feeling response in your body. Start creating awareness of what feels right in the body versus what feels uncomfortable, and honor that felt sense by shifting your actions and thoughts to align with what feels right. It may feel like you are going against the grain or are still very confused, but the important thing to remember is that you are taking cues from YOU rather than external forces. You can therefore start building trust with yourself as you learn to have more awareness about your body’s inner knowing and disconnect more from the thoughts that cycle in your mind.
Example: “I feel in my body that I am anxious about going on the second date with the guy that made me feel uncomfortable with his comments. My mind tells me I’m just being picky and unreasonable, but something just doesn’t feel right. It’s hard for me to do this, but I’m going to have to cancel.”
With small adjustments in how we approach our relationship with ourselves and our self-perception, we can start to make meaningful changes to our core beliefs and our inner dialogue. An effective way to do this is to validate yourself and create self-affirmations for your thoughts and feelings. It can be difficult to do on your own sometimes, so having a trusted friend or working with a therapist can be very helpful in figuring out how you currently relate to yourself and what messages you want to embody and internalize instead.
Meditation and mindfulness exercises are great in shifting our relationships with our thoughts and creating more connectedness with the body. Learning to observe our thoughts in a judgement-free way is an important skill that can create opportunities for internal change.
Journaling is an excellent way to process your thoughts and feelings if done in an unfiltered way and without judgement from yourself. Allow yourself to be candid so you can connect with who you really are and how you really feel. This is how internal trust builds and strengthens over time.
The effects of internalized gaslighting on our emotional and mental health is significant, creating a disconnect from ourselves and increasing our self-criticism and judgement. It can feel like we are a fragmented version of ourselves, navigating life in a perpetual state of self doubt and negativity. But this pattern of thought and behavior can change once we learn to increase our awareness, connect to ourselves through felt sense, and partake in mindfulness activities that allow us to shift our relationship with our true selves and begin increasing trust in our own feelings and perceptions.