By now you may have heard the term “gaslighting” umpteen times. So let’s begin by decoding this phenomenon and how does it cloud and fog our judgement, our psyche, and our overall well being. As the name suggests, “Gaslighting” – it catches fire, it’s a fire that burns your internal and external subjective reality. It is a phenomenon in which the person manipulates, lies, and mentally tortures you in the most subtle yet smart way; poisoning you with their toxic behaviour in a way that you are left confused, lost, and drained.
It is a very widespread phenomenon and is a major global health concern just like a pandemic during the present times. According to a study, 1 out of 10 individuals is a gaslighter, and sadly, the number of victims who deal with such toxic people is higher. Its rate has multiplied manifold in today’s world. The worst part is that for so many years, we as a society have been reinforcing and enabling such dysfunctional behaviours in some or the other way. This is because we never understood the ripple effect that it has on the public and the deep scar it has engraved on the people who struggle to deal with gaslighters.
Gaslighting goes beyond toxicity; it is a form of abuse – it ranges from emotional, verbal, psychological, physical, sexual, spiritual, to even financial in some cases. The effect of gaslighting is terrible. It’s like a parasite which crawls inside you and eats you up slowly.
So where are these (gaslighters) people found?
The answer is everywhere, literally everywhere. We have encountered such individuals at least in our lives, once at some point of time. They could be anyone, your parent, a sibling or an extended family member you are in close contact with, your friend, a work colleague, even a partner or spouse. People encounter such people in workplaces, at home, in schools, in social gatherings, etc. Earlier, we neither knew nor realized that this needed to be recognized and worked upon. Why did that happen? The reason is that we are accustomed to and conditioned to be habituated to something in the environment, such as noise, over time, a reward, or even something more noxious and we adjust to it; it does not capture our attention nor do we question it. Human beings are incredibly adaptive and adjust to varying climates and living conditions. In the same way, we adjust to toxic relationships of any kind. However, it gradually begins to wither, making us uncomfortable just like an uncomfortably warm or chilly temperature in a room.
Who are gaslighters and what do they do?
These people are master deflectors and they can go to any extent to preserve their “good image”, highly charming and enchanting, with a hightened of superiority and highly fragile egos. These qualities, most of the time, hide their deep-rooted flaws and fragile self-concepts under the carpet. Such people are emotionally unavailable, lack empathy and are exceedingly inconsiderate/ indifferent to the feelings and emotions of others (even significant others). They are arrogant and furious when they are caught lying or cheating, they can not accept criticism of any sort, they throw around tantrums and taunts, saying nasty and mean things to people without any remorse as they lack emotional intelligence. It’s a default system of which they themselves are not aware of or they lack the capacity to acknowledge the imperfections they have. Gaslighting is a prominent symptom and sign of Narcissistic personality disorder or pathological narcissists. It is also a symptom of antisocial personally disorder (psychopaths & sociopaths).
Please note – These people will deny your notion of reality and will put all the blame on you when confronted with any fault or conflict. They will never admit their own faulty actions and behaviours. Rather, they will resort to blaming and criticising you for their own toxic behaviour. They mould and brainwash you in such a way that eventually you give up and convince yourself that maybe you were wrong all along. They can not hold themselves accountable for their wrongdoing. They have a pattern that needs to be addressed. For instance, have you felt or seen that one day they are all nice and put you on a pedestal, giving you the importance and special attention, treating you with affection and the next day they are the complete opposite. They resort to devaluing you, discarding you, even so, ghosting you, ignoring you, treating you like you don’t even exist by behaving in mean and cruel manner. That’s a red flag as this whole upheaval and the uneven cycle of the maladaptive behavioural pattern is just a way to never let you get out of this downward spiral. The gaslighter would never want you to get over them however, they can do the same to you any minute, and that’s the paradox.
If this happens repeatedly in phases, it’s a warning sign. Such people come and go; they will keep you in the loop as long as they are getting their needs fulfilled and are getting validated by you. This is unhealthy and sickening for the person who’s handling such a situation. As the nature of every relationship is dynamic, so the experience. It is totally different in respect to a form of relationship and the equation you have with the gaslighter. Hence, it’s quite possible that you may be affected differently in a family system than when you are in an intimate relationship. The whole point is, it’s still horrifying and it can suck the much needed mental balance and strength out of you, irrespective of the relationship. The impact is soul-crushing so much so that you begin to question your own sanity.
How does it affect your health?
- You are more likely to develop all sorts of psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, social withdrawal or isolation, eating disorders especially binge eating, obsessions and compulsive behaviors, preoccupations with your appearance and looks, damaged self-esteem and efficacy, alcohol and drug addiction, feelings of hopelessness and lonlinesss, emotional dysregulation, trouble concentrating and focusing, post-traumatic stress disorder, inappropriate sleep schedules, aggressive and anger issues, irritability and restlessness, issues with trusting others so on and so forth. The list is long.
- You feel lost, confused and vulnerable – you keep asking yourself “what the hell is going on?”
- Your productivity decreases and you under-perform in not only the challenging tasks but at times, also in day-to-day activities.
- Your self-care is on the edge coupled with mental and physical fatigue, and extreme distress.
- It is addictive in nature, much like an addiction to a substance, this relationship is similar. For instance, you cherry-pick the good old days and moments you spent with them and crave for that high you once got because of that person. You hope that maybe they will change and will treat you in a better way so you keep giving indefinite chances and tend to excuse their unacceptable behaviour. You keep relapsing just to get that temporary ecstasy or pleasure or that feeling when they gave you special and sweet treatment. You know it’s unhealthy for you but you still want that and desperately wish to recreate those happy and exciting times. Much like an addiction of a substance, you get addicted to their presence and even their toxicity because somewhere it helps you relieve your anxiety and fear of letting them go and you have to readjust which is too much to take in so you keep tolerating all of it.
Healthy coping mechanisms to start healing journey
Disclaimer:- The focus is not on changing the gaslighter but on how the person who is gaslighted. As a consequence of gaslighting effect ,build up resilience and enhance psychological immunity and learn effective and healthy ways of coping mechanisms. The process of healing takes time hence, it is vital to trust the process.
- Set boundaries –
This is a very important step in the healing process. You have to make a conscious effort and choice as to the extent to which you want to tolerate their manipulative behavior. As you have to protect your mental peace and sanity, you need to set a healthy boundary so that you don’t have to suffer the abuse. Even if you are not ready to let go of the relationship or somehow cannot do so as in case of family members, setting boundaries becomes all the more necessary. Gaslighters are difficult to handle and they will never set a proper boundary hence, it’s your responsibility to take care of yourself and protect your energy.
Try not to engage in a fight with them Try to prioritize yourself by not being available to them at all times. Be open and clear about who you are and what you expect from the relationship. Do not call them out as toxic or a gaslighter as that will not change them and will consequently make them furious. It is important to bear in mind that nothing you say or do will make a difference. Once you figure out the red flags, try to maintain a psychological and physical distance. They do not complete you hence, you are enough with or without them. You have to stop that power of control that they are gaining over you and that toxic loop has to be broken by you. During this process, make sure that your personal boundaries are not being compromised.
- Power of self-care –
It is imperative to take care of your self because of the massive toll you have to bear as a result of the abuse. It’s a step by step journey, nothing happens overnight. Me time is crucial here. Forgive yourself as many times as you can for not feeling okay and doing your best. Do not lose yourself in this roller coaster ride. Self-compassion is necessary for you to survive post effects or even during a relationship. Try sometime alone with yourself. Solitude is a blissful state of mind. Read a novel, listen to your favourite songs, play with your street dog or your home pet, water plants, go for shopping, do household chores, declutter your wardrobe or cupboards, dance on your favourite beat, go for a day out, watch a movie, finish your pending tasks, or do your work whatsoever, choose yourself, choose relevant things that matter to you.
Emotional trauma is heavy and requires time to process. Stop being harsh on yourself as it is not your fault, you were not aware and that’s genuine. You have been through prolonged torture so, you need to give yourself a break and some time to recover from it all. There is nothing to be ashamed of because you are at the receiving end of it, so it is important to be kind to yourself. It is vital to be aware of the triggers that hurt you. Ruminating over them and preoccupation with the euphoric memories is natural – it means you were mistreated, they made you feel that way. At that point, list all the times and things, when they wronged you and keep the list handy, either in your phone or just pen it down, whenever you find yourself that you are going back to that phase, remember that list, all those times they were mean to you, hurt you made you feel unwanted, devalued you, disrespected you and abandoned you, remember the confusion and restlessness they left you in. This is how you are going to break the never-ending loop, the trap they are trying to fix you in. Self-care is all about being patient with yourself, reboot yourself as many times as it takes. Self-care will help you become stronger and more resilient. It will help you realize your worth and your value only if you value yourself first.
- Radical acceptance-
We understand this is the most difficult part to agree with. It feels uncomfortable initially, but trust us, there is no better way to heal and grow than to accept yourself and the fact that they are not going to change for anyone. That’s just how they have been taught and reinforced, they are hardwired this way or whatever the cause may be. That won’t bring back the horrifying experience you had to deal with or dealing with it. It is traumatic and painful to accept the fact that you have to stop trying to change them and hope that maybe they will get better or treat you right because they won’t and it is sometimes best to move ahead accepting that you have a life and that you deserve much better and have all the wonderful reasons to look forward. Staying stuck does not help anyone and only makes the condition worse. Acceptance lies in the strength you have within yourself. Make a cost-benefit analysis as you do in every other situation and weigh down the pros and cons of the relationship; is it interesting your functional areas, is it disturbing you a lot, is it helping you in any way, how it will benefit you and your mental health if you choose to stay in the relationship? Ask yourself these questions from time to time and if the answer is in negative, then you need to summon all the strength and accept that you can’t change anyone but yourself.
You can’t save or rescue anyone if they are willing to drown themselves. It is important to have faith in yourself and take that decision you have been avoiding or are unable to take. You may miss them or would want to go back which is valid and justified. Let them be and let them go. Accept it and move forward. It is a blessing in disguise to come out of such an abusive relationship.
- Journaling –
Writing is highly therapeutic as it gives you an outlet to express your blocked feelings and unsaid emotions. It is cathartic in every sense. It helps you to soothe your soul and aids positive psychological health. It helps you to explore your emotions in a healthy manner and regulate them efficiently. Journaling becomes your best friend when you can’t express what you are going through. During such times, write down your feelings, mention what you are grateful for, jot down your strengths, write a letter to yourself as would write to a friend had he/she been in the same situation.
Write down self- worthy statements such as “I am learning”, “I am progressing”, “I am liking my solitude”, “I know what I am capable of” etc. It is a great tool to be mindful of our actions, thoughts and emotions. It enhances our over all well-being. Journaling helps one to recover and gives a sense of accomplishment and joy.
- Role of a solid support system –
Another useful technique to combat the toxic effect is to have a solid support system. Having warm and supportive people around is a gift as well as a privilege. People who encourage you to do better, love you, stand by your side through thick and thin and do not judge you in any manner, are the ones worth keeping. There are times when you may feel lonely and empty and feel that you can not share what you are going through. During such times, it is advisable to talk to a friend or someone you feel comfortable with.
Having someone by your side when you are struggling provides you with a safe and secure feeling and gives you a sense of belongingness that you are not alone in this. It is brave to open up to your significant others. It makes you feel that you are wanted, heard, loved and valued. It is a reminder that you are precious and that you do not have to be harsh on yourself. It is a relief and therapeutic in a way to be surrounded by genuine well-wishers who care about you and your health and will do anything to help you. Your support system will never give up on you and it plays a major role in boosting your mental health.
- Do not give up on your hobbies –
Playing sports or staying physically fit by working out or exercising is necessary to improve psychological health. It is advisable to take out time every day at least 20 minutes for your hobbies or leisure activities. It can be anything that you enjoy doing. They keep you rejuvenated, bolster cognitive activities, increase resilience and keep you productive and motivated. It elevates positive mood reduces pain and negative emotions. It keeps you engaged in relevant things that matter to you and help you to become better than yesterday. Hobbies have multiple benefits. They are a boon to holistic health. Things that are productive and delightful, bring joy and happiness to you, should be done often. Sometimes it is good to not take everything seriously and the concept of healthy fun is what we call leisure activities.
These are a few ways that are helpful and beneficial to cope effectively during and post gaslighting effect.
Having mentioned these, it is a sincere request to the reader to not hesitate from seeking medical and professional help if they are not able to handle it all by themselves. It is important to take the necessary help one needs for their mental health concerns.
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