By MJ Denis, LPC, LMFT Associate, CST, CCPS
Figuring out that you have been gaslighted is often a mixed experience. On one hand, you may feel a sense of relief and validation. If you have been gaslighted, you may have felt confused, off balance, and at times even wondered if you were going crazy. You may have doubted yourself or your sense of reality. Understanding that you have been gaslighted puts a name to an otherwise bewildering experience. You may feel a degree of excitement because now that you know what you are dealing with, you can address it and protect yourself.
On the other hand, realizing you have been in a relationship with someone who gaslights can also feel upsetting and daunting. Gaslightees, or those who are the recipients of gaslighting, often feel foolish ("How come I didn’t recognize this before?"), hurt ("How can this person I care about treat me this way?"), angry ("I'm being manipulated and mistreated!"), and scared ("How do I protect myself if this happens again?"). It is a common experience for gaslightees to recognize they have been gaslighted, not only by family members, but at times by co-workers, educators and even clergy. Having new eyes for gaslighting can be anxiety-producing and scary.
Gaslightees often ask, “Well, now that I know what gaslighting is, what can I do about it?”
Fortunately, a person can only be gaslighted if they allow themselves to be. Once that person knows what gaslighting is, they can begin the process of opting out of, or extracting themselves from, gaslighting experiences.
In order to challenge gaslighting, a gaslightee must have a knowledgeable support system. Because gaslightees experience deep levels of confusion and self-doubt, they need other people to help them make sense of their experiences. They need to talk with others to examine gaslighting interactions in an effort to determine if, and to what extent, gaslighting happened, how it impacted them, and what can be done to end the gaslighting.
A recommended course of action is to first begin working with a therapist or coach who understands gaslighting, its dimensions, and its impact. Next, connect with a support system of safe people who also understand gaslighting and who can help make sense of your gaslighting experiences. Additionally, reading about gaslighting in books such as The Gaslight Effect by Dr. Robin Stern is recommended to build up understanding, coping skills, and resilience.
Once these supports are in place, it's easier to begin to opt out of gaslighting. The opt-out process occurs in three stages: hindsight, real-time, and anticipation.
Stage 1: Hindsight
In the "hindsight" stage gaslightees may suspect they have been gaslighted. They will talk with their helping professional or knowledgeable support system after the gaslighting incident to share the interaction that left them confused and unsure. Looking back, or having hindsight by talking through these types of experiences with others gives the gaslightee an opportunity to get feedback and clarity. Often others can help the gaslightee see and understand the subtle manipulation of the gaslighting.
Stage 2: Real-Time
In the "real-time" stage, gaslightees can recognize gaslighting as it happens. During this stage gaslightees often report, “I knew I was being gaslighted, but I didn’t know what to do about it.” This is also a time when a safe, healthy support system is imperative so the gaslightee can share the confusing experience with others who can help identify the manipulation and offer suggestions regarding how to defend, protect, or remove the gaslightee from the interaction.
Stage 3: Anticipation
As gaslightees become more proficient at recognizing and naming gaslighting, they can then begin to anticipate when and how gaslighting may happen. During this stage, gaslightees put safeguards in place to protect themselves.
As gaslightees become proficient in one stage, they will naturally move to the next stage. This process is not necessarily linear, however. No matter how long we practice identifying and opting out of gaslighting exchanges, and no matter how good we get at challenging gaslighting, there will continue to be times when we will need to make sense of our experiences with the help of our support system.
Resilience develops in response to the safety and support of others. Therefore, the keys to developing gaslight resilience are becoming educated about gaslighting and engaging with a safe, knowledgeable support system to help us make sense of the confusing gaslighting experiences.
MJ Denis is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Certified Sex Therapist based in Austin, Texas. MJ’s path has led her to specialize in areas involving unhealthy boundaries, domestic violence, sexual abuse, sexual dysfunction, sexual addiction and infidelity. She uses her certification as a Certified Clinical Partner Specialist to help partners of sex addicts heal from the trauma of betrayal.
Thank you MJ for this excellent series on gaslighting, which I know is already helping many!