We know about talking yourself out of a situation, but have you ever talked yourself into, say, staying in a job you secretly despise? The little voice in your head sounds a lot like ‘suck it up’, ‘you should be grateful,’ and the classic ‘others have it worse’. In all seriousness, it is not the pep talk you think it is. By staying you’ve just made the first of your many poor decisions in life.
This is nothing short of abuse – to deliberately place yourself in an environment that is taking a mental toll on you. It is a type of emotional manipulation popular culture calls ‘gaslighting’. The buzzword comes from a 1938 British stage play ‘Gas Light’, where a husband plays illusory tricks on his wife to disorient and confuse her, all the way to insanity.
In the case of self-gaslighting, we take the matchstick to ourselves, becoming both our own culprit and victim. As soon as something hurts us, our first instinctive reaction is ‘I’m probably overreacting’. The psychologists Gulf News spoke to are here to tell you – no, you are not.
Why should I be worried?
Take this 25-year-old medical student and her silent battle with grief as an example. Losing two of her closest friends one after the other landed her in therapy. But before the Dubai expat could reach that point of reckoning, doubt and guilt interfered with her right to grieve.
“Even though I wasn’t in a good headspace, I would constantly tell myself that other people have it worse,” the student told Gulf News, requesting anonymity. “A father has lost his daughter and a brother his sister – it was way worse for them. I just lost a friend... so what am I overreacting for?”
A father has lost his daughter and a brother his sister – it was way worse for them. I just lost a friend... so what am I overreacting for?
The second death had been her final straw, except she never allowed herself to experience it fully. Her poor mental health weighed heavy on her because everyone else seemed to be getting by just fine. Dismissive thoughts like ‘stop being a weakling and buckle up’ only added fuel to the fire.
“Last year I broke down. It wasn't until I started therapy that I realised how much more harm I was causing myself by shutting out my emotions,” she added.
When we self-gaslight, we’re believing in a distorted version of reality, one where we are at fault. Then to base our decisions on these false premises, is never short of dangerous.
As Dr Lakshmi Saranya, clinical psychologist at Lifeline Modern Family Clinic in Dubai, puts it: Repeated suppression can “later on cause severe mental illness like depression, anger and conflictual interpersonal interactions”.
Our coping mechanism hard at work
Clearly, lying to ourselves is not going to improve anything, so then why do we continue to do it? Simply put, it’s our brain’s knee-jerk reaction to pain. We can all agree that choosing not to feel negative emotions is far easier than actually facing them.
“It is a coping mechanism. We do what we can to protect ourselves, be it in a healthy or an unhealthy way. You assume adults would be aware of their feelings – what we call emotional maturity – but that is not always the case,” Dr Joseph El Khoury, chief of psychiatry and behavioural health at American Hospital Dubai, told Gulf News.
It is a coping mechanism. We do what we can to protect ourselves, be it in a healthy or an unhealthy way.
Feeling negative emotions in their full capacity is actually healthy. Ohio-based Cleveland Clinic website says “worry, fear, anger and sadness are all normal, healthy emotions”. They behave like Nature’s cues to warn us about imminent danger – emotional avoidance does more harm than good.
Ask yourself: Have I been gaslit before?
Sometimes there is another underlying cause. Dr Saranya notes that we gaslight ourselves because we’ve been ‘gaslit’ in the past. Over time you start internalising an outsider’s ridicule, then treat yourself with the same neglect.
“All victimised individuals try to forget their reality or doubt the entire situation. You think you are at fault and the reason the other person is angry at you. Victims of gaslighting try to please others without understanding their own emotions and feelings,” she said.
Victims of gaslighting try to please others without understanding their own emotions and feelings.
For Sarah Skaf, a 24-year-old senior communications executive in Dubai, being liked was her priority for the longest time. She spent her time in school and then in university trying to fit in circles that told her she was not good enough. And Sarah believed them.
“From when I was in high school until I graduated from university, I would allow people to dismiss my feelings and thoughts. Some people used to think I would never fit in their particular circle because I was an overachiever and it somehow looked wrong,” Sarah told Gulf News.
“Even at school, I would always have teachers compare me to other students. This then made me believe that they were right – that I was not good enough, not confident and not great at socialising nor in my academic career,” she added.
How do I stop self-gaslighting?
Breaking the abusive cycle requires conscious effort on our part. We need to begin by realising that there is some serious lack of self-awareness. If therapy is out of your budget, then apply these six tips by Dr Saranya, Dr El Khoury and our interviewees to start your healing process.
1. It’s okay not to be okay: We are part of the problem; society forgets that sometimes it’s okay not to be okay. Only when we validate others’ emotions can we learn to validate our own.
2. Understand your perspective is as important as anyone else’s: Views between couples, friends and colleagues can differ greatly. This does not mean that your perspective is wrong or invalid.
3. No means no: It’s easy to slip into a state of confusion when others are telling you how to feel. Remember, you have the power to say no. Exercise it.
4. Educate yourself: Achieving self-awareness will not happen overnight. The best way to start is reading up on how emotional processes work. As tricky as this sounds, feedback from people you are not close to works, too. Sometimes they can see what you cannot.
5. Keep a journal: Sarah did just that. She took a pen to the paper every time she felt “someone or something didn’t make [her] feel good”. The permanence of a journal offers you clarity and helps you reflect back on why a certain interaction made you uneasy.
6. Enable a validating environment: This one is for parents. As a preventative measure, children should be given the opportunity to discuss and share their feelings openly at home. Developing a child’s empathy or social competence from an early age also helps them better understand their own and other’s emotions.
Next time you spiral because of that little voice in your head, picture yourself making the same hurtful comments to someone else. Healing starts when we offer ourselves the same kindness we offer others. Better, healthier decisions will follow suit.