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Gaslighting and believing your own story

By Niki Colet Published Mar 26, 2021 5:00 am Updated Mar 26, 2021 5:08 pm

All my life, I’ve been told that I am “too sensitive.” After an incident in the fourth grade brought me and a bully to the guidance counselor’s office, my teacher explained why I had been targeted: the girl who bullied me was not coping well with the passing of a parent. I asked if I should apologize — surely, she must have had grounds for singling me out, above all our other classmates. My teacher commended me for my “maturity,” and I viewed it as a reward: if someone hurts you, say sorry, because they must have a good reason for it. Looking back, I realize that I wasn’t mature. I was scared. I thought I deserved my classmate’s rancor and needed to atone for it. The truth is, I was simply naive, and it rendered me gullible. At that age, I was awkward, lonely, uncool. An easy target.

To this day, I bristle at casual dismissals of childhood bullying. “It wasn’t all that bad.” It was. I was a child. No child should ever have to feel like there is something deeply wrong with them, that they deserve to be antagonized and excluded. 

Instead of accepting a particularly uneasy situation, gaslighters may deflect accountability by trivializing your outlook: accusing you of being 'too sensitive' or 'too emotional,' so that you are left feeling belittled and brushed aside.

Gaslighting can look like a lot of things. Often, it’s characterized by a person disregarding, negating or attacking you, essentially asserting that your viewpoint is invalid. You are left wondering whether you’re perceiving things accurately — or if perhaps there is something about you that warrants this neglect and punishment. Instead of accepting a particularly uneasy situation, gaslighters may deflect accountability by trivializing your outlook: accusing you of being “too sensitive” or “too emotional,” so that you are left feeling belittled and brushed aside. Gaslighters brandish your own vulnerabilities against you: weaponizing your soft spots as a manipulative ploy. 

A single mother who cares deeply about her children might be accused of “being too invested” in them to “put enough effort” into a new romantic relationship. A person suffering from severe clinical depression might be guilt-tripped for “not helping out enough around the house” during a depressive episode. An employee might be attacked for a boss’s mistake. In other words, the gaslightee’s realities are negated. The kids shouldn’t be a priority. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have enough serotonin in your system to get out of bed. You single-handedly caused the catastrophic inconvenience that jeopardized the project. Gaslighting is often closely linked with certain emotional and psychological relationship issues: significant others or family members with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, complex PTSD, and psychological trauma, to name a few.

While family is important, there’s no denying that the abuse of such structures could allow manipulation to transpire in certain groups.

It comes as no surprise that a psychological abuse tactic such as gaslighting is a common concern in Filipino culture, considering our Asian and Catholic context. Asian cultures have long had a historical observance of filial piety. This dynamic usually entails a strict hierarchy: offspring, know your place, elders can do no wrong. One must be obedient in order to be “good.” Traditional Catholic values tend to stress heavy emphasis on purity and subservience, as well. We’ve all heard the phrase “blood is thicker than water.” While family is important, there’s no denying that the abuse of such structures could allow manipulation to transpire in certain groups socialized as families (whether they are indeed biologically related or not). Cultural settings where “hiya” (shame) weighs heavily are fertile ground for guilt-tripping: taking advantage of a target’s sense of shame in order to get them to succumb to the gaslighter’s whims. 

Of course, there are a wealth of beautiful values that come with the significance placed on familial love and morality within communities. However, certain messages can be harmful when misused to exploit others, especially because those targets tend to be more vulnerable, less socially powerful. When you must contort yourself (and your convictions) in order to survive in a group, when avoiding punishment takes precedence over your own autonomy and agency, what happens to your self-worth?

Fortunately for those who are beginning to realize they’ve been gaslighted (in some cases, for years), there are ways to break out of the constraints they have been shackled with. After all, to insist on expecting an apology or an acknowledgement from your gaslighter can only yield disappointment. People gaslight because they refuse to accept that they have done anything wrong, or that things are not going the way they would like. They will never comprehend that they are invalidating your stance, no matter how hard you try to state your case. Gaslighters tend to live in their own version of reality — one that is convenient to them — which is why they so staunchly deny other facts, observations, thoughts, or sentiments that run counter to it. 

Gaslighters tend to live in their own version of reality — one that is convenient to them — which is why they so staunchly deny other facts, observations, thoughts, or sentiments that run counter to it. 

There are things you can do to cope.

Ariel Leve, an American journalist, shared four strategies for handling gaslighting in a 2017 TED talk that came out of a personal history of surviving childhood abuse:

  1. Remain defiant and trust your vision of reality;
  2. Recognize there will never be accountability, because gaslighters do not respond to logic or reason;
  3. Develop a healthy detachment from value judgments your gaslighter places on you, making the distinction between the gaslighter’s world and the real world; and
  4. Write down your experience to remember that this is your reality — no amount of denial or manipulation can take that away from you. 

It used to drive me crazy, trying to convince the other person that my viewpoint mattered or that my observations were grounded in either facts or emotions that could not be denied. However, I’ve realized that I don’t need someone else’s approval to validate my perspective; knowing it for myself is enough. There are always two sides to a coin. Yours counts.

Because gaslighting is inherently based on the (false) foundation that you are irredeemably bad and broken and wrong, the strongest antidote is to understand, with your whole heart, that you are not. To accept that you are a human being, and you will never be perfect. Your flaws are not an indication that you have somehow earned maltreatment — regardless of what a gaslighter might tell you. 

We should be able to look in the mirror, see our defects, and say, 'Even with all that’s messed up about me, I’m still more than enough.'

Self-awareness is important, but there’s a difference between taking responsibility for your mistakes and believing you are innately worthless or rotten. Many of those who go through toxic relationships can develop a tendency to ask, “What’s wrong with me?” — a line of questioning that usually leaves us feeling terrible about ourselves. In reality, you may simply be in an environment that does not fully accept you for who you are. If you are in a space where you are unfairly criticized, where you are degraded and dismissed, where you feel like you are intrinsically a burden just by virtue of being yourself, and that none of your weaknesses are remotely forgivable, leave. We should be able to look in the mirror, see our defects, and say, “Even with all that’s messed up about me, I’m still more than enough.” 

This is the world, as you see it. People can negate your feelings as much as they want, but they’re there for a reason. Remember that you are here. Remember that you have a right to be here. Just as much as anyone else.

Banner photo Art by Lia Candelario