Gaslighting is a psychological phenomenon that has garnered attention over the last few years, making its way into the realm of public knowledge. If you follow mental health accounts on social media, you’ve definitely heard of it, and if you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of it, too. The term refers to being manipulated by someone into thinking that you can’t trust your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It’s a hallmark of emotional abuse.
However, some use the term in regards to an act you can commit against yourself, called self-gaslighting. If you search “self-gaslighting” on TikTok, for example, you’ll find an influx of videos about minimizing your own feelings and not trusting your instincts. Is that really the same as gaslighting, though? Is it possible to do to yourself? Is this a concept with merit, or just trendy social media talk? While I resonated with the videos I watched and articles I read about self-gaslighting, I then talked to Dr. Nicholas Farrell, licensed clinical psychologist and a Regional Clinical Director at NOCD, to get a therapist’s take on the matter.
So, can you gaslight yourself?
This is the first question I ask Dr. Farrell. He says, “If our definition of gaslighting is the act of invalidating one’s own, true experience, then yes! It’s possible for someone to gaslight themselves. They might have one initial reaction to something that is upsetting, but then—in the aftermath—scold themselves for being upset.” He says that a severe lack of self-trust, another way to describe self-gaslighting, can appear in a number of ways.
Why do people self-gaslight, and how can you tell if you’re doing it?
There are a number of reasons why people might self-gaslight. If you’ve been routinely gaslit by someone else, you may have begun to internalize a tendency to discredit your emotions and experiences. Another possibility is that you grew up in a family or wider community that didn’t discuss “negative” emotions, or that disregarded emotions as weak altogether. Maybe you were told not to cry, or that you were too sensitive. In the same vein, maybe you were taught to always be sweet and polite. Because of this, you may have a hard time letting yourself be angry or advocating for yourself in times of distress. We don’t live in a society that generally finds itself comfortable with unpleasant or challenging emotions or welcomes them, so it makes sense that many people grow up to disregard their emotional experiences.
You may self-gaslight out of low self-confidence or because of a mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety, or OCD. In fact, lower self-confidence is a common co-occurrence of many mental health conditions, including those listed. Conditions like depression, anxiety, and OCD can make it difficult to trust our own emotional experiences. We might get caught up in wondering what is “really us” or who our “true self” is, and what is our mental illness. Dr. Farrell says it can cause sufferers to think that their emotions are a “terrible barometer” for how they should feel about a situation, dismissing their actual emotional responses by default. The message you send yourself, Dr. Farrell says, is that “this emotional response is not a good read” on the situation at hand.
There’s also quite a bit of stigma and misunderstanding that remains around mental health, which can create a disorienting, dismissive effect similar to gaslighting, but on a much broader larger scale. You might have internalized that misunderstanding by, for example, chalking up your depression to you just being “lazy” or “anti-social.” Though you know the intricacies of your experience, you may have been taught to view your mental health quite differently from how you view your physical health. If someone has the flu, it’s expected that they’ll call out of work. If someone is having a particularly challenging day with depression, on the other hand, that expectation isn’t extended. This sends the message that struggling with mental health is invalid—and, perhaps, that your own experiences are unimportant and can’t be trusted.
Another reason you could be self-gaslighting is if you’re generally anxious and in a perpetual state of worry—in these instances, you might feel like you can’t trust the positive, joyful things happening in your life. You might believe you don’t deserve them, that you’re deceiving yourself by enjoying them, or that they simply can’t be true.
Distrusting your own perceptions in False Memory OCD
In the case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), many people struggle with a common (though highly misunderstood) subtype called false memory OCD. This theme of OCD is characterized by distressing, persistent doubts about one’s own memories—even very recent ones.
People with False Memory OCD—also known as Real Event OCD—doubt things that have happened to them and worry they’ve done something bad or wrong that they don’t remember correctly. Some may even fear that they’ve completely erased their memories of things that potentially did happen, or, conversely, that clear memories from their lives were completely made up. Dr. Farrell says people might spend hours a day, and go to great lengths, trying to figure out “the truth.”
As with any theme of OCD, checking something over and over is a common compulsion. Whether it’s checking to make sure the stove is turned off, checking your heartbeat to make sure it’s normal, or checking for a groinal response to someone you’re afraid you might be attracted to, the process enforces the idea that you can’t trust yourself. In the case of compulsive checking, Dr. Ferrell says, “you feel as if you can’t tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing something with absolute certainty.” Thus, one not only doesn’t trust that they have done something correctly—they also don’t trust themselves to tolerate any degree of uncertainty.
Maybe you self-gaslight out of a need for perfection. Perfectionism is a common feature of both anxiety disorders and OCD. Those with perfectionist tendencies maintain unattainable standards for themselves; they never feel good enough. Their perception of their abilities has been skewed by this feeling of never being enough and having to constantly do, and be, more or better.
How could I ever know if I’m gaslighting myself?
Whatever the reason(s) why you self-gaslight, here are some concrete signs to look out for:
- You regularly tell yourself you’re being dramatic or overly sensitive when you feel sad, angry, or upset about something
- You question whether something really happened the way you remember it
- You frequently compare your situation to others’ situations, telling yourself that yours “isn’t that bad” or “someone else has it worse”
- When someone treats you poorly, you tell yourself that it must have actually been your fault
- You beat yourself up for feeling upset by certain situations
- You second-guess all your decisions, maybe even asking others their opinion because you trust theirs more than your own
- When you have a disagreement or any type of conflict with someone, you always assume that you’re the one in the wrong
If you experience self-gaslighting, chances are you’ve been doing it for a long time. This is a behavior that is usually quite ingrained, whether it’s because of how you grew up, relationships you’ve had, or it’s the result of a mental health condition. That said, it will take some time to unlearn self-gaslighting, but it is absolutely possible. It just will take practice. There are plenty of strategies, plus effective treatment, that can guide you along the process. If self-gaslighting is hindering your functioning or greatly impacting your life, seek help from a mental health professional.
How to stop gaslighting yourself & build self-trust
Since you’re reading this article, you are already well on your way to the first step in recovering from anything: recognize you’re doing it. Now that you know what constitutes self-gaslighting, and have examples of how it might show up in your life, you can continue to develop awareness around your own thought and behavior patterns. You could try having a journal dedicated to cultivating awareness around your gaslighting patterns and, ultimately, building your self-trust. Every time you have a thought that gaslights you, write it down. Acknowledge that it’s there—no need to try to suppress the thoughts, as this usually makes them come back ten-fold—and then remind yourself of a simple affirmational statement, such as “I can trust my experiences and feelings—even if they’re not completely perfect. After all, nobody is!” Or, the always useful “Feelings are not facts.”
Another integral tool in recovering from self-gaslighting is self-compassion. Regard yourself as you would a friend. Have patience with yourself along the process of healing and speak to yourself with kindness. To build self-trust is to build a relationship with yourself, and you can’t have a healthy relationship without compassion. Next time you say to yourself, for example, “I should not be upset about this,” try responding with something like, “Says who? Would I say the same thing to someone I love?”
Effective forms of therapy
Therapy can also help. The most useful modality of therapy will depend on the root of your self-gaslighting—if you’re not sure what the root is, a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist can help. If you’re experiencing low self-confidence or have been in emotionally damaging relationships where you were gaslit by someone, you might benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). It’s a type of talk therapy that focuses on how your thoughts and feelings influence your behavior. It offers tools to cultivate awareness of your thoughts and feelings, learn better coping skills, and ultimately develop healthier behavioral patterns. You may even need to do some trauma therapy work if you had past abusive relationship with someone who gaslit you.
If you resonated with what you learned about false memory OCD, you would benefit from exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). This is a specific form of therapy that incrementally exposes you to your fears and gives you tools to stop compulsive behaviors—mental or physical. For example, if you don’t feel like you can trust your memory of turning off the stove when you leave the house, ERP would gradually guide you through active steps to learn how to tolerate your doubts. Eventually, you would reach the point where you turn off your stove, leave the house, and not go back inside to check—even if you felt very anxious doing so.
The ultimate goal of this process, as Dr. Farrell puts it, is to “not act on the urge, or proclivity, to ‘check’ or second-guess oneself.” He boils it down to one question to ask yourself, which ERP will help you to answer with more ease: “If I were confident, not certain, but confident, that everything was going to be okay, how would I proceed?”
You and your therapist might also do some self-compassion exercises throughout ERP in order to practice being as compassionate to yourself as you would to a loved one, if they were going through the same thing. The anxiety that shows up when someone with OCD tries to apply self-compassion to themselves can become a major barrier for one’s recovery.
A clever strategy that some ERP therapists use in the course of treatment is to have therapy members give a name to their OCD: it could be a common human name, or something more menacing like “the monster.” Doing so can help them establish some distance between themselves and their condition, allowing them to feel as if their gaslighting influences are coming from someone else, rather than their own thoughts or beliefs. This can be highly motivating, even helping them to get “angry” at OCD in their mission to fight it.
Another modality of therapy that may help in your pursuit of ceasing self-gaslighting is acceptance-commitment therapy (ACT). ACT helps you accept your feelings and experiences, rather than denying them or shoving them away, while committing to your values and moving toward healthier, more intentional behavior. ACT could be useful in treatment for various conditions that might involve self-gaslighting (as it’s often used to treat depression, eating disorders, and substance use disorders) and is even commonly used in conjunction with ERP in the course of treatment for OCD.
Though it’s likely to be hard work to start trusting yourself and building confidence, remember that your relationship with yourself is the most important relationship in your life. It’s the foundation for all your other relationships. It’s the foundation for what you do, how you think, and what you feel. With that in mind, building your capacity for self-trust and self-love is always a worthwhile investment of your time and resources. As always, you’re not alone, and there are people who are highly trained to help you.