The thing about gaslighting is that it's extremely hard to tell when it's happening to you — which is by design. It's a form of psychological manipulation where a person makes you question your own sanity — and it's something I've experienced firsthand.
Thinking I was losing my mind, I took to Google to try and understand what was happening to me. Coming across the word "gaslighting" and its corresponding definition felt validating. I wasn't crazy after all. I was a victim of a psychological tactic that plenty of other people had experienced — enough for the behavior to have an official name.
I'm not alone in feeling that wave of relief, either. For podcast host Kendall Ann Byrd, 38, based in Annapolis, MD, hearing this term for the first time was a huge turning point in her healing process. "The word that most accurately describes the way I felt when my therapist explained the term 'gaslighting' is relief," she says. "For so long I struggled to make sense of what happened to me. Was it all in my head? Was I the one with the problem? Had I lost my grip on reality? Knowing that my ex's actions were very common and that my instincts were correct helped me heal."
Whether you've been gaslit, ghosted, orbited or (insert the latest damaging trend here), Crystal Rice, LGSW, a therapist practicing in Pennsylvania and Maryland, says having a name for the behavior you're experiencing can be beneficial for understanding what happened to you, and figuring out a way to move past it.
"Naming a behavior takes it out of the ether and puts it in front of you," she says. "It's the equivalent of hearing a sound and fearing a boogieman only to realize it's just a snake in the basement. If we know what it is (and is not), we can begin to develop a plan to address it. We have no idea what to do to kill the boogieman, but a snake? That we can manage," she says.
Naming helps us avoid the self-blame game
Experiencing bad behavior in our personal relationships can often make us feel like we must have done something to deserve it. That maybe there's something wrong with us, or that we're overreacting. But as Dr. Christine Selby, Ph.D., a Professor of Psychology at Husson University’s College of Science and Humanities, states, having a name for the behavior makes it possible to take the blame off ourselves.
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"Telling someone, for example, that they have just been 'gaslighted' can help them feel like their reactions make sense and that they’re not crazy," she says. "Additionally, knowing there is a name for the behavior means that there were many others who also engaged in the bad behavior. In fact, there were so many others the behavior was named. Those on the receiving end of the bad behavior often feel better when they learn they were not the only ones who were victims. This can further help victims feel like they are not alone and aren’t 'crazy.'"
In finding a word to describe what had happened to me, there was some relief in knowing that it wasn't all in my head and that I was not alone in this strange predicament.
For Beverly Friedmann, a 30-year-old content manager in New York, putting a name to the bizarre behavior known as orbiting (when someone you dated stops communicating with you in real life, but continues to like and view your social media posts) was both frustrating and validating. "It seems incredibly immature that adults would need to coin a term to describe something that I find fairly immature by nature," she says. "But in finding a word to describe what had happened to me, there was some relief in knowing that it wasn't all in my head and that I was not alone in this strange predicament. From there, in retrospect, I was able to think about all of the reasons this likely happened that really had nothing to do with me."
Whether it's someone ignoring your text while liking your social posts or cutting off communication altogether, trying to decipher the "why" behind the behavior can leave you feeling unresolved. As Dr. Julia Renedo, a licensed psychologist in New York, explains, naming that behavior helps eliminate the guesswork. "By naming it, we recognize that it is a reflection of that person’s choice to behave in such a way (and we don’t really need to know their reason for it in order to move on)," she says. "By calling it 'ghosting,' we’re able to depersonalize the experience — we leave the action with them. Their damaging behavior is not about us, as much as it is about the way they chose to cope — with total avoidance and defensiveness."
Naming behaviors helps us identify potentially harmful patterns
Identifying harmful patterns is a survival skill. That goes for physical threats (think avoiding poisonous foods in the caveman days) and ones that can have a negative impact on our mental wellbeing.
"This knack for pattern matching is particularly helpful when it comes to identifying behaviors that can manifest in different ways," explains Dr. Caroline C. Fleck, a licensed psychologist practicing in California. "Having a name for a range of more complex behaviors improves our ability to recognize and conceptualize those behaviors when they occur. Our brains are also particularly quick to identify things that have been labeled as 'bad.' This negative bias serves an evolutionary purpose in helping us recognize and steer clear of potentially dangerous situations. Couple our penchant for pattern matching with our innate negativity bias and you've got an easy way to help folks identify potentially damaging behaviors in themselves and others."
It's something that Byrd says has been helpful in moving on from her gaslighting experience. "Now, I have a better understanding of the importance of trusting my gut instincts," she says. "I know that truth will always remain the truth even if a gaslighter does their best to convince you it's not."
How to move on
Identifying the behavior is a solid first step, but the healing process can take more than that. Here are a few other ways to move forward.
- Work toward trusting your judgment again. "If you see signs of the same bad behavior in someone else, you won’t be so quick to give this person the benefit of the doubt," says New York-based therapist Dr. Jane Greer. "Be more respectful of your own gut feelings. Pay attention if something feels off and put limits in place early on. This will help strengthen your judgment so you don’t feel misled or deceived."
- Reflect on the type of people you're choosing to build relationships with. If you find yourself constantly falling victim to one of these behaviors, Dr. Carla Manly, Ph.D., a psychologist practicing in California, says to get clear on what it is that's attracting you to these people in the first place. "Make a nonjudgmental list of what drew (or draws) you to the person. For example, you might note that you are drawn to a certain person because you are bored, want to feel loved, or are lonely. As you evaluate this list, you will see some of the weak spots in your life that deserve some kind, compassionate healing attention. You can put this into action by becoming aware of your weaknesses and being proactive to protect yourself."
- Lean on your trusted inner circle. "Coming back from being a victim of these behaviors often involves having people in your life you know you can trust," says Selby. "Having others you trust in your life who can reasonably and objectively give you their impression of the bad behavior can help you more fully develop the next tip: learn to trust yourself."
- Seek support. "Support groups are an invaluable way to share, connect and heal from negative behaviors of all types," says Dr. Manly. "Not only do participants feel heard and understood in group sessions, but they feel connected to others who share different — but often very similar— experiences."
- Get help from a licensed mental health professional. "They are, by definition, objective listeners who can provide a reasonably unbiased opinion on what they think is going on," says Selby. "They can then help you maneuver through your specific situation and help you address new issues that arise as you are learning to get out of relationships where bad behavior is consistent."
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