Trigger warning: childhood abuse, suicide, self-harm.
Honestly, I’m amazed that I survived my own childhood. One random day in therapy, the reality of this truth settled deep into my bones. As my counselor listened intently to me go on and on about the struggles of life with complex PTSD, she stopped me for a moment, locked eyes with me, and revealed something quite profound.
My therapist acknowledged that living with the chronic abuse, emotional neglect, and trauma that came with having mentally unstable parents and still being alive to talk about it all as an adult was a powerful victory for me.
I looked back at her, stunned by the honest observation. As I processed her statement, she continued on and shared that for many people in my situation, the future has held criminal records, substance abuse, addiction, and even suicide since very few have accessible resources and tools to heal from their childhood trauma. The simple fact that I managed to keep showing up, generally have my shit together, and finally seek help for myself when life felt unmanageable was a miracle of sorts.
And that’s when it really hit me. For all of the years I spent being gaslit by one abusive caregiver who denied my reality and then being emotionally dismissed by another, I was still able to grow up into a pretty damn awesome human being who has been lucky enough – and privileged enough – not to have fallen into a tragic downward spiral. I’m lucky enough to still be here.
On top of being gaslit, I encountered verbal abuse, emotional dismissal and neglect, and physical trauma that caught me by surprise during moments of messing up or taking risks as a child. I also dealt with the confusion of being praised and rewarded for the times when I achieved highly, obediently agreed with my caregiver, and lived in accordance with their expectations. Since I didn’t have a single adult in my young world to open up to about my challenges, I kept my trauma locked up deep inside of me for decades. In my early adulthood, I self-harmed, people pleased, aimed for endless perfection, and controlled my body through a nasty eating disorder. And not a single person truly caught on to just how many damaging coping mechanisms I was living with. On the outside, I seemed just fine. But inside was a totally different story. Because inside, the gaslighting I had endured for two long decades still lived on as constant debilitating thoughts in my mind.
In fact, the toxic parental voice that managed for so long to forcefully break me down as a kid continued to exist within me even after I grew up and moved away from my childhood home. Even into my thirties, I was still dismissing my own emotions, convincing myself that I didn’t deserve support or love, and doubting my ability to trust myself. I didn’t even believe some of the memories I had of my abuse, and it took confirming it with those I loved to realize that it had actually happened. So, in essence, I’ve been gaslighting myself for years and didn’t even know it.
In case you’re new to this psychological terminology, let me break it down for you. When someone is gaslighting you, they are essentially denying your reality, feelings, and even point of view. With the use of regular phrases like “that never happened,” “you’re overreacting,” or “you’re too sensitive,” the abuser manages to sow seeds of doubt in your mind about your perception of the trauma they are inflicting and the emotions that accompany it.
The best definition of this behavior that I could find is this spot-on summary from writer Peg Streep for Psychology Today. “Gaslighting is emotional and verbal abuse,” Streep says in her article. “Like other kinds of verbal aggression, it changes the development of a child’s brain and is also internalized. Believing in the validity of her own feelings and perceptions is often a lifelong battle for the unloved daughter, even in adulthood.”
When it occurs long-term, the effect gaslighting can have on a victim is overwhelmingly damaging. It can result in a lack of inner worth, diminished self-esteem, ongoing self-doubt, and shame knocking on your door daily. The trickiest part of this toxic behavior is that the abuser may not even be intentionally doing it, due to their own unhealed trauma or them living with an untreated mental health disorder.
For me personally, the gaslighting I experienced in conjunction with my trauma left me struggling to trust my own mind and abilities for years. I was told disparaging phrases so many times that I associated them with the core of who I am. And as I did, I began to feel that I was to blame for why I had been abused. The outcome of this became a messy inner atmosphere that kept me doubting myself at every turn, negatively comparing my emotions and mental health obstacles to others, and even self-harming that included repeating the abusive phrases I had grown accustomed to believing about myself.
Without therapy, meds, and the reparative relationships I’ve been grateful to have with my husband and trusted loved ones, I might never have learned to separate myself from the gaslighting I used to hold as my indisputable truth. But thankfully, I finally know better. So now, when the shaming words pop up attempting to dismiss my very experience, I’m able to see them for what they are and deal with them. And I no longer allow these endangering beliefs to define me.
If you are battling against yourself as a result of incurring childhood or present trauma, know that you are not alone. I have been there. Your mental health matters, your feelings are always valid, and there is no shame in the healing game. Someone gaslighting you is never your fault, and you are not to blame for being on the receiving end of abuse, especially if you were a child when it happened. There are resources you can lean on and places you can contact if you are struggling. And please know that any voice inside that challenges your inherent worth, value, and lovability is not a voice you need to be listening to anymore.