When It Feels Like Your Own Insight Is Gaslighting You

Who do you trust when your own mind deceives you?

Last week, I logged into the online system for my daughter’s dance studio. I had signed her up for a class six months earlier which we had then withdrawn from almost immediately because of a scheduling conflict. However, when I logged in this time, there was a balance of over $700; the studio had been charging me for the class all along without my knowledge (and, fortunately, without my credit card number). Aghast, I turned to my husband and said, “How could this be? I know I withdrew her. We never even went once!” He comforted me by saying that it was clearly a mistake, and that we would get it worked out, but my mind went into panic mode.

“Did I take her?” I asked. “Do I just not remember?”

As my mental health has challenged me again in the last few months, I’ve had so many moments of questioning myself, being wrong about the class had become a distinct possibility in my mind. My self-doubt has become constant: are my catastrophic thoughts accurate, or are they signs of disordered thinking? Am I reading people’s reactions to me correctly, or are my impressions coming from my plummeting self-esteem? Is my mood disorder doing as much harm to my family as I think it is, or am I blowing it all out of proportion? When you know you are ill, it becomes second nature to doubt your own thoughts, and by the time I saw that bill, with enough practice, I had begun to question everything. This reaction is similar to what happens in abusive relationships in which one person gaslights another, except in my case, I was doing it to myself.

Gaslighting refers to psychological manipulation which causes someone to question their own reality. According to Dr. Robin Stern, there are three distinct stages of gaslighting: disbelief, defense and depression. In other words, you first avoid accepting that the manipulation is occurring, you then try to fight against it and finally you are convinced there is a problem with you. By stage three, you may feel like you are, quite literally, “going crazy.”

This is an issue of one’s internal voice battling a contradictory outside voice. In most cases of this type of abuse, it is the lies of the outside voice that tell the inside voice it is wrong. Many of us with mental illnesses can recognize the three stage gaslighting pattern in our own lives except that, for us, it is the outside voice of reason that contradicts our internal beliefs. For example, if we feel worthless, the outside voice tells us that is a myth, even though we feel that it is true. The disbelief feels wrong, but we coach ourselves with the more positive perspective. Later, when we still feel worthless, we defend ourselves against the voice of reason. “Shut up!” we might want to yell at it. “I always do everything wrong, and I hurt everyone around me. I know that my worthlessness is real.” This represents a defense against the contradictory voice. In the end, though, we accept that our beliefs are unreal and the outside voice is right, but rather than leading us to adopt the more positive outside viewpoint, it drives us to feeling like we are “crazy” because our “unreal” feelings still seem real to us. “Maybe I’m not worthless,” we might think, “but I cannot stop feeling that way. What’s wrong with me?” We tell ourselves that we are unreliable and that our thoughts, memories and experiences are distorted. We tell ourselves our beliefs are false and, therefore, feel even crazier when we cannot shake them. These outside voices contradict our beliefs to the point where the positive message takes on an abusive effect. Though the positivity of the outside message is well-intentioned in a way that no one could ever attribute to true gaslighting, the parallels in process and psychological consequence are real in a way that many of us know all too well.

This mirroring makes sense when you consider the goal of gaslighting; gaslighters manipulate their victims in order to achieve a level of control over them. When we are ill, we want to regain control over ourselves at all costs. One of the markers of a psychologically competent person is their level of insight, meaning there must be some sort of awareness of the fact they have a mental illness that colors their thoughts and experiences. Therefore, in a way, we gaslight ourselves out of necessity; we must manipulate ourselves in order to be sane, and this, in turn, makes us feel insane. It is a cycle that is simultaneously indispensable and disabling, and sometimes it goes too far.

The night I discovered the dance class balance, I hadn’t needed to doubt myself. I emailed the studio and confirmed that the error had been on their end. The problem at hand disappeared, but I am primed for more like it; the practice of maintaining insight has taught me to question my thoughts in a way that sometimes takes on a life of its own. It’s like having a cheating lover; once you have questioned their faithfulness, it takes time to rebuild trust, particularly when you know that you are right to be wary.

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