What It Feels Like to Get Gaslit by a Therapist
If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
Ever since I terminated therapy with my ex-therapist, I’ve been working through the complex grief and anger at the betrayal that relationship represents. In many ways, the damage mirrored what I experienced from my enmeshed covertly incestuous mother, but at the hands of someone who I had trusted to help me heal. The fact this woman leveraged her power over me and the knowledge of my trauma to control me feels in many ways worse than what my mother did. I don’t think there was malicious intent on my mother’s part, just untreated mental illness and immaturity. My ex-therapist knew better and did it anyway, something I may never be able to comprehend.
As we continue to process the myriad ways in which this therapist manipulated me, the theme of gaslighting comes up repeatedly. Gaslighting is a type of abuse characterized by making the victim feel like they are “crazy,” misremembering things or living in a state of altered reality. During eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy with my current therapist, we were parsing through several memories and at one point I stopped and said, “That’s gaslighting, isn’t it?” (My need to confirm what I know to be true is an irony that is not lost on me.)
My therapist’s reply was one of the best analogies for gaslighting I’ve ever heard. She said: “If you have a flat tire and someone insists the tire isn’t flat, it doesn’t change the fact that you are continuing to drive on a flat tire without fixing it.”
A lightbulb went off in my head. I was the car, my memories were the tires. I kept going back to the person hammering the nail into my tires, deflating them while she insisted the tires were fine, all the while putting my sanity at risk and creating a toxic environment where the very trust I had bestowed on this person to help me, was being taken advantage of so she could continue providing me subpar treatment without me questioning it.
Make no mistake, the signs were clear, but I had placed her on such a high pedestal and followed her with such blind faith that she could have told me anything and I would have believed her. Chalk it up to this being my first time in therapy and not knowing any better, being desperate to find a substitute mother and constantly being reminded of her credentials, but I got suckered in hook, line and sinker. And I’m frankly ashamed and embarrassed by it.
What does it actually look like to be gaslit by a therapist? Here are a few specific examples.
Please note: Lying in itself isn’t gaslighting. Lying is a component of gaslighting, but the thing someone lies about is an experience that occurred between two individuals where one person insists the other person isn’t remembering the experience correctly, just to stoke insecurity, confusion or distrust in oneself.
1. Giving me her personal cell number to text her when we started therapy, letting me use that cell number for over a year to communicate with her before telling me I’ve been using the wrong cell number and insisting she’s not the one who gave it to me. Why she waited over a year to correct me is a whole different question, but I digress.
2. Whenever I was upset about something she said that sounded like she was minimizing my trauma or being dismissive of my feelings, and I called her on it, she’d never apologize or own up to it. Instead, she’d always tell me I misheard her or misinterpreted what she said, even if I wrote it down verbatim immediately after our session in my notes, which I did almost every week. Constantly hearing I misheard her made me start wondering if I was experiencing delusions.
3. Constantly changing her texting boundaries and then being inconsistent with them and blaming me for not respecting them, even though I never knew from one minute to the next what was and was not acceptable because she changed her mind so much. I had her words in writing via texts and she’d still say she didn’t say that or that I was misremembering.
One of the most important aspects to healing from trauma is the therapeutic alliance. Above any specific modality of treatment, length of time or the earnest commitment of both parties to put in the work, the genuine rapport, ease of communication, mutual respect and trust are necessary for the therapy to work. When mistakes or ruptures in the relationship happen, there’s enormous opportunity for growth to occur where both parties can own up to their part in what happened, talk through it and repair the relationship.
But that takes the ability of both parties to put their ego and self-preservation aside, something my ex-therapist was clearly incapable of doing. Sadly, I’m the one who paid the ultimate price for it. I’ll continue to mourn the loss of that relationship, even though it was ultimately harmful. Thankfully, what I have learned about gaslighting has informed me as to what a healthy relationship with a therapist should be.
If you have had a bad experience with a therapist, please know they do not represent the profession as a whole. Don’t give up searching. The right person is out there, it just may take some time to find them. And, if you sense something isn’t right, run, don’t walk away from the relationship. The onus on upholding professional ethical behavior is upon the therapist, not the patient. And you do not owe a therapist anything. If something feels off, you have every right to terminate without any explanation. With vulnerability, there is inherent risk of getting hurt, but that’s also where the most lasting healing can occur.
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