Rebuilding Trust with Yourself
After I extricated myself from a gaslighting relationship, I had almost zero confidence in my own decision-making and realized I questioned whether anything I thought was real was real. I avoided conflict and difficult conversations with the person I was involved with at the time in order to try to “protect the relationship.” In doing so, however, I started and inflamed a war with myself. I did not stand up for myself or demand to be treated with more love and respect. The fallout from this war with myself was that I did not trust myself anymore. I did not trust myself to make decisions or to distinguish fact from fiction or lies from reality. It took several years of making decisions on my own about where to live, how to manage my money, and how to spend my time to get to the mindset where I was not questioning my own reality and competency numerous times a day.
Whether or not you decide to end a relationship with a gaslighting partner, you must work to rebuild trust with yourself. This first requires that you be compassionate with yourself. Admitting to yourself and to others that you’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship, especially one that may have lasted many years or even decades, is daunting. Blaming yourself and engaging in negative self-talk may have become a habit, as such attitudes most likely aligned with the undermining behaviors and negative attitudes of the gaslighter. Part of being compassionate with yourself is forgiving yourself. Abuse often leads us to blame ourselves for our abuse, even long after the abuse or relationship has ended. Forgive yourself for not having seen or recognized the abuse. Forgive yourself for having thought that if you could just be a better and more thoughtful partner, the abuse would end. Forgive yourself for hoping, possibly for many years, that things would change. You cannot move on if you have not forgiven yourself first.
As you engage in self-compassion, look for opportunities to build trust in yourself, just as you might work slowly and intentionally to build trust with a new friend, coworker, or someone you date. This is important because very often the gaslighter controlled much of the decision-making in your relationship, and thus you may feel inexperienced or ill-equipped to make wise decisions. Decision-making on your own, without the gaslighter’s influence, may feel strange and uncomfortable. That is okay. In fact, acknowledge those feelings and even make an effort to name them. For instance, in deciding where to live after a divorce, you might feel excited about getting to choose your new home all on your own but at the same time feel nervous. You might say to yourself, “I’m feeling nervous about choosing the right place to live. I’m used to having someone else with whom to make this type of decision or who would exert a lot of influence on the decision. However, I’ve made some great decisions lately, and this is going to be one of them.” Then take the leap. The more you decide things on your own—big or small—the more your confidence and trust in yourself and your decision-making abilities will grow. That feeling of trust and confidence in yourself is hard to match.
Again, in Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott notes that “You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side.” I love that line, especially the last part. Be militantly on your own side. Only you can do that. It can feel inappropriate at first, especially since women are raised and socialized, even as adults, to put others’ needs and desires before their own. You cannot take care of anyone else if you do not first take care of yourself.
When we don’t trust ourselves, we try to control the people around us. Do not fall prey to that. Actively and mindfully look for opportunities, even scary ones, to demonstrate to yourself that you are trustworthy. If you find yourself trying too hard or too often to control others, this may be an indicator that you have more work to do there and may need a professional to help you in the process. When we trust ourselves, we feel much less need to control others and the world around us.
Consider rebuilding trust with yourself by starting with small decisions and then shift to the bigger ones. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen if my decision here goes poorly?” Chances are Earth will not cease to spin, and even if things do go poorly, you can most likely salvage or recover from the decision. Either way, you will learn something from the situation, whether it is about making better decisions in the future or achieving a better understanding of yourself.
I found that, for a while, I needed frequent but somewhat gentle reminders to keep those doubts in check. So, I created a screensaver for my laptop that said, “DDD, STFU” in a relatively small font that no one else could read unless they got up close. What do those two acronyms stand for? “Dear Doubting Diana, Shut the Fuck Up.” It is a bit vulgar, but it helped my brain calm down when tempted to get spun up over doubts creeping in. Doubts about my ability to make my own decisions. Doubts about whether my significant other really loved and was committed to me. Doubts about my value to the world. There is something weirdly satisfying about cussing at that unhelpful, maybe even evil, little voice in your head that says you should not trust yourself to be able to distinguish fact from fiction.
In addition, consider taking a dating class that is grounded in research on what makes for healthy relationships. After I started dating, I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I had not dated since high school, and let’s be real—high school dating is not real dating and does not prepare you for the kind of dating that helps you find the right partner. I took a dating class in Utah that is backed by empirical research called Healthy Relationships Utah (healthyrelationshipsutah.org). It was free, and at the writing of this book, you can now take it online. I highly recommend it. One helpful detail I learned is that you cannot really trust someone until you have known them for about three months. Thus, you should not see someone more than about once a week for the first three months. Women often get too emotionally involved too quickly in dating relationships. The “once a week for three months” guideline will help you avoid this pitfall. It will not only help you trust yourself as you enter a dating relationship but is also likely to help you avoid getting into a relationship with a jerk.
Surviving a relationship with a gaslighting partner is one thing, and healing from it is another. These are two different things. Surviving is more about protecting the mental, emotional, and physical well-being you currently have, especially if you intend to remain in the relationship. Healing focuses on getting to a place of increased health and one where the gaslighting has a diminished or imperceptible effect on you and your other relationships.
While it is essential to work with a gifted therapist if you remain in a relationship with a gaslighter, it is just as critical if you choose to exit the relationship. We like to think that emotional abuse does not leave a mark, but in reality, it very much does. It leaves a mark on your self-esteem and sense of self-worth as well as on your ability to trust and make decisions for yourself. I strongly encourage those who have been in these situations to seek out a therapist trained or certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR). EMDR is often used to treat symptoms of PTSD. Simply put, EMDR helps your brain process traumatic or disturbing emotional experiences and can be successfully used to treat combat veterans, victims of rape or assault, and even those who have been in serious car accidents to help them move past the lingering stress and emotions stemming from those experiences. In my experience, it can help in letting go of the hurt, fear, and frustration of past experiences, whether stemming from an emotionally or physically abusive partner or childhood trauma. Those painful memories and emotions can keep you rooted in the past, ill-equipped to move forward. To be frank, when you read about EMDR and the process itself, it sounds like hocus-pocus or some sort of silliness. However, it is backed by significant empirical research and is now the number one recommended therapy for trauma among veterans. It sounds odd, but it works. In fact, it can work with surprising speed—perhaps in as little as a handful of sessions with the right therapist. Give it a try. You have very little to risk and only painful negative emotions to lose. In ridding your brain of emotions that hold you back, you regain your freedom, health, vitality, and trust in yourself.
Future Self Journaling
Another way to heal is to work toward not letting those negative messages from a gaslighting partner creep in and take hold of your mind, your self-confidence, and your view of your world and your place in it. One way to do this, perhaps with significant results over a month or so, is by engaging in what psychologist Nicole LaPera calls future self journaling. This practice works by helping us consciously focus on our behaviors, patterns, and habits. Messages associated with gaslighting bury themselves in our subconscious. We must bring them into our awareness in order to change their unconscious impact on our lives—to improve and care for our “future selves.” What hateful messages embedded themselves in your mind as the result of gaslighting? Identify those and then follow the steps on Dr. LaPera’s website.
At a high level, this practice will help you:
- Identify behaviors you want to change (e.g., talking unkindly to yourself in the way the gaslighter spoke to you, such as “You’re an idiot”)
- Develop affirmations that help you achieve this change (e.g., “I am smart” or “I make good decisions”)
- Identify how you will practice in your daily life (e.g., “When I realize I am talking negatively to myself, I will stop and take a deep breath. I will remind myself out loud that I am very competent and capable”). Practice radical self-compassion in ridding your mind of any hateful and untrue messages that not only do not serve you well, but that continue to give a gaslighter power over you.
Whether or not you choose to maintain a relationship with a gaslighting partner, it is critical to acknowledge that gaslighters rarely own up to their behavior—accountability on their part is unlikely. It simply is not the way they operate. In fact, being accountable for their behavior is counterproductive to the goal of gaslighting, which is to make you doubt yourself and your own reality! If they acknowledged what they were doing, they would be acknowledging the truth and your reality, and that is the opposite of what a gaslighter aims to do. As soon as you are certain of your reality, the gaslighter fails. Gaslighters hate failure and try any number of tactics to deny or question your reality. Do not expect them to apologize. Do not expect them to be reasonable or logical. Keep building trust with yourself and accept that a gaslighter is unlikely to change. Your efforts are best spent elsewhere.
Bottom line: Do not expect the gaslighter or otherwise emotionally abusive partner to own up to their actions—to the hurt and pain they laid at your feet. Instead, accept that they will not be accountable and move the hell on. Commit to not giving them any more of your precious time and energy. Look ahead, not back. Heal from the past and focus on the future. Remind yourself that you are valuable, lovable, and as the artist, Lizzo sings, “Good as hell.”