How To Regain Your Sanity After You've Been Gaslighted
The word "gaslighting" gets tossed around a lot in the media these days, sometimes to the point that we lose sight of its gravity. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, and it should be treated as such. Importantly, that also means recovering as a victim of gaslighting can be a long, complicated process that goes beyond just calling out the person who did it.
What it means to get gaslighted.
Gaslighting is a series of manipulative behaviors with the goal of gaining control over you and keeping you feeling off-kilter. The gaslighter will blame you for their feelings, tell you what you saw or heard isn't true, pit you against your family and friends, tell people you are crazy, and isolate you. Gaslighting happens in relationships, but gaslighting parents and gaslighting at work are also common.
After you've left a gaslighting relationship, you may be feeling a variety of emotions—anger, relief, sadness, and even despair. All these feelings are normal after any breakup but especially so after a breakup with a gaslighter. Not only are you grappling with the loss of someone you perhaps cared a lot about, but you're also processing the pain of being hurt by that person: You entrusted your heart to someone who wasn't who you thought they were, and they made a concerted effort to trick you, to undermine your self-confidence, and to make you question your reality. That's a unique type of hurt. It's OK to not feel good right now.
You may even feel like you don't know who you are anymore. Gaslighters work hard at dismantling who you are—your needs and your wants—because they want you to focus solely on them. Recovering that sense of self is no easy task, so don't feel bad if you initially feel devastatingly lost. Just remember: You can and will heal.
What to do after you've been gaslighted.
I've spent years studying how gaslighting happens, why people do it, and how its victims can recover. Here are six of the most important steps toward regaining your sanity after you've been gaslighted:
Acknowledge and reaffirm your own value.
Remember that no one will ever be good enough for the gaslighter. It's important to understand that gaslighters behave in a clear pattern: They probably treated you like a goddess or god when you first got together and then later they inexplicably treated you like dirt. This is how the gaslighter works—they idealize you and then devalue you. You didn't do anything to cause someone to treat you this way. Gaslighters have a bottomless pit of need, and feeling powerful at your expense is how they fill it. Never blame yourself—it's not your fault whatsoever.
Cut off all communication with the gaslighter.
The longer you are away from the gaslighter, the more you will heal. Unfortunately, gaslighters are experts at a technique called "hoovering," in which they try to suck you back into a relationship because they need a narcissistic "fix." Remember: Relationships with a gaslighter always get worse, regardless of how much they say they've changed. Go for the no contact rule with totaly radio silence—block their phone numbers, emails, and social media accounts, and do not answer unknown numbers or accept messages from users you don't know. (If you have kids with a gaslighter, seek the advice of an attorney.)
Don't compare yourself to the gaslighter's new flame.
If your gaslighter ended things and then jumped right into another relationship, it had nothing to do with how good or worthy you are as a person, no matter what the gaslighter may have told you. Gaslighters are notorious for having affairs or starting a new relationship as soon as the "newness" of the original relationship has worn off. They will do this to their next partner too. The gaslighter will do anything to get that bottomless pit of need filled.
Take time to reconnect with your identity.
Gaslighting can often make you lose sight of not just reality but also yourself. Depending on the length of the relationship, the person may have manipulated you so much that you aren't even sure of your likes and dislikes anymore. Now, it's time to reconnect with yourself. One great way to start is by simply writing about yourself, which helps you get in touch with the you that you may have lost. Write down what you love, what drives you crazy, and what you fear.
You can also journal about how the gaslighter hurt you and what feelings you are going through post-breakup. Writing feelings down helps get them out of our head and helps us not overanalyze. You may be used to analyzing every move you made because it was impossible to tell what was setting the gaslighter off—and you were getting blamed for their behavior. By writing down what happened, you can start letting it go.
Additionally, take time to write down what you gained by going through this experience. You learned that you have a fountain of strength within you. You may be even more empathetic than before; maybe you can now educate others about gaslighting. Get in touch with how you have grown from this dark period in your life, as unpleasant as it was.
Create a psychological first-aid kit.
What are some healthy things you can do right now to soothe your hurt and treat yourself with tender, loving care? What are the things that give you energy? Create a list of the activities that raise you up—I call this a "psychological first-aid kit." When you are feeling low, do one of the energy-boosting activities on your list, even if it's only for a few minutes. Turn to it in times when you need to practice some good self-care.
Some items in my clients' psychological first-aid kits include going for a walk, calling a trusted friend, painting, reading, watching a movie, and doing some deep breathing. Meditation has also helped many survivors of gaslighting find themselves again.
Forgiving doesn't mean what the gaslighter did was OK. Forgiveness is about giving up the hope that the past could be any different. It's a continual process, and you are not forgiving the gaslighter for their sake—you're forgiving the gaslighter for your own well-being, so you can accept what happened and start to move on.
Most importantly, it's time to forgive yourself. Remember that you are enough and always have been enough. You didn't do anything to "make" the gaslighter behave a certain way. You did the best you could, considering the circumstances. Gaslighters turn up the manipulative behavior slowly—so it can be very difficult to catch what they are doing. You have grown and learned from this experience, and you'll only be stronger going forward.
Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D. is the author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free, as well as six previous books. A Licensed Mental Health Counselor and American Mental Health Counseling Association Diplomate, she is in private practice in Tampa, Florida. She received her bachelor's in telecommunication, master's of education in mental health counseling, specialist of education in mental health counseling, and her doctor of philosophy in mental health counseling, all from the University of Florida. Sarkis has presented over 500 times to clinicians, at conferences, and at schools.