Thank you Amy Marlow-MaCoy for this great article!
Pop quiz: Who in your life has the most power to gaslight you?
Answer: Whoever you’re thinking of, whether it’s your narcissistic boss, your intrusive mother-in-law, or your toxic ex, it’s not them.
Plot twist: The person with the most power to gaslight you is you.
In my new book, The Gaslighting Recovery Workbook, I explore in depth the harm and devastation caused by gaslighting in toxic relationships. A powerful tool for manipulation and control, gaslighting is a psychological abuse tactic that causes victims to doubt their senses, thoughts and feelings, memories, judgment – even their very reality.
Gaslighting chips away at victims’ self-confidence and trust in their perceptions, experiences, and judgment. This self-doubt serves to make the victim more dependent on the gaslighter for their orientation and sense of reality. Unfortunately, chronic gaslighting can often go one step further. Many survivors of narcissistic relationships struggle to turn off the narcissist’s voice in their head. As victims’ self-confidence erodes, their internal monologue, or self-talk, can begin to reflect the gaslighting phrases they hear. This is called internalized gaslighting.
Internalized gaslighting, also called self-gaslighting, is one of the most sinister and long-lived side effect of narcissistic abuse. Internalized gaslighting is what happens when a victim internalizes, or accepts as true, the manipulative and disempowering messages of their abuser.
Stockholm Syndrome of the Mind
Most toxic relationships don’t start out with obvious abuse. If they did, no one would stay in these relationships past day 1. Instead, most toxic relationships feature a series of events that form a regular and continuous cycle between seemingly loving (lovebombing, honeymoon period, making up after a fight) and hostile (gaslighting, aggressive language or behavior, narcissistic rage, violence) behavior.
Narcissists tend to invest heavily in the lovebombing phase of a new relationship, creating in their victims a sense of giddy excitement, awe and wonder, and feeling like the luckiest person on earth to have such a loving person in their lives. Lovebombing helps to establish an initial picture of the narcissist as a caring, loving, passionately invested participant in the relationship. When we perceive someone as good at heart, we are more likely to excuse, overlook, or forgive less-than-loving behaviors afterward.
The term “Stockholm Syndrome,” while not an official clinical diagnosis, is widely known as a psychological response to captivity in which hostages or kidnap victims develop an emotional connection with their captors. Stockholm Syndrome is a survival strategy that develops out of a deep-seated need to humanize the captors, to find a way to connect with them as people. Hostages who develop Stockholm Syndrome may come to their captors’ defense, justifying and rationalizing their behavior or refusing to testify against their captors in court.
Victims of narcissistic abuse may struggle at times to accept and acknowledge that what they have experienced is abusive. They may defend, make excuses for, or deny that their loved one is mistreating them. They may give reasons why their narcissist’s anger was justified, point out their own mistakes as evidence of their unreliability, or accept an unfair burden of responsibility for conflicts in the relationship. Like the hostages in a bank robbery, victims do this as an unconscious attempt to humanize inhumane behavior. This is internalized gaslighting: Stockholm Syndrome of the Mind.
Spot the Signs
Have you ever found yourself echoing the gaslighting phrases that your narcissist uses on you – even when they’re not around?
“I probably imagined it. I’m sure it didn’t happen the way I thought it did.”
“I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt my feelings. I thought I told him calling me names hurt me, but I must not have.”
“Maybe I really am remembering things wrong. She’s so logical and organized, I probably let my emotions run away with me again.”
Like any form of abuse, gaslighting is most effective when the abuser doesn’t even need to actively engage in it to have an effect. Internalized gaslighting does the narcissist’s work for them. If you are busy gaslighting yourself, you probably won’t assert yourself or challenge the narcissist any time soon.
If this sounds like you, take heart. Healing is possible, and it begins with self-compassion.
Letter of Self-Forgiveness Exercise
The following is an exercise copied from The Gaslighting Recovery Workbook. I love this exercise, because it helps break a cycle of gaslighting self-talk and offers a new way to relate to yourself. Remember, beating yourself up for internalizing abuse does not promote healing – it just gives you more wounds to heal. Take some time to work through this exercise, and be gracious with yourself. Self-kindness is one of the most powerful gifts you can give yourself, and a key to healing from emotional abuse.
Letter of Self-Forgiveness
Many survivors of abuse struggle with self-blame. They feel they could have prevented the abuse by behaving differently, or ended it sooner by leaving and not coming back.
Do you blame yourself for anything related to your abuse? If so, write yourself a kind letter offering yourself forgiveness. Be specific about what you forgive yourself for, and avoid placing conditions on your forgiveness.