The Unintentional Gaslighting of the Soul

One of the few good things to come out of this particular year is a greater awareness of the problems of narcissistic behavior and emotional manipulation. I’ve had more contact with that than I’d prefer, on a variety of levels, so it was nice, in a way, to be able to have conversations and not have to constantly define the term “gaslight.” While the roots of the term lie in the malicious manipulation of perception to undermine a victim’s confidence in their reality,

There’s a lot of stuff written about that, and I’m not going into it here.

Instead, I want to bring your attention to something you might be doing: gaslighting yourself.

What Does Gaslighting Yourself Look Like?

Here’s an example: a friend of mine recently kicked ass on a major project. Not only did she solve an ongoing and pervasive problem, she did so using a uniquely original solution that not only worked but was almost immediately adopted by others in the industry. It wasn’t an easy process; there were weeks of work prior to the deadline and a literal all-nighter the day before it was rolled out. The response of the clients was almost universally excellent, and those of us who actually saw what she did were awestruck by her abilities and felt fortunate to be her friends.

If you mention it to her, though, the most common reaction she’ll have is to say “I’m sorry.”

The reason why is related to the narrative habit we all have – we like to make up stories about ourselves. However, in this particular narrative, in spite of the external evidence that the project was an amazing success, she focuses on the parts that she feels she could have done better. The fact that her effort in the reality wasn’t what she imagined it should have been overruled the evidence of her senses: the reactions of the people at the event, the accolades of her peers, the creation of a system that others in the industry want to emulate.

Please note: I am not saying she is wrong. That would be gaslighting. No, instead I’ve just suggested to her – on multiple occasions – that she approach it like a scientist. If you learn how air pressure and clouds and weather work, then even if you feel that it is a Great Thunder God battling it out with the Lightning Demons, you may have to challenge that belief in light of the evidence.

Now, I used her as an example because it’s uncomfortable to pick out my own moments of gaslighting myself. But I can give you an easy and quick example: at the same event where my friend’s system was unveiled, I worked my butt off. Literally, I have my Apple Watch telling me how far I walked, how many pieces of performance equipment I lifted, how many stairs I climbed and hands I shook (Ok, maybe it doesn’t get quite that granular, but it tells me an awful lot). I also have a good idea of how much sleep I didn’t get, and I know exactly how far Natasha and I drove to get there and back: 16 hours, from Madison to New Orleans and back.

At the end of that wonderful week, I came home. The work of the last nine – no, really, the last eighteen months had paid off and it was done. We got back late in the evening, and I sat on my couch, reaching for the remote, sure that I had earned an episode of Gotham, at least.

Couch potato, the little voice in my head chirped. You’re going to become fat and lazy because you don’t do enough.

“Everybody’s on your team except you.”

That’s what happened. Luckily, I had two things: one, a framework to identify this as self-sabotage, and two, a partner who had been with me throughout the whole experience, who assured me that contrary to that evil voice, I had done enough and I did not need to get up and go work out.

My friend has a husband who does that, too. He’s the one who uttered that gaslight-banishing phrase up there, and I think it’s a great tool for getting past those moments when your feelings don’t match your reality. It may be a “fake it til you make it” situation – that is, you may have to just act like you believe the evidence, even if you don’t. I’m currently in exactly that situation with my morning routine.

But it’s worth asking yourself, every once in a while: Is this really the way things are? Or is it only how I’m telling myself they are?


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