Written by Writer’s Corps member Emily Desanctis
Gaslighting usually goes something like this:
Someone makes a false claim against you.
I didn’t mean/do/say that!
…But I guess there’s a chance I did.
…I must have made a mistake. How did I not realize?
…Wow, this happened before?! I don’t remember!
…I feel like I can’t think straight. Am I losing my mind??
When someone gaslights you, they alter your reality. They’ll insist that you didn’t see what you saw, you didn’t hear what you heard, and what you’re feeling isn’t valid. Their goal is to make it seem like you’re losing your mind. If you feel crazy, you’ll distrust your own senses and instead rely on them to tell you what’s real or not. But did you know that there could be a way to help stop gaslighting’s harmful effects? There is! Increasing your mental clarity, a.k.a. mindfulness.
First, I want to make it known that gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. And while I personally have found that mindfulness has helped stop people from gaslighting me, this isn’t something that you can build immunity to. Like all forms of abuse, the onus is never on the person who experiences unhealthy behavior to stop it from happening.
Mindfulness is defined as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” Whereas gaslighting distorts reality, mindfulness helps you stay aware of what’s really going on. As “a powerful tool to clear and protect the mind,” mindfulness cultivates your attention muscle—the key to trusting yourself and your experience. When you’re fully present, a gaslighter will have a harder time distracting you from their malicious behavior, convincing you that you’re to blame, or manipulating you into believing their distorted truth. Instead, full awareness of the present gives you the knowledge to confidently respond, “Nope, you’ve got it wrong.”
Here are four ways to cultivate your mindful muscle to recognize gaslighting and minimize its harmful effects on mental health.
Build Your Gut Instinct
Your intuition, or gut instinct, is a feeling of knowing that delivers critical information about situations and people. Research proves that neurons in your stomach process data and flow upward, providing feedback to your brain. In this way, your gut instinct helps you stay aware of the danger that occurs around you, alerting you even before your brain. Since gaslighting works by planting seeds of doubt, tuning into your gut will keep your awareness in the present and help cultivate self-trust that protects your mental health. To hear its wisdom, practice listening to your gut with these steps.
Keep a Journal
Everyday conversations with gaslighters are a minefield to navigate. Techniques like name-calling and circular arguments serve to mentally exhaust and distract you from whatever truth a manipulative person wants to hide. According to Robin Stern, Ph.D. psychologist and author of The Gaslight Effect, writing down and then reviewing conversations helps you decipher reality from distortions and preserve your sanity as you work toward uncovering the truth.
Meditation, the mother of all mindfulness practice, helps protect your mental health at all stages of, and especially after, a gaslighting relationship. Because meditation begins and ends in the body, regular practice strengthens your attention muscle to defend you against gaslighting’s distraction. Meditation also helps you slow down racing thoughts and overwhelming feelings like anxiety that gaslighting produces.
Practice Mind/Body Activities
Since mindfulness involves bringing your mind and body to the same place—the present—training that focuses on syncing the two will protect you from being pushed out of your experience through gaslighting. Activities like yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong are known as moving meditations because they link your mind and body. The mental health benefits of these practices alleviate debilitating symptoms like stress and PTSD that gaslighting can cause, leaving you “calm, invigorated, and clear-headed.”
If you feel like you might be the target of intense, ongoing gaslighting, tapping into reality is increasingly difficult because, well, that’s precisely what gaslighting obscures. In such cases, mindfulness won’t be enough to find your way out of this unhealthy relationship. In fact, mindfulness can even be counterproductive and harmful if your practice focuses on connecting to a distorted reality.
How do you know if you’re in a situation where mindfulness might harm rather than help? Look for these three red flags:
- You’re using mindfulness to “fix” yourself and save your relationship: Gaslighters will convince you that your reactions are invalid, and over time, you’ll believe their lies that you’re too sensitive, too dramatic, not understanding enough, and so forth. If you begin using mindfulness as a way to “fix” something about yourself that your partner has identified as a problem, you could be misapplying mindfulness in a potentially self-destructive way.
- Your S.O. says or implies that your mindfulness practice means there’s something wrong with you: Beware of a partner who twists your attempts to be more mindful as proof that there’s something wrong with you rather than with them or the situation. A gaslighter doesn’t want you to see how they’re manipulating you, so they’ll try to find ways to discount your efforts like convincing you that your mindfulness practice demonstrates your mental instability. When you spiral deeper into gaslighting, you’ll believe them and either give up or focus on the wrong thing (see above) that distances you further from reality.
- You’re falling into the explanation trap: You’re endlessly trying to see an issue from your partner’s POV while ignoring your own needs. Most of us approach relationships with good intentions, like being sensitive to the needs of our partner. As gaslighting progresses, you begin to shift perspectives from yours (e.g. “I know I meant that comment as a compliment”) to your partner’s (e.g. “Maybe it was a little insensitive and I should try being more empathetic next time”).
If you experience these red flags in your relationship, instead of trying to stop gaslighting through mindfulness, you should seek help and create a safety plan.
- Seek help: Find a trained professional or consult One Love’s list of resources to help you unpack the situation and identify potential gaslighting abuse. A therapist trained in gaslighting tactics can give you an objective, qualified opinion of what needs “fixing” and which reactions are truly unreasonable so that you don’t use mindfulness to walk further into the gaslighting fog.
- Take action: To protect your mental and physical wellbeing, create a safety plan for yourself before leaving the relationship. No situation is worth the price of your health and safety. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. Lean on supportive friends and family or a therapist for help; you don’t have to go it alone.
It’s critical to note that mindfulness is not a tool to save a relationship where gaslighting is present. Emotional abuse is never acceptable or something you should try to cope with. If you notice any sign of abuse in your or a loved one’s relationship, reach out to someone to get help before it escalates. No matter what you’ve done to survive a gaslighting relationship, know that abuse is never your fault; it is not something you deserved or brought on yourself.