I have a lot of experience with gaslighting. I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP), someone who has a biological trait that makes them extra aware of stimuli and more likely to process things very deeply. As such, I already see the world a little differently than many people, and it makes it easy for my experiences to be dismissed. But it took me a long time to realize that’s what was happening. (Not sure if you’re an HSP? Click here to find out.)
Being a HSP isn’t an inherently good or bad thing — it’s just a trait, like being tall or having red hair. But when we don’t realize we have this trait, it can be hard to understand why the world seems so overwhelming or why we seem to think so differently from the people around us. Enter gaslighting.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation wherein someone makes you question your sanity or your version of reality. The term originated from the 1939 play “Gaslight.” In it, a husband slowly makes his wife believe she is going insane by telling her that what she sees — the gaslights dimming — isn’t real in order to hide the criminal things he does behind her back. Gaslighting is difficult to identify by its very nature. When other people are manipulating you into thinking you’re crazy, it’s very hard to argue against that version of reality.
This becomes even more difficult when you’re an HSP and the whole world sometimes seems to be gaslighting you by telling you what you experience can’t possibly be the whole truth or all that bad. HSPs notice minute details and find meaning in those details. The trouble is, other people often overlook those same details or they see them as meaningless. When HSPs try to explain what they see or think, they may be dismissed.
Have you ever been involved in what seemed like a perfectly pleasant conversation, sharing your insight, when someone suddenly said you were “reading too much into it,” or being “too sensitive” or “dramatic”? That’s incredibly common for HSPs, and it’s a form of gaslighting that can take a toll on our psyches.
Unintentional Gaslighting Is Still Gaslighting
In many cases, this gaslighting isn’t intentional, at least not in an abusive way. Our friends and family aren’t trying to make us feel crazy and insecure. They simply do not see the world the way we do, and to them, the only logical explanation for why our worldview differs from theirs is because we must be too sensitive or looking for meaning that doesn’t exist.
Even though it isn’t intentional in an abusive way, it can still be incredibly toxic. After all, what kind of friend or parent or partner listens to you, and, rather than accepting you for who you are, figures that you’re simply wrong and they’re right? Why isn’t it okay for us to be different?
In my personal experience, I believe people unintentionally gaslight HSPs because they feel threatened by their insight. Non-HSPs can be incredibly insightful and thoughtful as well, but they typically don’t process the little things in life quite as deeply as HSPs do. So when an HSP expresses frustration at the bigger picture behind very small things, non-HSPs can get defensive because they didn’t see the problem before, thus making them complicit in whatever the issue is.
HSPs can experience gaslighting in all kinds of arenas, including home, work, and school. Bosses might gaslight an HSP employee who brings up underlying issues in the workplace that the boss is technically responsible for. Teachers might gaslight HSP students who are emotional in order to get them to be quiet, rather than offer them the comfort they need. Parents even gaslight their own kids because they feel that if they simply shut down all those “unnecessary” or “excessive” emotions, their child will be “better” (read: less sensitive).
Sometimes this gaslighting is intentional, sometimes it isn’t. But regardless of the intention behind it, gaslighting can have incredibly harmful long-term effects.
How Gaslighting Affects HSPs
The trouble with being an HSP and experiencing gaslighting is that the whole world seems to agree with the gaslighter. HSPs see the world differently, but that doesn’t mean our view is incorrect. Sadly, most of us grow up feeling that way. Feeling wrong or crazy or broken. And even after we realize we’re HSPs and we’ve been gaslighted, those feelings don’t just vanish.
Gaslighting destroys a person’s ability to trust themselves, and the more gaslighting happens, the more that trust disintegrates until it feels like there’s nothing left at all.
This can look like indecision about minor things (because you don’t trust yourself to make the “right” decision), codependency (because you have learned to defer to other’s preferences and opinions completely), defensiveness (because everything feels like a threat to your worldview), and more.
Being unintentionally gaslighted can also lead to more abusive gaslighting. A lack of self-trust makes us prime targets for abusers seeking to gaslight us further. We have so much trouble trusting our instincts because of past gaslighting, we may not listen to our guts when we think someone else might be gaslighting us again.
But you don’t have to be trapped in these patterns of self-doubt forever — no matter what it feels like now.
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4 Ways to Start Healing from Gaslighting
Gaslighting is a form of trauma, and one of the best ways to heal from it is to start using trauma-informed techniques to process the pain it causes. I’m a huge fan of therapy (check out my series on how to get started), but I understand that it isn’t accessible for everyone.
If you’re looking for ways to cope with this trauma on your own, here are a few tools you can try:
1. Learn more about yourself.
First and foremost, read all you can about high sensitivity and why it’s a great thing. There’s a growing amount of writing — including this very site — about the trait. Once you have a better understanding of who you are, and how high sensitivity informs your identity, you can build better boundaries to deal with gaslighting, and even start to recognize when people call you on things you know, deep down, to be true.
2. Make small decisions on your own.
It’s natural to ask advice when making decisions, but if you’ve been leaning on other people’s opinions for a while, take a step back. Try making small decisions without asking anyone for approval. It’s scary at first, but the more you learn to trust yourself with small things, the more you’ll learn to trust yourself in every area of your life.
3. Let go of the desire to “earn” acceptance or approval.
One reason we turn to others for advice is that we crave their approval on some level. Gaslighters often make it seem as though if you just do and think about everything the “right” way (aka their way), then they’ll love you the way you deserve. But you deserved to be loved just the way you were, and in order to heal, you’ll need to know that you have worth beyond others’ approval.
4. Grieve what happened.
When others make it seem as though you’re not who you’re supposed to be — that being highly sensitive is somehow wrong — that can feel particularly heavy. So it’s okay to take time and grieve those interactions. Whether it was at school, work, home, or among friends, gaslighting robs you of a normal, happy experience you could have had, and it’s okay to mourn for what you deserved.
None of this means that experience of gaslighting will be easy to brush off. But if understanding yourself is a necessary step in building boundaries, so, too, is understanding how gaslighting affects you as a sensitive person. Once you’re armed with that knowledge, it’ll be harder for the cycle to repeat itself.
A version of this article was previously published on the author’s blog, Megan Writes Everything.