Are you gaslighting yourself? Time to flip your script

Always blaming yourself when something goes wrong can seriously undermine your confidence. It takes time and practice to change the script, says a clinical psychologist 
Are you gaslighting yourself? Time to flip your script

We can be our own harshest critics - changing that takes time. Picture: iStock 

We’ve all heard of gaslighting, but what about self-gaslighting? Is this a thing? If so, how do we recognise it and change our behaviours? Let’s ask the woman who coined the term.

Dr Julie Smith is a clinical psychologist with a decade’s private practice under her belt, and more recently, 3.5m followers on TikTok. Lots of them started following her during the pandemic, when she began sharing videos on her channel with a view to making mental health education accessible for all at a time when we particularly needed it.

“I started sharing educational videos on YouTube about how the mind works,” she says. “I wanted to make it freely available so that people didn’t have to access therapy. And it grew from there.” 

Smith, who lives in Hampshire, has recently written  Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before?, a mental health handbook incorporating what she shares on TikTok which offers insights and coping strategies presented in clear, uncluttered language. Topics include low mood, motivation, emotional pain, grief, self-doubt, fear, stress, and living a meaningful life.

Gaslighting is a colloquialism, taken from the title of the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play, and 1944 Ingrid Bergman film. Yale psychoanalyst Dr Robin Stern examines its impact in her 2007 book The Gaslight Effect, 

Blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong 

On Zoom, Smith describes gaslighting as “when the bully misleads the other person, creating a false narrative, making you question your own judgement, perhaps even your own reality. Blaming you, lying, creating narratives that make you question your memory. ‘It didn’t happen that way, you have a terrible memory’. Making victims feel unsure about their own perspective, and even making people question their own sanity. It can be really destructive.” 

She explains how “gaslighting is not a clinical term. It’s a way of describing a form of manipulation or covert emotional abuse. It’s always talked about in terms of relationships – something someone else would do to you - but I wanted to point out that these are also behaviours you can do to yourself, and they can be really damaging.

“Self-gaslighting is when you’re always blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong, yet give other people the benefit of the doubt. You believe that even an innocent mistake says something fundamental about who you are as a person, and feel shame about any human imperfection.

“You might never trust your own judgement and always look to other people, whose opinions are held in higher esteem than your own. You’re in a constant state of self-doubt, which is demoralising and stops you from being able to make decisions or take action for your responsibilities, as well as invalidating or ignoring your own feelings.

“And if you’ve been taught you’re over-sensitive or over-reactive, you may not know how to trust your own feelings or look at them with curiosity – they may all feel a bit shameful, and so you push them down.” 

Doubting your ability to cope

Smith emphasises that self-gaslighting is not a disorder: “It’s just a way of saying that this kind of [gaslighting] behaviour, which we have become familiar with, can be done to ourselves.” 

It differs from self-sabotage because, she says, “Self-sabotage is knowing what’s best for you and not doing it – it can be small things like procrastinating or bigger things like staying in a damaging relationship.” In other words, you know you need to do something – file your tax returns, file for divorce - but you don’t do it. Self-gaslighting is when you don’t know what to do, because you have so little faith in your own instincts and judgements. 

It is not gender-specific, nor more prevalent post-pandemic, but Smith has noticed how people tend to experience similar thought patterns when self-gaslighting.

“In my clinical experience, what I come across, again and again, is people believing that they won’t be able to cope, or doubting in their own ability to cope,” she says. “Self-doubt, when faced with adversity and getting through difficult times, is quite a big one.

“Not trusting in your own judgement can be paralysing. Thinking that everyone else has got a better handle on life, which in turn makes you at risk of becoming heavily dependent on a partner or family member, and needing constant reassurance, or always needing the presence of others.” And while Dr Smith says there is no specific data around gender and self-gaslighting, she says that the socialisation of women – to be agreeable, to defer, to override their own feelings – can have an impact.

“For women, saying things like, I’m just being over-sensitive / over-reacting / hormonal – these are things that are often said to us from a young age, which can impact for a lifetime,” she says. “This can add to the idea that you can’t trust your own judgement, which affects the actions that we take.

“If you’re thinking like this in a persistent and pervasive way, it's going to accumulate to change the feel of your life and the way you behave. Your sense of self and your self-worth is influenced by the choices that you make.” 

Left unchecked, lack of trust in oneself can result in poor decision making, which in turn can have a knock-on effect on wider aspects of your life. Like choosing a controlling partner, or being overly reliant on loved ones.

Dr Julie Smith, clinical psychologist
Dr Julie Smith, clinical psychologist

Stepping outside your comfort zone

Changing the self-gaslighting script starts with awareness, a desire to change, and placing courage before confidence.

“Once you’ve repeated something a number of times, your brain will take over and do it for you,” says Smith. “Making changes can take huge amounts of effort and reflection – in therapy, we build awareness on what happens and when it happens - what did I do, how did I feel, what did I do next? – and noticing the impact.

“When you look at something in hindsight, over time with enough practice, you start to notice your behaviour more in the moment. And when this happens – ‘I am about to do something that I know is self-sabotaging' – then you’ve opened up this window of opportunity to choose something different.

“Awareness is the difference between doing something consciously and doing something automatically. It’s about lots of reflection and working out the patterns of what you do, when you do it, and why. It does take time and practice. And there will be days when you’ve just gone into the old cycle again – part of change is recognising that you won’t be doing it perfectly.” 

This is where the courage comes in.

“Confidence comes from experience,” she says. “So if you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone, which is the place where you feel confident, and be without that confident feeling, and use courage instead, then your confidence will build. You need to be in that vulnerable place, and over time, confidence will come.”

Dealing with criticism and disapproval

  • Most highly critical people are also highly critical of themselves.
  • People tend to criticise others based on their own rules for living – you can’t please everyone.
  • Criticism relating to a specific behaviour can induce guilt, prompting us to correct our behaviour and repair the relationship.
  • Criticism of our personality induces shame, which is corrosive and unhelpful.
  • Through practice, shame resilience can be learned – familiarising ourselves with our shame triggers and reality-checking the criticism.
  • By getting clear on the opinions which really matter to us, why we do what we do, and the root of our internal critical voice, we can free our thinking from internal self-criticism and nurture our self-worth more effectively.

    Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? By Dr Julie Smith (Penguin Michael Joseph, €18.15) is out now

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