Gaslighting and the BodyApril 4, 2017

“Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed. For example, in the movie Gaslight (1944), a man manipulates his wife to the point where she thinks she is losing her mind.” Psychology Today

I met yet another client who is working to come to terms with her physical abuse during childhood who also experienced the psychological abuse tactic of gaslighting in childhood. The gaslighting continues to this day with her family. Her only choice left was to separate from her family in order to heal.

When we are victims of gaslighting, we come to the place we stop trusting our physical sensations, our gut instincts or our very perceptions of people and the world around us. It can make us second guess signals about danger or a need to set boundaries with people. Most people who are gaslit in families are the ones who are the most tuned and sensitive and unable to hide feelings or sensations. They are the truth tellers, the containers of conscience for families, the most sane people in dysfunctional or toxic systems.

When I was half way through my undergrad degree, I found the courage to confront my parents about the emotional abuse in their relationship that was normalized as an acceptable form of communication for all of us growing up coupled with instances of physical abuse that occurred. I wasn’t on the receiving end of physical abuse myself and it wasn’t habitual but knowing there was the threat of that happening to me as well sent me into freeze and collapse many many times over. I was always told to be less sensitive. But I didn’t feel ‘safe’ and at ease in my home growing up. I was constantly on guard for many reasons that are not important to share here. Confronting doesn’t often go well in family systems that are unable to heal or come to terms with intergenerational traumas, mental health issues or addictions that follow people like ghosts into their own families, especially over 20 years ago when I threw the shit onto the fan. There was and still is no real capacity to have authentic discussions about my parents’ upbringings or traumas, much less my own growing up. And it’s not important or even necessary anymore. It just means there’s distance when that can’t happen or from some people, no contact all together. ‘Things’ can’t be worked through.

Problem is once we experience gaslighting as kids, we are much more likely to experience it in adult intimate relationships. We learn to not trust our instincts or perceptions. We learn to cut ourselves off from those signals in our bodies that might conflict with what other people tell us is the truth or reality. We numb out or learn live with constant internal dissonance which feels quite horrible from a somatic emotional perspective and can impact our health in the long run.

It took me until my late 30s when I found a therapist who knew how to build me up and help me experience my strength of mind and character, working with creating positive neuroplasticty through embodied psychotherapy, for me to finally move out of the prison that being gaslit can keep us stuck in. I self pathalogize so much less than I ever used to. It can still show up. Those neural pathways were so well worn. I still can slip into not trusting myself or my perceptions particularly when attachment stuff is triggered. But learning to pay attention to how my body resonates when my gut is zinging or warning me or leading me versus what self doubt feels like in my body has become my superpower, most of the time.

When a client walks through my door having experienced gaslighting, as is so often a tool to maintain control over people who threaten the equilibrium of any system that puts its survival before the wellness of the individuals in it, I’m thankful I can hold space for them to be in their bodies again with less distress and learn to trust the sensations in their bodies again, to learn to turn the awareness they once were told was mis-calibrated or false or wrong into a tool to guide them into a more full life.
And to qualify what I do as remaining in a healthy scope of practice, any client coming to me with these types of issues is already working with or has been referred to a therapist who is trauma informed and body oriented. There’s the support in place to deal with things that come up that are out of my area of expertise.

Mindful movement can be a tool to effectively help people tune into interoception again, to learn to pay attention to the signals that guide us to our own truth and a better life, to find embodied and experiential strength to stand with dignity even when people around us continue to question our perceptions or our personal truths. Once we are grounded and centred and learn to listen intelligently, no one can argue with what our bodies are saying to us. They don’t live in our homes.