As a highly sensitive person, I have a lot of experience with gaslighting. But it took me a long time to realize that’s what was happening.
First, let’s define some terms. A highly sensitive person (HSP) is someone who has a biological trait which makes them extra aware of certain stimuli and more likely to process things very deeply.
(Not sure if you’re an HSP? Take the quiz created by the psychologist who discovered the trait, Dr. Elaine Aron!)
Being an 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. That is part of the problem when it comes to our second term: gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation where someone makes you question your sanity or your version of reality. The term originated from a play where a husband slowly makes his wife believe she is going insane. The wife notices the gaslights dimming in their house whenever he turns the extra gaslights on in the attic to search for hidden jewels. Because he doesn’t want her to know what he’s up to, he lies and says she must be imagining the dimming of the gaslights.
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 with them. This becomes even more difficult when you’re an HSP and the whole world seems to be gaslighting you.
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 are dismissed. Have you ever been having what you thought was 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 is incredibly common for HSPs, and it’s a form of gaslighting that can take its toll on our psyches.
Unintentional Gaslighting Is Still Gaslighting
In many cases, this gaslighting isn’t intentional, not in an abusive way anyway. 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 isn’t really there.
Even though it isn’t intentional in an abusive way, it can still be incredibly toxic. After all, what kind of friend/parent/partner listens to you and rather than accepting you for who you are, figures you are simply wrong and they are 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, from home to work to 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 offering them the comfort they need. Parents often gaslight their own kids because they feel that if they simply shut down all those “unnecessary” or “excessive” emotions, their child will be better (because they’ll be more like them).
Sometimes this gaslighting is intentional, sometimes it isn’t. But regardless of the intention behind it, gaslighting can have incredibly harmful long-term effects.
The Long-Term Effects of Gaslighting on 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.
4 Tips for Healing From Gaslighting
Even though gaslighting is a horrible thing to go through, there is hope for healing. You don’t have to be trapped in these patterns of self-doubt forever, no matter what it feels like now.
Gaslighting is a form of trauma, and one of the best ways to heal from it is to accept that, and to start using trauma-informed techniques to process the pain it caused. I’m a huge fan of therapy (check out my series on how to get started with therapy), 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:
- Try making small decisions on your own, 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.
- Take time to grieve for the positive experience you could have had if you weren’t gaslighted. 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.
- Learn more about high sensitivity and why it can be a great thing. Work on accepting that who you are isn’t wrong, it’s just a little different.
- Let go of the desire to “earn” acceptance or approval. Gaslighters often make it seem like 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 to heal, you need to know that you have worth beyond others’ approval.
Do you have other strategies for coping with life after gaslighting? Do you feel like your highly sensitive trait makes you more prone to gaslighting? Let me know in the comments below.