Why I Wish I Knew About Gaslighting Before It Happened to Me
Gaslighting has become quite the popular topic of conversation lately.
In case you're not caught up on the social science lingo, gaslighting is an emotional manipulation tactic where one person (the manipulator) causes someone else to doubt their own perception, memory or even their reality, depending on the severity of the circumstance.
While this can sound really intense and scary, it's actually a pretty common occurrence. So common, in fact, that I experienced it myself.
Keep scrolling to see why I wish I knew about gaslighting before it happened to me.
Right before my freshman year of college, I was spending time with friends, saying my last few goodbyes when I really bonded with a boy from my high school graduating class. We knew each other beforehand, but we had never really spent much one-on-one time together. When we finally got the chance to have a deep and meaningful conversation, it was clear to us both that there was something more between us than just friendship.
We exchanged numbers and immediately started texting, often just allowing our conversations to roll from one day to the next until it was completely natural to spend all day, every day in contact with each other. We both headed off for college, but we continued to text consistently and even added a few phone calls a week to our list of interactions.
(Pretty Little Liars via The CW)
There was one red flag at the very beginning of our relationship. Since we were in this awkward limbo stage where we talked all the time but very adamantly refused to date, we didn't have any expectations about seeing other people. During a period of random social media stalking, I came across a girl he attended college with, whose profiles were filled with images of the two of them together, many of which referred to him as her boyfriend. I wasn't angry that he started seeing someone else—after all, I had made it very clear that I didn't want to date long distance—but I was definitely miffed that he was still texting me constantly and calling me multiple times a week without ever mentioning the new woman in his life.
I called him out on it immediately, telling him it didn't feel fair to his relationship for us to keep talking if he had a girlfriend. He immediately denied the claims, telling me that this girl was obsessed with him and that he hadn't seen the pictures up until I pointed them out. I felt like a thin excuse, but at this point we had nearly 6 months of history under our belt, so I told him I needed proof if we were going to move forward.
The next day, he sent me screenshots of text messages, supposedly between him and this girl, where he asked her to stop posting about them and clearly told her that they weren't in a relationship. To my surprise, the girl responded saying that she was sorry, that she jumped the gun in terms of their status and that she never had a solid romantic relationship before and wanted to show him off. She even admitted to knowing about me, apologizing to him if her actions messed anything up between us.
(Crazy Ex-Girlfriend via The CW)
Something definitely felt off. After all, he was very clearly smiling and posing in all the pictures she had posted, which seemed to directly disprove his claim that she was obsessed with him. In addition, he was tagged in all the photos, so it felt odd that he hadn't seen them until I pointed them out. However, he wasn't a big social media user and she admitted to her overbearing nature in the text messages. We had talked a lot about honesty and I didn't feel as though I gave him a reason to lie, so after a lot of personal debate with myself, I chose to believe him and we moved forward with our relationship.
Long story short, after a couple more months of negotiating the ins-and-outs of our romance, we realized we were both causing each other pain by staying in the more-than-friends-but-not-dating category. Against my better judgment, we agreed to date long distance. And it was great! Until it wasn't.
In all honesty, our relationship started off incredibly strong. We were both very in love with each other and very much in the honeymoon stage of our romance. We got along ridiculously well, so fights and disagreements were few and far between. The distance was hard, but it did give us both an opportunity to live our own lives, so it also wasn't the worst thing in the world.
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Our happy stage probably lasted about a year and a half—a very long period of time that I owe mostly to the fact that we were in a long distance relationship. Then, very slowly, things started to change.
One of the reasons our long distance relationship worked so well was due to the fact that our communication was flawless. We often spent the entire day texting, since we weren't able to see each other for months at a time, and we would always let the other person know if there was going to be a hitch in our communication. If I was out with my friends for an evening and didn't want to be attached to my phone, I would just shoot him a text and let him know I'd talk to him in the morning, and he would do the same. We didn't need to be in constant contact, but we were really good about informing the other person of our plans, so a few hours without a response wouldn't cause an unnecessary tailspin.
That's why it was so confusing and upsetting when it suddenly became a pattern that I wouldn't hear from my boyfriend for large chunks of time. And I'm not talking 5 or 6 hours of no response in the middle of the day. I'm talking 15-24 hours without a single peep from him. Up until that point, I had zero fears about him cheating on me, so I would panic because I immediately assumed that something really bad happened to him.
I would spend the entirety of that time in agony, imagining him mangled from a car accident or lying dead in a ditch somewhere. Considering I would stew in those emotions for hours, I felt justified freaking out a little when he finally would contact me.
(Crazy Ex-Girlfriend via The CW)
But he always had a good excuse—he lost his phone, he was dealing with family drama, he was sick all night—things that would suddenly make me feel guilty for even being so upset. He would tell me that I was being too sensitive or I was just freaking out over nothing. He knew about my struggles with anxiety, and he would often tell me I was letting my nervousness get the best of me and overreacting. I didn't feel like I was overreacting—after all, he couldn't take 30 seconds to shoot one measly little text?—but I would often allow my guilt to get the best of me, apologizing for my anger and dropping the whole situation.
As time went on, the excuses regarding his lack of texting started to get more and more outlandish. It seemed every few weeks he was faced with a major life crisis that kept him from reaching out to me. Yet each situation felt very serious, and I had no proof he wasn't telling the truth, so I continued to believe him.
Eventually, however, the constant excuses just didn't add up anymore. I spent way too many nights worrying about his whereabouts, and thoughts of cheating started to creep in. When I voiced my concerns with my boyfriend, he immediately denied them. He told me that I was overthinking and letting myself become anxious because I was cheated on in the past. He assured me I was projecting my trust issues onto our relationship, in one sentence cutting me down and making me feel as though I couldn't rely on my own gut instinct while still professing that he loved me deeply and would always be there for me.
(Riverdale via The CW)
It was a very confusing time for me. I felt like I was losing touch with who I was. My anxiety about my relationship was almost palpable and I started devolving into fits of near-hysteria trying to explain to my boyfriend that things didn't feel right between us. I definitely have my emotional side, but my emotional outbursts were totally divergent from my normally even-tempered nature.
I just couldn't make the connection between my boyfriend's actions and my emotional outbursts. Every time I brought up my feelings, he turned the situation back on me, asking why I had such intense trust issues and why I was letting my paranoia get the best of me. I felt like our problems were my fault—like I was so out of control of my emotions and so incapable of monitoring my own reactions that I was ruining our relationship.
I stopped trusting my gut feelings, often pushing down all my worries by telling myself that I had proved time and time again that my emotions were unreliable. Every time I assumed he was cheating, he always had some excuse that explained all my fears away and made me feel ridiculous for even worrying. At the same time, his lies got worse, even going so far as telling me a bold-faced untruth, even when I would present him evidence to the contrary.
(Pinocchio via Walt Disney Productions)
For example, he went to a concert one night with a few of friends. When I asked how it was and who went, he listed off the names of his male buddies, and outright said that they had never met up with a group of girls who were going to the same concert. When one of the girls posted a picture on her Facebook of the night out, I could see my boyfriend standing right behind her, clearly there with the entire group of both males and females.
I asked him why he lied, especially because I never expressed concern about any of his female friends. Instead of admitting that he saw them, my boyfriend laughed and said he never even noticed they were so close. Yet he was literally standing right next to the girls and all his pals were chatting with them—there was no way he couldn't have seen them. At this point, however, I had become so incapable of trusting my own thoughts that I just accepted the lies and moved on.
A few months later, my worst fears came true when my boyfriend broke up with me out of the blue. He said he just didn't feel the same way anymore and had been planning the breakup for a while. I was devastated. I was completely convinced that it was my emotional outbursts and lack of control that pushed him away. He never blamed that specifically, but he strongly suggested that he just didn't feel he could do anything right in my eyes and my high expectations had taken their toll. Nevermind that those "high expectations" were primarily a boyfriend who didn't lie to me.
(Pretty Little Liars via The CW)
I mourned my relationship for months, stewing in the fact that I pushed my first love away. Blaming myself made it even harder to recover as I went over all the instances in my head when I allowed my fears and worries to get the best of me, ultimately forcing my "perfect" boyfriend to leave me and my trust and commitment issues behind.
It wasn't until months later that I found out my loving, caring boyfriend had been cheating on me for the entirety of our relationship. In other words, my fears, worries and gut instinct that something was off was totally right.
It wasn't until even later in my recovery process that I realized I experienced gaslighting, though I'm not even sure that my boyfriend knew what he was doing as he manipulated me. The first instance with the girl posting social media pics was the setup—it put me off balance. I knew there was more to the story than what he was saying, but I had enough evidence to let his story slide. He twisted and reframed the narrative, making me question my perceptions and conclusions from the very beginning of our relationship.
Things only got worse as time when on, as he minimized my feelings constantly, denied that he'd ever said or done things, avoided discussions about the health of our relationship and consistently switched the topic of our conversations from his actions to my thoughts and feelings—all classic symptoms of gaslighting.
(Riverdale via The CW)
Eventually, all these manipulation tactics had the desired effect—I could no longer rely on my own instincts and perceptions. It was a deeply embedded feeling that has taken me a lot of time to get over, as I found it very hard to trust myself for a really long time.
While my experience with gaslighting wasn't nearly as traumatic or intense as many others, it was still painful. It was also worsened by the fact that I had no word or paradigm with which I could classify my experience. I had no idea what gaslighting was at the time, so I was unable to look out for any of the warning signs or to explain to my boyfriend the effect his behavior was having on me.
I truly don't believe that he meant to manipulate me in the way he did. While many people do use gaslighting with the intent to be malicious, it's also so ingrained in our culture at this point that it can often occur on smaller scales without either party fully recognizing what's happening. We're all humans who don't want to admit our faults, so denying the truth and shifting blame becomes an easy way to escape facing the things we've done wrong.
But that's exactly why I wish I knew about gaslighting—so I could have spotted the warning signs and acted accordingly, thereby saving myself from getting pulled into another person's web of lies.
Other people's actions are never your fault, but if there's anything you can do to stop yourself from hurt or pain, you should always do it. That's why it's important to know about things like gaslighting—so you can make informed decisions and protect your emotional health, rather than allowing other people's baggage to drag you down.
Looking for more information about gaslighting? Click HERE to learn about the definition and warning signs of this manipulation tactic.