Gaslighting is a term you probably know, but if you don’t, it refers to the act of telling and convincing someone that their feelings or perceptions are not really true. In the context of interpersonal relationships, gaslighting is considered to be an abusive behavior, as it can render people incapable of trusting themselves and their own judgment, instead placing an undeserved trust in the gaslighter.
Cognitive distortion is also a term you probably know. It refers to a set of maladaptive mental habits that people with mental illnesses tend to have. (The Wikipedia list is useful, and I discussed some specific examples in this post.)
A cognitive-behavioral approach to mood disorders involves teaching the client the difference between thoughts and feelings. A lot of people will say things like, “I feel like a failure.” The therapist’s role is to remind them that “I feel like a failure” isn’t actually a feeling, but a thought. “I feel like a failure” is really “I think that I’m a failure.” The therapist may ask, “How do you feel when you have the thought that you are a failure?” The client may say, “I feel hopeless,” or “I feel miserable.” Hopefully, the therapist can help the client see that a lot of their thoughts are actually cognitive distortions, and that there are more helpful and realistic ways to think about the same things.
That’s the standard CBT frame that’s used in all the training videos I watch in school. But the reality, at least for me, is a little less tidy. Sometimes feelings come seemingly out of nowhere, and while I know there is a reason for them (and I usually know what the reason is), there was no proximal cause for the feeling. There was no maladaptive thought.
Sometimes I see a partner with someone else and I just feel awful. I don’t think, “I bet they’re going to leave me now,” or “That person is way cooler than me,” and then feel awful. I just feel awful. Is it because I trained myself to feel awful on cue, as a conditioned response? Maybe. Others would argue that feeling awful is a “natural” response to seeing a partner with someone else, though I disagree. Regardless, the feeling comes immediately and without any stimulus other than seeing the thing.
Sometimes I have to leave my family after a visit and I become extremely depressed. (I will have to do this in a few days. I’ve already had a few breakdowns about it.) I don’t think, “I WILL NEVER SEE MY FAMILY AGAIN” or, slightly more realistically, “It is Terrible and Bad that I have to leave my family.” I just think about the mere concept of leaving and instantly collapse in tears. (To wit: there is nothing less undignified than collapsing in tears while sitting on the toilet, but that just happened to be when I remembered about my flight home. It happens.)
Last year I wrote about some things I had learned from depression, including two slightly/seemingly contradictory maxims: “Not everything your brain tells you is accurate,” and “Your feelings are valid.” You can read that post to see what I meant by these things, but the jist of it is that depression can teach you to be more skeptical about some of the stuff going on in your brain, but also that you get to feel how you feel without passing judgment–or having others pass judgment–on it. Some would say that feelings can’t be “wrong.” They can be crappy, or not useful, or distracting, or whatever, but they cannot be empirically inaccurate or morally wrong.
However, this is where reality gets murkier than these convenient teachings. Feelings aren’t wrong, per se, but they can be premised on exaggerated or inaccurate fears or worries. I feel bad when my partners like people who I think are Better than me. But what is “better”? Can I really accurately say that someone is “better” than me, rather than maybe better at certain things and worse at others? And isn’t the whole point of polyamory that nobody has to leave anyone just because they’ve found someone “better”?
I feel depressed when I have to leave my family and go home to New York. But I know I will be just fine and quite happy when I get there. I know this because I’ve gone through it many, many times now. There is no reason to feel so depressed I can’t get out of bed for two days. Yes, it’s sad to say goodbye to your family. To me, personally, it is slightly tragic, even, that I can’t live close to them the way people usually do in our culture. But it is not that sad. It is not weeping-on-the-toilet-bowl sad. Few things in my life are objectively that sad.
These are far from the only situations like this that I experience; it happens all the time, every day. I get very frustrated. “No feelings about feelings,” a friend of mine says, not as a rule, but as an aspiration. I can’t make it work.
So I start gaslighting myself. “That’s not true.” “That perception is just wrong.” “That’s false and you know it.” “There is no reason to be upset right now.” “Your hypothesis that that person is somehow objectively better than you is premised on nothing but a pile of turds.” “THAT FEELING IS WRONG AND YOU SHOULD IGNORE IT FOREVER.”
Cutesy slang about jerkbrains and badfeels aside, what I’m now doing is very serious. Now I have abandoned a defensive stance and taken up an offensive one, with which I will battle the Wrong Feelings and vanquish them in a burst of light. Gaslight.
What happens when you teach yourself not to trust your own perception? How many toxic people become “just difficult for me to deal with because I’m so insecure and oversensitive”? How many untenable situations become marginally acceptable because “I’m only miserable about it because my brain lies to me”? How many injustices become annoyances to shrug at because “I’m just pessimistic about everything and don’t realize how good life is”?
People tell me that I’m so good at setting boundaries, but sometimes I wonder how much shit I have patiently accepted because I thought my brain was lying to me. In any case, I’m very glad I discovered feminism at the same time I discovered that I have depression.
Somewhere between “Your feelings are bad and you should feel bad” and “Your feelings are an accurate barometer of external reality” lies a vast unexplored land of feelings that are excessive but useful, of feelings that don’t make any sense but that alert you to an issue that needs to be explored, of feelings that can be discussed with a partner to build trust and intimacy, of feelings that have been spot-on many times before but have simply outlived their usefulness in this new and happier life you have built.
I wish I could really believe that feeling things is okay.