Shaking Off the Ghost of Gaslighting

Robin Stern, PhD
4 min readJun 12, 2023

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How to Honor and Act on Your Emotions

Robin Stern PhD

co-authored with Krista Smith, M.A.T. Krista is a PhD Social Work student with research interests in education, equity, and emotional intelligence.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

A friend of mine, ‘Amanda’, stares down at her phone, meticulously examining a text from her new boyfriend. He ends messages with flirtatious quips and modest emojis, unequivocal to any budding love affair, but she can barely bring herself to smile or relish his earnest sentiments. Instead, Amanda’s fingers freeze over the screen and her mind races. She just can’t shake the feeling that he’s secretly furious with her or disappointed in how things are going. She’s exhausted by her own thoughts two weeks into a relationship with no clear idea where this anxiety is sprouting from.

But I know. Amanda is recently a survivor of a gaslighting relationship, and now? She’s stuck in between her current emotions and being haunted by the ghost of gaslighting’s past. In the aftermath of fleeing the emotionally and psychologically abusive tropes that constitute a gaslighting relationship, this is understandable. The science of emotions reminds us that simply leaving a distressing environment does not always terminate the distress.

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation, in which a gaslighter seeks to sow seeds of self-doubt and confusion in the gaslightee’s mind, undermining their confidence and agency to think clearly, to make good decisions, and to manage situations effectively. Even when on the other side of gaslighting, it can feel like you’re being haunted; constantly looking over your shoulder not wanting to trust anyone even though you’re now ‘free’ of your gaslighter.

Although Amanda followed her feelings out of the abusive relationship, she’s still trying to move on, but how? How does someone like Amanda honor and act on her emotions effectively while shaking off the ghost of gaslighting?

It’s tricky and it’s nuanced.

Maybe you already know that there is no such thing as a bad emotion, or how emotions are information, or how you should give yourself permission to feel. And yet, there are times when emotion skill sets just aren’t enough, when giving yourself permission to feel isn’t the antidote you hoped it would be. Instead, like for Amanda, it’s just the beginning. Then what?

I can offer some guidance. In active gaslighting relationships, I tell my clients if you don’t like the way you feel when you’re with your partner, take note. When your body tells you something is wrong, something is wrong. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, writing about trauma, popularized the brain-body connection in his book The Body Keeps the Score. Oprah and Dr. Bruce Perry transcribed their conversations on the link between physiology and emotion in What Happened to You? And cutting edge research continues to explore this feedback loop between processes of the mind that surface in the body, and vice versa. In other words, emotional intimacy may be incredibly challenging during your first relationship after gaslighting because of all the unpleasant emotions you were once flooded with.

Your mind and body may default to its fight or flight response in situations that are from there-and-then but are no longer emotionally destructive for you. A sort of ‘detox’ process can, in and of itself, be painful, but with time and self-compassion, happiness in a new healthy relationship is possible.

Keep score of what emotions you choose to honor and what you tend to dismiss or not pay attention to during this process. Not every unpleasant emotion or interaction signals a need for change. Take a step back to determine if a person, especially a new partner, is consistently stirring up unpleasant emotions as well as pleasant emotions for you. If you are feeling anxious, uncertain, and stressed but cannot identify any gaslighting behaviors in this new relationship then you may still be struggling to trust — a needle that is slowly moved as you reclaim self-agency.

Lastly, rally your relationships. As with nearly every marker of happiness, the key ingredient at work is connection. So, when it comes to fighting off the ghost of gaslighting, sorting out truth from distortion, and reveling in your permission to feel joy again, the secret to abandoning past haunts is no secret at all: check in with your feelings — in the present -regularly and rally your relationships, your trusted network of friends, and, in doing so, you unlock the support and connection to make a positive change.

Learn more about gaslighting in its many forms from The Gaslight Effect Podcast and my website.

You can also identify if you are living a pattern of emotional / relational abuse involving gaslighting. Learn steps and strategies to limit, stop the gaslighting dynamic or leave and reclaim your reality, with the help of The Gaslight Effect Recovery Guide.

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Robin Stern, PhD

Co-founder and Associate Director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, psychoanalyst and author of The Gaslight Effect [robinstern.com]