A reader asked:
how do you tell the difference between when someone is gaslighting you and when you’re doing the distorted thinking thing from anxiety/depression? (for example you KNOW they’re judging you because they’re your parent and you’ve learned what that LOOK means but now they say they’re not judging you which means you can’t trust your own perceptions)
One thing that’s important here is that distorted thinking and gaslighting are not mutually exclusive. When you know that you have distorted thinking, gaslighting abusers sometimes exploit that to get you to doubt your perceptions. Even when you are having an episode of actively distorted thinking, that doesn’t mean that the things someone else wants you to believe are necessarily true.
I think there are a couple of things that can help to sort out what’s really going on and what’s distorted thinking: outside perspective, and paying attention to your perceptions over time.
Regarding paying attention to your perceptions over time: Even if you have depression, you’re not always going to be equally depressed. Even if you have anxiety, you’re not always going to be equally anxious. If you still don’t like what someone is doing to you even when you’re not actively anxious or depressed, it’s probably not distorted thinking.
Also, if every time you object to something someone does, they consistently convince you that it’s distorted thinking, something is probably wrong for real. Nobody is perfect, and sometimes you’re both depressed *and* reasonably objecting to something. If someone consistently uses your mental illness to try to make conflicts go away, that’s gaslighting and wrong even if your perspective actually is distorted.
(That said, if you’re actively anxious or depressed, it can be hard to tell in the moment whether or not something is a pattern. It’s possible to feel like it is a pattern when it isn’t, due to distorted thinking. That’s a reason why it can be really helpful to pay attention to how you feel over time.)
One way to keep track of how you feel over time is to write a journal. If you write a journal, you can pay attention to how you felt yesterday and whether you still feel that way today. Writing down your perspective is a more reliable way to track things over time than relying on memory. It’s hard to have accurate memories of how you’ve felt over time, and it’s particularly difficult to have accurate memories of what you thought when your thinking was distorted. (That said, journaling does not work for everyone, and if you can’t do it, that doesn’t mean you can’t figure things out.)
Outside perspective can also help a lot. That’s one reason that therapy is very helpful to a lot of people who struggle with distorted thinking. If you can find a therapist who you can trust to have a good sense of when you’re probably getting something right and when it’s probably depression/anxiety-related distorted thinking. This backfires horribly if your therapist *isn’t* trustworthy. I don’t really have any advice about how to find a good therapist (I wish I did, and if I ever figure it out, I’ll post about it), but I know that for many people it is both possible and important to find a good therapist.
Personal blogging can also help as a way to track your perceptions over time and get feedback, but be careful about that. Personal blogging attracts two kinds of people who can create problems for those who struggle with distorted thinking: mean people who try to make you feel awful about yourself, and people who unconditionally offer you validation no matter what you say or do. Neither of those kinds of perspectives are helpful for sorting things out. In some ways, unconditional validation is particularly dangerous, *especially* if there’s a possibility that you’re abusing someone.
Friends and relatives can also sometimes be really helpful, particularly if they know the people involved or observe things.
If you have a sibling you can trust (not everyone does, but some people do), you might be able to have this kind of conversation:
- You: Sarah, when Mom made that face, was she judging me or was I imagining it?
- Sarah: Yeah, that’s definitely her judgey face.
- or, depending on what she thinks:
- Sarah: Actually, I think she probably didn’t mean it that way this time. She just talked to me about her obnoxious boss and I think it was her pissed at my boss face.
Similarly, friends sometimes have a really good sense of what’s going on.
The caution about blogging goes for consulting friends/family and other forms of peer support. Be careful about people who offer unconditional validation of all of your thoughts and feelings no matter what. That can end up reinforcing distorted thinking, which is not going to help you learn how to improve your perspectives and trust yourself when your perceptions are accurate.
People who are offering you useful perspective will sometimes tell you that they think your perceptions are off base, and they will not be jerks about it when they are critical. They will also not try to coerce you into adopting their perspective. Sometimes they will be wrong. Sometimes you will disagree with them and be right. You are allowed to think for yourself, even if your thinking is sometimes distorted. No one else can think for you, even if you go to them for perspective and help sorting things out.
tl;dr: Gaslighting and distorted thinking are not mutually exclusive. It’s common to experience both, even simultaneously. If you have distorted thinking, people inclined to gaslight you tend to exploit it. Tracking your perceptions over time, and getting outside perspective, make it much easier to sort out what’s actually going on. Sometimes therapy is helpful. Sometimes blogging is helpful. Sometimes friends and family are helpful. Be careful about trusting people who are mean to you or who offer unconditional validation.