Gaslighting

Being an undiagnosed autistic has many challenges. 

When you compare your reactions to things with other people’s, you feel like you’re getting it wrong. When other people take things in their stride, and your brain feels like it’s expanding inside your skull to the point you can’t think, then you feel like you’re overreacting.

And then there’s the gaslighting. 

Gaslighting is a useful term, named after an old film where Ingrid Bergman is psychologically abused. Her abuser tells her that her memories are false, he questions her experience of her environment, he denies that things she remembers happening, have happened. 

The result is that she ends up questioning her own perception of reality. She doubts her own memory. She doubts her sanity. She cannot trust that what she thinks is her lived experience is true.

Being an undiagnosed autistic can feel like the whole world is gaslighting you. From being told not to be silly, the lights aren’t hurting you, to being shouted at to pull yourself together, when you’re slipping into meltdown, you’re being told every day that your lived experience isn’t real.

There have certainly been times that I have doubted my sanity. I’ve looked at myself and I’ve listened to all the people who have told me what my experience actually was; professionals who have told me that brains don’t just turn off and go quiet when they’ve had too much, people who have told me that textures don’t hurt you unless they’re sharp, I’ve watched other people’s reactions and seen that they are similar to each other’s, not mine.

There was no representation of people like me in the media. There was no one to point at and feel shared experience with. I couldn’t recognise myself anywhere. So it must be me who is simply wrong.

I listened. 

As I got older and gained more self-control, I began to gaslight myself. I’d tell myself that my reaction wasn’t real. I was being stupid or attention seeking. The fact that I knew I didn’t want that attention, didn’t matter. That’s what I had been told. It must be my motivation.

You see it wasn’t just about masking for the world’s sake, it was masking to myself too.

Without the self-knowledge I became my own worst enemy. I controlled any stimming in public, I mocked myself in private. I criticised myself for any reaction outside of the norm. I told myself how useless I was for experiencing the world wrongly. I did my best to see it the right way.

This opened me up to people telling me other things weren’t real when I could see that they were. There are people who will take advantage of someone so willing to distrust their own perceptions. I was trained to believe that other people saw the world in the right way, so I could rely on other people to tell me what was real, I couldn’t rely on myself.

Three tiny words burst that bubble for good, “You have autism”. I don’t care if that language is person first, disability first, or diplodocus first, because those words made my world real. 

For the first time in my life, the way I perceived the world was valid. It was shared. It wasn’t that I was wrong and everyone else was right, it was that we experienced everything differently. 

Other people could never define my reality. They could never explain it or accept it, because they had no way to experience it. It wasn’t malicious gaslighting (mostly), it was misunderstanding. It was poor theory of mind on their part. They were unable to imagine and empathise with someone who did not perceive things in the exact same way that they did.

I wonder how many other people are out there, carrying on that gaslighting of themselves. Denying their own senses. Denying their reality. I hope they find the key. I hope the media puts someone like them on a screen. Not a savant, not a caricature, just a normal person experiencing life the way they do. I hope that they get to learn that they are not alone and they can trust themselves, the way that I now do.

I should never have distrusted what I knew to be true. Autism set me free.

37 thoughts on “Gaslighting

  1. Making this all about me-

    as a trans woman, once I admitted to myself transition was what I wanted, and was possible, things became much easier. I realised being unmanly was not the worst thing in the world, and that my responses were part of beautiful human diversity rather than weak and ridiculous. I think people with autism suffer this particularly badly, but perhaps most suffer it to some extent. We all benefit from refusing to fit ourselves to the moulds.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Exactly. Bin the moulds, make adjustments for anyone who needs them without labels needing to be produced (as let’s face it, plenty of people without autism have sensory issues and the like), and the world would be a much better place all round! Accepting ourselves, and being accepted would solve so many problems.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m a little iffy on the “without labels needing to be produced” in the context of “bin the moulds”, because while I’m all in favour of ditching prescriptive labels, descriptive labels are incredibly helpful.

        I’m sure it wasn’t meant this way here, but for me the idea that we should entirely get rid of labels is too tied up with people trying to deny other people’s identities, or silence them, on the grounds that they “shouldn’t label themselves”.

        …but I do agree that we shouldn’t start thinking of any one thing that may fall under a label’s umbrella as being exclusive to that label, like the sensory issues and autism thing mentioned. That, in my view, is another aspect of prescriptive labelling, and is of course bad.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree. What I don’t want to see is people being denied reasonable adjustments because they don’t have a label that is deemed relevant enough.

          Labels are enormously useful for imparting lots of information easily. I’m very happy with my label. I’m not always quite so happy with some of the stereotypical assumptions that come with it.

          Thanks for your comment.

          Like

  2. This. All of this. My diagnosis has made me realise I’m not wrong all the time, sometimes it really is “them” and some people need to be watching their step.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I love this post.
    I don’t think I was self aware enough to really understand why I got stressed in certain circumstances. I know understand more often than not its the sensory environment that doesn’t suit me. As I learn about autism so many things make sense. I’m able to take care of myself and understand my children better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely. Looking back there was so many times that it was clearly just environmental overload, but with no self-awareness (and actively denying my own senses) it meant I just beat myself up about it instead.

      Thank you 😊

      Like

  4. Thank you for this post. My reality is my own, as is everyone else’s , so please please please stop assuming my reality is wrong. It’s not, and if you listen to it it can be insightful.

    Like

  5. Good for you! I’m strongly thinking about featuring an autistic character as the protagonist for one of my future novels. Her way of thinking won’t be what the novel is about, but it will influence her perceptions and how she deals with people (and her own decisions). I agree with you that the world at large needs to view autism more pragmatically, and that might be one way I can help.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely. I think the more realistically autistic characters there are out there, the better. Just people being people who happen to be autistic.

      It’d be a fine think to see more of.

      Like

    1. That’s fantastic, Dean. Sounds like such a great movement. I know of a few British artists fighting for that inclusivity in the arts world. Sonia Boué wrote a great blog post about the difficulties in networking and seeking funding when you’re autistic. How autism may lend itself to the artistic side, but the promotional side is a nightmare (as it is in writing too).

      You’ve made me really want to give scuba diving a go. I love to swim for the sensory immersion.

      Thanks for sharing that with me. Great that you’re telling people, the more we do, the better the reactions will get.

      Like

  6. Reblogged this on Cat in a dog's world and commented:
    This is a great post. I’ve experienced gaslighting by others, and by myself, to the extent that I ended up mistrusting myself completely. I’ve touched on it in my last couple of posts but didn’t have a name for it before I read this excellent blog by Rhi.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Really welcome post Rhi especially the point that we can Gaslight ourself… I find that after decades of psychological bullying I’ve come to doubt myself at times when I speak out about a matter and get either a hostile response or none. I then wonder if the hostility is that I challenge the status quo and those autistics wanting to climb the NT constructed ladders feel the need to disassociate themselves from my challenge… and what of the no response… either I’m not able to successfully communicate my thoughts/understandings or the matter is not one others see as relevant.

      I can then lose trust in my ability to successfully communicate, to NTs this is understandable as it is very difficult ( they often don’t ” get it’) but also to some communities of Autistics especially if they are much younger than I. Generation gaps exist in all communities … a natural product of the passage of time and “appearance of the new” manner/ means of ‘communication’ and popular cultures. ( Ironically often recycled ones in a contemporary ” mask”)

      In some parts of our planet Earth ageism flourishes and the older are equated with ‘ ignorance’ and no ” real life experience” as if we sat/sit around twiddling our thumbs just waiting to die. It is as if we have had no education and no experiences, in other words we aren’t seen as human and part of their autistic tribe. This is where I find a huge problem … that of the Us and Them… and encounter rejection or hostility… at times this results with me on the verge of “giving up’ giving up attempting to communicate, giving up on seeing that there might be value in sharing various aspects of my lived experience and place these in the context of a witness/self observer. Giving up advocating and actively contributing to a new and truly inclusive approach to autism and to the means of conducting research etc.

      Maybe I’ve been living in my head too long that I can’t communicate to those outside it…. that is the gas lighting coming through…. but what if it is true? There it is again…

      I’ve read that many autistics actually have a reverse experience from the non-autistic regarding ageing… our minds still are active accumulating experiences , knowledge etc when the ” normal’ situation is mental decline…
      We’re not past it when it comes to mental activity even if we can no longer sprint, climb a mountain or other physically demanding things.

      Gas lighting… being gaslit by others and by self is definitely a health hazard.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It certainly is. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me. Yes there are divided across age and other differences (just like every other community). Sometimes communicating across age gaps can be much harder than communicating across neurotypes with people of the same age.

        I think a lot of the misunderstanding towards us can come from how certain we sound when we say something. I tend to present things as “this is a fact” or “this is my opinion”. It can sound very set, which makes people thing that I don’t question things, so they’re more willing to challenge me.

        Doubt is an important part of my thinking process, it’s how I come to my conclusions. I question everything. Then when someone questions that, even if it’s something I’ve already considered, I will assume (logically) that I must have missed something (because why else would they question it?).

        I can be wrong about other people’s motivations. I can be wrong about lots of things. But the only person who truly knows how I interact with the world is me.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh the doubting! I don’t think we’d be us if we didn’t question and analyse. I do still have those moments of “but am I?” As time goes by I’m having less of them, but a lifetime of blaming yourself and looking for fault doesn’t go away overnight.

      Keep it rational. Doctors don’t diagnose based on no evidence. If there’s doubt they are more likely to err on the side of caution. Not everyone gets the diagnosis. On top of that, how do you process things compared to others? Is it the same?

      I have a helpful husband who answers me with, “Rhi, I’ve read the diagnostic criteria, I know you the best, I have no doubts at all.” Which helps.

      Questioning is something I do. When people say, “Well, have you considered..?” Of course I have. All of it. I’ve thought of every conceivable angle.

      Being able to question yourself is an excellent skill, just make sure it’s being used to check the truth, not to back up other people’s unfounded opinions.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Confessions of a Loony Genius and commented:
    “I was trained to believe that other people saw the world in the right way, so I could rely on other people to tell me what was real, I couldn’t rely on myself.”
    I always compare myself to others and people tell me a shouldn’t but this post explains why. So often I’ve also been told that I’m “overcomplicating” something or “being too sensitive” so I have totally come to mistrust myself and my reactions to things because I’ve constantly been told I “should’ve said” this or that.

    I like that this author highlights the paradox that in all of these situations the neurotypicals lack the ‘theory of mind’ that us neurodiverse seem to lack too.

    Time to start trusting myself and creating or rediscovering Who I Am.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Thank you so much for this! I’m a mum of a 4yo girl on the spectrum and we tossed and turned over having her assessed, let alone diagnosed. I spent 4 years being gaslighted over my perception of what was going on for her in any given solution, and am still recovering my own self esteem as a parent as a result. So this article was very encouraging for me personally… but it was most encouraging for me as a mother. I have worried so much that choosing to ‘label’ my daughter will set her story up for her, without her permission, that I overlooked the idea that I might, in fact, be setting her story up for good, and not evil. That I might have actually been fighting FOR her whenever I corrected someone’s faulty impression of her behaviour, etc. That by listening to my gut, I championed her when she had no voice.
    This has encouraged me and given me words for my hopes and fears… thank you so much. I feel more free.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I loved this article. I have come at this from an NT perspective. After living with a terrific guy with autism for over 35 years, I began to feel gaslighted myself. His position is often so convinced/convincing that I began to doubt my own perceptions.

    I especially liked “I wonder how many other people are out there, carrying on that gaslighting of themselves. Denying their own senses. Denying their reality. I hope they find the key.” in your last paragraph. Autism set me free, too.

    Liked by 1 person

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