You may have heard the term gaslighting used often these days, especially in politics, as people continually try to create alternate realities. Think “alternate facts” or the spread of conspiracy theories. Gaslighting is defined as a situation in which someone makes you question your own reality, but what happens when you are the one gaslighting yourself? This phenomena played out often at the height of my anxiety and I can still see this occurring occasionally today despite all of the work I’ve done to try and manage my anxiety.
Now that I can manage my anxiety, I often think back to times when I was so panicked that I began to question my own sanity. I could be sitting at my daughter’s swimming lesson in deep panic that I had an undiagnosed cancer that was coursing through my body at that very moment, yet I was doing nothing to stop its progress. I was aware that I was very likely the only parent on the pool deck with this fear and then I would wonder what was wrong with me that I couldn’t be rational like everyone else. The more I questioned why I wasn’t rational, the more irrational I became. I couldn’t see anyway out of the panic except to follow through on my irrational belief. I saw many doctors for the imagined diseases I believed I was afflicted with. I took up the time of doctors and nurses and spent money needlessly to assuage my deepest irrational fears and I couldn’t help myself from doing it. I felt powerless. The only power I felt was in seeing the irrational belief through to what I believed was the only conclusion that was acceptable; the one my panicked mind created.
Irrational fears lurked in my everyday life like thieves waiting to steal my sanity. If a maintenance light came on in my car, I needed it tended to immediately so I wouldn’t have to see its red glare staring at me every time I drove the car. I’m sure I overspent on car repairs just to get those red warning lights to stop taunting me that something dire was about to happen if I didn’t fix the issue immediately. Even though I was aware that I was likely being irrational, I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t have the wherewithal to calm myself, take a step back, sit with my feelings and let the anxiety pass. In my mind, there was no possible way for the anxiety to dissipate until I took the steps I was convinced I needed to be take to ensure that the problem was fixed, and not just fixed for the moment, but forever. I had the irrational sense that problems could be fixed forever if I just gave them immediate and thorough attention. I gaslit myself daily and as you can imagine, this took a tremendous toll on my health, hence the breakdown.
I look back on those times with sadness for how much I was suffering and a bit of disbelief that I was so irrational, but that’s what anxiety does, it continues to build unless you learn to manage it. I have incorporated practices in my life now that help me manage situations like those I mentioned when they happen now and I can see the progress I’ve made when I don’t freak out when a maintenance light comes on in my car. I lament the time and pain I caused other people when they became casualties to gaslighting myself. They are hard earned lessons for me now. I imagine that I spent thousands of dollars unnecessarily to try and alleviate my anxiety in those situations.
I can still gaslight myself on a smaller scale, especially when it comes to causes I deem worthy. I still have the urge to throw money at issues that cause me intense emotional pain such as when there is a mass shooting, an ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) raid or when a black person is unnecessarily murdered by police. I now try to sit with my pain and determine if I’m wanting to act out of guilt, fear or to try and lesson the pain I'm feeling, or if there is a more genuine reason for wanting to take action. Meditation helps me tremendously to sit with my emotions and I also try not to allow myself to react immediately when I’m feeling pain. I've learned the hard way that when I act when I'm still in pain I only create more pain, both for myself and for others. I now sit with my pain for a day or more before acting. If the pain is still with me after a few days, I know I need to decide if I want to take action. I don’t always follow my plan to be intentional with my actions, but it’s a great comfort to know that I have a course of action so that I don’t fall back into old patterns of gaslighting myself.
Anxiety has been one of my greatest teachers in life and I hope that these posts are helpful to others that suffer from anxiety, or have loved ones that do. It can be very difficult and embarrassing to talk about our own experiences with anxiety, but in sharing my own personal experiences, I hope to destigmatize it so others may know that they are not alone and that it’s possible to manage and rise above anxiety. It does take a lot of work, a lot of experimentation with different methods of self-care and self-help, but it can be done. One of the greatest rewards in my life is when I can see the progress that I’ve made when I’m in a situation that would have sent me into a self-destructive panic a few years ago and I can now just watch the emotions float past me and know that in time they will dissolve without the need for any action on my part. Life is so much more enjoyable without the flames of panic licking at my heels and my hands not reaching out for the matches and gasoline.