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When we face challenging situations, we often turn to family members for love and support. Because they are closest to us, we expect these loved ones to provide the compassion and empathy we feel we deserve. Often, we do receive the loving response we are seeking. However, sometimes we do not. When this happens, we may feel an additional layer of rejection or betrayal that only compounds the original pain we were seeking relief from. This was my experience (and I’m finally ready to be more public about this) when I decided to tell a family member (one of my primary caregivers as a child) about the physical violations I endured as a young girl. I wanted emotional validation, empathy, and compassion from her as these painful memories had just started resurfacing due to a recent healing crisis/integration of past trauma. However, what I received from her was shocking. She angrily rejected my experience, and was so upset that I would bring shame on the family that said she wished she had never known me. I was cast out…and I was devastated.
After some reflection however, I realized that she must have felt responsible for what had happened to me, and that instead of being with the feelings, guilt and/or shame that may be lying underneath, she unconsciously allowed her protective mechanisms to kick in. Simply put, she avoided her own pain by rejecting the reality I was experiencing. She was clearly not willing or ready to hear about the truth of her household during those years, and the pain of feeling responsible is not a burden her ego would let her bare.
I also realized I didn’t use my best judgement in approaching her with this. Deep down I knew I wanted validation in a way that she was incapable of giving. I knew she would deny this, yet the little girl in me was hoping I was wrong, as she’s been waiting for 40 years to be validated for the pain she endured.
I had a choice. Either allow this pattern of emotional “gaslighting” to continue down the family line, or find a way of breaking this destructive trauma cycle. I had to find a way to integrate this trauma and find freedom from this cycle of suppression. The definition of “gaslighting” is to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity or experience. Gaslighting is a technique used to control relationships, to stop conflict, and to ease anxiety, all in order to feel “in charge” again. Most often this happens to a child in a situation where the parent makes the child feel like what they are feeling or experiencing is wrong, different from reality, or not happening at all. And far too often this is the unfortunate experience of those growing up in homes with physical and sexual abuse, leaving the child to question their own sanity, unable to ask for help.
As children we desperately seek validation from our caregivers when things are scary or painful. Often, we get stuck in a cycle of seeking validation outside ourselves, which can develop into a victim consciousness pattern. This pattern is mostly unconscious as we are just wanting to fill that childhood wound of “See what’s happening to me! Hear the truth! This situation is not okay! I am not okay! Help me out of this!”I realized in this recent experience that I was not ever going to get the validation that I wanted from this family member. Either I could longing for justice and feel like a victim of gaslighting, or I could take responsibility to validate that little girl in me. “I validate me” became my mantra whenever I would think of those heartbreaking experiences as a child. And furthermore I also take the responsibility to allow my caregiver to have her own reality as she decides for herself. With compassion I see that she is trying to protect herself from feelings of shame and guilt, and that her ego cannot handle my truth.
When it comes to healing from gaslighting experiences, it is a delicate dance of feeling the truth of our pains, holding the inner tension of the inner child that wants to be validated by others and teaching that we look inside to our own heart and say “I validate me”. With our heart space open, we can also extend compassion to those who are not yet able to hold this tension of truth vs ego pain within themselves.

Cathleen King, DPT

I'm an expert on chronic illness, chronic trauma, relationship/attachment repair, and inner child healing. I’ve got the rare combination of in-depth doctoral-level education and training as a physical therapist, and many years of coaching others in wellness and lifestyle education. And, I have been through my own heroine’s journey of spending nearly 2 decades of my life navigating through deep, debilitating illness and finally found my way out!

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