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What Happens When Someone Gaslights You

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

Disbelieving your reality actually affects your brain.

While I was married to my ex-husband, I couldn’t do basic math.

When a server returned with a credit card receipt for $15.91 and I had to calculate the addition of a $3.00 tip, I was at a loss. I’d try and then slide the receipt over to my ex-husband to check. He’d shake his head ‘no’ and tell me the correct answer.

“How did you even graduate high school?” he’d often ask in disbelief.

“I don’t know why it’s so hard for me now!” I’d laugh, feeling my face turn hot.

I graduated from a large public high school in the top 10% of my class. I scored in the top 88th percentile on the ACT. I graduated Cum Laude from a prestigious private liberal arts college with a degree in English. I have a Master’s degree and years of professional experience as an educator (K-12 and postsecondary), coach, and nonprofit professional.

Yet I couldn’t, for nine years straight, reliably add calculations as simple as 3.00 plus 15.91. I felt embarrassed every time. Wasn’t I a highly intelligent and educated woman? What was wrong with me?

After discovering my ex-husband was a drug addict and a thief, I finally left him.

A few months later, I started grading a stack of tests that were out of seventy points. On the first test I graded, the student missed thirteen points and, instead of reaching for a calculator, I wrote at the top of the test, “57/70.”

I stared at the number, surprised.

I even re-did the math a couple of times in my head to make sure it was correct. It was.

I realized then, for the first time in a long time, that I hadn’t needed to use a calculator to do some basic math. I thought it was a fluke at first, that I was just having a “good” day. But I have had no problem any day after that.

When a server brings me the credit card receipt, I no longer feel a flood of embarrassment that I can’t add it up myself.

I had no explanation for this until a therapist explained to me about Gaslighting and Cognitive Dissonance.

Gaslighting is a series of manipulative behaviors that includes the “gaslighter” telling you things you saw or heard weren’t true. If you continue to remain in a relationship with a gaslighter, you’re likely to develop Cognitive Dissonance, which actually impacts your brain. Cognitive Dissonance is the feeling of acute mental distress produced by holding two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time.

My ex-husband gaslighted me to distract or deflect away from the sketchy behaviors he was involved in while in his active drug addiction. Because I chose to believe him for years despite resounding evidence against it, my brain experienced Cognitive Dissonance. There are three ways that someone can try to stop dissonance. We’ll use a smoker who knows that smoking can cause cancer as an example.

1. Change one or more of the attitudes, behavior, beliefs, etc., to make the relationship between the two elements a consonant one.

As in, the smoker could quit.

2. Acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs.

As in, the smoker focuses on research that says things like, “Research has not proved definitively that smoking causes lung cancer” or the story of the 73-year-old man who is a heavy smoker with miraculously no health problems.


3. Reduce the importance of the cognitions (i.e., beliefs, attitudes).

As in, the smoker could tell herself, “YOLO!,” that a short life filled with the pleasure of smoking is far better than a long life without. In this way, she would be decreasing the importance of the dissonant cognition (smoking is bad for one’s health).

Brain MRI scans show that when we’re confronted with dissonant information and use rationalization to compensate, the reasoning areas of our brains shut down while the emotion circuits of the brain light up with activity.

Essentially, key brain functions, like my ability to do math computations, shut down to be able to rationalize dissonant thoughts and/or behaviors.

Sandra Brown, former psychotherapist and author, has worked with women who have lived with Cognitive Dissonance for years.

These women “describe not only anxiety and depression but also brain fog and the inability to make decisions or trust themselves…[these women], who excel in every other area of life, develop executive function disorders and lose the ability to think straight.” The work of rationalizing their insane environment was so much that it overpowered their other functions.

Throughout the entirety of my relationship with my ex-husband, my brain had worked extra hard to rationalize he loves me unconditionally with the myriad of conflicting and abusive behaviors I saw from an active drug addict who hid his use and criminal activities while we were married.

When I discovered his stash of drugs, it meant more than just that he’d been lying to me. It meant my brain finally had permission to stop lying to itself.

The key to preventing Cognitive Dissonance? Practicing mindfulness.

“It’s important to be in touch with your own value system and know when your thinking is being driven by emotions,” said Corrine Leikam, PsyD, an associate director at Sober College in Los Angeles.

Here are ways to bring mindfulness into your own life:

  • Journaling

  • Talking to a friend

  • Exercising, which sometimes gives us the opportunity to be alone with our thoughts, rather than distracted by emails, text messages, TV, or chatty coworkers

  • Attending a meditation or yoga class

  • Engaging in therapy

  • Consulting with a spiritual adviser

I know what it’s like to walk around in a fog, unsure of everything, to feel like there must be something terribly terribly wrong with me. I refuse to go back there again. Today, I practice rigorous self-honesty and mindfulness, and my life looks radically different today because of it. Mostly, it looks — and is — happy.

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