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Please Don't Gaslight Yourself: The Risk of Trauma Bonding

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Experiencing daily traumas instigated by your relationship result in a multitude of emotional and psychological pains. The subtle, but perhaps one of the biggest risks that maintains this issue is: self-gaslighting.

For those of you who don't know or are unfamiliar, trauma bonding is essentially a relationship that is fuelled by a cycle of love and abuse. And unfortunately, trauma bonding is far more common than what you may initially think - it's just historically we may never have been able to put a label on what is going on. Gaslighting plays a significant role in trauma bonds - often involving the abusive individual in the relationship gaslighting the vulnerable partner by making them doubt their own perceptions of reality. Gaslighting is ultimately a way of exerting manipulation and control, maintaining the painful cycle and trauma bond.

As much as gaslighting may be initiated from the abusive partner, sadly there are so many factors that cause the vulnerable individual to self-gaslight - and thus remain in the trauma bonded relationship for longer.

Today, I delve into the various aspects and challenges that contribute to self-gaslighting within trauma bonds, making it harder to break free.

  • Low Self-Esteem and Self-Worth

Individuals with low self-esteem and self-worth are more vulnerable to self-gaslighting when faced with criticism or abusive behavior. When someone constantly belittles them or devalues their feelings, they may internalize these negative messages and start justifying the mistreatment. The belief that they deserve such treatment or that it's their fault becomes deeply ingrained, making it even harder for them to recognize the signs of abuse.

  • Development of Trust and Dependency

As the bond between the pair abuser deepens, a strong sense of trust and dependency develops from the vulnerable person to their partner who shows signs of abuse. Lives become intertwined, and the vulnerable individual starts relying on their partner emotionally, practically, and sometimes even financially. In such cases, the fear of losing this connection can lead to the ignoring of red flags and rationalization of the abusive behavior. If you are in such a situation, you may convince yourself that it's just a rough patch, and things will get better eventually (sadly this is rarely the case).

  • Powerlessness and Hopelessness

Gaslighting and manipulation from the abusive partner can leave you feeling powerless and hopeless in the relationship. The constant invalidation of your experiences and emotions erodes your self-confidence, reinforcing the risk of self-gaslighting. It becomes so much harder to discern reality from the distorted version presented to you.

  • Fear of Leaving

Leaving an abusive relationship is really frightening and you may believe there are dangers associated with leaving. The fear of retaliation, badmouthing, or even physical harm can be paralyzing, making it seemingly easier to stay in the abusive relationship. The abuser may instil the belief that you are nothing without them, and this fear of losing identity outside of the relationship further perpetuates self-gaslighting. You might then convince themselves that staying is the only option to maintain any semblance of safety.

  • Anxious Attachment Style

People with an anxious attachment style often have a deep-seated fear of abandonment. If you fall into this category, this fear can make you believe that if you don't meet the expectations of your partner, you will be abandoned or rejected. In a desperate attempt to salvage the relationship and avoid being abandoned, you may gaslight yourself into believing that the abuse is your fault or that you can change your partner.

  • Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon where in a trauma bond - you know that the relationship is unhealthy and abusive, yet you might choose to downplay or ignore the abuse to avoid confronting the reality of the situation. The idea of ending the relationship becomes more distressing than enduring the abuse, leading to self-gaslighting as a coping mechanism. Sadly, this inadvertently leads to self-sabotaging behaviour including remaining in a toxic situation, minimising your own needs, and maintains the trauma bond.

  • Addiction to Safety - psychological and biological

Being in a trauma bond can create a strange addiction to psychological feelings of safety, albeit false or temporary. The abusive partner may create an environment where you feel dependent on them for security, and breaking free from this cycle can be terrifying. The emotional connection formed, however toxic it may be, becomes a safety net for the victim. Consequently, they gaslight themselves into believing that leaving the relationship would mean losing this sense of safety altogether. You may also experience an addiction to the trauma bond on a biological note as cortisol, adrenaline, oxytocin and dopamine levels become skewed. This results in a chronic heightened baseline stress response, which becomes attached to oxytocin (the 'bonding and attachment' neurotransmitter; meaning 'love and stress' become b biologically associated), and you are seeking for a dopamine hit to make yourself feel better. But the good feeling is only temporary, and you remain in the trauma bond seeking the next 'good thing'.

Breaking free from a trauma bond and overcoming self-gaslighting is an immensely challenging journey. It requires recognizing the signs of abuse, understanding the impact of low self-esteem and dependency, and finding the strength to seek support. It is crucial to remember that self-gaslighting is a coping mechanism that develops under the influence of an abusive relationship and does not define one's worth or identity. With patience, compassion, and a commitment to self-healing, you can learn to trust your instincts, rebuild your self-esteem, and reclaim your lives beyond the confines of a toxic relationship.

If you found this useful, please do me 2 favours. Please have a look at my free e-book here which can help you improve your relationship and heal trauma bonding. Second, please share with other people who you feel would benefit from this - because the more people supported, the better our community can survive and heal.

As always, if you ever want to connect and gain support - I'm here.

All my love, Dr Sarah

trauma bonding

self-sabotaging behaviour

improving your relationships

relationship problems

surviving infidelity

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