What is gaslighting?

You have heard the term gaslighting, but you aren’t sure if it is what you are experiencing or not.

You are a strong woman.  You have held down a job for a long time, and have strong friendships.  You have a pretty good sense of who you are, what you like, and what you want in life.

And then there are the times when you wonder if you do.  You are at work, and something that you normally did really well and know inside and out all of the sudden feels like it needs to be double-checked.  You start doubting yourself and the people around you.  One moment you feel like you are confident, and the next you are second-guessing yourself, what you want and who you are. 

Maybe your best friend has noticed that you have started asking what she thinks about what you should do in life, instead of you just going ahead and doing it.

You start to wonder if you are going crazy.

And then you begin to reflect on when it started, and realize it feels like it’s related to your husband, or maybe a boss at work.  Every time you are around them, they ask you questions that make you wonder if you actually know what you’re talking about.  You’ve heard the term “gaslighting”, and how people have related it to this type of thing, but you don’t think this is something that could happen to you.

What is the definition of gaslighting?

According to www.healthyplace.com, “gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the abuser manipulates situations repeatedly to trick the victim into distrusting his or her own memory and perceptions. Gaslighting is an insidious form of abuse. It makes victims question the very instincts that they have counted on their whole lives, making them unsure of anything. Gaslighting makes it very likely that victims will believe whatever their abusers tell them regardless as to their own experience of the situation. Gaslighting often precedes other types of emotional and physical abuse because the victim of gaslighting is more likely to remain in other abusive situations as well.”

Where did the term gaslighting come from?

There is a British play from 1938 titled “Gas Light” where the husband makes every attempt to drive his wife crazy.  He uses a variety of methods that cause her to question her own perceptions and sanity.  This play made later made into a movie with Ingrid Bergman playing the wife, Paula.

Paula’s husband wants to control her, so he manipulates her environment to make her think she is losing her sanity. One thing he does is make the gaslights flicker while saying that they are burning steadily, causing her to question herself.

How do I know it is gaslighting?

Until recently, this method of abuse would have been attributed to people such as cult leader Jim Jones or different dictators in our past.  It is easy to look back on past “popular” leaders and see how they utilized this method to get people to do what they wanted.  Since gaslighting is actually more common in a marriage relationship, it can be difficult to name when it is something that is happening in your own intimate relationship.  It happens over time, and since quite often just between the two of you rather than in front of others.

While gaslighting is a form of abuse, it isn’t similar to physical or sexual abuse, because it doesn’t happen to our external bodies, and typically takes time to present in our relationships.  The person who uses gaslighting to control the people in their lives does it slowly, in such a way that you wouldn’t really be able to notice it is happening.

How does a gaslighter behave?

* Outright Lying.  You can tell that they are lying.  They aren’t just telling you little white lies, they are blatant.  The thing is they do it so nonchalantly that you begin to question yourself rather than them.  You start to question everything and feel uncertain about the simplest of things. This self-doubt is exactly what your gaslighter is working towards.

* Denial.  You know what they said or did something, but they deny that it ever happened.  And they don’t stop denying it.  This makes you question yourself, and your sanity.  You find yourself starting to believe their version over reality because they are so adamant.

* Trivializing.  Their thoughts, beliefs and emotions about a certain topic are all that matter.  They make you feel like you don’t have a voice…that you don’t matter.

* Using their words.  Someone who gaslights others is very proficient at speaking.  They can talk forever, and in a way that sounds like they are a good person.  Watch how they behave though.  That old saying that “actions speak louder than words” is so important in this situation.

* Withholding.  A gaslighter will withhold his thoughts or emotions with you and pretend that they don’t understand what you’re talking about. 

* Using what you love against you.  This type of abuser will find ways to turn your passions into something that is used against you.  Do you love your job?  They will find an issue with it and use that to cause you to question yourself, why you love it, and your skills.  Do have a good set of long-time friends?  Your abuser will find ways to make you question their loyalty and your value in those relationships.

* Losing yourself.  This type of abuse is not one that is out of reaction, but rather is done with thought and foresight.  This shows up in the way that they gradually chip away at who you are and how you view yourself and your relationships.  Even the strongest, most confident person can become just a shell of their former self without even realizing what is happening to them.  You get lost and become what your abuser wants you to be.

* Faking love and care.  A gaslighter will find ways to tell you that they love you, and lift you up, only to tear you apart, and then repeat this over and over.  Similar to other types of abuse, the times when they lift you up or profess their love for you keeps you in the relationship and having hope for who they could be.

* Crazy making.  The process of gaslighting is methodical and wears you down over time.  Since this is done by the person that is supposed to care about you the most, you look to them for reassurance that you aren’t crazy, which you don’t receive…they affirm that you must be losing it.  And then to make matters worse, they start to tell other people in your life that you are crazy.

How do you know if you are a victim of gaslighting?

When you are a victim of gaslighting it can be difficult to understand the difference between what is real and what is not.  You may wonder if you are being worn down, but aren’t sure how to tell.  Here are a few things to look out for and ask yourself: 

1.      Do you find that you are constantly second-guessing yourself and your decisions, thoughts or emotions?

2.      Do you find yourself keeping information about your relationship or your partner from your friends and family?

3.      Do you often feel confused? Do you wonder if you are “losing it”?

4.      Do you ask yourself if you are too sensitive about anything and everything?

5.      Do you find it difficult to make any decisions on your own?

6.     Do you…or your friends…comment on how much you’ve changed over time?  You used to be fun-loving, confident and strong, and now you can’t make a decision to save your life?

7.      Do you feel that there is something wrong but you just can’t put words to it?

8.     Do you feel a lack of hope and joy where you used to be a fairly positive person?

9.     Do you believe that you can’t do anything right?

10.   Do you find yourself wondering why you make everything such a big deal?

If you are answering yes to a lot of these questions, this can be a sign that you are a victim of gaslighting.

What can you do if you are being gaslighted?

Since gaslighting is something that happens over time and makes you question yourself and the core of who you are, it can be difficult to break out of this type of abuse.  But as with any type of abuse, there are ways to break free.

In an article on vox.com, Robin Stern, PhD shares a number of steps that can help you to begin to get yourself to safety.

1.      Start with finding ways to identify what your emotions are, and how to care for them.  Grounding techniques can help with this as you slow down, care for your body and learn to trust what it is telling you.

2.      Keep doing what you’re doing right now.  Recognize that there is a problem, and give it a name.

3.      Sort out the truth from distortion. Write down conversations in a journal so you can take an objective look at it. Where is the conversation veering off from reality into the other person’s view?

4.      Figure out if you are in a power struggle with your partner.  If you find yourself having the same conversation over and over again and can’t seem to convince them to acknowledge your point of view, you might be getting gaslighted.

5.      Use this mental exercise to begin changing your mindset: Visualize yourself without the relationship or continuing it at much more of a distance. Importantly, cast the vision in a positive light, even if it causes you to feel anxiety. Think down the road when you will have your own reality, social support, and integrity.

6.     Give yourself permission to feel what you feel.  Accept and acknowledge that what you feel is okay. Find ways to track your emotions and feelings.  There are different apps available for this such as “Mood Meter”.  These can help you learn about your emotions and track your patterns, allowing you to learn what triggers your feelings and gives helpful strategies to shift your moods.

7.      Allow yourself to give something up. Part of what makes it painful and challenging to leave a gaslighting relationship is that the gaslighter may be the one “someone” you have committed to, whether it’s your partner or a family member.  It’s okay to walk away from toxicity, regardless of the source.

8.     Talk to your friends.  Ask them if you seem like yourself and do a reality check on your spouse’s behaviour. Ask them to be brutally honest.

9.     Focus on what your feelings and emotions are rather than what is right or wrong. It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to be right or spend endless hours ruminating about who’s right. But determining who is right and wrong is less important than how you feel — if your conversation leaves you feeling bad or second-guessing yourself, that’s what you need to pay attention to. Having a sense of psychological and emotional well-being in a relationship is more important than who is right or wrong in any conversation.

10.   Remember that you aren’t able to control anyone else’s opinions, even if you are right.  You may never get your friend or your boss or your partner to agree that you aren’t too sensitive or too controlling or too anything. You need to let go of trying, as maddening as this can be. The only person whose opinion you can control is your own.

11.    Have compassion for yourself.  This is really hard even when you are not in a compromising relationship. But when you are not feeling confident and strong, it’s even harder to give yourself the benefit of the doubt, kindness, and love. It will be a healing influence and help you move forward in your decision making. Now is a time for self-care.

If you have read through this article and found yourself identifying with a lot of it, you may be feeling overwhelmed right now.  Or maybe there is some relief that there is actually a term for what you are experiencing.  I would encourage you to take some of the steps above to help yourself get out of and heal from this type of abuse.

With the support of trusted friends or family, and a professional counsellor such as myself, you can start to take back your life.  You can learn to trust yourself, love who you are again, and begin living a more healthy and authentic life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

Better Help - https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/relations/gaslighting-a-sneaky-kind-of-emotional-abuse/

Vox - https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/12/19/18140830/gaslighting-relationships-politics-explained

Thrivetalk - https://www.thrivetalk.com/gaslighting/

Healthy Place - https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/emotional-psychological-abuse/gaslighting-definition-techniques-and-being-gaslighted