Image by Brock Roseberry. Used under CC BY 2.0

What to do when you feel awful & nothing seems to make sense: identifying & navigating gaslighting.

People who engage in gaslighting (a form of emotional abuse) often have an underlying, untreated illness: substance abuse, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, etc. This means that they are unlikely to stop the behavior without undergoing a crisis, realizing that their behavior is the source of their own unhappiness, and undergoing therapeutic intervention.

(Full disclaimer: this is not intended to suggest that all people with mental illness are terrible humans. I live with mental illness myself. It does, however, behoove us to recognize that untreated and unrecognized mental illness can contribute to antisocial behavior)

It also means that they are not really in control of the behavior.

One mistake we often make is to assume that gaslighting is intentional and calculated. It’s not: like most abuse, it’s reactive and triggered. This status is precisely why the behaviors can seem so random and incomprehensible that they make us, the targets or observers of the behavior, feel out of control ourselves, or as if our own perceptions must be skewed.

Gaslighting makes us feel out of touch with reality by making reality seem so weird.

This does not mean that the abuser does not have responsibility for their own actions and the harm they cause. It does mean that attempting to navigate these situations through logic or negotiation will not help you. The gaslighter is not subject to logic; they will simply find ways to twist your own words back so that they seem to make no sense.

Have you ever had an argument where, after fifteen minutes, you have no idea how you have come to be defending something that seems completely, on the face of it, nonsensical? Assuming that you didn’t actually say that foolish thing in the first place (hey, it happens to all of us, and in that case maybe do apologize) you have probably just been gaslit.

The gaslighter is acting out of a deep sense of fragility. They need to be right; they need to be socially superior and admired; they need to have power; they need to have control of the narrative. When those things are threatened, they feel a deep sense of insecurity and act out to reassert control.

Classic tactics for asserting this control include:

· Counterfactual statements. (Lies)

· Telling different stories to different people, depending on what they think will make them look good and win them approval. Also, to play people off against each other and stay at the center of attention. (Drama farming)

· Inserting themselves into existing communities or relationships and attempting to center those communities on them.

· Claiming success in excess of accomplishments.

· Ignoring or steamrolling the boundaries of others.

· Declaring their own boundaries sacrosanct, even unreasonable ones. Responding to any challenge with cruelty or guilt tripping.

· “Negging,” nitpicking, disapproval. Undermining behavior. “Wow you actually look amazing today!” in a tone that implies you usually don’t. Using your weaknesses and insecurities to erode your confidence.

· Occasional wild flattery or extravagant gifts when they sense their target slipping away. Grand gestures to seem magnanimous, which often never materialize.

· Bullying/nagging/guilt tripping. “You owe me.”

· Setting people up to fall into arguments so they can be bullied or mocked.

· Refusal to acknowledge their own debts or responsibilities.

· Histrionics and victim-status claims to engender guilt or sympathy when called on their bad behavior. “Why do my friends always turn on me? Why is there a conspiracy against me?”

· Ostracizing people as a punishment. Taking petty vengeance to feel powerful.

· Presenting themselves as a rescuer or truth speaker. Presenting themselves as the only trustworthy friend. Isolating their targets.

· Claiming more popularity and closer friendships and more social power than they actually have. Going out of their way to make themselves appear chummy with people they perceive as popular or important. Aggressively overplaying their closeness with a social group so that it seems like they are very good friends with everybody.

· Promising you all sorts of things to your face to get your goodwill and then doing whatever seems easiest and most immediately self serving after.

· Total and utter lack of accountability. Nothing is EVER their fault.

The amazing thing is that these tactics work really well.

It becomes so much easier to give in. Most people second guess themselves in social situations; we try to fix a problem if we feel we’ve hurt a friend — or even a casual stranger. The gaslighter exploits this human compassion to sow confusion and dependency and exert power, because controlling other people makes them feel briefly safe.

It’s important to remember that these behaviors are not intentional, in the sense of the self-actualized person taking considered action. They are reactive; they are not critically examined and chosen. They’re a series of conditioned behaviors that the emotional abuser has internalized and performs reflexively until they find the tactic that gets the response they wanted.

That pushes their target’s buttons, in other words.

These behaviors generally grow out of experience, but they’re not intentional manipulation in the sense of the abuser making a choice to try to get a chosen result. For example, in a meeting with a difficult supervisor, many of us will choose how to present information in order to get the response we need to move forward with whatever work has to be done. If you know your boss loves puppies, you’re going to make a choice to lead with the puppies on your slideshow.

The gaslighter isn’t thinking this far ahead, or this tactically. Instead, basically like a trained dog who wants a treat and will offer all their behaviors in sequence until one of them earns the reward, the gaslighter is offering all of their tactics in sequence until they find the one that elicits the response they want.

And the response they want is the one that relieves the anxiety and dysphoria they are experiencing and lets them feel powerful again. It is the one that disempowers you, makes you feel upset, destroys your confidence, and makes you dependent on the abuser.

It looks random and chaotic because it is, and that’s also why it’s so hard to counter. Because it’s not a choice and it’s not something that can be negotiated with. You can attempt to negotiate, and the gaslighter may even seem willing to do so — but the instant whatever was agreed on gets in their way, or doesn’t get them the attention and adulation (centering in the narrative) they feel they deserve — no, not even that, that they crave — they will abandon it without a backward glance.

And probably claim that you broke the deal first.

The only really solid available response to such people is to walk away and — if it seems warranted — to warn others. If you are trapped in this situation (as with a toxic colleague, family member, or world leader) then all you can do to mitigate is be very intentional in your own decision making.

If you become reactive, too, the gaslighter is winning: they have power over you. If you choose not to be manipulated and do what you were going to do anyway, and maybe point out their bullshit… you’ll feel less crazy, and they’ll have less power over you. You can even establish their pattern of toxic behavior and bring it to the courts, or at least the court of public opinion.

(I warn you, this is a huge research project, and be prepared to have data and get a lot of kicking, because they and the people who have not shaken off their mind control rays yet will come after you. Likewise, if the person you are going after is higher in the social hierarchy of power than you are, people who ought to know better and be braver will protect them.)

Line your friends up first, be resolute, and don’t be drawn into engagement on their terms, ever. You will probably be surprised, however, by the number of people who you thought were the gaslighter’s allies who are like “Oh thank God” and cheerfully defect once they realize that that person does not, in fact, have the level of unassailable social or professional power they claimed to.)

They will fight back. It won’t be pleasant. But if you are resolute and refuse to become reactive, you stand a decent chance of exposing at least some of their behaviors to the world. And the less reactive you are, the less able they are to provoke you, the more likely it is that their mask will slip and their abusiveness will become public knowledge.

You probably won’t be able to fire them entirely from your social group or place of business unless you can expose significant criminal wrongdoing, but in some cases that is a possibility.

At the very least, they may drop a lot of ill-considered threats or self-aggrandizement all over Twitter, if they happen to be feeling really out of control.