How to spot gaslighting — and stop it
What you think you know about gaslighting may be wrong… ironically
Have you ever questioned your own reality? I don’t mean in the metaphorical, philosophical way — but more in the form of your day-to-day. Like the things you feel and see every day might not actually be what they seem?
Has someone used words and emotions to make you feel like you are, in fact, losing it? Like the way you see the world is somehow incorrect?
In recent years, mental health professionals have found a troubling trend, caused by manipulative behavior by someone close to a victim: Gaslighting. And it’s a lot more common than you might think.
You’ve probably heard it in the context of trauma, manipulation, and domestic abuse — but there seem to be few people that can tell you much about it.
“Gaslighting” gives a name to one of the most powerful forms of abuse. It’s not an abuse you can always see or feel, but it’s a deeper, more manipulative strategy of control.
So what is gaslighting?
A term that, according to Google Trends, gained popularity in January of 2017. A word that only came to true prominence in February of 2018. The term has gone viral, and you need to know what it’s all about.
Experts define gaslighting as “a form of persistent manipulation and brainwashing that causes the victim to doubt her or himself, and ultimately lose his or her sense of perception, identity, and self-worth.”
The term comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light, in which a man denies he has dimmed the lights in his home to drive his wife to insanity. A pretty simplistic and physical form of the manipulation.
Gaslighting tactics come in many forms, and is often overlooked or misunderstood by the victim. It typically happens gradually and can lead to a complete dependence on the abuser to find reality. Scary, right?
Gaslighting is one of the simplest forms of narcissistic abuse. Know what it looks like to understand its power.
Gaslighting often occurs in this order:
Lying & exaggerating
- Using false accusations and presumptions, the gaslighter creates a negative environment for the victim. By utilizing falsehoods rather than objective truths, the victim is caught in the hearsay of their own relationship.
- With repetition comes power, keeping the victim on the defensive and in the dark. It’s kind of like when you hear the same word over and over and it stops feeling real — except it’s with your entire existence.
Escalating when challenged
- The abuser may get upset when called on their behavior and overreact to compensate for the reality of their lies. This instills fear in the victim, meaning they’re less likely to challenge in the future — at this point, they may begin to notice that their reality is misaligned.
Wearing out the victim
- By repeating the aforementioned tactics, the gaslighter has caused their partner to become self-doubting, pessimistic, and involuntarily more reserved. The entire personality of the victim can change when worn out, experiencing mental exhaustion and extreme confusion.
Forming codependent relationships
- The gaslighter causes their partner to become insecure and anxious in all aspects of life — emotionally, mentally, and even physically. To find the security they need, they have nowhere to look but to their abuser. Their partner becomes the only source of reassurance and, in turn, reality.
Giving false hope
- The abusive partner will act superficially kind to remind the victim that they might not be all that bad, and that, once again, it’s all in their head. Once this confidence and security is regained, the controlling partner’s attitude can switch at the drop of a hat. The dynamics of the codependent relationship are reinforced when the abuser switches right back to their gaslighting behavior.
Dominating & controlling
- By constantly lying, manipulating, and coercing their partner, the pathological gaslighter has assumed the position of puppeteer in the relationship. The victim has succumbed to their methods of control, and now knows no way out. Their reality has been compromised and oftentimes, they don’t even know it.
Other techniques may include withholding information, countering their partner, blocking or diverting their partner, projections of their own feelings, performing actions that seemingly go against their words, trivializing their partner’s words, and even denial.
The abuser typically knows what they’re doing, and gains satisfaction from the intellectual manipulation of their partner.
More often than not, the gaslighter has some type of mental disorder and controls their partner to gain a feeling of dominance and improved self-esteem.
It’s dangerous, discreet, and all-encompassing. Catching these techniques early can prevent the life-altering feelings of loss-of-self, demoralization, and pain.
How to Spot Gaslighting in a Relationship
Here are some gaslighting examples you might hear:
“I never said that, you’re making things up again.”
“Are you sure that’s what happened? You always remember things incorrectly.”
“It’s all in your head.”
“I don’t want to hear this again.”
“You’re imagining things. Did you get that from [friend/family member]?”
“You’re overly sensitive.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Does that make this bizarre concept a little bit more concrete?
Those are just a few examples of what a gaslighting abuser might say. The words are enough to alter the victim’s sense of self, whether they dance around the point, invalidate their partner, or fabricate complete lies.
Odds are good you’ve heard one of these phrases before. They aren’t always as damaging on their own, but that’s because gaslighting is a long-term form of emotional manipulation.
Domestic abusers use slow but calculated tactics of manipulation to gain control of their partners.
It’s kind of like when someone steals money from a company over a period of time — maybe as long as years — before ever being accused of embezzling. Because they took such small amounts of money each time, it was hardly even noticeable.
You might not notice gaslighting either. And that’s why it works so well.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it can typically seem like a harmless misunderstanding at first. But it only escalates from there.
Maybe you’ve heard some of these phrases from your own partner, but you’re not quite sure their behavior qualifies as abusive. Unfortunately, it probably does.
If your partner has ever done any of the aforementioned — you might need to reevaluate your relationship and the unhealthy tendencies therein, not your sanity.
Are you a victim of gaslighting?
The following questions should help you assess whether or not your partner is using gaslighting to gain control over you.
- Do you wonder if you’re overly sensitive?
- Do you often feel confused and even crazy?
- Do you constantly second-guess yourself?
- Do you apologize to your partner multiple times in a day?
- Do you withhold information from family and friends?
- Do you lie to avoid the consequences in your relationship?
- Do you make excuses for your partner’s behavior to others?
- Do you wonder if you’re a “good enough” partner?
- Do you have trouble making simple decisions?
- Do you feel sad and hopeless?
- Do you have trouble understanding why you’re not happier than you are?
Whether you found yourself resonating with some or all of these questions, just know you’re not alone.
According to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, nearly half of all men and women in the U.S. have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
The group most widely affected by intimate partner violence is females aged 18–24.
Whether you’ve noticed these gaslighting tactics yourself or you’ve heard them said to a friend or family member, there are resources to stop the manipulation, the confusion, and the heartbreak. If it doesn’t affect you directly, it never hurts to be an ally.
Gaslighting might not even be coming from a romantic partner; it could be a parent, a sibling, or even a manager. In fact, gaslighting at work isn’t as uncommon as you might think. Abuse knows no boundaries and has a way of reaching some of the strongest people we know.
Here are some ways to deal with gaslighting:
Identify the Signs
Trust yourself to believe in your own surroundings. This is much easier said than done, but start by taking note of each interaction you might be questioning. Keep these notes private or hidden, away from where your partner might find them.
Maybe it’s one of the phrases mentioned earlier, and maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s opening up to your partner about something intimate and being completely rejected. Maybe it’s having proof of something you or your partner said and being told it didn’t happen.
If there’s someone in your life who you feel constantly denounces your contributions or refuses to believe you, go with your gut. It might not be a partner, but their refusal to validate your feelings signals an unhealthy communication style regardless.
Reach Out to a Trusted Adult
Confide in a friend, a parent, a relative, a coworker — someone you can trust, who ideally has no ties with your partner.
If you don’t feel like there’s anyone you can easily talk to, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE to find a local survivor support organization, or to talk to an advocate about what you’re experiencing.
Talking to someone else about what’s happening can be the hardest step of the process. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that you deserve better.
You’re not crazy, the situation is.
Take a Stand to Stop Gaslighting in a Relationship
With or without help from others, take a stand to get what you deserve.
It might be leaving the situation entirely, or it might be having a firm conversation about what you know you deserve.
It might take time to muster up the courage, but remember that the earlier you acknowledge the manipulation, the sooner you’ll be back to living your own reality.
If you don’t think any of these tactics will work for you, there are dozens of national and local organizations fighting to end intimate partner violence and abuse who offer support and resources for leaving unhealthy relationships, like these:
- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
- Safety Planning
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Office on Women’s Health
Anyone can fall victim, and psychological forms of abuse often lead to physical violence down the road. Keep your eyes out for red flags, and take care of those around you.
If you see something, say something. Those most affected often don’t even know.