How to Avoid Gaslighters Who Manipulate Your Mind

Strengthen your boundaries. Don’t believe what they say.

Gaslighting is the malevolent art of convincing someone that what they think is happening is not happening, or that what they think is not happening is actually happening. Sound confusing? That’s because it is. Confusion is one of the goals of gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a form of abuse that violates your emotional and intellectual boundaries. An expert gaslighter can skillfully distort the reality of a susceptible victim using a range of tactics to mess with their mind.

Gaslighting in Our Personal Life and Our Workplace

Until a few years ago we most commonly heard the term “gaslighting” to refer to something that happened in an intimate relationship. A person of any gender can be a gaslighter but the majority are men who gaslight women.

Though the term is often used loosely, it’s no longer unusual to hear it used to describe public figures in positions of power.

While many people have not experienced romantic gaslighting, I think it’s safe to say that most of us have had a gaslighting boss.

The Romantic Gaslighter

If you’ve experienced gaslighting from a romantic partner, you were likely fooled at first. You might have even thought you’d found your soulmate. But the promises and initial romancing are part of the gaslighting process. Gaslighters use flattery, gifts, and romantic gestures to win you over. But there are always telltale signs that their interest isn’t authentic. The key is to learn how to recognize disingenuous attention. They will almost always use love bombing to manipulate and sweep you off your feet. If it seems too good to be true, be careful, it might be.

You might not know how to recognize a gaslighter before you get involved with them. That’s okay, don’t belittle yourself for it. Hopefully, by the time you reach the end of this piece, you’ll have improved your radar and will notice at least one red flag the next time a gaslighter gets within ten feet. You may still be attracted but you’ll recognize them more easily and walk away sooner.

The Workplace Gaslighter

There are few people on the planet who at some time haven’t had a difficult or abusive boss. Gaslighting can be part of the abuse and can be traumatizing. Our boss inherently has power over us because that’s how the business world operates. Most of us are dependent on the income from our job, which makes it difficult or even impossible to walk away or call it out.

Man in business suit holds strings of male marionette

When coming from a supervisor or a co-worker, the workplace gaslighter might inflict their lies on you because they feel threatened in some way. Not physically but they might see that you are smarter and they may feel afraid that you could end up with their job. Sometimes they are simply cruel people with a troubled past and that’s how they operate.

See “Bullying Bosses-Why Are There So Many Who Demean & Gaslight Us?” (the link will be added once it’s published)

The Gaslighter’s Signature Traits

The term gaslighting is overused and often used incorrectly. The accurate definition is when someone tries to make you believe a false reality — to not trust your perceptions and to eventually question your own sanity.

  1. They Lie: They are never truly authentic. Initially, their lies will likely be small and might be overlooked by those who are too trusting. The blatant lies show up later once they know you are hooked. You may think “How can this be a lie? Who would tell such a huge lie?” A gaslighter would — that’s how they roll. Many believe the lie because it is so big.

2. Denial of What They Did or Said: They deny, even when you have proof of what they did. You know what’s true but they deny it. They do this again and again. If this happens to you and you start to question your reality you are likely struggling with your personal boundaries. You are a trusting person who forgives but if you keep believing someone who lies and then denies, you will only get sucked more deeply into their abuse. You need to strengthen your emotional and intellectual boundaries and trust what you know rather than what they tell you.

3. They Blame Others and Claim to Be the Victim: They blame everyone else for their bad behavior and shortcomings. They tell exotic tales of their bad luck or who is out to get them. If the gaslighter doesn’t outright deny their bad behavior they will offer all sorts of excuses. They will never take responsibility because their underlying insecurity makes them incapable of admitting that they did something wrong. Consequently, they will not apologize — at least not sincerely, because they think they are the poor pitiful victim.

4. They Project Their Bad Behavior Onto You: They will accuse you of the unkind or irresponsible behavior that they have committed. They might accuse you of not being available enough or of cheating on them. They do this to distract you from their inconsiderate behavior, but it also puts you on the defensive. Don’t fall for it. You don’t need to explain if you are not guilty of what they say. They will accuse you of being the one who is unhinged and they may tell that to others. It’s one more way of destroying your confidence as they try to make you believe that everything is your fault. They want you to question your perceptions because then you will hesitate to tell anyone that you’re being abused. You’ll be afraid that you won’t be believed. You will stay silent, which is exactly what the gaslighter wants you to do.

5. They Violate Small to Test You, Then Slowly Turn Up the Volume: They will tell a small lie, or make a small insult to see what you will tolerate. If you allow those first violations without objection, the lies and violations will increase in intensity as they continue to test what you will put up with. Many psychologists say that anyone can be gaslit but I still argue that only weak boundaries allow it. That’s not meant as an insult, simply a warning. If you keep getting involved with gaslighters, it’s because you are vulnerable to them. Something about them is familiar and attracts you. They might remind you of a family member. You’ll need to break that spell to stop going back.

6. They Create Confusion: One of the biggest red flags is confusion. If there is a lot of confusion in the relationship that’s a bad sign. If your partner is not a gaslighter, the confusion still might be an indication that you are not a match because the two of you don’t communicate effectively. You can try improving your own communication skills but if the confusion continues, it’s more likely them than you.

7. They Will Sweet Talk You: They do this to reel you back in after they’ve been abusive- to keep you hooked and throw you off balance. They count on you being forgiving. The same person who has been verbally abusive and lying suddenly changes their behavior. This is when they might offer a fake apology, saying they’ll make it up to you and begging you to forgive them. If you become convinced that they have changed, they haven’t. It’s part of their manipulation. It keeps you confused.

https://twitter.com/BlackTzedek/status/1405128079001980933

8. They Insist That Everyone Else is Lying. Again they are messing with your head, trying to convince you that they are telling the truth and it’s others who are being deceitful. That accusation is so absurd — don’t be tricked into thinking it’s true. It’s one more manipulation technique that works on those who feel unsure of themselves. If you buy into any of their BS you will be left with only one person to trust — the gaslighter. That’s their goal because it makes you dependent and less likely to leave them.

Who They Target

Most of what’s published about gaslighting explains what it is, and how to recognize a gaslighter by the tactics they use.

If you’ve been the victim of a gaslighter this section is about you. What I tell you might be hard to hear but perhaps it will be the most helpful.

Nothing I say is meant to be victim-blaming, but I’m going to be straight with you. I’m going to describe the traits of those who are most likely to be the victims of gaslighters. I want you to know what puts you at risk. I want to help you lower your risk of being taken for another ride by a gaslighter. I want to help you feel more confident and get better at keeping yourself safe.

hand with a string on each finger that dangles a heart, dice, a globe and a coin

Codependency

Some may feel it’s judgmental to label someone as codependent, but almost all of us have some codependent characteristics (including me, of course!). I encourage you to consider it an efficient and useful umbrella term.

Codependency includes multiple characteristics, many of which would be considered positive qualities if they were not as extreme or self-sacrificing.

They include:

  • fawning behavior — putting the needs of others ahead of your own
  • overly focused on others — a “people pleaser”
  • being passive and unable to say “no”
  • being self-critical and feeling low self-worth
  • being inauthentic because your identity is not yet fully defined
  • not knowing your true self
  • making your happiness dependent on the happiness of others
  • sacrificing yourself for others to an extreme

The list above may seem redundant but some people find the various descriptions helpful as they relate specifically to one or two of them. Many of the characteristics are different aspects of the same thing.

Codependency is often the result of early experiences — the trauma of abuse and neglect, as well as social programming.

Needless to say, codependents are vulnerable to gaslighting. They are folks who allow others to take advantage of them.

They are people who are too trusting of others, yet not trusting enough of themselves — and easily abandon their own perceptions. They are often compassionate people who are deeply caring but who haven't developed their relational street smarts. They don’t have the refined radar that warns them when someone is untrustworthy.

If you have the qualities of empathy and helpfulness they can work against you if you sacrifice yourself too much for others. That can make you susceptible to getting entangled with the type of people who will exploit your kindness.

We have all struggled with self-esteem at times and gaslighters seem to find us when we feel the most vulnerable. They recognize and pursue people with self-doubt.

white woman holds her head with eyes closed looking distressed — graphic question marks are over her head

Gaslighters can easily identify those who have a high tolerance for abuse — those who aren’t good at setting limits.

One of the antidotes of codependency is to strengthen your emotional and intellectual boundaries. For a crash course read my “Strengthening Personal Boundaries — Professionally & at Home”

How’s it Possible for Someone to Not Know They’re Being Abused?

I have studied boundaries and abuse profiles for years. I knew that people tend to be attracted to those with characteristics similar to their parents or other family members. The classic example is a woman whose father was a violent drunk and she finds herself attracted to men who are as well.

What I couldn’t comprehend was that people might not realize that they were experiencing abuse. After reading the article below I understood it.

The abuse is familiar. They have been taught from birth to acquiesce without question. Because they were trained to be “nice,” and to not say no, they were unable to identify what was being done to them as abuse. Gaslighting is in every abuser’s toolbox. Believing a gaslighter is likely the result of early programming.

In 2022 there are still many who accept abuse. The experiences of the young women quoted in this jaw-dropping article are heartbreaking:

The women in the article literally don’t recognize when they are:

  • being verbally abused
  • being sexually abused
  • being physically abused

Men Fall Prey to Gaslighting As Well

A friend recently told me about a difficult tenant of someone I know. The tenant is a woman who fits the classic profile of a gaslighter. When all is said and done she will have cheated her landlord out of tens of thousands of dollars. She’s a stellar con artist, at least when it comes to her landlord who considered her a friend.

woman’s hand hold man with marionette strings

The guy has fallen for her lies again and again for years. The reality is that his dilemma is essentially on him. He never set limits, he bailed her out repeatedly and has been her doormat. She has the classic profile of an active alcoholic, narcissist, and gaslighter. She has not physically harmed her landlord, but she has spread lies about him. She’s an abuser.

The stories of what he did in various attempts to “help” her are incomprehensible to me. Did he not know he was being taken advantage of? I have no idea, but it was clear that he had zero ability to set limits. He was stuck in a compulsive cycle of offering what he thought of as “help,” while she was taking him to the cleaners — ripping him off financially and defaming his character.

The Manipulation Continuum

Like most characteristics, there is a continuum of dishonesty that we call “manipulation.” Below are examples listed from the highest level of manipulation to the lowest level.

What we see more often than textbook gaslighting, but is similar, is the “con.” A con artist convinces their victims of something untrue in order to take advantage of them: “This is the next big thing! Invest now!” Then they take your money. They run scams. A con artist might also seduce you emotionally and sexually. They might purposely lead you to believe they have a great interest in you when all they want is a one-night hookup.

A bit lower on the scale is general manipulation which involves persuasive messages. Some might simply be putting their best foot forward while others are downright dishonest.

A notch lower than that is an exaggeration by an insecure person who wants to impress you. That might be considered a “mini-con” though often those listening know to take what’s being said with a grain of salt.

Another type of person might dramatize their experiences yet at the same time, they are vague and almost secretive. That interactive style might have originated in their childhood as a protective survival skill, but if the habit continues into adulthood that person may never feel trusting enough to let down their guard and be authentic.

Then there are those who like being the center of attention. They always tell a good story and the “embellishments” are considered harmless poetic license, rather than manipulation.

Are Gaslighters All Narcissists?

When discussing gaslighters, authoritarians, and cult leaders the term “narcissism” often comes up. Those with one of those labels are individuals who abuse power in some way and that often means they have narcissistic characteristics.

  • Narcissism is the most common psychological trait of abusers
  • Gaslighting is the most common manipulation tactic used by abusers

It Takes Two to Tango, But You Can Stop Them

Gaslighters need people who believe them and who will engage with them in order to continue their con.

Unfortunately, some of us can’t seem to avoid dancing with these abusers. We haven’t yet developed the ability to recognize them or we find them irresistible and like a moth, we keep flying back into the flame. We buy into their sob story and try to help them or love them enough, but we may sacrifice our own well-being in the process.

What if We All Stopped Giving Them Attention?

We could leave every gaslighter, and abusive narcissist powerless if we collectively unplugged from them.

What if every one of us just walked away?

Photo by Lori Grimshaw on Unsplash

What if we stopped listening to them, stopped doubting ourselves, bailing them out, and enabling them? What if our society had real consequences for the violations and crimes of gaslighters? What if our society enforced those consequences?

We have the power to do this.
But don’t hold your breath.

So many are susceptible and our culture is too lenient with the powerful gaslighters who use their manipulation skills to outsmart prosecutors, land pardons for themselves from presidents who are gaslighters or are off the hook when we naively believe the myth that not prosecuting a Criminal in Chief will “unite the country.”

That’s never been a sound argument. Call me crazy but I believe the President of the United States should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one. I believe that letting any president off the hook is a destructive practice that enables unethical and criminal behavior. If that misguided practice of not holding the Commander in Chief accountable, continues through 2022, I fear we will lose our democracy.

If you’ve been targeted, the first step is to pay closer attention to all your relationships and situations and trust your gut more. You’ll start to develop your gaslighter/abuser detection muscle. It’s a self-awareness skill — you’ll want to get better at tuning into your feelings and your intuition. When you do, you will see the red flags that have always been waving at you but that you didn’t notice before.

Napkin with “trust your gut” on it under a cup of coffee and a pen

See my essay “Abusers: How They Evolve & How to Protect Yourself” (link will be added once this is published) to learn about the relationship dynamics between an abuser and their victim, what makes the abuse possible and what you can do to get out of that role.

How to Spot a Gaslighter (Narcissist)

Here’s a video by Dr. Craig Malkin The Simplest Way to Spot Narcissistic Personality Disorder, on how to protect yourself from gaslighting:

Here’s another video “How to Argue (But Not Fight) with a Narcissist”

Gaslighting Doesn’t Work on Everyone

Contrary to articles that say everyone is at risk, I don’t agree. Maybe the techniques work on a large segment of the population, but they don’t work on everyone. How do I know? Because they (mostly) don’t work on me.

That doesn’t mean I’ve never been fooled or gaslit to some degree, but I don’t have receptor sites for classic abusers, con artists, gaslighters, or wanna-be authoritarians.

The times when I have believed something I was told that wasn’t true, was when I was in my own self-serving denial.

For some reason, I can spot gaslighters (abusers). I see them coming because I was lucky enough to not have been as deeply programmed as most women. I know how abusers operate, my boundaries are fairly solid and I’m not susceptible to their charm or manipulation. I steer clear of them.

A Word About Narcissist Gaslighters Who Target Women

As in my earlier example, women do gaslight men. Men gaslight other men. Those of any gender can gaslighter any other gender.

But it seems that the large majority of individual gaslighting is that of men gaslighting women and girls. I have a few things to say about that.

When women are girls or teens we lecture them, telling them to be “good girls” but we never tell them how. We don’t provide the guidance girls need to develop solid boundaries. We don’t teach them limit-setting or the skills they need to protect themselves.

In fact, we teach them the opposite — to comply and be “nice.”

Truth:
Our society trains girls to be the perfect mark for a gaslighting abuser.

We can stop gaslighters if we stop purposely programming girls and women to be compliant, and to doubt themselves. We teach girls to have low expectations and to value males more than females (in other words to think less of themselves). We withhold instruction in the skills girls and women need to fend off men and be safer in the world.

If you’re tangled up with a narcissistic gaslighter, you’ll first want to assess where they fall on the continuum. If their behavior is beyond simple annoyance, find support and plan your exit strategy. Don’t even think about trying to change them.

If the narcissist truly acknowledges that they need help and expresses a desire to change, take care of yourself first. Get out and find a safe place.

Then send them this article and wish them well:

Christine Green:

*
Coaches individuals and business professionals helping them strengthen their boundaries at home and at work.

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Christine Green

Christine Green

Relational & Procedural Skills Coach. Web Design. Unbridled perspectives on almost everything. https://christinegreen.com/coaching/