Gaslighting at its simplest is about manipulating others to gain control over a situation. But would you recognize this kind of psychological abuse if you were the victim? And more importantly, would you know what to do about it?
Ever had someone say to you, “You’re too sensitive,” “You’re imaging it,” or “Lighten up, I was only joking!”?
How did it make you feel?
These are typical statements used by gaslighters. And it’s not putting it too bluntly to say that gaslighting is a serious problem. It is emotional abuse; a form of manipulation. Gaslighting leaves its victim questioning what they thought they knew about themselves, their recollection of events and ultimately their perception of reality. It can make them feel lost and confused with no idea how or why:
“Am I overreacting?,” “Is that not what happened?,” “Am I going mad?”
This is something that can happen in romantic relationships as well as in friendships and in the workplace. One thing is for sure though, in an intimate relationship it is far more damaging due to the trust you have placed in your partner. It is also much harder to walk away from.
Of course, if this happened once in a while, it’s possible you wouldn’t notice it. But when you start to spot this type of gaslighting behavior sneaking in more regularly, it could be a sign that there is a problem brewing.
Gaslighting can take a number of different forms, or more usually a combination of several different techniques. Each is designed to slowly wear the victim down and exert power over them.
One common type of emotional manipulation is to deny all knowledge of a specific memory or event you have; to make you question whether it ever happened in the first place. To sow seeds of doubt in your mind. If you raise a concern with them, or mention something you’ve been worried about, they may act as though your emotions and feelings don’t matter. They may tell you you’re too dramatic or you “always overreact”.
And if you try to confront them? They’ll likely tell you they have no idea what you’re talking about and you must be crazy to say the things you’re saying. They may even turn things on their head and make it sound like they are the victim and you are the one manipulating the truth.
Over time, this type of gaslighting can encourage you to shut down; to become afraid to show your emotions. They may tell you everyone else is lying to you and you should only believe them. And dangerously, you may start to believe that everything that happens is your own fault which, unsurprisingly, can have a huge mental health impact on your daily life. It can also be a source of relationship anxiety.
It’s often assumed that gaslighting is done deliberately. That the gaslighter is choosing to use this manipulation technique to control their victim. And often this may be the case. Indeed, gaslighting can be a favorite pastime of many narcissistic people.
But sometimes, the person manipulating the situation may be entirely unaware of the hurt and pain they’re causing. The important thing to remember here is that doesn’t make it OK and it doesn’t make it any easier for them to stop doing it.
One of the reasons that this is such a huge problem is that, as a victim of gaslighting, it can be incredibly hard to recognize what is going on. Gaslighting is not an overnight occurrence, it tends to start subtly and build over time. With many of the characteristics easy to explain away as an ‘off day’ or bad mood.
Our advice is to first check in with your gut. Deep down, do you feel you’re in a healthy relationship?
If you’re looking for signs of gaslighting in your relationship, ask yourself some questions:
And crucially, if you try to voice any of these concerns, do you get anywhere?
These are all common gaslighting techniques. Psychological manipulation tactics that can develop over time to create a cycle of abuse.
If you’re unsure whether you’re in a gaslighting situation, consider talking to a trusted friend who can help to give you a more balanced view of reality. They’ll help you to understand how things look from the outside.
Alternatively a book, such as the excellent 'Gaslighting' by Stephanie Sarkis, PhD could help you to really shed light on and begin to understand the gaslighting techniques that are so often used.
Recoginizing attempts to gaslight is only the first step. Once you’ve spotted the warning signs, what can you do to get yourself away from this manipulative behavior?
Unfortunately for gaslighting victims, often the only real solution is to get out of the relationship. Gaslighters do not become gaslighters because of anything you have done, it is a trait of their personality. It’s a hard truth that things are unlikely to improve.
Depending on your situation - not least whether there are children involved - leaving your long-term partner can be painful and difficult. Consider seeking support from a mental health professional if you feel unable to break away. They will help you to explore your feelings and reassure you that these issues are not in your head.