What is Gaslighting?
Inspired by the 1940 and 1944 films “Gas Light,” where a husband systematically manipulates his wife in order to make her feel crazy, the term “Gaslighting” is now commonly used to describe behaviour that is inherently manipulative.
Gaslighting, at its core, is a form of emotional abuse that slowly eats away at your ability to make judgements. Essentially, a Gaslighter spins their negative, harmful or destructive words and actions in their favour, deflecting the blame for their abusive deeds and pointing the finger at you.
This is often done by making you feel “overly sensitive,” “paranoid,” “mentally unstable,” “silly,” “unhinged,” and many other sensations which cause you to doubt yourself.
How to Know Whether Someone is Gaslighting You
Gaslighting is so harmful because it promotes anxiety, depression, and with enough frequency in our lives, can sometimes trigger nervous breakdowns. So the question now it: are you being gaslighted? How can you know whether you’re experiencing this subtle form of manipulation in your life?
Review the following tell-tale signs:
- Something is “off” about your a person in your life … but you can’t quite explain or pinpoint what.
- You frequently second-guess your ability to remember the details of past events.
- You feel confused and disorientated.
- You feel threatened and on-edge, but you don’t know why.
- You feel the need to apologize all the time for what you do or who you are.
- You never quite feel “good enough” and try to live up to the expectations and demands of others, even if they are unreasonable or harm you in some way.
- You feel like there’s something fundamentally wrong with you, e.g. you’re neurotic or are “losing it.”
- You feel like you’re constantly overreacting or are too sensitive.
- You feel isolated, hopeless, misunderstood and depressed.
- You find it hard to trust your own judgement, and given a choice, you choose to believe the judgement of another.
- You feel scared and as though “something is terribly wrong,” but you don’t know what or why.
- You find it hard to make decisions.
- You feel as though you’re a much weaker version of yourself, and you were much more strong and confident in the past.
- You feel guilty for not feeling happy like you used to.
- You’ve become afraid of “speaking up” or expressing your emotions, so you stay silent instead.
Tactics Used by the Gaslighter
Gaslighters use a variety of subtle techniques to undermine your reality and portrayyou as the disturbed and messed up one.
These include, for example:
- Discrediting you by making other people think that you’re crazy, irrational or unstable.
- Using a mask of confidence, assertiveness, and/or fake compassion to make you believe that you “have it all wrong.” Therefore, eventually you begin to doubt yourself and believe their version of past events.
- Changing the subject. The gaslighter may divert the topic by asking another question, or making a statement usually directed at your thoughts, e.g. “You’re imagining things—that never happened!” “No, you’re wrong, you didn’t remember right.” “Is that another crazy idea you got from your (anyone)?”
- Minimizing. By trivializing how you feel and what you think, the gaslighter gains more and more power over you, e.g. “Why are you being so sensitive?” “You don’t need to get angry over a little thing like that!” “I was just joking around, why are you taking things so seriously?”
- Denial and avoidance. By refusing to acknowledge your feelings and thoughts, the gaslighter causes you to doubt yourself more and more. For example, “I don’t remember that, you must have dreamt it!” “You’re lying, I never said that.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re changing the subject.”
- Twisting and reframing. When the gaslighter confidently and subtly twists and reframes what was said or done in their favour, they can cause you to second-guess yourself—especially when paired with fake compassion, making you feel as though you are “unstable,” “irrational,” and so forth. For example, “I didn’t say that, I said _____” “I didn’t beat you up Johnny, I just gave you a smack around the head—that’s what all good fathers do.” “If you remember correctly, I was actually trying to help you.”
Not every instance of gaslighting is as blatant as hiding items or directly denying someone’s perceptions. Most abuse includes an element of gaslighting. Abusers rarely say out loud, “I’m choosing to abuse you.”
- A physically abusive person says, “I’m doing this for your own good. You shouldn’t provoke me.” In truth, victims do not cause abuse.
- A sexually abusive person says, “This isn’t happening. I love you. You like it. It doesn’t hurt.” In truth, abuse is not loving behavior. Children do not ask for assault. The pain is real.
- A ritually abusive group stages abuse so bizarre and extreme that victims do not believe their own memories. Real bloodshed and torture are combined with drugs and misdirection, adding to the sense of unreality.
Gaslighting occurs in more subtle ways as well, any time someone responds as if your reality does not exist.
- An adult says to a crying child, “There’s no reason to be sad. Give us a nice smile.”
- A partner says, “That’s too hard for you. I’ll do it.”
- A friend snaps, “I’m not angry! Why are you starting a fight?”
- After being called on a racist or sexist comment, the speaker says, “Just kidding!” or “You’re too sensitive!” or “You’re looking for reasons to be offended.”
How to Fight Back Against Manipulation
As with any subtle form of manipulation, the first step in freeing yourself from gaslighting is to recognize that it’s actually happeningand to determine who the abuser is. In most cases this will be pretty obvious. The next step, then, is to take a firm stand against the reality this abuser is attempting to impose on you – and that’s the hard part. When you’re in the habit of trusting someone else’s version of events above your own, it can be hard to go back to accepting what you perceive as being the truth.
Adding to that, the nature of gaslighting means that any attempt to stand up to your abuser is likely to be written off as “another fantasy.” Your complaints are likely to be met with very convincing and logical-sounding explanations, which is why it’s extremely important to commit yourself 100% to breaking the pattern.
Often the victim of this type of manipulation is aware of what’s happening, but the possible consequences of standing up to the effect seem less bad than “just letting it happen.” Often, if the problem is happening in a relationship, a necessary part of breaking free is steeling yourself to the fact that you have to be prepared to lose this person.Ultimately, if you’re in a situation where you feel dependent on your spouse or partner, you’ll allow them to manipulate you because you fear the alternative: being alone. But you have to ask yourself whether it’s better for you in the long term to be stuck in a manipulative relationship, or to break free and reclaim your own ability to make choices and decisions according to your own free will.
There’s no easy solution. Breaking the pattern requires you to assert yourself as someone with a right to have an independent opinion and worldview – and if you’ve been accepting someone else’s worldview for years, it’s going to take guts to change that. In many cases, the easiest way to break free is to remove yourself from the situation altogether and get a fresh start where you can rebuild your sense of self without manipulative influences.
It’s important to recognize in any case that the manipulation is really happening no matter what the gaslighter says, and that there are people who can help you. Turn to trusted friends, independent support networks or therapists, or other people in your work organization (preferably those higher up the chain than the person doing the gaslighting).
Breathe into doubt
When you notice any of these signs, allow compassion for yourself. Breathe into your truth. “I don’t know what to believe. I feel crazy.” Bring kindness to your experience of confusion and doubt.
Keep a record
If you have enough privacy, it can bring relief to record your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Your journal can receive your conflicting impressions without the need for certainty. If someone questions your memory, you can look back at your notes. If items mysteriously appear and disappear, you can take strategic photographs of problem areas.
To rebuild self-trust and repair your reality, tune in to your internal signals with interested curiosity. In her book The Power of Focusing, Ann Weiser Cornell teaches Inner Relationship Focusing, a simple method for connecting with yourself. When you notice a sensation or emotion, you can keep it company, listening for its truth without expecting it to change.
- “Something in me feels anxious, and I say hello to that.”
- “My belly feels tight, and I say hello to that.”
- “I don’t know what I feel, and I say hello to that.”
If you feel judgmental of what you notice, you can turn your listening attention toward judgment.
- “Something in me hates that I feel anxious, and I say hello to that.”
- “Something in me wants my belly to relax, and I say hello to that.”
- “Something in me says I should know what I feel, and I say hello to that.”
As you listen inside, your vague sensations will become more clear. As parts of you feel fully heard, they will shift and heal. As you practice listening, you will regain confidence in your perceptions.
In the movie Gaslight, Gregory’s manipulation of his wife is part of a hidden plot to find her aunt’s jewels. Sometimes gaslighting helps an abuser maintain a more sympathetic self-image as well as concealing abuse. While it is happening, gaslighting often lacks an apparent motive, which adds to the victim’s confusion and self-doubt.
You do not have to figure out why someone is gaslighting you. You do not even have to label the behavior as gaslighting. You can simply say hello to your confusion and desire to understand.
Seek out support
It can be tempting to ask others to confirm your perceptions of gaslighting. Unfortunately, others may be unaware of what is happening and do not have your moment by moment observations. Turn your attention toward what is true for you.
- “Something in me is uncertain, and I say hello to that.”
- “Something in me desperately wants confirmation, and I say hello to that.”
Instead of taking a poll on whether your perceptions are correct, seek out people who support you in welcoming all your perceptions.
As you repair your relationship with yourself, the effects of gaslighting will gradually fall away. Over time, your boundaries will heal, and you will naturally say no to emotionally abusive behavior.
The wikipedia entry for gaslighting has a good summary and background information.