What is gaslighting?
According to Dictionary.com, “Gaslighting is the act of distorting the truth in a way that’s intended to make another person accept the deception due to doubting their own memory, reality, or sanity. It’s considered a form of psychological manipulation or emotional abuse.”
The term gaslighting comes from the 1938 play and 1940s film, Gaslight. In this movie the husband uses manipulation and lying to try and convince his wife she is crazy. He’s good enough at this that, for a time, he convinces others that she is insane as well.
As an experienced couple therapist, I have seen many cases of gaslighting in my couples. Gaslighting can happen in romantic relationships or between family members. It can also happen in relationships with coworkers!
Gaslighting behavior, like most abusive behavior, is an attempt to gain power and control over another person. This is often done so that the gaslighter can get their own way, or because they fear their partner leaving them.
Another reason for gaslighting in a relationship is that the gaslighter does not want other people to know how they are treating their partner, so they make others think the person experiencing gaslighting is a liar or crazy.
Gaslighting manipulation can be incredibly subtle. This makes gaslighters hard to detect. It may start out as simply as someone saying, “that’s not how it happened” when you talk about a past event.
It is especially hard to see gaslighting when it doesn’t happen during an argument. When someone is gaslighting you intentionally, they often start out when you aren’t arguing. This makes their lies easier to believe. You may think that it’s just a simple mistake that you made.
Even worse, some gaslighters will recruit help from family and friends in their manipulation. This makes you question your mental health as your gaslighter has “proof” that you’re wrong in the form of another person to back them up.
Gaslighting eventually makes you question your perception of reality. An example of this may be asking someone if they did a chore or paid a bill like you both agreed. When you say this, they tell you that they don’t know what you’re talking about and you never discussed it.
As with most emotional abuse, this can start to fill someone with self doubt and severely harm their self esteem. Not only does it harm your mental health, but it makes you question your own mental health.
Many of the people I see in therapy that are experiencing gaslighting come to me saying they are having memory problems or concerned that they are going crazy. They often take on all the blame for the problem of the relationship and are the “identified patient”.
In couples counseling, not only will the person experiencing the gaslighting tell me that they are the problem, but their partner will agree with them. The partner is often very believable and portrays themselves as the longsuffering person who is just trying to help their loved one get healthy.
In later stages of gaslighting, your partner or family member may make up things that never happened, telling you that you forgot. This can be as simple as, them stating you forgot to do something for them, or as sinister as saying you abused them, when it never happened.
A partner who is gaslighting you may say that you are overreacting. For instance, you start to see signs of possible cheating and talk to them about it. Instead of talking with you about it rationally they may accuse you of overreacting, say that their exes were never like this, etc. to make it seem like you are the problem and not them.
One example I remember is of a gaslighting grandparent who would tell their pre-teen granddaughter how sweet it was that since they were little the girl told grandma she was going to live with her when she grew up. That they were going to move to Florida together and live on the beach. Yes, you got that right, grandma started as soon as the kid could talk grooming the child to take care of her in her old age.
How do I know they’re gaslighting me?
In the early stages of gaslighting, you want to look for someone who denies your reality. It’s one thing for someone to say, “I remember that differently.” It’s another for them to tell you, “that never happened.”
You can also tell you are being gaslighted because it is not happening with anyone else. If your memory is fine with your other loved ones, and the memory issues only happen with this person, then it is very likely that they are the problem, not you.
Another one of the signs of gaslighting is if they say other people agree with them you have a problem. You will likely too embarrassed or ashamed to talk to the other person about this. But, if the person they are referencing is one of your friends or loved ones and not theirs, please do check in with that friend and ask their opinion.
Another way to keep someone from trying to gaslight you is to tell people. Simply telling a trusted friend or family member about the behavior will allow them to give you perspective. Abuse hides in the dark! Don’t keep it secret out of shame or worry.
If you feel that you can’t do anything right, and you are experiencing self double and low self esteem, it is possible that someone is gaslighting you.
Impact of gaslighting on mental health.
Some people think that gaslighting, and other forms of emotional abuse aren’t a big deal. After all, you’re physically safe, right? Wrong!
Gaslighting, especially over the long term, can have serious effects on your mental health. This type of abuse is a form of trauma and can cause depression, anxiety and even PTSD.
I’m a victim of gaslighting, what do I do?
If someone is gaslighting you or you see signs of gaslighting, do NOT go it alone. Tell someone you trust. I know that self doubt and low self esteem can make this hard, but if you keep gaslighting secret it’s harder to stop.
If you don’t feel like you can tell a friend or family member, if you feel you can’t leave the relationship, or if you are suffering emotionally or mentally from the gaslighting, this is the time to see a therapist. Again, gaslighting is a form of psychological and emotional abuse.
A therapist can help you end the gaslighting and heal from it. They can help you understand what happened and how to set boundaries so that it does not happen again.
A therapist can help you know if you are experiencing anxiety, depression or PTSD from the gaslighting. If you are having any of these issues they can work with you to help you through your healing journey.
If you think that there is something wrong in a relationship, you are not imagining things. Stop second guessing yourself and get the support you need to get your life back on track and feel better.