A friend of mine recently asked me to write an article on Gaslighting, and I had to confess that I didn’t actually know what the term meant. You may not be familiar with the term, but when I explain what it is, I guarantee you’ll have come across it in one form or another in your life.
The film Gaslight was released in 1944. It is a story about an abusive husband who cuts his new wife off from her friends and causes her to question her sanity by (among other things) secretly dimming and brightening the gaslights in the house, and convincing her that it is in her imagination.
The term Gaslighting has been used to describe psychological abuse where a victim is made to question their mental health and stability, and becomes dependent on the abuser as the only person they can trust to make decisions on their behalf. It is mental manipulation to the max, and can take place over years.
Because of it’s insidious nature, a person seldom knows they are being gaslighted and so the psychological injuries can run deep.
So what causes a person to become a gaslighter? Well it comes down to the ego once again. When you can remove ego from any scenario, you can create peace. The gaslighter or abuser themselves has an overwhelming need to dominate an individual. This can stem from a fear of being abandoned. The gaslighter wants to be able to control everything their victim thinks and believes, and will undermine every little thing that their prey says or does to achieve this.
In many cases this is seen in a relationship between a man and woman, such as in the film. It can also be between a parent and child. Though parental gaslighting is most likely unintentional, it can still have a huge negative impact on the child. Effectively it is an abuse of power, and can be extremely difficult to deal with as there is already the notion that the parent knows what’s best for the child. Examples of parental gaslighting can be where the child is led to believe they are unwell, or that they shouldn’t struggle in school, because they are intelligent. When things are said often enough in front of those who are easily influenced, they can be manipulated very quickly.
Then there is gaslighting in the workplace. This may not be just one individual gaslighting another, but can be a group of people. It again comes back to the power struggle, where the victim has their work dismissed, is made to feel incompetent and uncertain of their worth, while the gaslighter may lie, contradict or deny certain truths and events to further discredit the victim. It is all incredibly harmful to the psyche of the person being gaslighted, and can lead to them quitting their job or worse.
“Once an abusive partner has broken down the victim’s ability to trust their own perceptions, the victim is more likely to put up with the abusive behavior and stay in the relationship.”Beverly Engel, psychotherapist and author
Signs you are being gaslighted:
- The abuser denies something that you know occurred, whether that is words or actions.
- They tell you that you are “too sensitive,” to make you undermine your feelings.
- The abuser tells you that you’re crazy, and may tell people close to you that they’re concerned about your mental health to discredit anything you may say.
- You are told you have a terrible memory. This is to make you believe that you cannot trust your own memory.
- The abuser may say, “I’m sorry that you think I hurt you,” by way of a feigned apology, but all this does is make you feel like you have overreacted, and they are right.
- Notice if you are being discouraged from spending time with friends/family who might have concerns about the abuser.
- You feel a lack of confidence in general.
- You don’t trust your own memory anymore.
The first thing you need to do if you suspect someone is trying to gaslight you is to make sure you are not alone with this person. Wherever possible have another individual who is neutral to the situation, so will be able to offer unbiased opinion if needed. Gaslighters have a hard time fleecing multiple victims at the same time, as people are inclined to talk amongst themselves, especially when something doesn’t seem right. There is definitely safety in numbers.
Secondly, if you are starting to feel like you do not even trust yourself anymore, or doubting your sanity, you need to book a session with a psychologist, even if it is just as a way of reassuring yourself that you are not in fact mad. Let the doctor make their assessment, and guide you as to how best you can build up your belief in yourself once more. It may only take one session, or it may take several, but there is a lot to be said for addressing things like this as soon as they happen, rather than waiting until secondary problems arise as a result of not having dealt with it sooner.
Keeping a journal can be a helpful way of viewing interactions with your gaslighter in an objective way. Write down exactly what was said, and then write how it made you feel. Note if there is a repeated desire to deny your feelings. This would be a strong indication that you are indeed being gaslighted.
Know that the feeling is only temporary, and that having gone through the experience you are way more prepared to manage any other gaslighter who may come your way, and will spot the signs far earlier.
Whilst you may not have invited the scenario into your life with open arms, try to recognise that in some way, shape or form, you needed this lesson to further educate you and make you an even better version of yourself. Every day is a school day and the more we learn the more we become empowered. Knowledge is the ultimate weapon and shield at the same time.
The final thing to remember about a gaslighter is that they are more fragile than they care for anyone to know. The person with the real problem here is not so much the victim but the gaslighter themselves. They are so afraid that they might be found out, and with one small blow, their light be put out for good.