Gaslighting is a form of manipulation
“You are overreacting,” “ you are making it all up,” “ you are going crazy,’ – these are just some of the words a gaslighter will use on their victim. To gaslight, someone is to make them doubt their mental health or sense of reality. Commonly seen in toxic and abusive relationships, gaslighting is how the ‘bully’ exerts power over a family member, a coworker, friend or partner.
The Oxford dictionary defines gaslighting as manipulation of someone “by psychological means into doubting their sanity.”
Britannica’s definition describes gaslighting as an
– “elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or “gaslighter,” on a single victim over an extended period. “
The Cambridge dictionary defines gaslighting as
– “the action of tricking or controlling someone by making them believe things that are not true, especially by suggesting that they may be mentally ill.”
The objective of the ‘gaslighter’ is to gradually destroy the victim’s confidence in their ability to differentiate right from wrong or truth from falsehood. The victim then becomes dependent on the gaslighter for validation and emotional support.
The term’s origin can be traced to ‘Gas Light,’ a British play performed in 1938 in the United States as ‘Angel Street,’ and the later film adaptation titled gaslight. In the 1944 film, the husband ‘gaslights’ his wife into believing she is mentally ill by dimming the lights and convincing her that she is hallucinating.
What does it mean to gaslight someone?
Some common tactics the gaslighter employs include
The gaslighter can say something like ‘are you sure? You don’t have a good memory,” or ‘you can never remember anything accurately.” The countering tactics are used to question the other person’s memories.
The abuser can spread rumours about the victim and make others believe the victim is not mentally stable. The gaslighter can then make the victim think that others are talking about the victim’s mental instability.
Withholding or defecting blame:
The bully can pretend they don’t understand someone to avoid responding to them. For instance, they can say, “ I have no idea what you are talking about,” or ‘ you are making no sense. When questioned, the gaslighter can change the topic or start to blame the victim.
Trivializing and belittling
“You always overreact,” “ no one loves you except for me’ or “you are too dramatic,’ are just some belittling things the bully can say. The gaslighter consistently disregards and trivializes the victim’s emotions and thoughts.
The gaslighter denies having done or said something that hurt the victim and may pretend to forget events, why or how they occurred. Instead, the abuser accuses the victim of making it all up. For instance, if accused of cheating, they may say, ‘ you are just paranoid,’
Shifting the focus
The abuser will employ this technique to shift the direction of a discussion while questioning the victim’s credibility instead. They are also experts at twisting and reframing sentences which can result in the victim doubting their memory.
Using kind words to manipulate
The gaslighter will use compassionate words to deceive the victim. They can say, for instance, ‘you know that I would never purposely hurt you, or ‘ I only did this because I love you so much. This can make the victim think that they overreacted and believe the gaslighter even more.
Gaslighter can use negative stereotypes intentionally of the victim’s race, gender, age, ethnicity, or nationality to manipulate them. For instance, they can say, ‘ in our culture, nobody behaves or dresses like this.’
What causes gaslighting?
According to Psychology Today, some gaslighters may have learnt the behaviour from their parents. A parent who has mental health issues or living with addiction can use gaslighting to keep their child from speaking out about their problems. A parent can also use the technique to alienate their child from the other parent.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline states that gaslighting occurs due to a personality disorder that makes people want to exert control over others. A 2020 study found that those with NPD or narcissistic personality disorder tend to be manipulative. They exhibit symptoms such as:
- the constant need for excessive admiration
- lack of empathy
- exploitative and sense of entitlement
Regardless of the reasons behind the abuse, it is possible to take steps to put a stop to gaslighting behaviour. Recognizing the signs of gaslighting is the first step to addressing it.
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Gaslighting signs to look for
People who are on the receiving end often fail to recognize gaslighting and that they are being abused. Victims feel reliant on their abusers for emotional support, which makes them hesitate to question the gaslighter’s behaviour.
Here are some gaslighting warning signs to look out for that indicate you or your loved one may be the victim:
- second-guessing yourself constantly
- unable to make simple decisions
- confused or fuzzy about your emotions, thoughts and your relationship
- overthinking about your perceived character flaw (‘too sensitive’ or ‘I’m going crazy or ‘losing it.’ )
- becoming unsociable and withdrawn
- poor self-esteem
- constantly apologizing to the gaslighter
- defending the behaviour of the abuser
- lying to others about the abusive relationship
- feeling stressed out, worthless, hopeless or incompetent
- trying to live up to others’ demands and expectations even when unreasonable
Other forms of coercive control can include
- monitoring the victim’s activities, emails, mobile phone,
- controlling the finances,
- using threats and insults to scare the other person and
- manipulating the victim into unwanted sexual activity.
Gaslighting impacts mental health significantly with long-term effects being isolation, depression, anxiety and psychological trauma. If you are experiencing these signs, it is essential to prove that gaslighting is happening.
Being enslaved to gaslighting can cause depression and anxiety. It also has been connected to panic attacks and nervous breakdowns. For this reason, it is essential to recognize when you’re experiencing gaslighting.
Establishing proof helps you realize your feelings and memories are accurate and the other person is trying to manipulate you.
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Collecting proof of gaslighting
Gathering evidence can help the victim understand that they are not imagining things or ‘going crazy. The proof will also be helpful in case the victim decides to take legal action against the gaslighter.
Gaslighting has a notable impact on mental health, so it is imperative for people who experience gaslighting to make sure they look after theirs.
Gathering evidence may remind a person that they are not imagining things. This confirmation may also become useful later on if somebody decides to pursue legal action upon the abusive person.
Here are some ways you can gather proof:
- Journal: If you or a person is known to you suspect gaslighting, you can record the instances, the time and the date they occur in a journal. Write down what you were told and when the abuser contradicts you, make a note of that too. Ensure you keep the journal in a secure or secret location that the abuser has no access to.
- Take photographs: You can use your smartphone or a camera to take pictures that serve as visual proof. Taking a picture of where you leave your keys can help you know if your partner is hiding them to delay you on purpose.
- Voice recording: Record conversations or incidents using your cell phone or any other recording device. You can buy a second mobile phone or a voice recorder to ensure the evidence you collect is secure.
- Email a friend: If it is not possible or safe to keep a journal or voice recording of gaslighting in your home, you can mail the proof to a trusted person. After emailing them, you can delete it from your inbox.
- Talk to a friend, family member or therapist: Opening up about your situation may not be easy, but talking to someone you trust will help you gain an outsider’s perspective. This will also help create an additional record of gaslighting.
Some common phrases you might hear from your gaslighter are
- You’re so sensitive!
- You know that’s just because you are so insecure.
- Stop acting crazy. Or: You sound crazy, you know that, don’t you?
- You are just paranoid.
- You just love trying to throw me off track.
- I was just joking!
- You are making that up.
- It’s no big deal.
- You’re imagining things.
- You’re overreacting.
- You are always so dramatic.
- Don’t get so worked up.
- That never happened.
- You know you don’t remember things clearly.
- There’s no pattern. Or: You are seeing a pattern that is not there.
- You’re hysterical.
- There you go again, you are so ungrateful.
- Nobody believes you, why should I?
Apart from these, create a safety plan to protect yourself from physical and verbal abuse. This can include an objective on leaving the abusive person, safe places, contact details of individuals you can call for help and self-care activities.
Gaslighting often is accompanied by physical abuse and other types of coercive control. Seeking help from domestic abuse organizations in your locality is crucial to know how to come out of the abusive situation. A professional counsellor can give you the tools and techniques you need to overcome the mental trauma linked to gaslighting.