The Inside Scoop on Gaslighting
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
Well hi, there.
The first therapist I saw after the dissolution of my engagement politely informed me that I'd been the victim of gaslighting and emotional abuse. I hadn't considered this, because I didn't know what gaslighting meant or that emotional abuse was a thing. Howdy-day. Let's start with a definition. Gaslighting means:
verb gerund or present participle: gaslighting 1. manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
The term gaslighting comes from the 1938 play by Patrick Hamiltion, known in America as "Angel Street" and later developed into the film "Gas Light" by Alfred Hitchcock. In the film, a manipulative husband tries to make his wife think she is losing her mind by making subtle changes in her environment, including slowly and steadily dimming the flame on a gas lamp. Not only does he make her believe she is insane, but he also abuses and controls her, cutting her off from family and friends. His wife begins second-guessing herself, her perceptions, and her memories. She becomes neurotic, hypersensitive, and unsure about what is true and what isn't. The gas lamp became a symbol for these destructive behaviors and psychologists started using the label "gaslighting" to describe emotionally abusive behaviors.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse. If you're experiencing this, you might feel confused, anxious, and unable to trust yourself. You might also apologize excessively for nothing, socially withdraw, or feel extra insecure. Gaslighting is not always obvious, and is most common in intimate relationships, family relationships, or in the workplace because it requires a certain degree of trust. Some techniques a person may use to gaslight you include:
1. Countering: If someone questions your memories, they're countering. They might say, "you don't remember things correctly," or "you have a bad memory," etc. This can lead you to question your own memories
2. Withholding: Withholding is a technique used to avoid conversation. Someone might say, "I don't know what you're talking about," or "you're trying to confuse me."
3. Trivializing: This occurs when someone belittles or disregards another person’s feelings. A common accusation is calling someone "too sensitive" or downplaying valid thoughts or feelings.
4. Denial: If someone denies something they clearly did or said or accuses you of making things up, they are using denial as a gaslighting tactic and you should run far, far away.
5. Diverting: With this technique, a person changes the focus of a discussion and questions the other person’s credibility instead. For example, they might say, “that is just another crazy idea you got from your friends.”
6. Stereotyping: An article in the American Sociological Review states that a person using gaslighting techniques may intentionally use negative stereotypes of a person’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, or age to manipulate them. Example: telling a female that people will think she is irrational or crazy if she seeks help for abuse.
Signs of Gaslighting
I didn't know that I was being gaslighted, but I did know that I wasn't happy and that my relationship had turned very sour. I was highly anxious, depressed, on edge, and questioning my sanity. Here are some signs that you're experiencing gaslighting:
1. You doubt your feelings and reality. You might also question your judgement or perceptions. If you are afraid to speak up or express your emotions, you're likely in an emotionally abusive dynamic.
2. You feel vulnerable and insecure. You're walking on proverbial eggshells around a particular person and feel constantly on edge. You may feel isolated or afraid. If you used to feel strong and assertive but now feel passive or weak, you are likely in an emotionally abusive dynamic.
3. You feel confused. When I was with my ex-fiancé, I was confused more often than I wasn't. He would vacillate between sweet/loving to angry/controlling. I felt a sense of impending doom every time he came home or went out for a drink. I spent a lot of time apologizing for things I hadn't done wrong, which is yet another sign of gaslighting.
4. You wonder what's wrong with you. Instead of blaming him for how he treated me, I assumed I was to blame. If I were a better partner, he would treat me better, right? I wrongly shouldered the blame for your rotting dynamic, because that's exactly how he wanted me to feel.
If you're in a gaslighting dynamic, it's important to know that you're not at fault. Trying to reason with an abusive person will never work. The best thing to do is disengage, set boundaries, cut all ties, and give yourself time to heal.
P.S. Read Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse: A Collection of Essays on Malignant Narcissism and Recovery from Emotional Abuse; take this quiz to see if your being gaslighted, or read this article about emotionally abusive coaches.