You may have heard the term gaslighting. It’s commonly used to describe the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, feelings, and anything in between. Put another way, it’s “a manipulative tactic used to shift the power dynamic in a relationship such that one person has complete control over the other.”
Interestingly, the term itself comes from the 1938 stage play Gas Light (and later movie remakes), in which a husband tries to drive his wife nuts by repeatedly dimming their gas-powered lights. Whenever the wife points out the change in lighting, he denies there has been any change.
What makes gaslighting such an insidious form of emotional abuse is that it causes one to question one’s experiences, perceptions, and instincts. For this reason, it can be very challenging to identify.
Personally, I grew up with a father who everyday made my mother feel she was losing her sanity by refusing to admit he was cheating (instead accusing her of cheating). Similarly, when she tried to intervene in his abusive parenting style, he did all he could to persuade her that she knew nothing about raising children, and that he was the expert.
Later on, when I grew up and got into my own relationships, it was hard not to replicate certain dynamics at first: more than one boyfriend has accused me of “making a big deal out of nothing,” “causing drama” or “starting a fight for no reason” any time I happened to air a grievance.
I began to question my own sanity, and eventually I gave up on each of these relationships, which for me was all part of learning not to choose these dynamics moving forward. Fun fact: I have actually had more than one of these exes contact me years after the fact to apologize for this very behavior.
When the person closest to you does everything in their power to make you lose trust in yourself, it’s easy to get lost. Here, I offer you 6 ways to determine whether you’re being gaslit:
1. They cause you to doubt your relationship to reality.
The major warning sign of gaslighting is that “your partner challenges your perception of situations, of yourself, of your thoughts, of your feelings, of their behavior,” explains psychotherapist Jeremy Bergen. For instance, if a wife tells her husband he isn’t doing his share of child care and he responds by insisting she’s wrong and that she’s imagining things, he is gaslighting her.
One of the big warning signs is this persistent sense that what you saw, you didn’t really see. And what you experienced, you didn’t really experience. What you felt, you didn’t really feel.
2. They repeatedly tell lies
If you consistently catch your partner in white lies, or even blatant ones, this is a sign of gaslighting. Worse yet, when called on it, they are likely to insist they’re not lying, even in the face of proof. Here’s an example: a man asks his girlfriend to take out the trash on her way to work, and she agrees but takes off without doing it.
When he gets home he notices it’s still there and does it himself. When she gets home later on and he asks why she didn’t do it, she insists that she did. Even if he corrects her and says he did it, she insists she did it, and that he’s obviously confused. Confusion is generally the aim, as it causes a person to question their own version of events and seek clarity in the abuser.
3. They wear down your confidence and sense of self
In order to exert control, a gaslighter will hone in on their partner’s insecurities, often trivializing or ridiculing them. One of the scariest elements of gaslighting is the gradual nature of manipulation, such that over time, someone being gaslit can morph into an entirely different person.
Even the most confident people can totally lose themselves without being aware that it’s happening. Slowly, the victim’s reality fades and they adopt the reality of their abuser.
4. They alienate you from friends and family
Partners who gaslight tend to use whatever is closest to you against you. If you love your job, they’ll take issue with it. If you have close friends who like to visit, they’ll try to convince you of their bad influence, and how you shouldn’t have them over so often.
This abusive type of manipulation can cause a person to question not only their judgement but also all that they hold dear. “They do this because they want to control the narrative,” Bergen explains.
5. They use affection and flattery as a counterbalance
Those who gaslight tend to tear you down only to build you back up, and then repeat. Interestingly, one tends to feel anxiety during the love and flattery phase, because being torn down is becoming normalized. Praise, of course, can lead someone being gaslit to believe that their partner “isn’t so bad.”
6. They persuade you everyone else is against you
If your partner tries to paint a picture of you and them against the world, you’re probably dealing with gaslighting. The idea that everyone but your partner is against you and that everyone else is a liars or out to get you is a very dangerous one, as it is intended to force you to turn to them for everything. The result, of course, being more control.
How to shut down gaslighting
As with most things, the first step is identifying the problem. Here’s a checklist for determining whether you’re being gaslit:
- You often wonder about your worthiness as a partner
- You no longer trust yourself with basic decisions
- You’re afraid of being put down for telling the truth
- You have the persistent feeling that something is wrong in the relationship but you can’t tell what
- You lie to your friends and family about your partner’s behavior
- You feel generally unhappy and anxious all the time
- You find yourself apologizing constantly for things that confuse you
- You feel lost, “crazy,” or “over-sensitive”
Escaping a gaslighting dynamic may very well mean escaping the relationship itself. If you initially feel the relationship is one worth saving, but your partner is unwilling to change, you will need to accept that you will not be able to make them change.
That’s why it’s important to take time to yourself to convince your mind that there is a worthwhile life beyond your relationship. You’ll likely have a little or a lot of guilt wrapped up in leaving, but it’s important to see clearly where that guilt originates.
Learning to trust your gut again is one of the most important steps on your way out. One way to help your mind skirt your gaslighter’s narratives (typically based in “rationale”) is to trust your feelings over your thoughts.
Once you’re ready, most experts advise seeking the help of a therapist, and/or friends and family—anyone who can help you realign yourself with yourself. Above all, remember to be kind and gentle with yourself. This can be especially challenging after you’ve been tethered to an abusive partner, but you have the power to fix all that now—you know, by doing you.
More helpful articles:
- Children Who Bully Are Likely To Have Parents Who Do These Things
- The Hero And The Villain: Narcissists Deserve Empathy Too
- Split Decisions: Is Your Relationship Really Over or Does It Just Need Work?
- Is Appreciation Deficit Disorder Ruining Your Relationship?
- How To Forgive Your Toxic Parents…Even If They Don’t Deserve It