Gaslighting: How You Can Spot It In A Relationship And Shut It Down
Gaslighting is a particularly insidious toxic behaviour that can be difficult to call out. Here are the gaslighting red flags to look out for.
with additions by Ricky Derisz
During the first series of lockdowns due to the corona crisis, domestic abuse hotlines prepared for a spike in calls. With added pressures due to home-schooling, financial insecurity, and uncertainty over the future, in addition to restrictions in movement, the likelihood was that domestic abuse cases would increase.
The calls didn’t come. Many centers recorded up to 50% less activity. Experts knew this wasn’t because of a lack of violence — the UN report cases of domestic violence have increased by 20% during the pandemic. The sad reality was that victims were not safe to reach out for help due to being confined with their abusers.
This is one example of the wider collateral damage of the corona pandemic, including business closures, economic crises, and an increase in mental illness. Such is the extent of domestic abuse, the UN has called it a “shadow pandemic.”
Domestic abuse (also known as “intimate partner violence” or “IPV”) can be physical, sexual, or emotional. One type of emotional abuse which has risen to prominence is gaslighting. The term has become part of popular culture, with growing awareness in the past few years.
Oxford Dictionaries even named it runner-up in words of the year in 2018, behind “toxic.” And in the UK, gaslighting was made an official part of domestic violence law in 2015, with 300 people being charged with the offense since the law was introduced.
But because of the subtle and cunning nature of this power dynamic, gaslighting can go easily unnoticed or unreported. In this article, we’ll explain how you can spot if you’re being gaslighted, and what you can do in response. Before then, though, let’s begin with a thorough definition of gaslighting.
What is gaslighting?
You may be familiar with gaslighting definitions. 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, gaslighting’s meaning is “a manipulative tactic used to shift the power dynamic in a relationship such that one person has complete control over the other.”
Interestingly, the gaslighting definition comes from the 1938 stage play Gas Light (and later movie remakes, including a 1944 Oscar-winner), in which a husband tries to make his wife doubt her sanity 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. And, because perpetrators rely on shrinking their victims’ world and distorting their frame of reference, gaslighting is a particular red flag during times of lockdown and social isolation.
What are examples of gaslighting?
Personally, I grew up with a father who every day 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. Such is its intensity and the damage on the victim, it’s no surprise gaslighting is often referred to as “psychological warfare.”
Here are common phrases used by gaslighters:
Although it’s difficult to claim specific phrases indicate gaslighting, there are common phrases that act as red flags, including:
- You’re imagining things
- You’re overreacting
- Don’t be silly
- I was just joking!
- You’re making things up.
These statements have something in common — they’re used to invalidate and dismiss any accusation or disagreement. If someone is intentionally gaslighting, it’s likely they will continue to be self-defensive even when there is push-back or questioning, with the possibility of an escalation of the damaging behavior.
What are the different types of gaslighting?
Gaslighting isn’t only exclusive to romantic relationships. Friendships, family members, and work colleagues can display signs of this covert form of manipulation. There are instances of medical gaslighting between health professionals and patients, racial gaslighting, and political gaslighting —for example, Donald Trump has been accused of gaslighting America over Covid.
It must be noted that gaslighting is on a spectrum. A conscious effort to undermine someone’s reality for personal gain at one end, unconscious manipulative behaviors on the other. Gaslighting examples range from deliberate attempts to make someone feel “crazy,” to being defensive or dismissive of someone’s point of view.
Using the medical example, an expert might be easily dismissive of a patient’s self-reported symptoms, telling them it’s all in their head. Or a person of color who reports racist behavior might be told they’re “playing the race card.” Or, using Trump as an example, factual reports from the media might be labeled fake news.
Most of us learn about interpersonal relationships from our parents. It’s common for gaslighters to have picked up the behavior from childhood, with some completely unaware of their behavior. A common example is a parent gaslighting their child in order to keep a secret or to attempt “parental alienation,” where one parent turns the child against the other.
Robin Stern, the author of The Gaslight Effect, agrees: “A gaslighter is a student of social learning. They witness it, feel the effects of it, or stumble upon it and see that it is a potent tool. It’s a cognitive strategy for self-regulation and co-regulation. To be frank, it works.”
Signs of gaslighting in relationships
When certain terms become popular, there’s a risk their original definition becomes distorted. It’s possible a partner, friend or colleague demonstrates behaviour that has the hallmarks of gaslighting. In fact, most of us demonstrate forms of manipulation, which is seen as a common behaviour, to varying degrees. Of course, because it’s common, doesn’t mean it’s tolerable.
However, gaslighting is a serious form of abuse, which “involves a pattern of abusive behaviours with the intent not just to influence someone, but to control them.” If you’re concerned about being the victim of gaslighting, here are 7 signs that indicate abuse.
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 behaviour,” 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. Note that gaslighting often slowly escalates over a long period of time. Such behaviors might start off seemingly small — a dismissive comment here or there — before becoming more frequent and more intrusive.
If you’re concerned about gaslighting, it’s worth considering how frequent the behaviour is. Does it occur around one particular topic, such as money or sex, indicating defensiveness or unresolved trauma? Or is the diminishing of your reality all-pervasive?
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 judgment but also all that they hold dear. “They do this because they want to control the narrative,” Bergen explains.
5. They create a feeling of codependency
Codependency is the term given for excessive reliance on a partner. This can be in the form of emotional, physical, spiritual, or financial. It’s an unhealthy dynamic with a lack of autonomy, boundary-setting, and freedom. Dr. Exelberger refers to codependency as “a circular relationship in which one person needs the other person, who in turn, needs to be needed.”
Many gaslighting behaviors are motivated by the need to control a partner. One way of doing this is to create codependency. You can see how these link together. If a gaslighter’s behavior creates confusion and anxiety in their victim, their victim may then become more reliant on the abuser for support.
6. 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.”
Another nuance of gaslighting is that this oscillation between flattery and ridicule both reduces the victim’s sense of worth and then creates codependency on rebuilding that sense of worth. For example, a gaslighter might repeatedly call their partner stupid, only to reverse this and praise their intelligence at a later date to continue the cycle of abuse.
Flattery as a counterbalance to ridicule is woven into the dynamic of abuse, with a common form known as love bombing. This is where the abuser floods the victim with flattery and exclamations and acts of love in order to enamor them, making them more vulnerable to control or excusing bad behavior.
7. They persuade you everyone else is against you
If your partner tries to paint a picture of you and them against the world whilst also creating distance from others, you might be dealing with gaslighting. The idea that everyone but your partner is against you and that everyone else is a liar 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, is more control.
Other common signs of gaslighting
Aside from the behavioural patterns you notice in your partner, there are common symptoms that victims of gaslighting experience. One of the biggest symptoms of gaslighting is confusion. If your reality is constantly undermined, you may be left wondering whether you are going crazy if you’re unaware of the manipulative tactics being used by the abuser.
On subtler levels, a gaslighter might deny things you have proof of, or their actions don’t match their words. For most victims of gaslighting, there’s a sense something is “wrong,” without being sure what the problem is. Though not a comprehensive list, are red flags to watch out for:
- 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”
How to stop gaslighting in a relationship
Increased self-awareness and emotional intelligence are one of the biggest antidotes to gaslighting — someone with a secure sense of self is less likely to question their own perceptions, making them harder to deceive. So one of the first steps to recover from gaslighting is awareness of the problem.
Many symptoms of gaslighting are similar to those that come with depression, anxiety, or even low self-esteem. The big giveaway? Reflect on whether these feelings, confusion, and patterns only seem to exist with the individual in question. Do you generally experience a feeling of security but feel on-edge or insecure around this one person?
If you suspect you’re the victim of gaslighting and want to break the cycle, below are some key steps to take. Please note, if you feel you are in imminent danger, then it’s best to take action as quickly as you can, by reaching out to a professional or someone you trust.
1. Reflect on the totality of the relationship
Certain behaviours or patterns of abuse are not acceptable, and their existence alone is reason enough to end a relationship. However, if you’re unsure of the future of the relationship, this is a great time to zoom out and take a wider perspective. Is it one of healthy respect, trust, and love? Or are abusive, cold, manipulative behaviours woven into the relationship?
Do you usually navigate conflict well? Or is there no way to reason? If you notice patterns of gaslighting but otherwise feel safe to bring the topic up, then it can be worth considering a conversation with your partner. If someone is unaware of their behavior and willing to self-reflect, they might be able to alter damaging behavior.
2. Keep a journal
As one of the most common tactics of gaslighters is to dismiss their victim’s reality, a journal is a great way to track behavior patterns and log events. Rather than relying purely on memory, which leaves room for doubt when challenged, a journal captures moments while they’re fresh in mind.
Rather than just a way of building evidence, journaling in this way offers insight into the nature of the relationship. It’s easy to forget the difficult times when everything is sweet, but does this cognitive bias blind you to all the times there are difficulties? Looking back, you may notice regular cycles of conflict or consistent feelings of confusion and anxiety.
3. Explore any distortions
Rather than jump to conclusions, take time to reflect on a conflict you feel may contain elements of gaslighting. Write events as objectively as you can. Do you see any blind spots in your behavior? Were your accusations coming from insecurity, jealousy, or anger?
It takes courage, but introspection is absolutely necessary to see things we are missing. Such introspection could also reveal a tendency to minimize or excuse the gaslighter’s behavior — this is where radical honesty is necessary. For example, you might feel inclined to say: “it was a one-off mistake” when in reality it’s a recurring problem.
4. Work towards self-validation
Gaslighting as a behavior preys on the victim’s doubt. In addition to increased self-awareness, practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and self-compassion all boost self-esteem and in turn allow you to build trust in your experience and gain mental clarity. This is just as important in a current relationship or any future relationships, especially if you’ve been the victim of gaslighting and are looking to heal into the future.
Learning to trust your gut again is one of the most important steps on your way out. One way to help your mind bypass your gaslighter’s narratives (typically based in “rationale”) is to trust your feelings over your thoughts.
5. Use friends or family as a sounding board
It can be tempting to avoid sharing such experiences with others, especially if feeling doubtful and insecure. Ask yourself: what causes you to hesitate? Is there a deeper wisdom that knows something isn’t right? Trusted friends and family can offer a solid sounding board for questionable behavior.
If you’ve journaled and looked at your own distortions, run your experiences past others in a safe setting. Ask the person to respond honestly. The answer might not be what you want to hear, but another perspective often provides a different perspective on the situation.
For a victim of gaslighting, one of the most powerful responses they can hear is: “you didn’t imagine this” or “it’s completely valid to feel the way you do.”
6. Avoid the “battle of realities”
For various reasons, when people engage in conflict, they often fall into the trap of attempting to make the other person conform or agree with their point of view. This is a futile but common approach to disagreement. In the context of gaslighting, it also sets a context of having to “prove” one perspective against the other.
This can lead to confusion and crossed-wires in both people, with behaviors that can enter into gaslighting territory, often without malicious intent. It’s worth exploring conflicts with the gaslighter and sees if this is a pattern of behavior you both fall into.
The remedy is to accept that often in life, two people might have opposing opinions or perceptions — and that’s okay. Work towards understanding and reconciliation over proving one side right, and the other wrong. In cases of conscious gaslighting, it’s highly unlikely the gaslighter will let go of control over the narrative or allow room for compromise, resolution, or discussion. It’s a power play, after all.
7. Be prepared to discuss it…
If you are sure of gaslighting behaviour and wish to put an end to it, there are two options. If you feel safe enough to approach the topic, find a relevant time to explain your concerns to the person in a healthy context for conflict. That means no violence, name-calling, or aggression.
Due to the popularity of the term gaslighting, it might be best to avoid directly using that label at first. You might begin by bringing awareness to unwanted behaviors. For example: “I’ve noticed when I get upset, you always tell me I’m overreacting, and this makes me feel like my emotions are wrong.”
The response of the perceived gaslighter is a big giveaway. Are they receptive? Do they acknowledge their role? Do they continue to be dismissive? Or do they respond with further allegations intended to minimize your perspective?
8. Or be prepared to leave…
For any patterns that are pathological or extreme, attempts to raise concerns about gaslighting might be futile. In these situations, the concern will likely be met by further narratives, rationales, or projections. In these cases, the only option is accepting the only healthy choice is to end the relationship.
If attempts to repair or change the relationship aren’t worthwhile, 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.
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 trust you have the power to fix all that.
Can a relationship survive gaslighting?
With growing awareness and vigilance to this type of abuse, it can be tempting to create a black-or-white view of “the gaslighter.” There is zero excuse for manipulative behaviour or emotional abuse, but someone might demonstrate behaviour that ticks the boxes of gaslighting without consciously attempting to control or manipulate someone’s sense of reality.
This is a delicate approach due to the nature of abuse and the impact on the victim, who might be prone to defend or excuse the abuser. But unhealthy and toxic behaviors may be unconscious. The person may never have reflected on or tried to change, and a willingness to do so could mean the relationship can be salvaged.
That being said, be aware of a trait of gaslighters known as “hoovering”. This is similar to love bombing, but generally occurs when a victim is set to leave the relationship. Getting its name from the brand of vacuum cleaner, the abuser will declare their love, and claim things will be different in the future.
A gaslighter’s promise of “false hope” can blind their victims of their behavior, convincing them things will change. Have such false promises been made in the past, without delivery? Or is the person acknowledging their behavior, the damage it causes, and showing a willingness to take responsibility and change?
As Robin Stern writes:
Gaslighters are people, too. For many, gaslighting could be a bad habit picked up from the relationships they grew up around. If a gaslighter’s partner, friend, or parent is willing to do the hard work of changing the way they argue or interact with them, change is possible. But it can be difficult to achieve this if they continue to buffer you from your own reality.
Ultimately, any decision takes courage. It takes courage to take the first step and acknowledge a problem, it takes courage to look at these behaviors and question them, it takes courage to explore and inquiry. It takes courage to stay and work through issues, and courage to leave.
Whatever choice you make, trust that you will be okay, that you will heal, and that you will learn, together or alone.
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