What Is Gaslighting? How to Recognize It and Protect Yourself

old-fashioned gaslights

The term gaslighting has nothing to do with gas or lighting. It refers to an intense form of psychological manipulation that can erode the victim’s self-esteem and sense of reality. The gaslighter makes a victim feel anxious and doubtful about his or her own feelings, memories, and thoughts. Victims feel like they are always on the wrong side of things and need to apologize. This is not the reality, but victims are emotionally bullied into believing it.

What makes matters worse is that victims do not know they are being gaslighted. They don’t do anything to protect themselves and keep sinking deeper into this distorted reality. Over a period of time, this destroys their sense of self-worth and identity.

The phrase gaslighting entered the public lexicon from the 1944 movie Gaslight, about a young woman married to a manipulative husband. In his desire to completely take over her existence, the husband dims the gaslights in their home to make them flicker, then completely denies that it ever happened. He convinces the woman that it was a figment of her imagination and that she has lost her mind. The woman is brutally traumatized by these mind games.

Gaslighting is always sneaky and takes the victim for a ride. So, the victim starts blaming herself for everything that is wrong and cannot uncover the gaslighter’s machinations.

“People who harm you will blame you for it. Remember, an abuser will always play the victim, spin a story, tell everyone, and call you crazy,” says Maranda Pleasant, author of Origin: Music, Art, Yoga Consciousness.

Signs of Gaslighting

As gaslighting is a sly psychological maneuver, it is hard to know when one is a victim of it. Here are few signs you could look out for should you suspect you are being being gaslighted.

Outright denial – Gaslighters are not shy of denying an undisputed truth. They might completely wash their hands of something they said or did, no matter the evidence to the contrary.

Blatant lies – Gaslighters are confident and passionate liars. They fib their way through situations and confrontations and do it with such ferocity that you are frightened to confront them.

Inconsistent actions – While they say what is most convenient to their plan of subduing you, their actions might tell a different story. As gaslighting is mostly psychological and emotional, it shows up most clearly in a person’s actions.

Fake praise – Part of the emotional manipulation is for gaslighters to go hot and cold on you. The moment you start suspecting abuse, they throw a curveball of affection at you.

Projection – Most gaslighters strive to call you out before you can call them out. Deflecting all the wrong they do to you is a preferred method of abuse.

Gaslighting Personality

Gaslighters come in many shapes, forms, and professions. However, they are some common traits that run across all of them.

Dominating and Authoritarian – This one is a no-brainer. Gaslighters’ sole agenda is to exercise emotional and psychological clout. Control is second nature to them, and the desire to control is often present in unhealthy doses.

Narcissistic – An inflated sense of self is common among people who gaslight others. They are in love with themselves and think that they are a notch above the rest of humanity. Such a god complex makes them feel entitled to put their preferences before others.’

Psychopathic – Many psychopaths use gaslighting techniques to further their self-interest. As they are devoid of empathy and concern for others, they have no qualms about abusing the people around them.

Gaslighting in Relationships

Gaslighters might believe that they are a godsend and doing a great service to you by behaving the way they do. They often have very distorted rationales for their controlling behavior.

In a romantic relationship, a gaslighter’s love comes from a place of wanting to take charge of you. They treat you like an object to be used rather than a thinking, feeling person with whom they can commune. This leads them to disregard your basic rights. Such relationships are downright toxic and send your self-esteem tumbling down. The continuous psychological assault can destroy one’s sense of identity.

Gaslighting is not limited to romantic relationships. Some parent-child relationships are also riddled with this behavior. Controlling parents might paint a child’s world to their convenience. They might deliberately curtail a child’s independence to be able to control him or her. They do not allow the child to develop decision-making skills as this could loosen their grip and simultaneously make the child feel guilty about wanting to make his or her own decisions.

Friends, siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles – no relationship is immune to this behavior. The context and the method of control change, but the gaslighter’s urge to control and use underhanded emotional bullying to accomplish his or her goals stays the same.

Gaslighting at Work

Gaslighting is highly prevalent in work environments. As it is a “hard to detect” pattern of behavior, gaslighters are often not called out and are even promoted through the ranks.  Their success comes at the expense of serious emotional trauma for others. No matter how good one is at work, it takes very high-level psychological strength not to give in to gaslighting.

Gaslighters could resort to anything from falsely blaming you for work not done to taking credit for your efforts. They could even engage in wilful sabotage and play innocent. It gets even worse when gaslighters are in positions of power. They have many more ways and means at their disposal to harass others.

Gaslighting tricks you should look out for

The end game for a gaslighter is to make you feel that your concerns are invalid and you are unreasonable so you lose all confidence. They have many tricks up their sleeve to help them achieve their goals. Here are some commonly used ones.

Tone policing – By telling you that you are overreacting or need to calm down, they try to invalidate your feelings.

Blame attribution – The blame game is their favorite sport. By holding you responsible for everything that goes wrong, they make you feel you deserve to be unfairly treated.

Devil’s Advocate – Under the garb of reason, they shoot down all that you put forth. They convince you that you are opposed to reason while you are really going up against the gaslighter.

Stonewalling – Refusing to discuss something is another way they impinge upon your rights. They often avoid reasonable conversations to further add to your anxiety.

Trivializing – Belittling your feelings and telling you how unimportant they are in the bigger scheme of things is also a ploy favored by gaslighters.

Diverting – The moment you try to confront a gaslighter, he or she will steer the conversation in a completely different direction. Gaslighters often try to distract you from getting to the root of the issue.

Discrediting – A gaslighter will try to destroy your general credibility as a sane person by convincing others of your madness. Tearing down your public persona works to their advantage. 

Typical phrases used by gaslighters

Verbal communication is a large part of gaslighting strategy. Hence you will find a pattern in the types of words and phrases used by gaslighters. Their communication is usually aggressive and dismissive and full of dramatic phrases and interjections. If you are  frequently subjected to the following criticisms, you may be a victim of gaslighting.

“Calm down”

“Stop overreacting “

“You are too sensitive”

“Don’t take it personally”

“You’re being irrational”

“You have a victim syndrome”

“It is all in your head”

“Those are just excuses”

“Don’t be silly”

“You need to work harder”

“You’re so selfish”

 “You’re being paranoid”

“It’s all your fault”

Am I being gaslighted – what does gaslighting feel like?

Robin Stern, the author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life,  outlines the following signs that victims of gaslighting experience:

no longer feeling like the person you used to be

being more anxious and less confident than you used to be

often wondering if you’re being too sensitive

feeling like everything you do is wrong

always thinking it’s your fault when things go wrong

apologizing often

having a sense that something’s wrong, but being unable to identify what it is

often questioning whether your response to your partner is appropriate (e.g., wondering if you were too unreasonable or not loving enough)

making excuses for your partner’s behavior

avoiding giving information to friends or family members to avoid confrontations about your partner

feeling isolated from friends and family

finding it increasingly hard to make decisions

feeling hopeless and taking little or no pleasure in activities you used to enjoy

Coping with Gaslighting

Like any other form of abuse, gaslighting can be highly damaging to the victim in the long run. It can turn a perfectly able human being into a nervous wreck who has a hard time going about daily life and achieving personal goals. There are ways to look out for yourself and recover from the trauma that you have experienced. Recovery depends on many factors such as individual personality, duration of the abuse, and the relationship with the gaslighter.

Close Relationship – Sometimes, you are in a very intimate relationship with a gaslighter. It could be your husband of many years or your newly wedded wife or a live-in boyfriend or girl you have been seeing for a couple of months. The first thing to do if you are sure you are being gaslighted is to call it quits and distance yourself from the person. Sometimes, you are unsure. You think it could just be your imagination. In such cases, reach out to a counselor or therapist at the earliest. A counselor’s neutral voice of reason will help you see the reality for what it is.

Work Relationship – When you are being gaslighted at work, the first thing you need to do is set boundaries with the person bullying you. Do not engage in any personal conversation. To the extent possible, try to keep your communication written and on record. Remember, a gaslighter thrives on your misery. Do not give them the satisfaction. If the person is relentless in their abuse, reach out to the relevant authorities in your workplace to voice your concerns. Most organizations have a policy framework to deal with this kind of harassment. Do not be afraid to reach out and speak up when the need arises.

Finally, even after the abuse has stopped, you might be scarred from the trauma that it caused. A therapist can help you heal from the trauma in due course of time. Do not be shy of seeking help. It is human to feel traumatized, and you deserve to get over it.

Helping Gaslighters

Two commonly asked questions are whether gaslighters are aware of what they are doing and can they change? Some people know exactly what they are doing and use gaslighting as a strategy to have their way in life.  Others are not aware of what they are doing but do it anyway as it gets them the desired outcome.

Gaslighters are born manipulators. They thrive on manipulations and are generally low on empathy. Long-term therapy and support can help them manage their instincts to some extent. But there is no treatment as such, and many are not interested in changing.

Ultimately the world has all types of people, and you cannot always control whom you encounter. As Forrest Gump says, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

However, you can educate yourself to be able to know when you are being gaslighted and abused. Even if you cannot distance yourself from the gaslighter, you will be aware of the problem and the gaslighter’s attempts to control and deceive you. This knowledge can protect you from the trauma that you would otherwise experience.

“Changed behavior is the only apology; otherwise, it’s just manipulation.” ― Maranda Pleasant, Origin: Music, Art, Yoga Consciousness

 

About the Author: Neha Brady, Head of Content at Felicity. Passionate mental health advocate who wants to use her voice to break the stigma.

Mental Health Month 2021

Access for All

May is Mental Health Month, a time to spread public awareness and education about mental health disorders and reflect on the impact of mental illness on individuals and their families.

It is also a time to recognize and commit to changing the racial and economic inequities in our health care system, particularly with respect to mental health.

www.rtor.org and Laurel House are committed to the advancement of racial equity and social justice, and to making mental health services accessible to all.

Photo by Avi Agarwal on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios only.

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