What you need to know about gaslighting: How to spot it, why it’s so insidious and the best way to address it by either fixing a broken relationship, or exiting it altogether.
Gaslighting is a particularly insidious form of emotional abuse and manipulation that can make us question our sense of self and our perception of reality. It occurs when an individual intentionally or unintentionally seeks to make another person doubt their experiences, memories, feelings or sense of self.
“Knowing how to recognise the signs of gaslighting is important because the very nature of being gaslit means it can be difficult to hold onto what’s real and what isn’t, what’s fair and what isn’t, who you are and who you’re not,” says Tori McCarthy, Inpatient Program Manager at South Pacific Private. “From the gaslighter’s perspective, it can be motivated by a desire to control a person or situation, or be a defence mechanism motivated by a desire to avoid an issue that’s uncomfortable, shameful or difficult,” Tori says.
Gaslighting can happen between couples, between family members or even at work. It can be related to more serious issues such as domestic violence, coercive control or addiction and substance abuse.
“It can feel especially overwhelming and traumatic if you’re being gaslit by someone you care for, love or admire, and if it needles in on insecurities, doubts and vulnerabilities you already have,” Tori says. “You’re naturally going to want to trust what that person says, and if it’s something you already have doubts about your brain may fixate on those insecurities rather than realizing the unfairness of what’s actually happening.”
How to recognise gaslighting
The term gaslighting comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light, in which a husband seeks to hide his inappropriate and illegal behaviour by denying reality directly to his wife – from his flirtation with house staff to the brightness of the house’s gas lights – causing her to doubt her own sanity.
Gaslighting isn’t just someone denying objective facts or a ‘narrative’ about what’s happening within a relationship, they may also deny the validity of the other person’s feelings, judgments or emotions, or things we believe to be true about ourselves.
Signs of gaslighting include:
- Adamantly questioning or disagreeing with your strong recollection of events, or what you or they said
- Saying that you did or said something you did not
- Reframing, retelling or twisting events into a narrative that shifts blame away from them
- Refusing to admit a mistake or acknowledge your perspective and feelings as valid
- Saying you’re being “crazy”, “over-sensitive”, “unreasonable” or “dramatic”
- Telling you other people’s opinions of you in a way that diminishes your confidence, sense of self or makes you question your identity or friendships
- Masking criticism with expressions of care or concern, including expressions like “I’m starting to worry about you,” or “I’m only saying this because I care,” or “it gives me no pleasure to have to tell you this.”
- Turning accusations back on you, one second you think you’re talking about an issue you have with the other person, and then suddenly they’re saying you’re at fault and the focus is on your own issues.
- Denying or minimising your feelings, thoughts or opinions.
Not every case of a person disagreeing with you, criticising you or lying to you is a case of gaslighting, but when it’s a persistent behaviour or motivated by a general inability to accept responsibility or admit wrongdoing, it’s very likely to be an ongoing issue.
“Gaslighting is sometimes a defence mechanism that builds up as a result of trauma or bad experiences in childhood,” says Tori. “It could be that the person is covering up an addictive process such as a substance or process addiction or it could be that they have a deep-seated need to control situations to the point that they’ll manipulate people close to them with no concern for the damage that can have.”
The impact of gaslighting
Tori says the impact of gaslighting over time can be quite severe.
“It can really damage a person’s confidence and sense of self, make them withdraw from friendships and undermine the quality of relationships,” Tori says. “It can be especially distressing if it’s coming from someone you care about, and if they’re very good at it they’ll know just what insecurities to amplify and needle in on. It can cause an overwhelming amount of pain.”
Those of us who are being gaslit may develop our own responses, including:
- Engaging in constant people pleasing behaviour
- Making excuses for the person gaslighting us to family or friends.
- Questioning ourselves or constantly going over things in our head to make sure you’ve done things right.
- Apologising frequently.
- Experiencing constant nervousness, anxiety or worry.
- Feeling disengaged or disconnected from ourselves and our identity.
- Feelings of hopelessness or numbness.
- A severe loss of confidence.
- Feeling bad after every interaction with a person.
What to do if you’re being gaslit?
Tori says reaching out to friends, family and support networks can be key to dealing with a gaslighting situation.
“Because being unsure of your own reality is a hallmark of gaslighting, it can be surprisingly difficult to spot when you’re in the middle of it,” Tori says. “If you suspect it might be an issue, you can always ask a trusted family member or friend for a reality check. Gaslighting can be much easier to spot from the outside.”
Because gaslighting can be isolating, building connections with others is a key way of protecting yourself. Setting clear boundaries and limits are another healthy response, Tori says.
Boundaries may mean that you choose to step away from debates or end interactions when you recognise gaslighting is occurring. “You might say something like ‘I feel like you’re unwilling to admit this is an issue or acknowledge how I’m feeling and that it’s valid, so perhaps let’s talk about this when that changes’,” Tori says.
It’s a challenge, Tori admits, because confronting a gaslighter more directly can be a risk.
“Since the default response of a gaslighter is to turn criticism back on to their accuser, you may just be opening yourself up to abuse and manipulation if you do confront the issue head on,” Tori says. “At the same time, you can’t let the behaviour continue if it’s having a detrimental impact, so you may need to decide whether you can either fix the relationship or give yourself some space from it.”
If it’s a friend or colleague, it may be easier to choose to disengage than if it’s a partner. So if the relationship is important to you, the best response may be seeking professional help for either yourself or the relationship.
“As tough as it can be, sometimes the only way out is to let go of the relationship, or to accept the basic reality that you cannot change another person or force them to be accountable, all you can do is protect yourself,” Tori says. “That self care and protection is key, it’s the only way to stop things getting worse.”
To speak with an expert at South Pacific Private and enquire into any therapists, support networks or support groups which may be a good fit for dealing with a difficult situation, call 1800 063 332.
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