What is gaslighting? Are you being gaslighted? Gaslighting is most common in romantic relationships, but it can happen in any kind of relationship where there is a power imbalance. A power imbalance can exist between boss and employee, teacher and student, parent and child, and between husband and wife.
You might feel dependent on the other person, and that you need them more than they need you. Then they can try to use your need and attachment to them to manipulate you. You don’t want to lose them, so you defer to them too much, and wind up doubting yourself and your reality. It can happen with a boss, teacher, friend, sibling, or parent, or anywhere there is an unequal power dynamic. Especially when you give that person your respect and look up to them.
Where Does The Term Gaslight Come From?
The term gaslight comes from playwright Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 book called Gas Light. In 1944 it was made into a movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. It is about how Gregory manipulates his adoring, trusting wife Paula into believing she is crazy and can no longer trust her own perceptions of reality.
In a classic example, Gregory causes the gaslights in the house to flicker. Then Paula asks why the gaslights are flickering. Gregory tells her that the gaslights are not flickering and that it is all in her mind. Paula feels like she is going crazy, doubting her own perceptions and denying her reality.
Some partners will try to exploit your attachment to them. If you were trained to long for relationships and connection, this conditioning could make you vulnerable to exploitation. Many people are socialized to doubt themselves and continually apologize for disagreeing or upsetting their partners.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting causes you to trust the perpetrator while doubting your own sanity. It is a malicious form of emotional abuse based on the perpetrator’s need for power and control.
At first it starts in a very subtle way. The perpetrator might tell you that you’re a bad parent or bad with money, and you laugh it off. But, the continuous invalidating of how you feel or who you are has the effect of making you doubt yourself. But, in reality, what you are feeling or experiencing is real.
For example, if you confront them for staying out late or not spending time with the kids, they will turn it around on you, telling you that you are not appreciating their hard work at the office. Or you aren’t creating a home environment that they want to come home to, or that you are monopolizing the kids.
The perpetrator is using shame to undermine your confidence. To make matters worse, the perpetrator will claim that a friend or relative agrees with them. This is often a lie, and is used to isolate you and gain control. It is a way for them to feel ‘in charge’ and deflect responsibility.
They might even tell you that everyone else (your family, the media) is a liar, which makes you question your reality. You’ve never known this person to lie, right? Well, it’s a manipulation technique. It makes you turn more to the gaslighter for the “correct” information – which isn’t correct information at all. It just increases your dependence on the perpetrator, isolating you more.
How It Feels To Be Gaslighted
If you are a victim of gaslighting, there are a few symptoms that occur. They are: feeling confused or crazy, wondering if you are too sensitive, apologizing, feeling unhappy and like there is something wrong, making excuses for your partner, wondering if you are good enough and having problems making decisions. You second-guess what you know is true.
The perpetrator will often tell you that you are too sensitive and insecure or that you are crazy. They can say things like, ‘I was just joking’ or ‘It’s no big deal’ or ‘You’re overreacting’. The gaslighter might even tell you that it never happened or that you are imagining things or that you are ungrateful. A gaslighter will deny things, even when you have proof.
Typically, any sensitive topic can lead to gaslighting. Topics include money, sex, issues with family, or bad habits. Over time, this behavior really wears you down. As you begin to understand what is gaslighting, you will start to realize how toxic it is.
Gaslighting always involves only one of you listening and respecting what the other person has to say. Instead of listening and respecting what you have to say, the other person is telling you that you’re wrong or crazy. For example, when Lori complains to Kate that she is staying out too late, Kate tells her that she isn’t staying out that late and that she is being too sensitive. This is gaslighting.
If Kate had listened and responded non-defensively and affirmed Lori’s perceptions and then explained why, this would be an example of trying to come to a fair resolution of the problem. Kate could validate Lori’s observations and offer a solution. She could also explain why she was staying out and they could problem solve together. Gaslighting is the opposite of this!
What Do I Do About It
In the film Gas Light, Paula realizes that she is being manipulated. She gets the upper hand in the end. The police have Gregory tied up in a chair, and when she comes in, he asks her to untie him. But, she pretends that she is too crazy to untie him, giving him a dose of his own medicine!
The worst thing about gaslighting is the self-doubt. It is a form of abuse that can be countered by learning how to identify it and then validate yourself. When you realize what is gaslighting, you can begin to ignore others when they invalidate your perceptions. The reality is that you can rely on yourself and build your confidence through therapy. Therapy can help you analyze the abuser’s behavior and not take it on.
This might require a big shift. It’s very important to have a strong support system made up of people who can validate your reality, not the perpetrator’s. Isolating only gives more power to the abuser. Gaslighting is about their own insecurity and shame, not yours.
Learning What Is Gaslighting Is A Process
As you start to realize what is really going on, try not be self-critical. Don’t give yourself a hard time for not identifying the abuse sooner, or for not trusting yourself. It’s important to stop the cycle of abuse, so don’t let anyone else abuse you and don’t abuse yourself!
Learning how to develop self-esteem and practice setting boundaries will be key to your recovery. These are skills you can develop in therapy. You can also try Codependents Anonymous.
Neurofeedback can help by clearing anxiety and depression that can get in the way of change. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing EMDR can help you desensitize to and reprocess old patterns that are holding you back.
If you can relate to this and you think I might be able to help, I’d be happy to talk with you. Contact me by leaving me a confidential voice mail 310-314-6933 or email email@example.com.