What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological control and manipulation in a relationship that sees the user feed information or verbal cues towards the victim, leading them to question what they believe is real. Often times, the effects of gaslighting are felt within the victims themselves. The person who does the gaslighting can often be presented as doing so for their own benefit in order to misdirect.
It is important to address what gaslighting is in the context of relationships so that we are aware of how to handle the situation if it comes up. Consider that all relationships will have disagreements in one way or another. Being able to recognize the key points in gaslighting can also help with understanding if you have experienced this behavior and how it has affected your mental health.
A Brief History
The term originally came from a 1944 film by Alfred Hitchcock using the same name, “Gaslight”. In it, a wife is slowly manipulated by her husband into believing she is mentally unwell so that the husband can continue in his criminal activities.
The film itself led to the common use of the word gaslight in everyday use. While the American Psychological Association mentions that the term was “once referred to manipulation so extreme as to induce mental illness or to justify commitment of the gaslighted person to a psychiatric institution,” the term is also often defined as a way of describing emotional abuse that leads to the questioning of one’s reality.
Where and How is Gaslighting Seen?
This behavior is commonly seen in romantic relationships, but can also be observed in other relationships such as friendships, family, and work environments. Gaslighting is typically seen within a perceived unequal power dynamic that is perceived in favor of the one putting forth the false narrative.
While this might sound like a disagreement between two parties, there are very distinct differences between an argument between a relationship and gaslighting:
- In a relationship where there is a healthy and communicative disagreement, one partner is actively listening and taking into consideration their partner’s perspective, thoughts, and feelings
- In a relationship where gaslighting is involved, we might see one partner frequently negating the perception of the other with the insistence that they are also in the wrong.
What Turns On the Gaslighting?
Gaslighting can be a confusing experience that can lead to questioning our own judgment, self-worth, and mental health. It is then also important to recognize what can turn the gaslighting on in any relationship.
People are not born with gaslighting in their personality. Rather, it is a learned behavior that may have been witnessed or experienced. For many, it may also be a habit from past experiences and relationships. What turns this light switch on can be the need to remain in control of a situation that feels out of control, much like an argument between partners.
An example of a possibility for why people gaslight is the parent child relationship. Such that a child may have been gaslit by the parent and learned similar behaviors as a survival tactic. Children frequently pick up behaviors observed through their caregivers; thus teaching them that certain ways of maneuvering in relationships can help them seemingly remain in the right.
Linking to mental health conditions such as narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder, one’s self-view might be distorted or have a strong motivation to manipulate others for personal gain. This can go in line with gaslighting as the behavior can feed into the admiration of the perpetrator at the cost of the others’ feelings.
It is important to remember that when gaslighting happens, it deflects ownership and responsibility onto the victim while also keeping the victim hooked into the situation to either convince them of something or to prove them wrong. These manipulation tactics can also distort the confidence of the victim which can also lead to an unhealthy dependency towards the gaslighter.
Examples of Gaslighting
Habitual lying is a common indicator of gaslighting in that a typical response might be, “You are making it up,” “It’s all in your head,” or “You never said that”. It can be a hard thing to distinguish especially if the deception itself is highly convincing to the point of second-guessing oneself.
Blaming and Minimizing
Discussions become distorted by the perpetrator wherein you are the one at fault and your thoughts and feelings are downplayed. Your actions may also be brought up by suggesting the notion that acting differently may have resulted in better treatment. When thoughts, feelings, and beliefs become dismissed, those fundamental parts may come in question in your own mind. This can lead to difficulty in coping and isolation from others.
Responses such as, “This is all your fault,” or “You should have known I would feel this way” are deflective ways that distort the narrative towards one side. What results are feelings of guilt and shame towards the victim even though nothing was done wrong on their end.
Some common responses here might be, “They think you’re crazy,” or “No one believes you.” This most typically means that the gaslighter has spread false information about you to others. An individual who engages in gaslighting might also say that same information to the victim; or suggest that others think similarly towards them as well. While these things may not have been thought of or said about you in any way in reality, the gaslighter may try to lead to you believe it.
Signs of Being Gaslit
It is important to recognize when one is experiencing being gaslit as this can detrimentally affect one’s mental health. Some issues that might arise might be anxiety and depression, for example. Some examples of what it might feel like when being a victim of gaslighting are:
Indicative of gaslighting’s effect in leaving the victim feeling alone and the perpetrator’s tactic of playing with the power dynamics of the relationship.
Feeling as though you are walking on eggshells and being cautiously aware of what to do or say.
Attempting to rationalize the validity of certain feelings or thoughts that come up.
Feeling weak or passive
Observable differences in behaviors and personality based on past interactions where someone may have been more strong or assertive.
Reality in question
Worry or concerns that something is wrong mentally or the perceived inability to trust in yourself and your experiences.
What Can We Do?
While addressing a shifted power dynamic within a relationship with gaslighting involved might be difficult, it is not impossible. Emotional awareness and regulation can be a helpful strategy to help build confidence and self-reliance. This also allows one to stand in the experience of uncomfortable feelings and experiences in order to stand in opposition of emotional abuse and gaslighting. Psychoanalyst Dr. Robin Stern suggests some of the following strategies to help with gaslighting:
- Identify the Problem: Recognizing the issue allows for deeper reflection to be had.
- Sort Out Truth Vs Distortion: Writing out the issue can help create an objective view of the situation and allow observation of where the conversation began to pivot to favor a specific side. Writing out emotional content based on the issue can also help with finding issues like denial of your lived experience.
- Permit Yourself to Feel What You Feel: Personally accepting and acknowledging your feelings can help with taking back control of your emotions after having them be in control by another.
- Focus on Feelings: While one of the main issues with gaslighting is focusing on convincing the victim that they are right, it is understandably easy to understand then that one might spend much time reflecting on who was right or wrong. The revelation about who was right or wrong is less important than what we feel. It is important to acknowledge the emotions that arise during gaslighting situations as it helps with psychological and emotional well-being.
- Self-Compassion: This can be a difficult skill to practice especially in an unequal power dynamic. However, feeling minimal confidence or strength can have detrimental effects on our outlooks. Practicing personal kindness and compassion can help to see perspective and gain traction in personal decision making.
Victims of gaslighting can often times lose their sense of identity as their own thoughts and belief systems begin to come into question. Self-confidence can also change negatively as a result. Those who experience mental health issues can also have a stronger negative effect to gaslighting if they have also experienced issues with trauma and abuse. The effects of gaslighting can last long even after the party doing the gaslighting is not associated with the victim anymore, which makes this a continually important issue to be aware of.
Our article about toxic relationships:
Managing & Breaking Away From Toxic Relationships
The Gaslight Effect by Dr. Robin Stern
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