Have you ever felt like someone made you doubt your own memory? Did you feel like they were trying to manipulate you by doing so?
The term “gaslighting” has become the buzzword in recent years. It can be defined as the act of intentionally manipulating someone to question their own sanity or memory. It is a form of psychological abuse that undermines another person’s reality by denying facts or their feelings. It was first coined in the 1938 play and 1944 film ‘Gaslight’, where a husband manipulates his wife into thinking that she has a mental disorder by dimming their gas-fueled lights and convincing her that she is hallucinating (Huizen, 2020). Gaslighting may sometimes not be intentional and the abuser may not even realise they are gaslighting you. It is more common in romantic relationships but it can also happen in a professional setting with your superior or in any relationship with an imbalance of power.
How do you identify it? What are the signs?
Gaslighting may not be easy to recognise right away, the abuse often starts off subtle. They typically try to confuse you and make you doubt yourself so that you’re more likely to go along with what they want. There usually tends to be a power dynamic where the manipulator has enough power such that the person does not dare to change up the relationship or step out of it in fear of losing it. It’s harder to recognise it when someone you love or deeply care about is doing it to you as you would naturally want to believe that person. However, it is important to protect yourself and recognise if you are being gaslighted.
Signs that you are experiencing gaslighting:
- Trouble trusting yourself
- Wondering if you’re oversensitive
- Feeling like everything you do is wrong
- Sensing that something is wrong but not being able to identify the problem
- Feeling helpless and taking little pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
- Making excuses for the person
- Constantly apologising
- Feeling isolated from family and friends (Falck, 2017)
Gaslighting can cause severe psychological damage and the process is often slow and gradual, each time reducing the victim’s confidence and self-esteem. They may end up believing that they deserve the abuse.
People who gaslight often become an expert at knowing what will trigger you, your vulnerabilities and will use that knowledge against you.
Here are some techniques a gaslighter might use to manipulate you:
- Withholding: they refuse to listen or try to understand you
- Countering: they question your memory of an event or situation and make you doubt yourself
- Trivialising: they make you believe that you’re overreacting and thus, condition you to feel like your needs or feelings are invalid
- Blocking/ Diverting: they may try to change the subject or question your thinking
- Forgetting/Denial: they pretend to forget what had occurred and deny what they had previously done or said (Diguilo, 2018)
Reasons they may gaslight you
Apart from recognising the signs and techniques gaslighters use, being aware of possible reasons they may treat you as such could be important as well. The most common reason people gaslight is so that they can gain control over others. This need to dominate others may stem from narcissism, antisocial personality or other problems. As the process of gaslighting advances, the victim often questions their own memories and thoughts. Their self-doubt may prevent them from speaking up about the abuser’s behaviour. Subsequently, they start to depend on the abuser to verify their memories which gives the abuser more opportunities to manipulate the victim. The abuser may also convince the victim that they are the cause of the abuser’s aggression. The victim then ends up apologising to repair the relationship and feed the abuser’s ego. Many gaslighters use shame and confusion to isolate them. This causes the victim to avoid loved ones in fear that they may end up siding with the abuser. Their aim is to make their victim completely dependent on them. Once, they reach that goal, they will abandon them and look for another victim to repeat this process (Good Therapy, 2018).
How do you stop it from happening to you
After reading the above, if you believe you are experiencing gaslighting, here are some ways you can come out of it.
- Identifying the problem – recognising the problem is key
- Remember your truth – Jot down your conversation in a journal so you can refer back to it later, write down how you feel and look out for signs of repeated denial
- Figure if you’re in a power struggle with your partner. If you find yourself having the same conversation first
- Encourage a mindset shift – practice visualising yourself without a relationship. Believe that your future will have your own reality, social support and integrity
- Allow yourself to feel all your feelings – Acknowledge what you’re feeling, track your mood patterns which may allow you to figure out what triggers your feelings and how to manage them
- Stop thinking of who’s right and wrong – it is less important that knowing how you feel and seeing if the conversation leaves you feeling guilty or making you doubt yourself
- Be reminded that you cannot control anyone’s opinion, even if you’re right – Learn to let go and realise the only person’s opinion you can control if yourselves
- Be compassionate to yourself – It is a healing process that will help you to move forward and think about your own needs (Stern, 2019)
In the film Gaslight, the wife, Paula now realising that her husband, Gregory has been manipulating her, turns the tables on him. In the final scene, Gregory has been tied to a chair by police. When Paula enters the room, he instructs her to get a knife and cut him loose. But Paula gaslights him by pretending that she is too mentally ill — a reality that he has constructed for her — to carry out his instructions. You are in control of your own reality, unless you allow others to take over. If you feel like you’re confused and feel uneasy about the situation, always seek help from people you trust or find a professional to guide you through your struggles.
Authors: Camellia Wong (M.A) and Sara Chiang
DiGiulio, S. (2018). What is gaslighting? And how do you know if it’s happening to you? NBCNews.com. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-gaslighting-how-do-you-know-if-it-s-happening-ncna890866.
Falck, S. (2017). How to Recognize Gaslighting and Get Help. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/gaslighting.
Good Therapy. (2018). Gaslighting. GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/gaslighting.
Huizen, J. (2020). What is gaslighting? Examples and how to respond. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/gaslighting.
Stern, R. (2018). I’ve counseled hundreds of victims of gaslighting. Here’s how to spot if you’re being gaslighted. Vox. https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/12/19/18140830/gaslighting-relationships-politics-explained.