What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation and psychological abuse that can be very damaging to the victim. It can appear in many aspects of life and can really affect your health and well-being. There are ways to recover from gaslighting.

What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological or emotional abuse that manipulates someone into questioning their own sanity, memories, or perception of reality. They do this by questioning your authority, denying the evidence you have or doing everything they can to make you feel like you’re wrong. Sometimes on the surface, it may appear as a difference of opinion, but the purpose if to undermine or control you.

Gaslighting may be subtle at the beginning with the gaslighter changing small details in stories or memories and eventually the details get bigger and bigger until the person being gaslit starts to question their own intuition and the ability to trust themselves. This leaves the gaslighter with the opportunity to gain dominance in the relationship as the misinformation beats down your self-image.

Gaslighting

Photo by Philippe Mignot on Unsplash

Types of Gaslighting

Countering

Countering is when someone questions a person’s memory or aspects of a person’s memory. This is often done by saying things like “That wasn’t the way it happened.”

Withholding

Withholding involves someone pretending they do not understand the conversation, or refusing to listen, to make a person doubt themselves. They may also say that they don’t understand what you’re talking about or that you’re crazy for talking the way you do. This commonly happens when you confront them about their gaslighting.

Trivializing

Trivializing occurs when a person belittles, disregards, or invalidates how someone else feels. They may accuse them of being “too sensitive” or “overdramatic,” or overreacting in response to what are valid and reasonable concerns. This may cause you to think that your emotions aren’t valid in any way. After experiencing this type of gaslighting, you may find yourself becoming afraid to open up your emotions or believing that everything bad that happens is entirely your fault alone.

Denial

Denial involves a person refusing to take responsibility for their actions. They may do this by pretending to forget what happened, saying they did not do it, or blaming their behaviour on someone else. It ignores events and feelings. Gaslighters often engage in denial when you try to confront them about their gaslighting behaviours.

Diverting

Diverting is when they deny your emotions or what you’re trying to say, except they involve another point of view. For instance, they might say that you got that idea through your friends, or it was misinformation you read from a biased source. Additionally, they will try their best to divert your attention from the reality at hand by saying that you were influenced to think or feel that way. Unfortunately, you may end up believing them – that maybe your emotions were never real in the first place.

Stereotyping

A gaslighter may intentionally use negative stereotypes about someone’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, or age to gaslight them. For example, they may say that no one will believe a woman if she reports abuse or that you’re emotional because you are a woman. Stereotyping is similar to trivializing, except their reason is based on who you are as a person. They will use perceived flaws against you to turn things in their favour.

What Does Gaslighting Sound Like?

  • “You’re so dramatic.” “You’re too sensitive.” “You’re overreacting.” “You’re too emotional.”
  • “You’re imagining things.” “You know you sound crazy right now, right?” “You’re always making stuff up.” “You’re making a big deal out of nothing, like always.”
  • “You’re being paranoid.” “You’re not thinking clearly.”
  • “I was joking! You take everything personally.”
  • “That never even happened.” “This is what happened…” “This is what I said…”
  • “You’re making yourself the victim when I’m the one who should be mad.”

Many gaslighting statements start with the word you. This is because the gaslighter/perpetrator is an expert at identifying the supposed deficiencies in another person and hardly ever acknowledges or takes personal responsibility for the impact of their own statements or behaviour.

Why Do People Use Gaslighting?

Unfortunately, gaslighting can be more effective and successful than many people imagine. Almost anyone can be susceptible to gaslighting tactics, which are often used by domestic abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. They use them so they can get their way and, if necessary, control other people in order to get their way.

Not everyone who engages in gaslighting realizes that they are doing it. It still involves gaining control over the mind and behaviour of the victim. Some people engage in gaslighting because it is what they observed in their family as a child. Other people may engage in gaslighting because they lack skill in communication, and it acts as a defence mechanism. Regardless of a gaslighter’s level of self-awareness, the behaviour is never acceptable, and ignorance should not be accepted as an excuse for manipulative actions. 

Gaslighting can occur in any type of interaction, but it is especially common in:

Intimate Relationships

Gaslighting is common in domestic violence situations. But it can also happen in otherwise non-abusive relationships. Anyone can gaslight another person in a relationship. It’s more likely that women will be gaslit by men in romantic relationships. However, gaslighting still happens to men by women, it’s just not as common.

In relationships, an abusive person may use gaslighting to isolate their partner, undermine their confidence, and make them easier to control. Gaslighting often starts gradually. Initially, the abusive person gains their partner’s trust through an initial honeymoon period where there is no abusive behaviour. The partner subtly starts to initiate gaslighting by suggesting that their partner is unreliable, forgetful, or mentally unstable.

Child-Parent Relationships

Abusive parents or caregivers may gaslight children to undermine them. For example, when a child cries, they may say they are “too sensitive” to shame them and make them stop. Gaslighting is also often used to control older children and adolescents towards the parent’s way of thinking. It may be used to manipulate the adolescent to do what the parent wants.

Medical Gaslighting

Medical gaslighting is when a medical professional dismisses a person’s health concerns as being the product of their imagination or downplays their legitimate medical concerns. This can refer to situations in which a medical provider may not have meant to mislead or manipulate the patient. Instead, they failed to take their concerns seriously or to pursue them in an attempt to reach a diagnosis. In addition, some physicians use gaslighting to dismiss people’s (specifically women’s) medical concerns. This is unfortunately common with people suffering from chronic pain and other chronic conditions. This may cause you to feel irrational about specific medical fears or concerns.

If you feel that your doctor is gaslighting you, it may be a good idea to switch to a new one or find a second opinion from another doctor (such as visiting a walk-in clinic or urgent care clinic). When it comes to your physical and mental health, you should feel that your concerns are being taken seriously.

Racial Gaslighting

Racial gaslighting is when people apply gaslighting techniques to an entire racial or ethnic group in order to discredit them or deny the experiences of that group. For example, the denial of the abuses of the Residential Schools would be a form of racial gaslighting.

Political Gaslighting

Political gaslighting occurs when a political group or figure lies or manipulates information to control people. For example, the person or political party may downplay things their administration has done, discredit their opponents, imply that critics are mentally unstable, or use controversy to deflect attention away from their mistakes.

Institutional Gaslighting

Institutional gaslighting occurs within a company, organization, or institution, such as a hospital. For example, they may portray whistleblowers who report problems as irrational or incompetent, deny unfair employment practices, or deceive employees about their rights.

How is Gaslighting Damaging?

Some potential signs that someone is experiencing gaslighting include:

  • Feeling incompetent, unconfident, or worthless
  • Becoming withdrawn or isolated from others
  • Constantly feeling confused or like you’re going crazy.
  • Having difficulty trusting yourself and other people.
  • Constantly assuming you did something wrong or feeling the need to apologize.
  • Making excuses for other people’s actions or rationalizing why they did something that hurt you
  • Feeling like you have to prove everything.
  • Feeling like you constantly have to back up your reasoning/views of things with an abundance of facts.
  • Sensing something is wrong but feeling like you’re not able to “put your finger on it.”
  • Regularly feeling misunderstood and alone.

Gaslighting may contribute to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, low self-image, low self-worth and psychological trauma, especially if it is part of a wider pattern of abuse. It often targets victims at the core of their being: their sense of identity and self-worth. As the gaslighter insists that what he or she remembers, thinks, and feels is wrong, the victim may experience increased feelings of self-doubt. Eventually, the gaslighter will start to lie about more sensitive areas, attempting to disrupt and distort foundational aspects of the victim’s being, wearing them down, confusing them, and forcing them to rely on the gaslighter’s version of reality.

Gaslighting can be psychologically devastating. It violates a person’s sense of trust in themselves and others. It can change a person’s worldview from that in which people are generally good to wondering who else is out to get them. Victims of gaslighting may forget what they once valued about themselves and blame themselves for having been too trusting, vulnerable, or dependent. The experience may make a victim never want to be part of a relationship again.

Gaslighting

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

How Can You Heal the Damage from Gaslighting?

Gain Awareness

Gaining awareness of this type of psychological abuse is a crucial element of healing and moving forward. Being able to discern or recognize that someone is gaslighting you is an important first step.

Find Validation

If you feel like might have been gaslighted, the answer to that is validation. Go to a trusted individual to give you feedback about what you have been going through. It is helpful to be honest about your experience (notice any urges to withhold information or lie to potentially protect the gaslighter) and to get someone else’s perspective. Realize that gaslighting is often best recognized as a pattern, but it can be clear in some one-off circumstances.

Nonetheless, if you’ve been experiencing gaslighting for a long time, it is understandable if it’s difficult for you to discern who is actually trustworthy. In this case, it is recommended to seek therapy with a therapist experienced in emotional abuse to help you navigate what you are going through. Through therapy, you can gain increased self-awareness, recover trust in yourself and your intuition, and attain practical tools to feel empowered in your relationships.

Have Space from the Other Person

Gaslighting is one of the most draining and toxic behaviours that can ever be done to you. When you have space from the other person, it helps you reflect and analyze the situation’s reality without being manipulated into their version of the truth. Sometimes, space is all you need so you can think of a logical reaction to being gaslit.

Collect Evidence

Collecting evidence to support that it’s not just all in your head, but that event took place is important. Evidence can be used to support yourself or be used to confront the gaslighter.

Set Boundaries

More often than not, gaslighting happens because of the lack of boundaries you set in certain relationships and friendships. You can’t be manipulated if you know exactly what you tolerate and what you don’t, which is why the people being gaslit are often those who don’t know how to set boundaries and stick to them.

Confront Them

This is one of the most complex parts of being gaslit because you should expect they’ll do everything to manipulate things in their favour. When you confront them, make sure you have the confidence to do so and stand your ground, even when they make you feel insane, insecure, and doubtful of your version of the truth. Trust in your instincts, believe in yourself, and confront them with how their behavior and actions are affecting you negatively. Don’t try to comfort them when they play the victim, and don’t try to lessen your version of the truth for their sake. It’s painful enough that you were gaslit, so the best thing you can do is confront them about it.

Things to Say When You’re Being Gaslighted:

–              “I realize you disagree with me, and this is how I see it.”

–              “I see that your perspective is different from mine, I’m not imagining things.”

–              “This is my experience, and these are my emotions.”

–              “I feel like I’m not being heard, and I want some space.”

–              “I’m making this decision for myself.”

–              “I’m not responding to that.”

–              “I want to figure things out for myself.”

–              “I get that you’re mad, and I’m angry too.”

Suggested Key Components of Communicating These Statements Successfully:

–              sustain eye contact (if appropriate to your culture)

–              be mindful of your posture (stand or sit straight)

–              facial expressions (serious, firm, and pleasant; refrain from using dismissive gestures)

–              body movements (balanced, relaxed, and open)

–              tone of voice (calm, soft, and firm)

This may take practice to convey these messages in a clear and assertive way. However, communicating in a passive, passive-aggressive, or aggressive manner can prevent you from asserting your rights, wants, and needs. Additionally, it can also encourage the recipient to either communicate more aggressively or become defensive and not hear you.

Ultimately, it’s very hard for others to dispute the content of what you’re saying when you stay focused on describing yourself. In contrast, describing the situation or another person are the types of statements that are much more easily disputable. Remember that your emotions are valid, and you have the right to feel and express them. You also have the right to ask for what you want and what you need.

Also, realize in your unique situation, confronting them may not be safe. If you sense that it is not safe to confront them, it may be better to hold the line and protect yourself emotionally until you are able to walk away.

Walk Away

The hardest part of being gaslit is that if they’re not going to change their behaviour, which is the common tendency, you need to walk away from that friendship or relationship. Being gaslit is highly detrimental to your mental health, so to keep your sanity, walk away from them as early as you can before they destroy you further.

Remind yourself how healthy personal and professional relationships should operate. Healthy relationships should have honesty, trust, and communication. They should also be respectful and supportive. If you realize that your relationship with the gaslighter is missing these qualities, it’s time for a change.

You then need to evaluate if the relationship is worth saving, or if you simply need to leave. A therapist may be able to help you talk about these issues, sort out your feelings, and make an action plan. Gaslighting often takes a huge toll on your mental health. It’s important that you learn to trust yourself again. Remember that this may take time, as well as the support of family, friends, or a professional. With time and the right support, you can, and will, recover.

Conclusion

Gaslighting can be a very damaging type of emotional and psychological abuse. There are ways to reduce the damage and find healing from the wounds caused by gaslighting.

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Published by Leona Westra

A Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) based in Surrey, BC with specialized training in Chronic Pain, Trauma, Nervous System Dysregulation, and Grief.

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