In the 1944 film The Gas Light, a husband deliberately manipulates his wife into believing that she is losing her sanity in order to gain control over her. Unfortunately, this is not just a fictional scenario. Though it has only recently come to clinical attention, the tactic known as gaslighting is a common pattern of many abusive relationships, where one partner consistently undermines the other’s sense of reality and ability to trust their own judgments.
Victims may be made to feel that they are being too demanding, too overly sensitive, too critical – that they have no right to expect certain standards of behavior or attitude from their partners. That they are the ones at fault, for continually misinterpreting or willfully ignoring their partner’s intentions. That, ultimately, the problems in the relationship are created by – and lie entirely with – themselves.
Much like a virus attacking the immune system, gaslighting is a continual, stage-by-stage process that undermines one’s ability to recognize and resist psychological abuse. Therefore, it’s crucial to know how gaslighting works, how to spot it, and what you can do about it.
Gaslighting can occur in any type of relationship
As with many types of intimate abuse, gaslighting occurs most commonly between romantic partners. But it can also occur between friends, coworkers, or roommates. Parent-child relationships are also particularly vulnerable to gaslighting in either direction – in fact, many experts believe that it specifically exploits the patterns of attachment developed in early childhood. It’s important to realize that the potential for gaslighting exists wherever there is close and prolonged personal interaction.
Gaslighting begins with a shock
One of the most insidious things about gaslighting is that the longer it happens, the less capable you become of realizing that it’s happening. But the earliest manifestations of gaslighting are almost always noticeable – in fact, the process begins at the moment you first notice them.
Typically, it starts with the abuser acting in a way that you find shocking, surprising, or disorienting. It may be a violent or emotional outburst that’s either unprovoked or wildly disproportional, a sudden change in their attitude towards you, or just oddly inexplicable behavior. Rather than someone you already know to be strange or unstable, this is someone acting in a way that’s totally uncharacteristic of what you thought you knew about them. Take note of when this happens, and instead of trying to disregard or explain away your discomfort, talk about it with someone you trust.
Gaslighting uses your best qualities against you
Most of us have some degree of humility and generosity. So when these warning signs occur, our instinct is to be open to the possibility that we misinterpreted something, and to assume the other person must have some good reason for their actions. But this is precisely the trap that gaslighting drags you into.
When the disruptive episodes become impossible to ignore and you confront the abuser, they will use the same reasoning to assure you things couldn’t possibly have happened the way you describe. They may deny having spoken in a certain tone or said a certain word, and act hurt and offended that you could even perceive them so negatively. If you try to smooth things over by backtracking or apologizing, they’ll seize on it as evidence of your inconsistency and use it against you when an argument inevitably comes up again.
Now, instead of being about them, the conflict has become about you. Why are you so overly sensitive? Why do you keep deliberately misinterpreting everything they do? And how can anyone trust you when you’re constantly contradicting yourself? If you are constantly ending up apologizing for having tried to communicate your feelings, you are very likely being gaslighted.
Gaslighting does not have to be deliberate
One of the major difficulties victims have in acknowledging that gaslighting is happening is that they cannot imagine their partner being so deviously manipulative. But this is a misconception – gaslighting doesn’t have to be intentional or planned. In fact, for the abuser it may be an instinctual and defensive response to having revealed a part of their personality they had been trying to hide from others as well as themselves.
Since acknowledging your reality would shatter their carefully maintained self-image, their reaction is to try to deny it and replace it with theirs. And while you may want to try to help them face the truth, the dangerous nature of their defenses means you’re usually better off protecting yourself. If you find yourself questioning or second-guessing yourself after one of these dialogues, the best course of action is stop engaging and walk away.
Gaslighting preys on your need for validation
Just as the abuser resorts to gaslighting to protect their own self-image, you are drawn into the argument by a desire to protect yours. At first you may be pretty certain you’re in the right, and that you’ll soon be able to convince them so. But as you repeatedly have your basic story called into question, you will start to doubt your own judgment. Now you will seek the abuser’s agreement even more desperately to reassure yourself that you are not the awful person they say you are.
You may start rehearsing the ‘perfect’ dialogue in your head that you’re sure will irrefutably make your case. When this fails to get the expected response, you’re eventually drawn into an internal argument with yourself, repeatedly going over events in your mind and wondering if you haven’t been wrong the whole time.
What can you do about it?
To resist gaslighting effectively, you must realize that the argument literally cannot be won, because the gaslighter is not committed to a consistent frame of reference, or anything besides proving you wrong at all costs.
Instead, let go of the need to prove yourself right to this particular person and understand that your self-image does not have to rely on their perception of you alone. Often, this involves firmly establishing and maintaining what researcher Hilde Lindemann calls a “counter-story”. Remember that you did not mistrust your memory or judgment before the arguments started, and you shouldn’t start doubting yourself now.
Be sure to stay in close contact with other people. This will provide you with a consistent frame of reference against which it will be easier to see the abuser’s accusations and manipulations for precisely what they are.
Remember that we all make mistakes and act insensitively sometimes. But while people have the right to criticize your actions towards them, nobody has the right to discredit your thoughts. To do so is disrespectful, manipulative and ultimately toxic.