The warning signs of gaslighting and how to deal with emotional abuse and manipulation.
Have you recently started to question yourself, doubt your own memory and wonder if you’re losing your mind due to someone else’s actions? Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse that can cause a person to become anxious and confused and question their own feelings, judgements, and memories. If this sounds familiar, help is at hand.
Qualified CBT therapist Navit Schechter shares the most common signs of gaslighting, what you can do if this is happening to you and when to seek help:
What is gaslighting?
The term gaslighting originally came from the 1944 film Gaslight, starting Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In his attempts to maintain control over his wife, Boyer’s character Gregory manipulates her into thinking she is going insane. One of the ways he does this is by dimming the gaslights in their house and convincing her she imagined it. As she dives into a state of confusion and uncertainty, Gregory convinces his wife that he loves her and will look after her as she becomes increasingly dependent on him and unable to see that he is in fact the cause of her problems.
There is no single definition for the term gaslighting and the experience can differ from person to person, but according to Psychologist Sam Owen ‘Gaslighting is a form of ongoing psychological abuse and control whereby the manipulator makes the victim question and doubt him or herself, their perception, memories, self-image, self-worth and sanity.’
Owen explains that, ‘The danger is that you lose your self-esteem and identity, become despondent, and eventually you and your life can become under someone else’s control.’
Am I being gaslighted?
Gaslighting is often much more subtle than other types of abuse and can develop gradually, making it difficult to recognise. The following are potential signs that you may be being gaslighted:
- Your memories are frequently questioned eg you may be told that you have a bad memory and never remember things accurately. The more a person doubts their own judgment, the easier it is for an abuser to control them.
- Your feelings are belittled or disregarded eg being told that you are over-sensitive, ‘needy’ or overreacting when your feelings and responses are valid.
- The other person may deny that past events or actions happened or how they occurred e.g. saying they haven’t done something that they have, ‘forgetting’ plans they have previously made or telling you that you’re making it up.
- It is hard to have a logical discussion as the other person changes focus or questions your personality and credibility instead.
- The other person refuses to engage in a conversation with you when you want to work things out eg by pretending that they don’t know what you’re talking about or making out that you are trying to confuse them by having the conversation.
- The other person denies you affection or other things that they know you need or want in an attempt to provoke a response from you.
- The other person frequently accuses you of things you haven’t done, with little thought to other possible explanations or solutions for the matter being discussed. If questioned, these can easily escalate into conflict and an attempt to subdue you into submission and to accept blame eg by making out it’s something that you ‘keep doing wrong’ or something that is ‘wrong with you’.
Gaslighting can be confused with other behaviours too eg someone offering a different opinion to yours, insisting that they’re right or not listening to your feelings. While these may be unpleasant and feel disrespectful, they aren’t necessarily gaslighting. Gaslighting is a repeated pattern of manipulation where it seems as though the other person wants you to doubt yourself and seems to be trying to intentionally provoke you to respond explosively.
Why do people gaslight?
Like many forms of abuse, a person may frequently gaslight in an attempt to maintain control over another person. They may have learnt from their own previous experiences that they are entitled to control others or act out of their own feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem.
Although it most commonly occurs in intimate and romantic relationships, gaslighting can occur in any relationship. The abuser can be anyone from your boss, to a friend, a relative and even a parent. However unlike physical abuse, gaslighting is often difficult to spot as there are no obvious physical signs. To an outsider, the gaslighter may appear charming, the perfect, caring partner.
The effects of gaslighting
Any form of emotional or physical abuse, including gaslighting, can affect your self-esteem and lead you to feel anxious, depressed and/or hopeless. It may be hard to recognise if you are being abused, especially if you are reliant on the other person or they are in a position of authority.
However, as a result of being continually gaslit, you may notice the following:
- You alter your behaviour because you are frightened of how the other person will react.
- You feel like your personality is being attacked.
- You constantly doubt yourself.
- You feel anxious, confused, second-guess yourself and feel as though you’re going crazy.
- You find it difficult to make simple decisions about things you would have been able to decide on easily in the past.
- You find yourself frequently apologising to the other person for things you haven’t done.
- You feel increasingly insecure.
- You have become withdrawn from others and avoid friends and family.
- You defend and make excuses for the other person’s behaviour to your friends and family.
- You frequently feel hopeless, down, worthless and not good enough.
It’s important to note that there may be other causes for some of these signs and they may not necessarily be caused by another’s behaviour. If you think that there’s a chance that you might be experiencing gaslighting then seeking help can help you to work this out.
How to deal with gaslighting
If you think you might be a victim of gaslighting, or any other form of abuse, and your physical safety is at risk, then you need to seek help as soon as possible. If your physical safety is not threatened, your mental health will likely still be at risk, so it is essential that you take care of yourself as much as possible if you remain in the relationship.
- Trust your own judgement
According to Owen, if you feel your physical safety is not threatened, it is important to be upfront with the perpetrator no matter how much they escalate things. Staying quiet can enable the cycle of abuse so Owen suggests always standing by your own decisions or things that you have said in order to maintain your perspective. Focusing on the facts as you know them, trying to avoid the tendency to doubt yourself and responding to insults and criticisms calmly and respectfully can all help to interrupt the cycle of abuse.
- Respond rather than react
Often an abuser will hope to provoke a strong response from you. Whilst it is natural to feel many emotions in response to this eg fear, anger and sadness, finding a way to pause so that you can respond, rather than react, can help you to not get drawn into arguments and feel more in control. If possible, it can help to physically leave the situation and go outside. Otherwise relaxation exercises such as slow breathing or grounding exercises can help. The more you are able to stay calm, the more you can trust your own judgement and see the situation for what it is.
- Gather evidence
This can help you both become more confident that you are not imagining things and can also be used in the future should you need to pursue legal action. This could involve keeping a note on your phone or a written diary if you can keep these safely without fear of being found. Alternatively, a friend or family member that you trust or a counsellor can help you keep a record of what has been said and done.
If you do have a close relationship with someone who you can trust, you can send them messages of what you need to record for them to keep so that you can immediately delete the messages from your phone record. If you are living with someone who is abusive, it is important to take measures to keep any records safe e.g. by only sending messages when it’s safe to do so and deleting your search history.
- Look after your own mental health
It is natural for your own mental health and wellbeing to be affected when on the receiving end of abuse. Making your own mental health and your self-esteem a priority can help you maintain or regain your self-belief, identity and trust in yourself again. Talking to someone you know and trust, whether a friend, family member, counsellor or therapist can benefit your mental health as can other activities such as eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising, spending time with friends and family, meditating and getting outside into nature.
- Speak about your experience with others you trust
This may not only help you receive the support you need and strengthen your connection with others who you trust and who understand you, it can help you to process what is happening and strengthen your beliefs that you are not crazy or losing your memory.
As many gaslighters appear caring and charming to others, it may be hard for those you confide in to understand the subtle abuse you are experiencing. Reaching out to those who may have personal or professional experience of gaslighting behaviour or can see the situation from your perspective can help you to feel understood and supported.
- End the relationship
If the gaslighting occurs in a relationship that you are able to walk away from, then this will most likely be the most helpful thing you can do. It is unlikely that the abuser will change their behaviour in the long-term, unless they commit to and follow a recovery programme.
Even if there are children involved, organisations like Refuge can provide you with support, whether you are within an abusive relationship or want to leave it. They can help you to create a safety plan and leave the relationship or situation safely.
When to seek help
Gaslighting may occur in isolation or can occur alongside other emotionally and physically abusive behaviours. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of violence, it is important to get immediate help by calling 999. If you believe that you are experiencing abuse from a partner, family member, friend, colleague, acquaintance or stranger, but you are not in immediate danger, then it is still necessary to seek support.
Some of the UK domestic abuse organisations are listed below. They offer advice, can help you to stay safe and provide emotional support to help you deal with the impact that gaslighting has had on you whether it’s happening in the present or occurred in the past. Talking to a counsellor or therapist can also be a good first step and if the gaslighting happens at work the Human Resources contact should be able to help you and offer support:
- Relate: a charity which provides relationship support to couples and families.
- Refuge: supports women against domestic violence and psychological abuse.
- ManKind: supports men experiencing domestic, psychological or physical abuse.
- Women’s Aid: a charity which aims to end domestic abuse against women.
- The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
- Mind: a mental health charity, Mind make sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.