Gaslighting is a sophisticated, subtle form of emotional manipulation which is so effective that you accept whatever the gaslighter presents as the truth.
This term comes from the 1938 stage play Gaslight, in which a husband attempts to make his wife question her sense of reality, memory and sanity by dimming the lights (which were powered by gas) in their home. When his wife correctly points out the dimmed lights, he denies anything has changed, insisting that she is mistaken, misremembering things and delusional.
Gaslighting is abusive. It leaves you doubting your sense of self as well as questioning your feelings and instincts. Simple things that you might have done in the past you now doubt your ability to do. This, together with dissociation, a normal response to trauma, which means you forget which leaves you feeling that you are losing your mind, confused and distrusting yourself.
Unhealthy narcissistic people often use gaslighting to control those with whom they have an intimate partner relationship.
Gaslighting tends to happen very gradually in a relationship; in fact, your partner’s actions may seem like just a simple misunderstanding at first.
Over time, however, these behaviours continue, and you become confused and anxious. As a result, your self-esteem is diminished, and your capacity to think critically is reduced.
You may then start relying on your partner more to define reality. This gives them a lot of power. And once they have broken down your ability to trust your sense of self, you are more likely to stay in the relationship which you may not recognise as abusive.
Your very Being is violated and chipped away.
Why Gaslighting Works
Gaslighting works because there is usually always a grain of truth included. This is coated however, with a thick layer of lies which when fired at you with speed, is hard to believe that what you are hearing is not the truth. Add to this body language, which may include grand gestures or a calm and a confident tone of voice, and it’s hard to disentangle yourself from what’s going on.
Perhaps the most significant factor in why it works, however, is shame.
If you are the child who was scapegoated and blamed or never felt not good enough, your self-esteem is impaired. A part of you now believes that you’re bad, mean or even stupid. Because of this, you now fear rejection, abandonment or punishment. When your partner tells you that you are wrong, you second guess yourself.
Examples of Gaslighting
Months after a family event, which was important to Sarah, during an argument, Paul tells Sarah he was disappointed with her behaviour because she ignored him when he needed her most. He was anxious, desperate and sad, and she put other’s needs before his.
Paul describes a scene where his heart was on the line, crying and on his knees, and she missed it. Paul calls Sarah selfish, inconsiderate and says that she doesn’t love or care for him. Sarah is shocked. It is true he wrote her a note to say he was unhappy, but she doesn’t remember this at all and moreover, what he’s describing is completely out of character for him. One of the difficulties in their relationship is that he doesn’t open up. Sarah names this, but all this does is provide further evidence of how uncaring she is, and Paul is even more disgusted that she has forgotten something so important. Paul says she has a bad memory, and it is an example of her bad behaviour. But she doesn’t remember it happening.
Because Paul is persistent and convincing, Sarah doubts herself and begins to feel guilt and shame. ‘How could I have missed this?’, She now feels she must try harder to show her love and be more attentive. Paul’s needs must always come first. So, she begins to distance herself from her family and become more dependent on Paul. Sarah notice’s that every time she raises her feelings of being neglected, she is reminded of this incident. Although she still cannot remember, what it does is reinforce is her guilt and feeling that she must try harder.
Maria is concerned about Mark’s behaviour with another woman. He is constantly meeting her demands to do things which do not respect the boundaries of their relationship. Mark has also shown Maria sexually explicit video’s that this other woman has sent him. When Maria questions this behaviour, Mark says she jealous, too sensitive and slandering him. Maria is the one with the problem and twisted perspective. And anyway, how come she’s not complaining when he behaves this way with his male friends? She begins to think maybe he has a point.
Rebecca has noticed that Nick always seems to forget to pass on important information about family developments. She has often felt hurt, shocked and embarrassed when in a room with family members and they talk to her as if she knows what they are talking about. When Rebecca explains how frustrated she feels, Nick says ‘I’m sorry, I’m sure I told you. I distinctly remember where we were when I told you. You’re blaming me when it’s you who’s forgotten.’ Later, when talking about it in therapy, Nick says, ‘My memory is failing. Rebecca, you can’t expect me to stay in this marriage, remembering everything. We might as well end if you do because I can’t live like this.’
9 Gaslighting Techniques Frequently Used
- Lies: These increase over time as the gaslighting becomes more effective.
- Trivialising: They may smile, smirk or laugh to make you feel insignificant or say, ‘You’re too sensitive.’
- Forgetting: Your partner pretends to have forgotten what occurred saying ‘I don’t remember, you got that wrong.’
- Denial: Your partner will say one thing and deny it at another time or say ‘No! It never happened that way.’ They may also deny that conversations have taken place at all.
- Questioning: The gaslighter may divert the topic by asking another question or making a statement usually directed at your thoughts. For example, they have taken funds out of the joint account to buy a car without consulting you. When challenged, they might say, ‘Are you saying you don’t want to drive the children to visit your parents?’ or ‘Don’t you remember watching that programme on classic car restoration, when you said you loved this car?’
- Distortion: They distort previous old facts, some of which have nothing to do with the topic, which impacts your ability to think clearly.
- Indignation: They will use anger when challenged, which induces fear, so you do not persist.
- Manipulating the Environment: Precious belongings are mysteriously damaged. Favourite items of clothing disappear, or suddenly you can’t find your house keys or mobile phone only to find them reappear precisely where you thought you had left them.
- Triangulation: Using other people to support their behaviour, so when you question your reality, it isn’t validated.
How to Protect Yourself from Gaslighting
Gaslighting is so subtle, it is difficult to recognise what is going on, but you can. Here’s what you can do:
- Educate yourself about gaslighting and manipulation techniques so that you will begin to spot the signs. Read a book. Watch Gaslight (as mentioned above), or Mama Dearest, which is a film about being parented by a narcissistic mother. You can also tune into the manipulation techniques used in sales, advertising and politics.
- Be an observer. This takes practice. Slow down and really begin to observe your conversations with your partner or his conversations with others. Notice the dance.
- Trust yourself. Ask yourself, do you experience this absentmindedness anywhere else, or is it just with your partner. Trust your memory is okay. Notice your feelings; these are your internal Sat Nav. Are you feeling anxious, confused, scared, angry or guilty? These are clues that something isn’t right.
- Find a trusted ally such as a counsellor or reliable friend who can give you some accurate, critical feedback and validate what is right for you.
- Keep a journal. Write down your conversations so that you can build an archive of your truth. You can go back to your entries at a later stage if your partner tells you that you misremember things.
- Get to know your Inner Critic so that you can take steps to counter it by practising self-compassion. If you’re a perfectionist, then you will be prone to believe it when they criticise your badly combed hair just as you step through the front door. Your lapse relates to the back of your hair, which of course you cannot see in the mirror. Now you forget that you are an adult who can comb their own hair!
- Respond, don’t react. When you react you can quickly be on the defensive, trying to justify your actions or behaviours. In time, you can learn to respond instead. The response can be a ‘no’; or ‘that isn’t my truth’, or ‘okay’, or even saying nothing can be a response.
Over to You
Are you concerned that you are experiencing gaslighting by your partner? If you want to discover ways to protect yourself from gaslighting get in touch and book your first counselling appointment.
Or call me today on 07535 864836.
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*All characters and scenarios are fictional.
© Sandra Harewood 2019
Soul Centred couples counsellor Sandra Harewood specialises in working with couples and single women with childhood wounding that impacts their adult relationships. Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore and discover creative solutions to their difficulties and create great relationships.