Gaslighting: A Sneaky Kind Of Emotional Abuse

By: Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated July 15, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn

Have you ever been made to feel like you are too emotional or that the things you believe to be true are only your mind playing tricks on you?  Do you know someone who constantly makes you feel anxious, makes you question your own sanity or leaves you feeling like you constantly need to apologize?  If this sounds familiar, you may be a victim of gaslighting.

What Is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is the act of manipulating someone using psychological efforts to make them question their own sanity.  It is a severe form of emotional abuse that often leads them to question their own memories, thoughts or events that have happened.  If the behavior is not stopped, it can result in a victim doubting and losing their own sense of identity and self-worth.

Gaslighting can occur in any type of relationship, whether personal or professional.  It is a common technique used by abusive spouses or intimate partners, narcissists and people who try to control large groups of people such as cult leaders.  The effects of gaslighting can often be devastating.

The term gaslighting comes from a stage play that eventually became a film.  The 1944 movie Gaslight tells the story of a woman who married young.  Her husband was manipulative and controlling.  In his attempts to control her, he began to manipulate her environment in ways that made her question her sanity.  The lights in the home in the film were gas.  The husband would dim the gas lights and make them flicker and would deny that anything was happening when she mentioned it.  He would tell her she was crazy and that nothing was wrong with them.  The emotional trauma she experienced was severe.  In the end, the woman found someone who helped her prove that she was not losing her mind and that the events were happening and not her imagination, and she left the marriage. 

Abuse comes in many forms and it does not discriminate because of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation.  Abuse can be physical, mental, emotional, sexual or financial.  Being yelled at, hit, threatened, or constantly berated are a few examples of abuse.  Having sex or money withheld are also ways people can be abused.  These are the more obvious forms of abuse.  Gaslighting, on the other hand, is not as easy to detect.  In fact, victims are often so overwhelmed by the abuser’s behavior and the self-doubt that it causes that it may take a long time to realize what is happening and to get help.

Signs of Gaslighting

Gaslighting may take on different forms and often happens in stages.  Some of the most common signs of gaslighting include:

Denial to confuse you: The abusive person denies they said something, even if there is proof of their lie.  Even if you know what you heard or saw, and if the abusive person knows you heard or saw it, a person who is gaslighting will deny the reality of a situation and try to make a victim feel as if they imagined everything.

Lies about you: They tell lies and act shocked if you confront them with the truth.  People who gaslight victims are generally not sneaky about lies, but rather tell lies with such fervor it can leave you questioning why you ever doubted them.

Actions speak louder than words! If you are involved with someone who tries to gaslight you, pay attention to what they are doing, not what they are saying.  They commonly use words to twist the truth and to make you question your own sanity.  Observe their actions and trust your gut instinct.

Fake praise or appreciation:  A person who gaslights others will often use fake praise or acts of appreciation leaving you wondering if they are truly abusive or if you misunderstood.  Most often, this is simply an attempt to throw you off balance emotionally.  One sign of fake praise or appreciation is to pay attention to what you are being praised for.  Gaslighters typically offer signs of appreciation if your actions accomplished something that served them or their agenda.

Projection:  This is the act of accusing someone else for your own shortcomings or faults.  For example, if a gaslighter is cheating in a relationship, they may accuse you of being unfaithful.  This is a ploy gaslighters often use to take the focus off themselves and their poor behavior.

Manipulation:  People who are gaslighters are typically master manipulators.  One way they try to manipulate victims is to use friends or loved ones against them.  In many cases, the friend or loved one is not even aware of what the gaslighter is saying or doing.  For instance, a gaslighter may tell you things to make you think others don’t really care for you like, “They don’t care about you.  If they did, don’t you think they’d come around more often?” or “She knows you will never find anyone like me.”  These kinds of statements are often enough to make victims isolate from others who may be helpful or supportive.  This gives the gaslighter even more control over a victim’s life.

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Gaslighter Personality

What makes a person think that it’s okay to manipulate or confuse someone else and how can you identify them?  While there is not a gaslighter personality disorder.  Rather, there are personality traits that may signal to you that a person is a gaslighter. 

Gaslighters often exhibit what many refer to as an authoritarian personality.  People with this type of personality typically see no faults in themselves but find it very easy to point out the faults or shortcomings of others. 

It is not uncommon for gaslighters to have a clinical personality disorder.  Antisocial personality disorder, often referred to as sociopathy or psychopathy is a personality disorder that is characteristic of lack of empathy or concern for others, manipulation, and mind control.  While not everyone with antisocial personality disorder is physically violent, some are.  If you believe you are in a relationship with a sociopath or psychopath, it is important to seek help and establish a plan of safety to protect yourself. 

Narcissistic personality disorder is another personality disorder that is common among gaslighters.  People with narcissistic personality disorder have an inflated sense of self-esteem.  They tend to make everything about them and being easily offended if others do not pay them special attention who appear to adore them.  A narcissistic gaslighter will likely manipulate any situation she can to make it benefit them in some way.  They may pretend to be helping their victims, but in fact, their behavior usually has an agenda that is self-serving. 

What's the Agenda Behind Gaslighting Behavior?

Gaslighting behavior is often fueled by a person’s desire to have control or gain things they want without having to work for those benefits or taking responsibility for their actions.  Some people who gaslight others may convince themselves that what they are doing to you is for your good and that you should appreciate them.  Although their behavior may suggest otherwise, they often feel intense anxiety with the thought of losing you.  Unfortunately, as much as targets of gaslighting want to feel loved or wanted, gaslighters generally don’t reciprocate those feelings.  Their emotional connection is more rooted in control and manipulation than anything loving or caring. 

Whether your gaslighter understands what they're doing or not, their behavior can be damaging to you if you don’t get help.  Gaslighters don’t want their victims to think for themselves, make decisions or have their own friends or personal life.  Putting yourself ahead of them is out of the question.  Gaslighters want total control and they are usually very skilled at getting it.  If you are in a relationship with a person who is gaslighting you, seek help and guidance to protect your emotional well-being.  

Gaslighting in Relationships

Although gaslighting can happen in any relationship, it is more common in marriages or committed relationships.  In these types of relationships, couples generally spend more time together which gives a gaslighter more opportunity to manipulate and control a victim without the interference of others. 

A gaslighter who is unfaithful in a relationship may try to convince their partner that they are crazy or imagining things, even if the partner is sure they saw an inappropriate text message or heard a conversation to suggest otherwise.  When victims try to confront a gaslighter, they often employ tactics to make them second-guess what they saw or heard.  The old saying, “I really don’t want you, but I don’t want anyone else to have you” is a good example of how a gaslighter works.  Their desire to have a person in their life is more of a control issue than a love issue.  If a victim of gaslighting leaves, an abuser has to find someone else to groom and condition to the abuse.

Gaslighting in relationships that are not romantic can happen too. Adult children may make their parents feel like they are incapable of caring for themselves and that no one is available to offer them support to convince them to be admitted to a nursing home.  The parent may be independent and still capable of self-care and provision, but the adult child who is gaslighting may not want to be bothered and uses tactics to make them question their ability to remain self-sufficient.  They may move things in the home to a different place to confuse the parent and then act like the parent is forgetful.    This may occur because the gaslighter doesn’t want the eventual responsibility of caring for an aging parent or because he wants control of the parent’s home or other possessions. 

Gaslighting at Work

Gaslighting at work can cause disruptions in your work performance and have a negative impact on your emotional and physical health.   When someone gaslights you at work, it may cause you to lose focus and have trouble performing your duties. The intense stress of being gaslighted can cause you to make mistakes you've never made before or avoid required meetings.

Examples of gaslighting at work include:

  • The gaslighter tells you they told you to do a job, but you know they never did.
  • The person gaslighting you moves things in the work environment and then tries to convince you that you moved it yourself or imagined where it originally was.
  • Someone gaslights you by reporting you for not doing your job correctly when you know you didn't make the reported mistakes.

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Gaslighting Techniques to Watch Out For

People who gaslight someone tend to use specific techniques. These include:

  • Countering: telling you that you remember something incorrectly
  • Trivializing: making you feel like your thoughts and feelings don't matter
  • Withholding: keeping money or affection from you
  • Stonewalling: refusing to listen or engage with you in conversation
  • Blocking: changing the subject
  • Diverting: questioning the validity of your thoughts
  • Forgetting: pretending to forget things that happened
  • Denying: telling you something never happened
  • Faking compassion: telling you they're doing something harmful for your good
  • Discrediting: convincing others, you're insane or unstable
  • Reframing: twisting your thoughts, behaviors, and experiences to favor their perspective

Gaslighting Phrases

Gaslighters generally have no problem using short sentences and phrases that pack a big punch.  These statements are typically used to make you question your own memory, thoughts, or abilities.  Learning to recognize signs of gaslighting and knowing when to seek help can help you protect yourself from long-term emotional trauma.  If you hear the following statements often, you may be a victim of gaslighting. "I don't want to hear that."

  • "You need to stop trying to confuse me."
  • "You're wrong."
  • "You remember it wrong."
  • "Where did you get that crazy idea?"
  • "Your imagination is getting the best of you."
  • "It didn't happen that way."
  • "You know I'm right."
  • "You're too sensitive."
  • "I only do it because I love you."
  • "You get angry so easily."
  • "You're too sensitive."
  • "I have no idea what you're talking about."
  • "You're making that up."
  • "Calm down!"

Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors Associated with Being Gaslighted

When someone gaslights you, your thoughts, feelings, and actions may change dramatically. While you once may have felt confident or self-assured, you may now feel like you can't trust your mind. Take some time to upon how your thoughts toward yourself or others may have changed since being a relationship with someone who gaslights you.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline describes what to watch for. Here is a quick checklist to guide you:

  1. Do you second-guess yourself often?
  2. Do you find yourself wondering whether you're too sensitive?
  3. Do you feel confused a lot of the time?
  4. Do you feel like you're 'going crazy?'
  5. Do you notice that you apologize to someone often?
  6. Do you wonder why you can't seem to be happy when you have so much?
  7. Do you make excuses for the gaslighter?
  8. Do you have an overwhelming sense that something's wrong, even if you don't know what it is?
  9. Do you often lie to avoid your partner's, boss's, or co-worker's criticisms?
  10. Is it hard for you to make simple decisions?
  11. Do you feel hopeless?
  12. Do you feel like a loser who can't do anything right?
  13. Do you question whether you're good enough for your partner or job?

How to Deal with Gaslighting

If you are the victim of gaslighting, it’s important to understand that this is abuse. It is an emotional abuse tactic that can leave you feeling unsure about yourself, others, and life in general.  If victims of gaslighting do not get help, it can have a long-lasting effect on both mental and physical well-being.  Additionally, being victimized by a gaslighter may leave you questioning if it is possible to have any healthy relationship. 

If you believe you are the victim of gaslighting, there are some things you can do to help yourself.

Dealing with Gaslighting In Relationships

Gaslighting in relationships can be even more difficult than gaslighting at work, especially if you've been in the relationship for a long time. Whether you're a newlywed just finding out that your new husband is a gaslighter or if you've been married to someone for years without realizing it, you may feel overwhelmed by the realization of what is happening to you. 

If you are dating someone who is manipulating you, it is best to end the relationship and seek counseling to help you deal with the emotional trauma.  While the option that may seem obvious to others is to leave the relationship immediately, if you are married to or live with a gaslighter, you may not feel like you can leave right away. 

Keep a journal of things that happen.  Write down your thoughts and feelings.  If possible, find a trusted friend or family member that you can confide in to discuss your concerns. 

You may not be able to change a gaslighter, but you can do things to strengthen and protect yourself.  It’s important to understand that, no matter what a gaslighter tells you, their behavior is not your fault.  It’s okay to set boundaries and expect them to be respected.  Be prepared, though, a gaslighter may try to insinuate that you are crazy for needing boundaries and tell you that if you love them you wouldn’t set rules.  This is a manipulation tactic.  Stay steady and don’t accept their manipulative behavior.

Dealing with a Gaslighter at Work

Working with someone who is a gaslighter can make you feel like you don’t even want to go to work.  What seems like their constant insults or questions regarding your work performance or abilities can make a day at work feel like a year.  Remember, many gaslighters use tactics of manipulation to make you question yourself which makes them appear the “better person” in their own minds. 

As with a personal relationship with a gaslighter, you should set boundaries and if the gaslighter crosses those boundaries, it’s okay to ask for help from a supervisor or other authority figure. 

When possible, get everything in writing.  If a gaslighter gives you verbal instructions, ask them to send you an email with the instructions for your records.  Keep any private information to yourself.  Avoid arguing or disagreeing with a gaslighter as this will likely lead to your frustration, which is something that a gaslighter enjoys.  Finally, remember that being the target of a gaslighter is not your fault.  The issues are not your problem and you don’t have to fix them. Your responsibility is to care for yourself!

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How to Get Help to Overcome Gaslighting

At first, it may be difficult to understand what gaslighting can do to you emotionally or to your relationships.  When a relationship is just beginning, you may not realize that you are being manipulated or abused.

First, know that a relationship or work situation that involves gaslighting is toxic.  While changes in the abuser’s behavior and a dedicated effort focused on a healthy relationship may improve the relationship, without the proper help, change is unlikely.  You must be willing to put your own physical and mental well-being first and to focus on overcoming the abuse you have endured. 

Establishing relationships with friends or family members who can encourage you as you learn to deal with and overcome gaslighting is important.  Additionally, talking to a counselor or mental health professional can also be very helpful.  Talking to a professional about your experience with a gaslighter and how you have been made to feel will give you an opportunity to express your thoughts and feelings with someone who has an objective view.  They can help you learn ways to cope with your emotions and to begin rebuilding your self-confidence and esteem. 

How BetterHelp Can Help

No matter how long you have been a victim of gaslighting or how unsure you feel about the future, it is possible to recover and live a healthy and happy life.  If you have been affected by gaslighting, reach out to your primary care provider or a mental health professional.  Don’t be afraid to talk about your concerns.  Talking to a mental health professional can help you explore your feelings and find strength to live a healthy life.  With the right help, you can have a plan of care established that will help protect your overall safety and well-being. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Sharon Valentino has helped me through so much! Since we started working together, just a few months ago, I already feel like I have more power and control over my life. I have let go of some very painful things, I have moved away from abusive relationships and gaining skills and tools I need to keep myself safe and happy. She has taught me that I have the power to control my thoughts, my anxiety, and most of all my company. I like how direct she is; it helps me get grounded and connect to myself. I can't wait to see where I am after working with her a year!!!"


"Dr. Hahn is extremely insightful, helpful, and listens attentively. I would recommend her to anyone who is having relationship issues or going through difficult times."

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What does it mean when someone is gaslighting you?

When someone is gaslighting you, it means that they are doing things that cause you to end up questioning your own sanity. The term came from the film Gaslight, which was based off a play from the 1930's. In the film, the main character's husband is narcissistic. He manipulates her until she thinks that she is going insane. For example, he's causing the gas lamps in the house to dim or brighten, but tells her that she's just imagining the changing light.

Gas lighting  is a form of psychological abuse. The person gaslighting you may say that you did or said things that you know you didn't, or they may say that you didn't do or say things that you know you did. They  stick with their lies to the point that you begin to question yourself.

What are gaslighting tactics?

There are many insidious things about gaslighting. Many gaslighters are great at winning the favor of people when their relationship first begins. But then their games begin. They slowly start to make you doubt your reality. It's easy for anyone to fall victim of this type of abuse because it can start so gradually.

Gaslighters use lies to make you question what is true or not. They will purposefully lie to you while acting like they are serious. It  may even be about something that you know is a lie or that you have proof of, but they will never admit it. Gaslighting also involves confusing its victims. This can be through saying things happened that really didn't or that things didn't happen that really did.

You may also find that the gaslighter periodically praises you or says positive things. This helps to lure you into a false sense of security, so you'll continue to remain in the relationship. If you think that you're a victim of gaslighting, recognize manipulative behavior as it happens so you can see the situation for what it really is.

How do you respond to someone who is gaslighting you?

The gaslight effect happens when uses gaslighting as a manipulation technique and the gaslightee desires the approval of the gaslighter, to the point that they allow themselves to be treated like that. If someone is gaslighting you, it's up to you to determine what you're going to allow them to do. Being the victim of gaslighting can have a drastically negative impact on your self-confidence and mental health.

If you find that you're in a relationship that involves gaslighting, recognize manipulative behavior in order to put a stop to it. When you know the types of things that the gaslighter is doing,  it allows you to see what boundaries you can establish to protect yourself. For example, you may want to establish the way that you allow the other person to talk to you. If they continue to use verbally abusive behavior, you may want to cut off communication with them.

Some people try to use reverse gaslighting techniques. They basically try to gaslight the gaslighter. While this may be able to get a rise out of the other person and help you to not act as a victim to what they're doing, it's not usually the healthiest way to handle a relationship with another person.

You may find that it's necessary to cut off your relationship with the gaslighter if they continue not to change the way that they're treating you. If you're unable to do that, or choose to stay in a relationship with them, it may be best to work with a therapist on learning strategies you can use to protect yourself as the relationship continues.

How do you deal with a friend who is gaslighting?

If you have a friend that is gaslighting you, it can be important to establish boundaries to protect yourself. If they don't respect your boundaries, then it may be worth putting some distance between yourself and the other person. Gaslighting forms unhealthy relationships, even friendships. The benefit that you gain from the relationship may not be enough to justify the negative consequences of it.

Can a child gaslight a parent?

It is possible for a child to gaslight a parent. However, children tend to have some narcissistic traits but that doesn't mean that they actually have narcissistic personality disorder. It can also be normal for children to try lying. This doesn't necessarily mean they are trying to gaslight you.

Do gaslighters know they are gaslighting?

Some gaslighters know exactly what they're doing, but that's not always the case. There are times where a person may be gaslighting someone without really realizing it's what they're doing. However, they are being rewarded with the dependency that they're looking for from the other person.

If you try to confront from them about their behavior, they will most likely deny it or try to spin the tables on you and accuse you of gaslighting them.

What are red flags in a relationship?

In a relationship, recognizing the warning signs of gaslighting can be important to make sure that you don't become a victim. Pay attention to the way that you feel. If you notice that you don't feel like yourself anymore, are more anxious, question if you're too sensitive, apologize often, and make excuses for your partner, you may be the victim of gaslighting.

Some of the other red flags to look for include being isolated from family and friends, struggling to make decisions that you used to be able to make, and feeling hopeless. If you recognize any of the signs or symptoms of gaslighting behavior, or overall feel like there could be problems within your relationship, reach out to a therapist. As a victim of gaslighting, it's normal to second guess yourself or start to believe that you're responsible for the problems that are happening. Getting an outside professional opinion can help you to start to see the truth of your relationship.

What is an example of Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of abuse used to make a person feel like their reality is false. A classic example is when the abuser tells the victim that they are "crazy." By invalidating their experience, the person comes to believe that they're irrational and doubts themselves. As an addition to this tactic, the gaslighter will often tell the person's friends and family that they've "lost it." That further invalidates them and can make them feel isolated and alone. Gaslighting can happen anywhere. There are many examples of this type of abuse. There is gaslighting at work, in relationships, and there are also political forms of it. One might say that certainpoliticians are gaslighting America. Making Americans feel as if we are imagining how bad the political climate is counts as a form of gaslighting. We know that there are serious problems in the country. Gaslighting America is something that is being discussed all over the media.

What are the signs of Gaslighting?

You may wonder if you are a victim of gaslighting. Targets of gaslighting are often people who are trusting and want to see the best in others. There are signs that you someone is gaslighting you. Pay attention to the way that you feel when you're around that person. Here are some signs of gaslighting:

  • You question your memories and trust the other person more than yourself.
  • You're disconnected from yourself, and like you don't know who you are when you are with the gaslighter.
  • You feel like you're doing everything wrong around this person.
  • You find yourself often apologizing to the person, and continuously seek their approval, but you can't seem to get it.
  • You feel like something is off in your relationship with this person but can't put your finger on it. They make you uncomfortable.

If you're reading these and find that some of them ring true, it's probably a sign that gaslighting is happening in your relationship, and you're a victim of it. Gaslighting over time can cause serious psychological damage to the victim. You wonder if you'll ever be okay again. Gaslighting is serious, but there is help for survivors.

What are Gaslighting tactics?

It's important to recognize the warning signs of gaslighting. Those who gaslight recognize what they are doing. There are common strategies that people use when they are gaslighting others. It's a manipulative technique, and different tactics work depending on the individual. Some strategies that people who use gaslighting include:

  • Confusion: when a person is gaslighting you, they want to make you question yourself. They will deliberately confuse you over a period of time. The goal is to make you wonder what is and isn't real. When you don't trust yourself, the person wins.
  • Projection: let's say that your partner is cheating on you. Instead of coming clean and telling the truth, they accuse you of being unfaithful. It's a master manipulation that gaslighters use, and it distracts from their behavior. You end up defending yourself rather than seeing what they're doing to you.
  • Lying: a common technique that gaslighters use is telling lies. You never know what to believe when they're talking to you. What they say could be the truth or a blatant lie. Lying keeps you guessing and questioning whether you or not you imagine things.
  • Verbal abuse followed by praise: if the person who was gaslighting you were mean all the time, you probably wouldn't stay in the relationship. That's why gaslighters use positive reinforcement to keep you hanging on. They dangle compliments in front of you and then take them away. You stay with them in the hopes that kind words will come back.
  • Attacking who or what you love: one manipulative tactic that gaslighters use is to attack what's important to you. They might criticize your job, or make snide comments about your best friend. These remarks make you feel insecure or inadequate about yourself.

What is a gaslighter personality?

A gaslighter personality is a highly manipulative individual. They could be charismatic and charming, or mysterious and hard to read. People who engage in gaslighting recognize manipulative behaviors and know they are doing them. These individuals use different tactics based on how they come across to others. They are controlling and want people to care only about their needs. Gaslighters are narcissistic by nature and want to be doted on, and when you don't give them what they need, they will punish you. Gaslighting gives the abuser power.

What does it mean if someone is gaslighting you?

Gaslighting is a behavior where an individual intentionally manipulates you to make you question your reality. If you are gaslit, you wonder if what you saw or heard is true. You may feel "crazy."

Can you change a gaslighter?

Manipulation and gaslighting go hand in hand. These individuals know exactly what they are doing, and they likely don't want to change. You can point out the behavior that the person is using to gaslight you, but you don't have the power to change them. A gaslighter needs to realize that their behavior is hurting others and seek mental health treatment for themselves. You may want to leave a gaslight situation but feel trapped. That's understandable since you have been abused, but there is hope.

How do you survive Gaslighting?

If you are the victim of gaslighting, it's crucial to seek mental health treatment in the form of therapy. A trained therapist can help you understand what you've experienced and helped you to set boundaries or get out of the relationship altogether. You don't need to figure it out by yourself, and you should seek help. Victims of gaslighting can heal.

What is Gaslighting, and is it happening to you?

Gaslighting is a deliberate form of abuse used to manipulate another person and make them question themselves. The two individuals, the abuser and the abused are doing the gaslight tango, which is a dynamic where the abused is caught in an abusive dance. If you are a victim of gaslighting, you didn't do anything to "deserve it." And there's no reason it's happening to you. The gaslighting effect shocks people. However, you can seek support and learn to heal from the abuse.

How do you handle a gaslighter at work?

There are instances where you cannot avoid someone who is gaslighting you. If your co-worker or supervisor is gaslighting you, it may be unavoidable. You have to interact with that person. If you can minimize the contact you have with that person, all the better. If you have to interact with them, set clear boundaries, and remind yourself that your perception and feelings are valid. Victims of gaslighting are conditioned to question themselves. But what they are seeing and hearing is real.

Where does the term Gaslighting come from?

The term "gaslighting" comes from the 1938 play Gas Light, which has two film adaptations (1940 and 1944). The films were both called Gaslight. In the film, gaslighting takes place over a long period. The story is about a woman whose husband manipulates her to the point where she believes she is losing her mind. In the film, gaslighting makes the woman feel like she has truly lost her mind. It's no wonder that she questions her sanity. The gaslighting effect is real and her husband (and abuser) removes her power. Victims of gaslighting have a hard time getting their control back, but it's possible with the right mental health treatment.

Conclusion

Gaslighting can be one of the most painful abusive behaviors to be subject to. The good news is, if you are willing to reach out, you can make yourself a better life. With the counselor's support, you can regain the self-confidence that the gaslighter took away from you. You can learn to love who you are, trust your sanity, and set your sights on a happier life - take the first step today.


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