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Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. Even though the signs can sometimes be subtle, gaslighting can be damaging and even dangerous to those who experience it—especially over the long term. That’s why it may be helpful to be familiar with common gaslighting tactics to take action if you feel that you or a loved one is experiencing them. Let’s look at how to recognize this behavior and how you can respond to it.
What Gaslighting Looks Like
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines the verb gaslight in the following way: “to manipulate another person into doubting his or her perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events.” It can be a severe form of emotional abuse* that can result in survivors losing their sense of self-worth or identity.
While it’s often referred to in romantic relationships, gaslighting can also occur in platonic, familial, or work relationships. It’s can be a common technique used by abusive partners, people with narcissism, and those who try to control groups of people, such as cult leaders.
Gaslighting may take different forms and often happens in stages. Some of the most common include:
Countering: Telling you that you misremember something to exert control and make you doubt yourself
Trivializing: Making you feel like your thoughts and feelings don't matter or that you’re just being overly sensitive
Withholding: Keeping money or affection from you
Stonewalling: Refusing to listen or engage with you in conversation
Blocking: Changing the subject when you try to clarify a situation or express your feelings
Diverting: Questioning the validity of your thoughts
Forgetting: Pretending to forget things that happened
Denying: Telling you that something you remember never actually happened
Faking compassion: Telling you that the harmful thing they’re doing is for your own good
Where Gaslighting Behavior Comes From
Abusers often use gaslighting to manipulate and exert control over the person they’re abusing. Employing this tactic can sometimes be a sign that they have mental health challenges. Certain personality disorders, including narcissistic, antisocial, and borderline personality disorders, may make a person prone to using gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of abuse, and it’s never the survivor’s responsibility to try to help an abuser see the error of their ways and get help. That said, the abuser may be unlikely to change their behavior unless they seek help from a mental health professional.
Why Is It Called “Gaslighting”?
The term gaslighting comes from a play that was eventually turned into a film. The 1944 movie Gaslight tells the story of a husband who begins to manipulate his wife’s environment in ways that make her question her judgment and sanity. For instance, he dims the gas lights in their home to cause them to flicker, but then denies that anything unusual is happening when she mentions it. The wife experiences severe emotional distress by the end of the film but eventually finds someone who helps her prove that her experiences were real, and she then leaves her marriage.
The Negative Effects Of Gaslighting
Over time, gaslighting can cause serious harm to a person who experiences it. They may come to doubt their memory, judgment, opinions, or emotions, which can isolate them socially and from loved ones. They may experience a significant drop in self-esteem or even begin to lose their sense of identity.
In the long term, consistent gaslighting can cause a person to experience mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What To Do If You’re Experiencing Gaslighting
If you’ve noticed signs and symptoms of being gaslighted by a romantic partner, family member, friend, boss, or colleague, know that you are not alone. One of the first steps to recovering may be to understand that this is abuse. It can damage your mental and even physical health, particularly if you spend a lot of time with the person who is doing it. Here are some steps you might take to defend yourself.
Keep Track Of Evidence
Saving voicemails, texts, emails, and notes can help you remind yourself later of what the person really said or what really happened. This strategy can assist you in standing up to gaslighting tactics that make you doubt your memory or interpretation of events.
Lean On Loved Ones
One common tactic of abusers is isolating you from friends and family because they don’t want anyone to point out their bad behavior to you. Although it may be difficult in the face of direct manipulation, maintaining strong ties with people outside of the gaslighting relationship may help keep you in touch with reality and provide you with the support you may need along the way.
End Or Adjust The Relationship
Leaving an abusive relationship can be difficult, but it’s sometimes the only way to end the abuse. When it comes to romantic or platonic relationships involving gaslighting, ending it may be necessary to keep yourself safe. If it’s a familial relationship that you are not willing to fully step away from, setting firm boundaries may be helpful. If it’s a work relationship, speaking with a supervisor or someone in human resources can be a helpful next step.
Seek The Help Of A Therapist Or Counselor
At first, it may be difficult to see how gaslighting can affect you emotionally or impact your relationships. You may even have trouble recognizing that you’re being manipulated or abused initially, since gaslighting can be subtle—especially early on. Also, you may be in a difficult situation with your abuser, which may make it even harder for you to leave or take other steps to defend yourself.
Connecting with a therapist may help you get a more balanced perspective on your situation and gain the confidence to make the best decisions for you.
Meeting with a therapist may be helpful even if you’re no longer in a relationship in which you experienced gaslighting. A mental health professional may be able to help you work through complicated emotions related to the situation, rebuild self-confidence, and manage any symptoms you may be experiencing. You can do this type of therapy either in person or online.
Online therapy tends to be a convenient option that allows you to talk to a therapist from the comfort of home. You don’t have to worry about commuting to an office or being on a waiting list for the next available appointment. When you sign up with BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has experience helping people recover from gaslighting. If you live with the person who is gaslighting you, communicating with your therapist via online chat or text may be a good option, but you can also talk to your therapist via telephone or video chat.
Research demonstrates that online therapy can be effective for treating a variety of conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
See below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from individuals in similar situations.
"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 gained the 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 for 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."
Gaslighting is a type of abuse that consists of making another person doubt their own perceptions. It can be a painful and deeply harmful behavior. Getting familiar with the signs—even when they’re subtle—may help you recognize this behavior and take action if you notice that you or a loved one may be experiencing this type of abuse.
If you’ve experienced gaslighting or some other form of abuse, you don’t have to face it alone. Take the first step toward healing from gaslighting and reach out to BetterHelp today.
What Is Gaslighting In A Relationship?
Gaslighting often happens in close personal relationships. In romantic relationships, you may see gaslighting as manipulative behavior, like lying or dismissing a partner’s feelings. Gaslighting in a relationship can also involve other abusive behaviors, like violence or sexual aggression, but the gaslighter may deny ever engaging in these behaviors.
Additionally, if one person reacts emotionally to the gaslighter’s behavior, the gaslighter may call them dramatic or overly sensitive. If your partner manipulates you, denies your feelings, and makes you question yourself, know that there is help available. You can discuss your experience with a licensed online counselor who has experience helping people recover from gaslighting.
What Is An Example Of Gaslighting?
An example of gaslighting might be someone insulting you and then telling you that you’re too sensitive when you are rightfully offended. Also, while gaslighting is often thought to happen in relationships, even trusted professionals can engage in gaslighting. For example, medical gaslighting is when a medical professional downplays or dismisses a patient’s medical symptoms, telling them that their problems are “all in their head.”
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