Gaslighting: An Insidious Form of Mental Abuse
Last week during a message exchange with a friend, I mentioned the word “gaslighting.” We were discussing someone we both know, a bully who marches through life exerting intimidation tactics to accomplish his goals, and my friend, like many others, stated that he never really understood what the term “gaslighting” means. So, it got me thinking: how many people out there are in the same shoes? Perhaps many who also don’t understand this – and many other – terms related to abuse could be victims of narcissistic ruffians like the person we were discussing. After all, gaslighting is a subtle way for bullies to exert control and dominance on unsuspecting victims; I know this all too well. I lived through it growing up, and dismally found myself gravitating towards more of it in my adult years at a personal and professional level.
So, while there are countless available resources that can elucidate us on all things gaslighting, I figured I’ll write a short piece about it since it’s not a topic I haven’t touched much in my blog, and the conversation with my friend inspired me to get the knowledge out there. The great thing about knowledge is that when you gain some, it opens up doors and windows to worlds we didn’t know. In the case of the subjects I write about, they all come from experience and I’ve learned that it helps others make fundamental life changes.
With so many variants of psychological abuse, it is sometimes difficult to keep up with all the names and definitions. But I think gaslighting is an essential term to not only define, but also recognize its red flags and, if necessary, know how to save ourselves or help save others from falling prey to it. Gaslighting is a sly form of mental abuse that thrives in the chaos of uncertainty and can lead a person to lose trust in their feelings, emotions, memories, and what they hear.
In simplest terms, gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation, generally with the goal of exerting some form of power through deceitful approaches such as lying, social isolation, accusations, denials or snears at the victim’s recollection of events, questioning their feelings, emotions, behavior, and even their state of mind. It is more common in abusive romantic relationships, but not uncommon in friendships, with family members, as even in work environments.
How Gaslighting Debilitates You
It sounds bizarre that anyone could fall prey to something that seems so evident, right? But the scheming nature and modus operandi of the gaslighter, paired with the victim’s state of mind, life, or work situation, makes it incredibly difficult for most to identify and fight against the situation because it can render the victim unable to fight back, they feel helpless, often alone, and trapped.
I wish I had knowledge of any gaslighting warning signs while growing up. Even later as an adult, armed with the knowledge, it was difficult to break free from it. But awareness of any red flags could help people understand the situation they are in and give them the power to break free, to fight back, and to regain control. During my childhood years, and then later as a young adult, gaslighting tactics used by various wrongdoers were not as distinct as they are today. Back then, I found myself drowning in a dismal situation, questioning my own reality, feeling hopeless, and today I know that anyone is susceptible to gaslighting.
How a Gaslighter Behaves
Here are a few items to keep in mind if you think you or someone you know may be the target of this covert emotional abuse. Keep these in mind when analyzing the situation, these are just some common ravens that define gaslighting, there could be other behaviors:
- They deny, object, refute or question your stance or approach on a situation;
- They use what you love as ammunition;
- They confuse you because they know this weakens you;
- They tell flagrant lies or tell you everyone else is a liar;
- They try to marshal people against you, especially if you try to stand up for yourself;
- They wear your mind and spirit down over time;
- Their actions almost never line up with their words;
- They deny they said something, even when presented with proof;
- They convince you that you are constantly making mistakes, which makes you question yourself.
My biggest gaslighting nemesis will always be the twisting or retelling of events to shift blame on to the victim, rather than taking responsibility, which can often make you feel as if you are completely losing your mind. For a long time, gaslighting undermined my perception of reality, it made me second and third guess everything about me, my memories and observations about past and present events, even my feelings and emotions. For a long time, and thinking there was no way out, I didn’t break free. I stayed and continued to live under the crushing force of gaslighting. It took a major life event to help me realize it was time to make changes, a kind or “live or die” case. My friend helped me analyze obvious warning signs and gave me ammunition in the form of knowledge and moral support to break free.
Why Gaslighters Gaslight, In Simple Terms
At its core, gaslighting is a psychological abuse technique perpetrated by an insecure person with the ultimate goal of exerting power and control. It is used when the abuser feels their victim may be deviating from their power and influence and, as I recently learned, it is not always done on purpose, openly, or in a hostile manner. Some gaslighters may think they are exerting power to set a good and controlled home environment, or in the case of work, a boss may believe this is positive leadership. Regardless of the intent, it is the furtive nature of it that makes it so dangerous and impacting.
Signs That Gaslighting is Affecting You
While signs that you are under the powerful grip of gaslighting may be obvious for many, it doesn’t always work the same for others. How do you know when it’s time to break free? Here are some of the warning signs I should have considered and acted on. Hopefully, you’ll be able to get out of the situation before it gets to this point:
- For years, I always thought I was to blame when things went wrong;
- I felt as if I was always to blame and thought there was something seriously wrong with me;
- I was often worried that I was being too sensitive;
- I watched my anxiety levels increase and my confidence levels decrease;
- I frequently doubted my feelings and my own reality;
- I wondered if I was the person I was being told I was, always wrong, always at fault, inadequate, unintelligent, borderline insane;
- I was often confused and disappointed in myself and who I had become;
- My ability to make decisions was greatly obscured by my distrust in myself;
- I found myself not seeking new friendships out of concern they will be disappointed in me;
- In the end, I felt as if I was no longer myself, no longer the person I used to be, but rather the person I was being told I was.
Some Steps to Break Free
If after all you’ve read you have suddenly realized you or someone you know may be on the receiving end of gaslighting, here are some pointers you can follow to regain control:
- Take a mental (and if necessary physical) step back. Analyze the situation from an outsider’s perspective. Talk to a friend, seek professional help, or a family member. Describe what is going on. Sometimes we are so trapped in the circumstances, that we lose perspective. Gaining an outside perspective will help you see the bigger picture. On a side note, if the gaslighting situation you are trying to break free from has you isolated from the world, then find a way, there is always a way. We live in an incredibly open technological era where ‘others’ are just a few clicks away.
- Keep a record of your experiences, whether it is through a journal (could be handwritten or digital format), by saving text or email conversations, or storing other forms of proof, make sure you keep a record of the events them so that you can go back to them later and they can serve a reminder that you are not going crazy, that you don’t have to question yourself all the time, or that you have to live in constant doubt of your thoughts, emotions, actions, and reactions.
- Set clear limits on what you are willing to and are able to accept or tolerate. Make it abundantly clear that you are not to be the recipient of any gaslighting tactics and set a clear boundary between you and the gaslighter, even if this means implementing fundamental changes in your life.
- Gaslighting evokes serious intense emotions. Physically distancing yourself from the situation can help you gain perspective. But sometimes this is easier said than done, and it is not always possible in all gaslighting situations; it wasn’t for me. I had nowhere to go at the time, little support system, and I was scared. In the case where you are not able to physically separate from your gaslighter, try implementing some relaxation techniques to help reduce your anxiety, and slowly regain control. Perhaps progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), other forms of deep breathing or meditation, mindfulness, and grounding techniques are all helpful.
Long Term Effects of Gaslighting
Gaslighting is a big problem and it can take many different forms. It is a malicious control tactic that leaves people in a foggy state of altered reality, questioning their own memories, choices, and perceptions because it creates mental chaos. It is dangerous because it erodes a person’s sense of self-belief after hearing over and over again they are wrong about everything. It creates a deep sense of insecurity, and obliterates self confidence in their own point of view about life.
Over time, a victim of gaslighting may start to believe that they are not able to trust themselves. Their anxiety levels may skyrocket, they may remain isolated from the world because they are always questioning their their feelings and emotions, they may fall into a deep state of depression (I can speak on this one from experience), and the overall psychological trauma may have a serious long-term impact in their lives, even after they are able to break free.
Gaslighting is a covert form of mental abuse that can lead a person to distrust themselves, their decisions, emotions, feelings, and thoughts. It has short-term and long-term effects, and it can be dangerous if the victim does not prioritize their own mental safety. It can happen in a personal or professional context, and everyone can fall prey to this tactic.
Don’t doubt your intuition, that ‘gut’ feeling that something is wrong. More of than not, you are right about it. Remember you are not alone in this battle, find a way to talk about it, to seek help, to educate yourself about this subject. Friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers can offer incredible emotional support.
Knowledge is power and focusing on your own mental health is really overdue, especially during these changing times. If gaslighting is happening to you, it is vital that you take action and regain control. If you know someone who is the victim of gaslighting, lend a helping hand.