Have you ever felt you have to record every conversation with your partner to be sure about what that person said? Do you find yourself second-guessing details of events happening in your relationship? And finally, are you becoming day-after-day a little more emotionally dependent on your partner?
Although these experiences may make you wonder whether you are suffering from memory or cognitive problems, that is not the topic we will cover today. Instead, we want to talk to you about a silent form of psychological abuse called gaslighting.
Perhaps you have already heard some people talk about this abuse form on TV, radio, or social media. Perhaps, you have learned about this topic by watching the famous play adaptions “Gaslight” (1940,1944). Or maybe, you want to find more information about this topic out of fear that your partner is gaslighting you. If that is your case, we will explain a little more about what gaslighting is. We will also cover some warning signs you should be looking for in your relationship and offer you tips that will help you deal with this type of manipulation.
What Is Gaslighting, And Why It’s A Form Of Emotional Abuse?
First, things first. Let’s explore the definition of gaslighting.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), to gaslight means to “manipulate another person into doubting his or her perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events.” The APA specifies that “the term once referred to a manipulation so extreme as to induce mental illness or to justify the commitment of the gaslighted person to a psychiatric institution but is now used more generally.”
The question that you may have is, why would someone manipulate another human being to the point of making that person doubt their sense of reality? Isn’t that too evil?
A quick answer would be, “YES! That’s evil!” However, not everyone who engages in gaslighting does so consciously. In some cases, gaslighting behaviours may signify a mental health issue, such as narcissism, borderline, or other personality disorder. In other cases, even with no personality disorder gaslighting is done out of a necessity to exercise more power and control in a relationship.
Does that mean that gaslighting should be justified? Of course, no! Gaslighting can become a form of psychological abuse. A person manipulates another by undermining her perceptions, confidence, self-esteem, and self-image. In other words, the victim may start to doubt her reality to the point of feeling that she is going crazy.
- Imagine that you caught your partner flirting with another person in a restaurant. When you confront your partner, they may say: “are you crazy? I was having a work dinner with my colleague. I told you about it! (*your partner never said that).” Your partner may take a step further and talk to your family or friends about how paranoid and jealous you are. The person may continue to relate the same story highlighting your “mistaken” perception to others until you finally wonder whether your partner was right and you were overreacting.
Psychologists of MedicalNewsToday express that “people experiencing gaslighting often feel confused, anxious, and unable to trust themselves.”
How To Recognize Gaslighting in Your Relationship? 5 Warning Signs
Okay, we have talked about the theory of gaslighting, but how this emotional abuse looks in a romantic relationship. Here are five warning signs you should be looking for:
Denying: “That never happened!”
Do you remember that we began this article by asking if you feel you have to record your conversations?
Denying as a gaslighting’s tactic is not a one-time but an ongoing event. Gaslighters consciously or unconsciously know that if there’s a phrase that will make any person doubt about their sense of reality is to be told “that never happened,” or “I never said that.” That puts us in the situation of having to justify ourselves in front of the other person.
When your partner tells you “that never happened,” it is as if your initial claim becomes wholly invalidated. Now you have to find a way to re-validate your position. Victims of gaslighting often have to double-check their perception with other sources (i.e., asking friends, looking at old social media pictures, etc.)
Discredit or Trivializing: “You’re imagining things again!”
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula, one tactic gaslighters often use to attack their partner’s self-confidence is to discredit their emotional world. Phrases like “you’re overreacting” or “you’re being too sensitive” often make us feel that we are interpreting things in the wrong way. In those cases, we start doubting what our feelings are telling us and how we “should” or “shouldn’t” perceive things.
Lying: “Are you crazy? I never made that promise!”
There are many reasons why people lie in relationships. Gaslighters often do so to manipulate their partners or to avoid being criticized. However, while most people will apologize if they are caught lying, gaslighters will not act the same way. Instead, they may attack you by saying things like “you are taking things out of context,” or “You are imagining things, I never said that!”
They may also ignore your comments, change the topic altogether, or retaliate by accusing you of something you did in the past. Whatever the case, your partner’s goal may be to make you feel confused, so you drop the subject.
Scapegoating: “How dare you accuse me of that? It was your fault!”
Gaslighters will often blame the victim or become super defensive when threatened. Or when they think they are losing control in their relationship. One typical example of scapegoating occurs when the abusive partner is caught cheating or lying about any situation.
In those cases, taking responsibility will imply that the abusive partner has done something wrong and will have to ask for forgiveness or make amends, which may be unthinkable for someone with a dominant or abusive personality. So instead, gaslighters will evade the situation by attacking the victim and finding fault in her for their misbehaviours.
Bullying: Gender-based, racist-based comments.
Some people gaslight their partners in subtle and unconscious ways. For example, perhaps they lie about small things to manipulate situations to their advantage. Perhaps, they deny or discredit your arguments to avoid taking responsibility for a mistake or failure. But in some cases, gaslighting may become openly violent and offensive.
Depending on the gaslighter’s mental health state, personality, and need to exercise power, they may overstep every boundary and call you names or tell you things that may undermine your self-esteem and self-worth. For example, your partner may justify their betrayal by blaming you for not caring for your physical appearance. Or, the person may say it is part of your cultural background to exaggerate things or take things too personally.
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Mental Health Effects of Being a Victim of Gaslighting
- You may often feel confused about whether you are doing something right or wrong in your relationship.
- You may doubt whether you are overreacting or perceiving things in the wrong way.
- You may become too judgemental of your feelings and emotions (i.e., “why am I being so jealous, when s/he said it was a work dinner?).
- You may feel continuously anxious about your partner’s words and behaviours.
- You may feel emotionally drained and with a low level of self-esteem and self-worth.
- You may blame yourself for anything wrong happening in your relationship.
- You may feel isolated or misunderstood by your family members and friends.
- At some point, you may start to believe all the awful things your partner says about you.
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. No one -including you- deserves to suffer this type of maltreatment. So, suppose you have become aware that your partner is potentially gaslighting you. In that case, there are some actions you can take right away to protect yourself from this type of abusive behaviour.
What To Do If You Feel You’re Being Gaslighted?
Tip #1: First of all, create boundaries in your conversations with the gaslighter. Remember, the more you try to justify yourself, the more likely your partner will continue with their manipulative behaviours. Gaslighters are good at overstepping boundaries, tweaking arguments, and attacking others to prove they are right. It does not matter what you say; you will not win those types of battles. When you notice you are gaslighted, end the conversation and leave the room if necessary.
Tip #2: Seek help from someone outside your relationship. This is key when you start doubting yourself and feel going crazy! Find a relative, a close friend, or someone who can help you assess the dynamics of your relationship. When we feel confused, anxious, or emotionally dependent on another person, it is always essential to have someone to share our feelings and perspectives with. That outside person may validate our feelings and offer us support.
Tip #3: Keep a diary, voice recording, or pictures of events. Gaslighting is all about denying your perception of reality. Fortunately, we count on many technologies that may help us check facts nowadays. For example, you may use your phone to record conversations or take a picture of something your partner is doing. In addition, you may keep a physical or digital diary to write down situations before the gaslighter attempts to distort them. Finally, you may check your or your partner’s social media to review past events.
Tip #4: Invest in yourself. Find activities that make you feel grounded and balanced. Being in a romantic relationship with a gaslighter can feel chaotic and emotionally dependent. Often it takes a lot of courage, energy, and determination to end a toxic relationship. Before or during that process, it is crucial to find ways to heal. Try to give you some room to start practicing activities that will boost your level of self-confidence and that bring you calm, balance, and peace.
Tip #5: Distant yourself from your partner. Suppose you realize that your partner is emotionally abusing you. In that case, the best thing to protect yourself and your mental and emotional wellbeing is to keep distant from that person. This will not be easy, as the gaslighter will try to keep their power and control in the relationship. However, this is the time when you have to grab your toolkit of coping strategies, reach out to your support system, and maintain your ground of no-contact.
Tip #6: Talk to a mental health professional. Navigating or leaving an emotionally abusive relationship is not easy, especially if the relationship lasts long enough to make you feel broken inside. However, there is a path to healing and recovery from any form of abuse. Therapists and counsellors can help you initiate and walk along that path.
Tip #7: Last but not least, do not blame yourself for the abuse you have endured. It was not your fault, it is not your fault, and it will never be your fault regardless of what your partner has made you believe.
Counselling Can Help
We hope that this post has brought you some insight into gaslighting, its damaging effects, and how you can start to overcome this toxic situation.
If you feel that you are struggling in your relationship or do not know how to heal from a past emotionally abusive experience, please reach out. We count on an empathetic group of therapists who can help you navigate this challenging process until you see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Feel open to letting us know a little bit more about your situation by scheduling a free 15-mins consultation.
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