What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a tactic whereby a person makes your doubt your sanity by causing you to question everything.
You may not realise immediately if someone is gaslighting you because by its nature, it is a slow method of undermining your confidence. The end goal of the gaslighter is to make you question yourself so much that you are totally dependent on them.
Justine remembered how she once bought a bag of coal into the shed and then it suddenly was not there. Her partner denied that she had ever brought it in. “Why would he lie?” she thought.
This pattern continued over the next years: she would be sure she heard something or had done something, and her partner would refute there being any sound or adamantly claim that she had not done what she thought she had. She began to fear that she was losing her mind and certainly felt that she was forgetful and ditsy and was grateful for the reliable lover who she thought could be trusted to set her straight.
Gaslighting can happen without you realising
Gaslighting can sometimes be extremely subtle. A partner can make you doubt your friendships by pointing out their flaws or make your see your friends in a less favourable light.
Nisha recalled that her ex-husband would gently question whether or not her friends were actually that kind by pointing out every flaw and evening inventing things that had never gone one. After Nisha and her ex-husband had been on a couples night out with some friend, she recalled him saying:
“Did you have a disagreement with your friends? I overheard them whispering about how they didn’t want to invite you out tonight. I wasn’t sure whether or not to tell you?…….I just want what is best for you….”.
Slowly Nisha became increasingly isolated as she began to withdraw from friendships, and as she believed that no-one liked her, she became more and more dependent on her husband.
Where does the word “gaslighting” come from?
The term ‘gaslighting’ comes from a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton in which a woman is made by her husband to believe that she is imagining things such as the flickering lights. It was then more famously an Oscar-winning film called ‘Gaslight’ which wonderfully portrays the eroding of the victim’s confidence in her own reality and sanity.
It is not a formal term from psychiatry and it has now begun to be used more widely. For example, some people use it to describe a partner lying about a specific thing such as having an affair. In this context the cheating partner might accuse their partner of being paranoid or jealous. Some people say that this is a form of gaslighting as the liar is undermining their partner’s correct instincts.
In my opinion, the crucial difference perhaps is that the philandering partner is not trying to destroy their partner’s sense of reality but instead trying to get away with their affair. Either way, the victim will feel self-doubt but if someone has questioned you in all areas of your life, you are more likely to come out worse.
Can men be the victims of gaslighting?
Most of the examples of gaslighting which you will read about show the women being manipulated. It can, however, also happen to men in exactly the same way. There is some emerging evidence of cases of women that women who gaslight men by saying that the sex they had was not consensual, which make the men doubt their entire integrity and ability to read these intimate situations. Once again, the victim finds themselves grateful for having such a tolerant and forgiving partner.
It is hard to know the proportion of men who are victims of gaslighting as it is often under-recognised and under-reported like much of the domestic violence towards men.
The three stages of gaslighting
There are three stages to the process of gaslighting: idealisation, devaluation and discard.
- In the idealisation stage the victim is whisked off their feet as the gaslighter projects an image of themselves as ideal partner they have been searching for.
- The devaluation stage: the victim goes from being adored to being incapable of doing anything right. They put up with this as they want to return to the bliss of the idealisation phase and they cannot imagine someone who had been so kind can turn.
- The discard stage is the final chapter where the victim is dropped – this often happens simultaneously with the idealisation, or grooming, of the next victim.
8 Common Signs that you are being gaslighted and what to do about it.
1. You begin to doubt yourself
If the other person denies your reality frequently, you will inevitably begin to doubt yourself. Initially, you might doubt your memory as your partner denies you having said something or denies saying or doing something. In extreme cases the doubt can extend to what you hear or see.
The doubt grows, as initially the gaslighting will be subtle and will be over something forgettable. It is your word against theirs and you likely doubt yourself as you do not expect someone you trust and love to lie to you. However, if you find yourself questioning things regularly, this is not normal and talk to someone about this.
2. Your partner frequently denies having said or done something.
If you do find this happening frequently, start to write notes down after important conversations. Be careful about challenging your partner though if you do catch them out as this might lead to them getting very angry. See the next point.
3. When you try to challenge your partner about something they said or did, or criticise them in any way, they get annoyed or try to shut you down.
Anger is an effective way to shut someone down. You generally want to avoid conflict with someone you care about. Therefore if your partner gets angry or upset if you confront or challenge him, over time you are less likely to do it.
Another way of shutting you down, is to divert the conversation or argument by blaming you for some other past mistake. Alternatively they might say that there is no point discussing it as they cannot remember. All of these are ways of continuing to deny your own experiences of your reality.
4. You begin to think that you are over-sensitive or paranoid.
When you get upset with your partner or question them, they might also try to shut you down by criticising you. Two of the most common ones are:
(i) that you are over-sensitive and therefore they deny your right to be upset about something
(ii) that you are paranoid in questioning them. This might occur if you question their friendship with members of the opposite sex or where they have been. Once again, this is preventing your right to have a doubt.
5. You begin to struggle making decisions or doing things you previously felt confident about.
As you begin to doubt yourself, you will inevitably find it harder to trust your own mind and abilities. You might find that instead, you defer a lot to your partner to decide or start spending long times checking over things. This will actually make your confidence worse as you get less used to make decisions on your own.
What you can do instead, is spend time writing down what the decision is, and why you are making it. This should help you see the logic of your decision. If you still need a second opinion then speak to someone you trust (other than your partner) such as a friend, work colleague or professional, and explain your decision making process to them and ask if the process seems logical.
6. You are always apologising to others
The loss of confidence in yourself means that when there are situations where someone has made a mistake, or someone is upset, you will automatically assume responsibility and apologise.
If you notice yourself doing this, hold off before apologising and think whether it is your fault, or whether there is a misunderstanding. Sometimes it can help to re-imagine the situation if it were happening to other people rather than yourself. This can give you a fairer perspective.
7. You stop seeing friends and family
Sometimes, a gaslighter will want to isolate you from friends and family so that you are more dependent on them, and to prevent other people trying to confirm your sense of reality by telling you that you are justified in thinking or feeling a certain way. This might happen by them turning you against your friends or by making you think that they don’t want to be around you.
Another tactic is for the partner to be annoyed if you have to see your friends or try to talk you out of it. Over time, this means that you will have gradually fewer interactions with others who can give you that sense of confidence.
If you notice that you see your friends far less than before, try to reach out to them again and organise regular meeting with them alone. Whether or not your partner is gaslighting you, it is important to have some space from them.
What to do if you realise that your partner is gaslighting you.
It is unlikely that you will have an epiphany where you realise that this is going on because it is such a gradual process that to realise it’s happening is an equally gradual process. To really know for sure often takes time as you slowly amass your evidence.
You are also likely to love and feel dependent on your partner so it is a massive shift to go from caring deeply about someone, to considering them a threat to you.
At the point you do realise it or suspect it, the first thing to do is to consider your safety. The more extreme the gaslighting, the more dangerous that person is likely to be. Sudden confrontation is unwise if you suspect your partner is dangerous. Instead, you might prefer to leave the home and go somewhere safe such as a local refuge or a friend or family’s home.
It is important to speak to someone who you trust and tell them what is going on. Any domestic abuse helpline will take you seriously as will a qualified clinical psychologist.
Family and friends might make you feel paranoid as they might question whether this actually happened: sometimes the partner will have charmed others. You must still try to open up to them too as you need to end your isolation and dependence. Just remember to start by telling them, “I need you to listen and not question what I am about to tell you because I have been doubting myself for a while and I need you to believe me”
Ultimately, you cannot be with someone who makes you doubt yourself to such an extent. A partner should make you feel confident. Anyone who undermines you in this way should have a limited influence in your life (and none at all if you can help it). Therefore try to find a way to leave the relationship safely and to rebuild your confidence (which can take some time).
Are some people more vulnerable to gaslighting?
People often want to know who is vulnerable to gaslighting. The truth is that most people would be susceptible to falling for someone capable of gaslighting as people who do it work out what kind of partner you want, and what relationship you want and they pretend to fit the bill.
In addition to this they whisk you off your feet. Therefore they seem to be the man/woman of your dreams who adores you: who wouldn’t fall for that?
Dr George Simon, author of ‘Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’ writes that the person who falls for a gaslighter normally has 2 key traits:
- Concientiousness – People who do the right thing and therefore are trusting of others as they assume everyone is as conscientious and moral as they are
- Agreeableness – You want to treat people well and for everyone to get along. Therefore you do not bring up subjects which can rock the boat if you can avoid it.
Dr Simon also said that he found that many successful and intelligent people could be vulnerable as they have firm ideas about what they want and therefore it is easier for the gaslighter to fit into that mould.
Finally, if you have been in an abusive relationship or grew up seeing one parent control and dominate the other. This is because abusive patterns might seem normal and because you might find them strangely comforting and familiar.
What kind of person gaslights others?
There is very little research which can confirm the exact traits of someone who is gaslights their partner. However, what seems apparent is that they share many of the traits of someone with a Narcissitic Personality Disorder which is a recognised condition.
The individual with a narcissitic personality disorder will have such a fragile self-esteem that they need to feel superior to others by self-aggrandising or by putting others down. Their self-esteem is also so vulnerable that they will try and manipulate and control others so that they reduce the risk of being rejected. Therefore they might have affairs, so that there is always someone better to move on to, and/or try and make you totally dependent on them.
How to recover from having been the victim of gaslighting.
Once you have recognised this toxic dynamic, you are on the first step to recovery as you now know that you are not as mad/bad/paranoid as you thought you were and can begin to trust your own instincts and perceptions again.
However, despite this awareness, you cannot regain your confidence if you are still in a relationship with the person who is gaslighting you and so you MUST leave them, no matter how much you love them or how much they promise you they will change.
The next stage will be rebuilding your confidence in yourself and others. You could do this by keeping a diary of all the positive things you have achieved and all the positive interactions you have had with others. Surround yourself with people who you find supportive and can give you that much needed ego-boost.
Dr Robin Stern, author of ‘The Gaslight Effect: how to spot and survive the hidden manipulation others use to control your life’, talks about avoiding power struggles. These are interactions where you feel someone is trying to prove you wrong or persuade you do something you do not feel like doing. She suggests instead, responding with silence or by asking for time to think about the situation for yourself. Then write down your thoughts about what you want to do or what you think and if necessary, check them with someone who is not going to listen to your thoughts rather than tell you what to do.
Access a therapist who can also help you to rebuild your confidence and think about how you can better protect yourself in future relationships by understanding what led this horrid relationship to take a hold in your life.
Get back in touch with that gut instinct of yours and learn to trust it again.
Dr Isabelle Hung is a co-founder of divorceclub.com and clinical psychologist. Having got through her own divorce just three years ago, she is now remarried and happy to report that divorce really is an opportunity for growth and positive change.