What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, which involves psychologically manipulating someone to make them doubt their own sanity. The term comes from a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton called Gas Light, in which an abusive husband tries to drive his wife insane through dimming lights and moving items around the house then denying that he’s done anything.
Gaslighting is a strategy often used by abusers because it is so effective. It increases the abuser’s power and control over the victim as it makes her doubt her mind and lose confidence, thereby making her more dependent on the abuser and less likely to leave the abusive relationship.
Essentially gaslighting is an aspect of coercive controlling behaviour. It increases the isolation and vulnerability of the victim, thereby increasing the abusers control. It aims to destroy the victim’s sense of self, as she loses the ability to think clearly or trust her perceptions and instincts. Evan stark, an expert research on coercive control, describes how
“The victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.”
How can someone spot the signs of gaslighting?
Gaslighting can be extremely difficult to identify and abusers tend to introduce it gradually. Often gaslighting isn’t identified until after the victim has escaped the abusive relationship and is able to reflect on it.
The victim is likely to feel confused, uneasy, anxious and/or depressed, but may be unable to identify the abuse and the source of these feelings. Gaslighting can be very subtle, making it extremely difficult for the victim to pin-point exactly what is happening.
The longer the abuse goes on, the more likely it is that the victim will rely on the abuser's definition of reality, as she no longer has confidence or faith in her own thoughts and perceptions.
An abuser may gaslight in a variety of ways:
- The abuser questions the victim's memories of events and accuses her of misremembering situations, denies that particular events happened, or minimizes them.
- The abuser tells the victim she is imagining things.
- The abuser minimizes and trivializes the victim's feelings/needs.
Gaslighting is often deployed by abusers when the victim has sensed or witnessed something that the abuser does not want to admit to. They will, therefore,deny whatever the survivor is actually experiencing, perceiving or sensing. This is different from simply disagreeing, as the abuser will imply or claim outright that the victim’s perceptions/understanding of a situation is crazy and nonsensical. Because most non-abusive people are willing to contemplate being wrong or making a mistake, the victim begins to doubt herself. The abuser, on the other hand, will often act and speak with such conviction and self-assurance that they seem very convincing.
The author Robin Stern has identified some signs gaslighting:
- Constantly second-guessing yourself.
- Asking yourself “Am I too sensitive?” multiple times a day.
- Often feeling confused / crazy.
- You’re always apologizing to your partner.
- You can’t understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren’t happier.
- You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behaviour to friends and family.
- You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
- You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
- You start lying to avoid the put-downs and reality twists.
- You have trouble making simple decisions.
- You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, and more relaxed.
- You feel hopeless and joyless.
- You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
- You wonder if you are a “good enough” partner.
This list, however, is not exhaustive. If in doubt do seek help and advice from specialist domestic abuse agencies.
What should you do if you’re experiencing gaslighting?
If you are experiencing gaslighting, seek help as soon as you can. A coercive partner may abuse in other ways an put you at risk. Talk to a domestic abuse specialist, who can help you to identify and clarify what is happening in your relationship and help to explain your options, including how to leave the relationship safely.
Don’t blame yourself. Gaslighting can happen to anyone. As with all forms of abuse, gaslighting thrives by keeping the victim silent. Breaking the silence and seeking help is the first step to recovering from an abusive relationship.