The term “Gaslighting” seems to be bandied around quite liberally these days but what does it really mean and is it now being overused or taken out of context? As the buzz word of recent times, I thought it might be helpful to write this article to explore a little more…

It doesn’t take long these days if we open a magazine, listen to a chat show or even have a conversation with friends before someone drops the ‘Gaslighting’ word. But what does Gaslighting really mean? And are we even using the expression properly?

Gaslighting is a serious power and control issue and so I think it’s really important that we use it correctly and understand it’s true meaning out of respect for those who might actually be affected by the situation. It’s actually a form of psychological abuse that’s seen in abusive relationships where the manipulator or manipulators make someone question their own thoughts, memories or sense of self. At its most extreme, a victim of gaslighting can be pushed so far that they even start to question their own sanity or sense of reality.

The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1938 play and subsequent psychological thriller called “Gaslight.” In the movie, the devious husband, played by Charles Boyer, manipulates and torments his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, to convince her she’s going mad by dimming their gas-fuelled lights and then telling her she is hallucinating. Really not nice behaviour…

Gaslighting, whether intentional and conscious or not, is a form of manipulation and can happen in many types of relationships, including those with bosses, friends, and family members. But one of the most damaging forms of gaslighting is when it occurs in a relationship between a couple.

Interestingly though it’s important to understand that sometimes the person doing the gaslighting might not even know they’re doing it. Often, it’s as much to do with their own power issues and unconscious insecurities (from childhood or previous relationships) as it is out of an active desire to hurt someone else. However, in other cases, it can be used as a very deliberate, conscious tactic to undermine and damage another. Either way, it is an unacceptable thing to do and is a highly abusive pattern of behaviour.

 

What are the signs of Gaslighting?

Gaslighting typically happens very gradually in a relationship; in fact, the abusive partner’s actions may seem harmless at first making it difficult for a person to detect. However, there are a number of techniques a person may use to gaslight someone to watch out for – these include: –

Signs of a Gaslighter…

Countering:

The manipulator questions the person’s memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately. For example, they might say, “You’re wrong, you never remember things correctly,” or “are you sure? You have a bad memory.”

Withholding:

The manipulator pretends not to understand the person so that they do not have to respond or engage with them. For example, they might say, “I do not know what you are talking about,” or “you are just trying to confuse me.”

Trivializing:

The manipulator belittles or disregards the other person’s feelings. They may accuse them of being too sensitive or of overreacting when they have valid concerns and feelings. For example, they might say, “You’re going to get angry over a little thing like that?” or “You’re too sensitive.”

Denial:

The manipulator pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to the victim. For example, they might say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “You’re just making things up.”

Diverting:

The manipulator changes the focus of a discussion and questions the other person’s credibility instead. For example, they might say, “That is just another crazy idea you got from your friends.” or “You’re imagining things.”

A person experiencing gaslighting may become confused, withdrawn, anxious, or defensive about the abusive person’s behaviour but often (like the perpetrator) may not even realize the behaviour is actually abusive. This can become particular toxic if both parties don’t realise what is happening and let the unhealthy behaviour continue for any length of time, so it becomes a very negative habit.

Once an abusive partner has broken down the victim’s ability to trust themselves the victim is then more likely to stay in the abusive relationship which gives the manipulator a lot of power and control.

Signs someone might be experiencing Gaslighting

  • The person feels confused. Lacks confidence and constantly questions themselves.
  • They find it difficult to make simple decisions on their own.
  • They become withdrawn, isolated or unsociable or depend too much on a partner.
  • They constantly apologise to the abusive person.
  • They defend the abusive person’s behaviour and make excuses for them.
  • They frequently second guess themselves or think they are too sensitive.
  • They lack self-esteem and feel hopeless, worthless, or inadequate.
  • They feel anxious, depressed or traumatised.

Gaslighting can also cause anxiety, depression, and psychological trauma, especially if it is part of a wider abuse pattern.

 

Steps to stop Gaslighting…

If you feel like someone you know is gaslighting you (or perhaps, after reading this) you think you might have unconsciously been gaslighting someone yourself, it’s important to acknowledge and do something about it, otherwise it can easily become a very unhealthy habit for both the manipulator and the victim.

Step 1: Step outside the situation

The first thing to do is to try and step outside of the situation and view what is happening from another perspective. Imagine being a neutral observer, sitting on your own shoulder or viewing the situation as a stranger looking in on the relationship. This will have two effects: firstly, it will allow you to see more clearly whether what you are experiencing really is a form of a gaslighting, and secondly, it will allow you to take the heat out of the situation and view in a less emotional way.

Step 2: Seek advice or support outside the relationship

Talk things over with people who you trust (outside of the relationship) who can give you impartial advice and a new objective opinion on things. It’s often a good idea to talk to more than one person so you can get a few different perspectives or seek independent advice from a counsellor, therapist or even a helpline. Feel free to give me a call for a chat, or book an appointment.

Step 3: Try to understand the motivation

Since gaslighting is all about power and control issues, it’s important to try and identify the motivation. Ask yourself is what is happening out of a desire to control or hurt you, or is it because they struggle with the idea of not being in control themselves? Taking a more analytical approach to the perpetrator’s behaviour can help us to understand that it isn’t always designed to hurt us, even if it does. Whether their actions are conscious or unconscious, however, it’s important to understand that this is not ok.

Step 4: Find a new way of communicating

What’s most important now is that both parties find a new way of communicating. Obviously, if you’ve got into an unhealthy pattern of someone dismissing your feelings this might be hard. But both parties will need to understand the effects of what is happening if anything is going to change. Although it can be difficult, it’s important to address this issue directly. The other person involved will need to know how their behaviour is making you feel and it may be a shock for them to hear how damaging their behaviour has been.

Step 5: Express how the behaviour makes you feel

Find a time to talk when you are both already in a good mood. Don’t try to approach the subject in the middle of an argument. Pick a time when you feel grounded and calm and let the other person know that you’d like to talk about something that’s been on your mind. In counselling, we often recommend that people try using ‘I’ statements. This means talking primarily in terms of how things have made you feel, so try saying: ‘when you do x, it makes me feel y’.

Putting the focus on yourself like this means taking responsibility for your feelings and is much less likely to make the other person feel attacked. It’s a simple change, but one that can really shift the tone of a disagreement and make it less likely to spin out of control.

 

Outside help for Gaslighting…

You may find that a little outside support is necessary to get the conversation started. You might want to speak confidentially to a therapist for some one-on-one support (who has experience helping people in abusive relationships) or a good relationship counsellor who will be able to help both parties put their perspectives across and to listen to one another.

Over time, gaslighting can sometimes escalate into other forms of abuse, so anyone who believes they could be in a danger should contact domestic abuse organisations for advice and help with creating a safety plan.

It’s important to know that coercive or controlling behaviour is also now a crime in the UK. The new coercive or controlling behaviour offence will mean victims who experience the type of behaviour that stops short of serious physical violence but amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse, can bring their perpetrators to justice.

I think this is an important step because it sends a clear message that it is wrong to violate the trust of those closest to you and that emotional and controlling abuse will not be tolerated.

 

Helpful links:

This page lists organisations which may be able to offer further support…

Mind
Provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem.

Victim Support
Provides emotional and practical support for people affected by crime and traumatic events.

Samaritans
Provides support 24/7 for anyone who needs to talk.

National Domestic Abuse Helpline
Provides free 24-hour helpline for women who have experienced domestic abuse and violence, with all female advisors.

 

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 After years of pushing the abuse to the back of her mind, and sweeping her hurt under the carpet, the pain had finally broken through the surface. Something very wrong had indeed been done to her, but she had never spoken about it before…”