“Gaslighting”, A Buzz Word on Social Media But What Does it Really Mean?
Over the last five or six years the psychological term “Gaslighting” has become such a buzz word on social media. The revival of the term is mainly attributed to Donald Trump as he tried to coerce and confuse the world through persistent misdirection, contradiction, denying and lying.
For those who haven’t encountered this term, “gaslighting” is a means of psychological and emotional abuse, where someone manipulates you into questioning your own sanity. The term originally came from a play in 1938 and subsequent film in 1944 called “Gas Light”. The plot depicts a husband convincing his wife she is going insane by subtly altering things around the house. He hides things and accuses her of being a kleptomaniac, he turns on the attic lights, reducing the gas to the downstairs lamps so they flicker but denies that they are flickering, he amps up his gaslighting until his wife is driven to madness all the while he is just trying to distract her from his dodgy behaviour.
Gaslighting is not a difference of opinion, nor is it a once off experience. It’s a behaviour that happens over time and it is a very complex form of psychological manipulation and coercive control. One of the most insidious things about gaslighting is the denial of your reality. It’s a bully tactic which causes you to distrust yourself and your ability to perceive reality correctly.
If you are trying to make sense of a chaotic and toxic relationship, be it with a family member, partner, friend or colleague, look out for their patterns of behaviour. Gaslighting is very subtle at first and is very hard to detect initially but if you find that someone continuously projects, denies, lies or contradicts themselves and their actions don’t match their words, it’s a sure sign that this relationship is toxic and you are potentially being gaslighted. Trust your gut when you are feeling this kind of energy no matter how much you love or trust someone who has the ability to manipulate you.
Watch out for people who say, “I never said that”, “that never happened”, “you’re making it up, “or “you always do that”, when you know for a fact things happened the way you perceived them. A classic gaslighting expression when the person wants to deflect any responsibility for poor behaviour and undermine your feelings is, “you’re talking this into existence”. A gaslighter might say leading, definitive things to coerce you into altering your way of thinking, your plans, even your life. But if their words never come to fruition and you question this, they might either deny ever saying these things or change the context entirely. They can completely backtrack or do a 180. You hear their words and may act on them only to realise their actions are contradictory and there is no clarity or certainty. If you are close to someone like this, the uncertainty can have a serious impact on your life overtime.
Gaslighters will get frustrated and angry when confronted because apart from total adoration, very little pleases them or makes them happy, especially someone calling them out on their manipulative behaviour. If you are distraught over their behaviour and they dismiss your genuine emotional pain even though their behaviour has caused it, this is a sure sign you are in a dysfunctional relationship. Gaslighters usually behave like the victim and deflect instead of showing consideration and compassion. They may say things like, “why are you so sensitive?”, “why are you blaming me when you’re too sensitive?, “why are you acting crazy?”, “Why are you listening to that advice?”, “why are you comparing our relationship with others?”, “you’re putting words in my mouth”, “look what you’re making me do”, “you’re the only one that behaves like this”, “I never had a relationship like this”, and so on and so on. They will minimise your feelings and concerns to the point that you start to question your own internal guidance system!
NEVER, EVER, doubt your own feelings just because someone else is invalidating them. We express emotions and feelings as a natural reaction to our environment and our feelings are usually telling us something about the situation so please trust them.
Gaslighters love chaos and confusion, the more chaotic and rattled you feel the more they thrive on your disempowerment. The more you react to their crazy behaviour the more crazy they make you feel. They like to leave you suspended in limbo, so you feel as if the ground is always shifting beneath your feet as though you have no centre of gravity. This gives you an overwhelming feeling of instability and uncertainty. Their behaviour is always inconsistent and erratic, derailing you with so many mixed messages. One minute you’re the best, the next, their arch enemy for trying to lay down healthy boundaries. They undermine and trivialise your feelings and needs on a regular basis so you begin to doubt your own intuition and memories of events, and you start to constantly question whether you are being irrational, overly-sensitive or too needy.
Gaslighters can withdraw affection as a form of punishment for questioning them. They tend to use your insecurities or childhood traumas against you and you can find yourself reliving these traumas through flashbacks and feelings of inadequacy. They can deliberately ignore you, neglect your needs, abandon you in social settings and blame you for this behaviour. They can go from extremes of outrageous anger to total silence so you begin to feel like you have done something wrong and you start walking on eggshells.
You may feel like you are on the craziest roller coaster from the highs of love-bombing and future faking to the serious lows of confusion, chaos, stress, anxiety and depression.
People in romantic relationships who are gaslighted may likely find out their partner is cheating on them and living a double life. Instead of just being upfront and honest about what is going on, the gaslighter sheepishly creates all sorts of drama to inevitably make you feel like you are somehow responsible for the demise of the relationship so they can walk away with their hands clean, telling their new supply, “I left her/him because they were crazy”. And, yes, you may even feel and act crazy, even though they are the ones that made you question your sanity and abused you in the most psychologically disturbing way.
Gaslighting with family members or friendships looks like scape-goating. Again the gaslighter blames you for their poor behaviour and projects or deflects in order to distract from what is really happening.
They make you feel like you are going out of your mind, constantly making you second guess your reality. A reality as it turns out, is usually based on lies. It can take a long time and therapy to understand the extent of the manipulation from a gaslighter and just how insidious it is. You can feel so much shame for believing in this person and so much grief for the life you lose after investing so much into the relationship. You beat yourself up for allowing yourself to get so entrenched in a facade when, in hindsight, there are usually so many red flags. Even though their behaviour is very subtle at the beginning it can become very abusive and damaging in the end. It is not unusual for victims of gaslighting to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD or C-PTSD in the aftermath of a relationship with someone who has manipulated them over a period of time.
A gaslighter externalises and projects their insecurities, inadequacies, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions onto others. It’s a very manipulative form of psychological abuse because it’s usually done with the intent to make you feel inferior and question yourself at your core, which weakens you at your foundations with an unfortunate tendency to become co-dependent on the perpetrator.
Signs you may be on the receiving end of a gaslighter:
- They will minimise and invalidate your feelings. Gaslighters make you think you’re overreacting or being overly emotional when you react to their manipulation, you question if you are being too sensitive. They make you feel crazy and even go as far as calling you crazy.
- They make you question your reality and your memories of conversations or events. The lines become blurred and you begin to doubt your own sense of reality.
- They will confuse you with their sense of entitlement which makes it impossible to reason with them.
- They deny, deny, deny. Denial is their go to when their behaviour is in question and you find yourself apologising over and over again for doubting them.
- They diminish you by disregarding or undermining your thoughts, values or beliefs.
- They will use your insecurities against you by making remarks about your weight, your abilities, your relationships with others and your past.
- They refuse to take your concerns on board and become defensive, aggressive, passive- aggressive or give you the silent treatment, all extremely abusive behaviours.
- They accuse you of lying when you try to speak the truth. They may even go as far as threaten you if you expose their behaviour.
- They are incapable of responding to logic and reasoning and accuse you of being delusional.
- They have no empathy or consideration for your mental wellbeing. They will see how distressed you are and coldly continue to abuse you.
- They will isolate you from your friends and family to assert more control or you may do this yourself so you don’t have to explain your mental state.
- They might hurt your reputation by discrediting you to others, telling them you are mad and fabricate their own version of events as if they are the victim. This is called a smear campaign.
- They will discard you as soon as they’ve broken you, but in reality they never regarded you in the first place.
If you are being gaslighted you typically start to experience the following:
- overwhelming self-doubt because your reality is always being challenged and undermined.
- loss of confidence, low self- esteem and self-worth. You question your self-belief because your feelings are constantly being invalidated.
- trust in your judgement, their behaviour is so inconsistent and confusing you lose your personal sense of what’s right and wrong.
- confusion, instability and a sense of not being safe.
- Shame, guilt and a need to isolate from the world.
- anxiety, depression and PTSD from lasting trauma.
- Victims of gaslighting are usually empaths so you can start to question your kind nature and feel gullible or naïve, destroying a perfectly beautiful innocence to see the good in everybody.
- You may find yourself changing from a vibrant extrovert to a meek introvert.
So, how do you rise and thrive from experiencing gaslighting?
- 1st step, acknowledge what’s going on. If you feel like you are going insane this is your biggest warning sign. Healthy relationships make you feel secure and stable.
- Start writing stuff down, date everything you write so you can recount the real version of events. Write the language being used and how you feel. This helps you make sense of the chaos and also helps you validate your own feelings and reality. Keep it as a testimony (Just in case!).
- Assert yourself and remain defiant. Trust your version of reality. Do not let it be altered. This defiance is a form of resilience which will protect you.
- Stop engaging with this person. The back and forward, push and pull, will drain you emotionally. Develop a healthy detachment as a coping mechanism.
- Avoid any temptation to rescue them. It will never end, they always feel like life is unfair to them, they are the victim, you cannot rescue someone who harms you.
- If you can, cut all ties as soon as possible. If you can’t physically distance yourself from the gaslighter, distance yourself emotionally.
- Recognise that you will never get accountability. The gaslighter will never take accountability for their actions. They will never acknowledge their behaviour because they cannot respond to logic and reason. With this recognition you are no longer powerless.
- Let go of hope and the wish for things to be different, do not believe that logic and reason will prevail, you will be disappointed. Gaslighting always happens again because it’s a personality trait, promises are always broken and you cannot rely on this person’s word. You can, however, rely on your feelings and intuition. You can rely on YOURSELF.
- Become vigilant about wanting clarity and certainty, seek out alternative facts. Clarity is a state of mind that will help you make informed decisions.
- Get actively involved in things you like to do. The distraction will help you gain some perspective, it will also help you build back up your confidence and independence.
- Reach out to friends or family. If you feel you can’t for any reason, find someone you can confide in, maybe a colleague, your GP or a therapist.
- Start rebuilding your own personal reality. Tune into your feelings and emotions, they are messengers.
- Dr. Ramani has a great technique called the “DEEP technique”. She believes that these personality types seldom change. She advises that you don’t DEFEND, don’t ENGAGE, don’t EXPLAIN and don’t PERSONALISE….just detach.
- Don’t settle for less than you deserve, know your worth, stand in your truth. There is always a higher power working in your favour, call on it for guidance and look out for signs.
Acknowledge that the relationship you wanted and had imagined, is just that, your imagination. You need to accept the reality of the situation and let go. This can be the most difficult step. Usually victims of long term gaslighting present with debilitating anxiety and co-dependency so they find the withdrawal very overwhelming. They can be overcome with grief, loneliness, shame and denial. Sometimes chasing shadows is easier than experiencing this overwhelm and they might try and take refuge with the very person who abuses them. This can have its own host of psychological problems and is connected to conditions akin to Stockholm Syndrome. Remember, anyone can fall prey to manipulation and gaslighting. You are not weak if you do.
If this is you, take every day minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day. Try simple breathwork techniques like box breathing or circular breathing for anxiety and practise these daily. Try out alternative energy healing modalities such as Reiki, Access bars, Amatsu and Bio Energy to cleanse your body from the toxic energy. It’s important to take a deep dive into healing any childhood traumas that are being recycled in adult life. Learn how to implement healthy boundaries and build a secure attachment style with yourself. Read, read and read some more. Become trauma informed. Read books about trauma recovery, how to heal, personal growth and spirituality. Research somatic therapies, psychology, the neuro-science behind trauma, the nervous system and how our mind and body function. Research how we store trauma, the power of the mind and its healing potential. Learn to love and trust yourself again. Become aware of the innate powers of your own internal self. Turn your experience into your life’s purpose.
I work with clients to help them overcome any form of emotional, psychological or physical abuse. Please reach out if you feel you need guidance. Light will always shine through the darkest days. Start with the minutes and the hours. Breathe, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and know and believe that your healing comes from within, you have the power.