What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse whereby an individual will manipulate the targeted person into believing they’re wrong, even when they’re right, causing them to doubt their perception of reality. The target may be convinced that their memories are wrong or that their feelings are overreactions, leading them to rely on their abuser to gain confirmation of the ‘truth’ and whether their emotions are ‘reasonable’.
For example, have you ever been telling a story, only for someone to correct you on small details which make you question your perception of reality? Has someone ever told you, ‘You’re remembering that wrong! I’ll explain, you never remember things correctly’. Or more subtly, responding to something you’re passionate about with, ‘calm down, you’re overreacting’.
Although scenarios like this may seem harmless or common. Overtime, these imperceptible comments can cause you to doubt yourself and the legitimacy of your thoughts and feelings, having the potential to detrimentally affect your mental wellbeing and the way you approach life.
The term ‘Gaslighting’ originated from a 1938 play called ‘Gaslight’ whereby a woman’s husband manipulated her into thinking she’d lost her mind by making small changes to her environment, such as dimming the gaslights, and convincing her that she was imagining the changes in her head. While you may be familiar with this idea of gaslighting in the context of relationships, this behaviour is present in many other aspects of daily life.
Common Phrases You May Have Heard Before
Whether it be a partner, parent, friend or manager, most individuals have encountered one or more of these phrases. If you’ve been told one of these before, it’s useful to be weary, as it may be an indication that someone is gaslighting you:
- The most evident sign of gaslighting is making you doubt your own memories and experiences to the point you begin relying on the version fabricated by the gas-lighter.
- ‘I never said that. You have a terrible memory!’
- ‘I remember you agreed to do that’
- Gas-lighters can make you feel as though normal reactions are unwarranted or overreactions, especially regarding actions they have done or said.
- ‘You’re too sensitive’
- ‘Please stop being so dramatic’
- ‘You are just being paranoid’
- Often, your friends and family are the first to notice you are being gaslighted. To ensure you are not second guessing their actions, the gas-lighter will often try to isolate you from your loved ones and make you question their loyalty and intentions.
- ‘Your friends are idiots’
- ‘Did your mother say that? She’s always making things up to make me look bad’
- Many gas lighters use the silent treatment as punishment and a form of control. When you ask them what’s wrong, they act as if nothing has happened.
- ‘I’m not angry? What are you talking about?’
- A gas-lighter will often try to shift blame from themselves onto their victim, so they don’t need to take accountability.
- ‘You should’ve known how I would react’
The actions an individual takes to gain coercive control over their target can be so subtle and gradual that it makes detection extremely hard. Techniques the National Domestic Hotline has outlined include:
- Countering is where a person questions someone’s memories. They may try to deny the events occurred the way the victim (accurately) remembers it and might also invent details that didn’t occur.
- Withholding is when a person refuses to engage in conversation or listen to the concerns someone has. For example, they might say ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying’, or ‘I don’t have to listen to this, it’s nonsense’.
- Trivialising occurs when a person disregards or belittles someone’s emotions. They will condition a victim into believing their emotions are invalid or excessive.
- Denial is when a person pretends to forget events or how they occurred to discredit the victim’s memory.
- Diverting is when a person changes the focus of the discussion and questions the other person’s credibility instead. For example, they may say ‘Did your sister say that? She always puts those stupid ideas in your head’.
Red Flags and Warning Signs
Although many victims find it hard to pinpoint when they’ve been manipulated, there are some signals that can help identify when a person is being gaslighted. Some examples include:
- Feelings of confusion and constantly second guessing yourself
- Inability to make simple decisions
- Frequently questioning whether you’re ‘too sensitive’
- Becoming introverted or antisocial
- Compulsion to apologise to the abusive person
- Defending abusive person’s behaviour
- Lying to friends and family to avoid making excuses for abusers’ behaviour
- Feeling helpless, worthless, or incompetent
As gaslighting can result in lasting mental health issues, it’s important to understand how it presents itself so you can be more aware of the warning signs and implement strategies to protect yourself from if you encounter it. If we can all be aware of gaslighting, we can recognise it in others, and even ourselves. Hence, we can aid each other to combat manipulative tendencies and be sure of our decisions.