Does someone close to you tell you that you’re too sensitive? Do you find yourself constantly second-guessing yourself and apologizing? When you protest, does he or she tell you that your emotions are invalid, that your memories are unreliable—that you’re simply crazy, when you know, deep down, you’re not?
You may be the victim of gaslighting, a devastating form of emotional abuse that manipulates you into questioning your own sanity.
In the 1944 film, Gaslight, a criminal marries a young woman, Paula, in order to gain access to her family’s valuable gemstones. Once he isolates her from friends and family, he begins to slowly manipulate her, taking items from her handbag, as well as planting them, taking pictures from the walls of the house and telling her she moved them, and—most importantly of all—dimming and brightening the gaslights in the home as he searches the attic, and telling Paula that she is imagining these fluctuations. He does this so that he can gain power over her and eventually have her institutionalized so that he can continue to search for the gemstones without being caught.
It is from this film, and from this criminal’s manipulative behavior, that gaslighting takes its name. A true psychological term, to gaslight someone is to sow seeds of doubt in the target, making them question their own perception of reality. In a simple example, a husband might strike his wife, and the next day, deny the event happened, or act as if she’s making a big deal out of what was just a light touch. Alternatively, a wife might cheat on her husband, and tell him that he didn’t actually smell another man’s cologne on her shirt the night before—it must have been his imagination. His jealous must be affecting his perception.
This kind of manipulation can quickly make the target feel frazzled, out of control, and even insane, as they begin to doubt their perception, memories, and sanity. And like the old wife’s tale about the frog in the boiling water, gaslighting creeps up on the target—it isn’t immediately obvious like many other forms of abuse. And once it takes hold, it’s extremely difficult to escape.
Gaslighters use a variety of techniques to control their targets. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
When gaslighting takes this form, the abuser acts as if he or she doesn’t understand the problem you’ve brought up, will not listen to you, and does not share emotions. They might say something like “You’re just trying to confuse me,” or “Your anger makes no sense,” without trying to dig deeper and get at the root of your upset feelings. This is done to make the victim question their emotions rather than pursue the matter further.
To counter this, remember that your feelings are not only important, but utterly valid. Someone who cares for you won’t hold back from trying to figure out what’s going on—they would talk to you in the interest of helping you heal.
This is one of the most common forms of gaslighting, wherein an abuser will heatedly question the target’s memory, despite the fact that the victim remembers events accurately.
The abuser will use phrases like “You always see everything so negatively,” or “You let your imagination get away with you”. This keeps the target constantly questioning their memories, so that the abuser can, literally, rewrite history.
If you know your memory is otherwise reliable, don’t give in to this! If the issue of memory comes up again and again, you may be in the process of being manipulated.
Here, the abuser will halt the conversation about a contentious issue by diverting the conversation to something entirely different, often laying blame on the victim. Key phrases include “I’m not listening to this again,” and “Where did you get that crazy idea”?
This is victim-blaming. If you feel certain that your accuser is actually the one who is to blame, but you keep getting the brunt of the blame, you may be a victim of this technique.
Another common technique, this is the act of making the target believe that his or her thoughts, wants, and needs aren’t important. You’ll hear statements like “You’re going to let something that small get you angry?”
Again, your wants and needs are important. If the abuser’s behavior is hurting you in some way, that is valid.
One of the most infuriating techniques, forgetting is the act of pretending to forget things that actually happened. The abuser might cheat on the victim, physically or verbally abuse them, or simply throw the darks in with the whites when washing clothes.
Whatever the case, they’ll “forget” they did it, and try to convince you that it didn’t happen, saying things like “You’re making that up,” often going on to mock the victim for insisting on what actually happened.
In the worst instances, the gaslighter will actively create confusing situations that will make the victim deeply question their reality, such as moving their keys or “misplacing” objects and then blaming the victim in order to undermine their self-confidence.
But there are steps you can take to mitigate this. Let’s look at how.
Taking Back Your Story
Gaslighting is almost never obvious—in fact, it often comes clothed as simple, rational disagreement. But, as Dr. Hilde Lindemann Nelson writes in her book, “Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair, a victim’s “ability to resist depends on her ability to trust her own judgments”.
To take back control of your story, you must first trust yourself. And then you must tell a new story.
First, you must have compassion for yourself. Low self-esteem, self-doubt, and self-loathing all make a gaslighter’s task easier. You are valuable, lovable, and worthy. Begin from this foundation.
The next step is to begin keeping records. Record your experiences, thoughts, and feelings into a journal at the end of each day. If your memory is questioned, you can look back on these logs. If things are going missing, take photographs of them while they’re still in place. Use irrefutable forms of evidence to convince yourself that you can trust your senses.
Now, work to rebuild your self-trust, repairing what the relationship the gaslighter has damaged the most—your relationship with yourself. When your intuition speaks to you, make a habit of listening. After all, it’s gotten you this far in life, hasn’t it?
Spend time with people who believe in you, who build you up and affirm your feelings and thoughts. If needed, take some time with a counselor to explain your situation. They can help.
Once you do this, you’ll be able to break free—and possibly help the gaslighter break free from their negative pattern of behavior, as well. Once they realize what they’ve been doing, they may very well be horrified, and if so, your relationship to this person is salvageable.
If it was intentional, though, and they show no signs of change, it’s time for that particular relationship to cease.
In the end, the strength of your own inner story is what will guard you against this insidious form of manipulation. Trust your senses, value your thoughts and feelings, and love yourself, and you’ll learn to recognize this form of abuse for exactly what it is.