If you’ve never heard the term gaslighting, don’t feel bad – it’s something that most people aren’t really aware of.
In short, the term comes from an old movie from the 1940s. In the movie, Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman) falls in love with Gregory (Charles Boyer), and they move in together in the long-vacant townhouse that used to belong to her (murdered) aunt.
Things start to go awry, and Paula starts to lose her mind. The only problem is that Gregory is behind her newfound craziness, and he’s been torturing her in an effort to make her go completely insane.
The reality of the situation is that this isn’t an isolated event – people are literally driven crazy by their partners all the time. It’s a subtle form of manipulation that seeks to control a partner in a way that makes them question themselves – and, unfortunately, even most therapists don’t fully understand it. Here’s a short definition:
Gaslight (verb): to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
What do you need to know about gaslighting?
1. It’s not always deliberately plotted.
In the movie, Gregory was gaslighting his wife in an effort to drive her insane – but that’s not the only way that gaslighting happens. All that it takes for someone to be capable of gaslighting another human being is the belief that it’s OK for you to overwrite someone else’s perceptions and reality. It comes from a sense of ownership over another human being. It’s not always a long, drawn-out scheme – it can be a series of isolated events where one person makes the other person question their own mind. It doesn’t seem like abuse to the abuser, and it often doesn’t seem like abuse to the victim – but it most certainly is.
2. Manipulation and gaslighting are not exactly the same.
Even though gaslighting is a type of manipulation and mental abuse, it’s definitely not the only type – and, in general, it has a longer-term method of action than other forms of manipulation; that is, when done effectively, gaslighting causes permanent changes to a person’s outlook on life, as well as their views of themselves. Where most manipulation uses threats (either direct or implied) to condition a person’s behavior, gaslighting is done with the attempt of causing a person to distrust themselves, and when done effectively, the damage is hard to undo. Gaslighting destroys your perception of reality and makes it difficult (if not impossible) to understand what’s going on around you.
3. Often, the abuser is charming and charismatic – and anger isn’t always involved.
According to the book The Gaslight Effect, “glamor gaslighting” occurs when the abuser gives their victim special attention, without fulfilling the needs of the relationship. For example, she may shower you with compliments, but refuse to hear your feelings. She might talk you up to all her friends, but when it’s just the two of you, nothing seems to impress her. She might not show appreciation for things, and you’ll feel more adored than loved. Respect is definitely not present, despite any claims that she respects you more than anyone else.
4. Sometimes, the abuser paints themselves as the victim.
In one of the most confusing forms of gaslighting, any problems in the relationship are met with a strong emotional reaction – not anger and hostility. In these types of exchanges, the abuser is trying to make themselves seem as if the victim is being abusive toward them, which will often result in agony and guilt. In this case, the actual victim will backtrack and re-think the things she says or does, in an effort to “make things right”, and this backtracking will be reflected back to them as if they’re willfully changing the details in order to make themselves look less abusive. By the end of this exchange, the person being gaslighted will often be the one apologizing, and possibly even crying – and, of course, feeling a responsibility to singlehandedly fix the problems in the relationship.
5. You’ll probably have black spots in your memory.
Since gaslighting relies on a difference in perspective, it’s completely normal to not be able to remember what happened. This type of emotional abuse may eventually cause blackouts, where you really can’t remember what happened. It’s important to realize that this is something that’s intentionally being done by your abuser, in an effort to make their “reality” more reliable than yours. After all, if you can’t trust your own memory, you’re much easier to manipulate – and, therefore, you can be conditioned to forget things, at your abuser’s will.
6. It goes through a series of stages.
Gaslighting isn’t one simple process – it’s a number of smaller stages that all lead up to the loss of your mental clarity. In stage one, you’ll find yourself arguing over things you shouldn’t have to defend – such as your feelings and your opinions. In a healthy relationship, a difference of opinions is accepted, but in a relationship built around gaslighting, you put your personal beliefs up for debate, and you give them the ability to persuade you otherwise.
In stage two, you’ve been conditioned to think of your abuser’s perspective first, and then you think of your own – and hope that you can persuade them to do the same. You want to prove that you’re still a good, kind person – but you question it. You may be worried about what their perception of you says about you, and you worry whether you really are changing and turning into the horrible person they’re making you sound like.
In stage three, you accept your abuser’s point of view as normal, and your own thoughts become a source of confusion. If you’re hurt by something, your mind instantly goes to “What’s wrong with me?” instead of “What’s wrong with this situation?” You’ll try to break apart their criticisms, and you’ll obsess over understanding the way they feel about you. It can grow to replace your own feelings about yourself, which is a toxic (and dangerous!) position to be in.
7. It can continue even after the relationship ends.
One of the scariest things about gaslighting is that the end of the relationship doesn’t always mean the end of the abuse. In some cases, a person might notice the gaslighting while they’re still in stage one or two, and they’ll get out – but they may maintain contact with their ex, in an effort to prove to themselves that they’re not really such a bad person. Unfortunately, even if you do fully cut ties with your abuser, you may continue to gaslight yourself, if you were too far into one of the previous stages when the relationship ended – or if it was your abuser who ended things.
8. Certain things may make you more susceptible to gaslighting.
Some of the things that make a healthy relationship even better – such as empathy, a nurturing tendency, and a positive outlook about your partner – actually makes it easier for an abuser to gaslight you. That’s definitely not to say that you should try to not be these things – just that you need to be cautious that you’re not giving the benefit of the doubt to someone who’s set out to destroy you.
There are also less positive traits that make you more susceptible to gaslighting, but these things – in moderation – can be a superpower, too. For example, a need to be right, a need for approval, and a need to be understood can work for or against you, depending on the circumstance. We have a basic human need for all of these things, and we also have a basic human responsibility to not “force our right-of-way”, so to speak. Don’t let someone else’s perception of you make the choice for change.
9. You know who you are – you just stop listening to it.
Most of the time, when someone is being gaslighted, they’ll instantly realize that something isn’t right – but their eagerness to trust and believe their partner leads them to ignore these signs. After all, (she says) she loves you – she wouldn’t do anything like that. However, your inner perception of yourself never really goes anywhere. You know who you are, and you know your reality. You haven’t lost anything, except the ability to trust yourself.
10. Separating yourself from your abuser is really the only way to move past this.
In movies and books, we tend to see the “strong protagonist” taking control of the situation and standing up to their abuser. This can be wonderful, in the movies – as it gives the victim a sense of power and control over their situation, which they may have lost. But the reality is that engaging your abuser simply gives the message that your reality is up for debate – and it shouldn’t be. Confrontation is not the answer.
11. You do need to confront the threats.
Without actually engaging your abuser, you need to confront your fears, the things that your abuser preyed on in order to make you question your sanity. Were you afraid that you’d lose the relationship? Well, once someone starts abusing you, you’ve already lost the relationship. Were you afraid that your abuser would take their own life? Embrace the idea that this is most often an empty threat. (I’m not saying to ignore a suicidal cry for help, definitely, but if the threat of suicide is used to keep you from leaving the relationship or doing something you enjoy, understand that this is a form of manipulation.)
12. Group manipulation is a real thing – and it makes everything else so much more difficult.
In some cases, gaslighting is a group effort. Maybe the abuser’s friends and family have heard her side of the story, and not yours. Maybe there is mental illness in the family, and everyone shares the same confused beliefs about how relationships are supposed to work. It sucks to think of, but sometimes, the family can actually be the instigators of the abuse – making your abuser a victim of their manipulation tactics, too, which is then diverted to you. Try not to focus on who’s at fault, and instead focus on doing what you need to do to make your own life happier and healthier. You deserve it.