Gaslighting. Most of us have heard the term before. Many use it regularly. Some of us have been its victims. But what is gaslighting? How does it play out in real life? How do you know if you or someone you love is being gaslighted?
What is gaslighting?
The dictionary definition of gaslighting is to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” It is a “form of psychological abuse used by narcissists in order to instill in their victim’s an extreme sense of anxiety and confusion to the point where they no longer trust their own memory, perception or judgment.” The techniques used in gaslighting are similar to the techniques used in psychological warfare and are very effective and destructive. Through gaslighting, the abuser (often a narcissist but not always) systematically replaces the victim’s reality with a false reality eventually shutting them down.
As we likely know by now, the term “gaslighting” comes from the 1944 play (and, later, the movie) named, “Gaslight” in which the lead actor tries to make his wife believe she is going crazy by manipulating the brightness of the gas lights in their house. When she questions the change in brightness, he lies and denies that the brightness has changed. He tells her she’s imagining things. In time, as she remains convinced that the lights’ brightness has shifted, he expresses concern over her mental wellness due to her conviction, successfully making her question her own reality. Simplifying the storyline, the wife eventually begins to believe she is actually going crazy, and just before the husband tries to institutionalize her for her “insanity,” his dirty tactics are exposed and the psychological torture is stopped.
Today, gaslighting is thought of as one of the more toxic forms of emotional abuse. A victim who is gaslighted over an extended period of time will lose their perception of reality, question their sanity, doubt their memories, and will find themselves in a constant state of stressful confusion and self doubt. Eventually, they will become very insecure, emotionally unstable, and depressed not only at home but also at work, school, or in other roles they assume. The tactic of gaslighting, if not stopped, will effectively make the victim feel blameworthy, powerless, and crazy as well as force them into isolation and depression. Although we may experience gaslighting from many sources, it is one of the most common tools a narcissist uses. Citations
3 Stages of Narcissistic Gaslighting:
Gaslighting develops gradually over time making it subtle and hard to detect. The abuser may use various covert techniques such as countering, withholding, minimizing, denial, blame-shifting, dismissing, or scapegoating to gaslight their victims. We have described many of these covert behaviors in past blogs and also have a list of terms and definitions which you may find on our website and download for free to learn more. TO learn more be sure to follow the links in our resources section at the end of this article.The covert abuser will use any and all of these tactics to obtain the desired outcome from the gaslighting behavior where the victim questions their own sanity rather than correctly identifying that they are being emotionally abused. Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor Christine Louis de Canonville from Ireland describes the various stages and escalation of gaslighting as follows:
The Idealization Stage: Also known as the “honeymoon” phase, this is when the narcissist is on their best behavior and puts their finest qualities forward, showering their partner with attention, romance, compliments, and gifts. They are fun, engaging, and seemingly deeply interested and invested in the relationship. The victim gets swept up into the fantasy that is being portrayed believing that the euphoria, love and bond they feel is reciprocal, but it isn’t. During this phase, while the victim lets their guard down, the narcissist identifies the victim’s biggest strengths and weaknesses and transitions into the next phase when the gaslighting behavior truly begins.
The Devaluation Phase: This is when Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde. Almost overnight, the narcissist changes from the romancer to a cold and uncaring person leaving the victim shocked and confused by the sudden change. To the victim, it’s as if they can do nothing right but in light of their recent past during the honeymoon phase, the victim is certain they can change their own behavior and successfully gain back the narcissist’s attention and admiration. Every loving effort by the victim is met with harsh criticism or rejection, denial, playing the victim or even cold silence making the victim feel confused, unsettled, and devalued. The sudden shift in personality also devastates the victim leaving them highly stressed, unhappy or depressed, so they desperately try to manage and avoid the narcissist’s cruelty by carefully “walking on eggshells” all the while trying to understand what they did wrong. They try anything and everything to restore what they thought was a reciprocal love relationship, and when they are unsuccessful, the victim blames themself. The narcissist views the victim with greater disdain, increasingly devaluing the victim’s self worth, which makes the victim try even harder to please them, thereby feeding their abuser with their required narcissistic supply and empowerment. The push-pull of this relationship has the abuser treating the victim hatefully, but because the victim is feeding their partner’s narcissism through their extraordinary efforts to please them, the narcissist also gets their own needs met and won’t allow the victim to leave.
The Discarding Phase: By this phase of narcissistic gaslighting, the victim is already dependent on their abuser who has complete disdain for the victim due the their over-dependence. The onslaught of covert tools used to gaslight the victim during the “devaluation phase” has left the victim questioning their own sanity and experiencing significant self doubt causing them to forego social or other community situations in exchange for isolation. The narcissist is indifferent to the needs or wishes of the victim as if they no longer exist. But the victim is still left trying to figure out what went wrong and remains desperate to remedy the relationship and return to how good things once were during the “idealization phase.” The narcissist bullies the victim with silence resisting any attempt by the victim to resolve their conflict.
How Do You Know You Are Being Gaslighted?
So, how can you tell if you are being gaslighted? Dr. Ramani Durvasula provides a classic, telltale sign of how you know you are being gaslighted : if you have an almost uncontrollable need to record a conversation because you want to play it back for the person to make sure you heard it right, you are being gaslighted. If that doesn’t convince you, play the recording back to them and see them become extremely angry, even raging because you are calling them out on their behavior and they do not like it. Next, the gaslighter will likely use the fact that you recorded them to gaslight you further by saying, “See, I told you you were crazy! That you would actually record your own husband/wife, you’re nuts!”
Some other clues that you are being gaslighted are:
- You feel like you are losing your mind
- You are unable to figure out what is going on in your relationship
- You are in an ongoing state of feeling confused
- You constantly second-guess yourself
- You lose trust in your own judgment or reality
- It is difficult for you to make the simplest of decisions
- You often ask yourself if you’re being too sensitive
- You’re constantly apologizing and doing so repeatedly for the same “offense”
- You regularly defend your partner or lie to family and friends to avoid having to make excuses for your partner
- You feel hopeless, depressed, joyless, worthless, incompetent
- You are more and more uncomfortable in social or community settings
- You choose to isolate yourself when you never used to do so
- You feel like you are a shadow of your old self
You may also recall your partner saying things like, “Don’t be so sensitive,” or “That never happened,” “Are you sure you’re OK?” “I’m worried about you; you seem unwell.” These things are intended to make you question your own sanity. Granted, there are times when that worry is from genuine concern, but not when in combination with many of these other signs.
If you believe you are being gaslighted, now is the time to get the help you need. Strengthen yourself by reading, researching and reviewing podcasts or videos regarding covert emotional abuse, narcissism, gaslighting. Scour through our website and utilize the resources at the end of this blog. Education will bring you greater clarity and strength. Importantly, identify a therapist specially trained in narcissistic or covert abuse and start counseling. A well-trained and experienced therapist can help you confirm your suspicions, set healthy boundaries, and overcome the trauma, anxiety and/or depression you are experiencing.
We find that many victims have trouble separating themself from a narcissistic gaslighter because the original pull of the honeymoon phase is a reality for them that they believe will come back. Even if you believe that to be true, don’t let that stop you from getting the help you need to overcome some of the harmful symptoms you are experiencing. Your desire to save your relationship should not stop you from getting help for yourself.
Gaslighting as Double Abuse®
Unfortunately, many victims of narcissistic gaslighters are often revictimized by ignorant first responders who intentionally or inadvertently collude with the abuser by coming into agreement with the false narrative they are communicating about the victim’s emotional instability or “insanity.” Countless victims who come to M3ND for help share stories about various types of first responders who responded to a story of classic covert abuse by telling the victim they are emotionally unstable. Rather than making the abuser accountable for their harmful behavior, the first responder recommends therapy to the victim who is shaking and crying, perhaps uncontrollably, (both well-known signs of trauma), as if the victim is the problem. Or, imagine the parent, friend, or in-law who says, “stop being so sensitive” or “maybe you misunderstood what really happened”, or “you’re always so dramatic”. Making the victim believe they are the crazy one, they are mentally unstable or they bear the burden of the destruction in their relationship are all forms of gaslighting. This is Double Abuse which exponentially exacerbates a victim’s trauma.
So, when someone comes to you and tells you they are recording their partner just to make sure they remember everything correctly, or because they feel like they are going crazy, you are seeing a major red flag telling you they are very likely a victim of gaslighting. The person before you is not crazy. They are giving you a sign that something far more dangerous is going on in their relationship, as well as giving you an opportunity to respond in a compassionate and helpful manner. Now more than ever, the victim needs you to be a source of support and validation. Tell them they are not crazy. Offer them some of the resources we are providing to help them become educated about what they are dealing with. Share some of the stories found on our website in which they will see that they are not alone. Finally, prepare yourself today in case a victim comes to you tomorrow: read our materials and learn how to respond by attending one of our trainings or visiting our website at https://themendproject.com.