There was a time when I did not know what “Gaslighting” was. It was just a strange-sounding word I heard now and again that I didn’t fully understand. But over time and particularly in recent years, gaslighting has become a term used regularly and, far too often, incorrectly. It seems that when someone disagrees with another’s version of a story, which can happen, that person is accused of gaslighting. Or if someone doesn’t remember another person saying something they said, they are accused of gaslighting. Or, even if one doesn’t agree with what another is proposing, they are accused of gaslighting. This overuse – and usually the misuse – of the term gaslighting causes desensitization to a very harmful and destructive form of psychological abuse. Instead of responding seriously, the one hearing the word may simply roll their eyes and ignore the one making the claim. This happens at the expense of victims who are experiencing the real thing.
The reality is that the person who has regularly been gaslit within their relationship by their partner experiences significant harm. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person, group of people or an organization repeatedly targets an individual to make them question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. The person who is the target of gaslighting often feels confused or anxious and stops trusting their own perceptions. Through gaslighting, the abuser (who is often a narcissist, but not always) systematically replaces the victim’s reality with a false reality eventually shutting the victim down. Typically, gaslighting happens slowly over time and through a repeating pattern of diverse gaslighting techniques, such as countering, withholding, belittling or minimizing, denial, or diverting.
What do these terms mean? Countering is when the abuser does the opposite of what they promised or when they refuse to cooperate with the victim’s reasonable request. Over time and after the abuser continually challenges (or counters) the victim, the victim begins to question their own reality and perspective and whether they are worthy of having their needs and desires met. Eventually the victim is so worn down that they unknowingly adopt the abuser’s reality over their own. Withholding is a tactic that happens in various ways, but typically occurs when the abuser refuses to engage in conversation with the victim. They can do this by pretending not to understand them so they don’t need to respond. Or they shut the conversation down completely by telling the victim they have no idea what they are talking about and refuse to engage with them. Withholding also happens in the form of stonewalling or giving the silent treatment to shut down communication and intimacy. Belittling, or minimization or trivializing, is a tactic used to make light of or to wholly disregard the victim’s feelings, desires, complaints, or concerns. The abuser often accuses their partner of being too sensitive or overreacting when the victim is expressing valid concerns and feelings. Denial happens when the abuser pretends to forget they made a promise or commitment or that an event took place. Rather than take responsibility or choose to engage in authentic communication, the abuser denies knowledge of the event, or accuses others of making things up all the while depriving the victim of the opportunity to address any conflict. Usually, the abuser is so convincing that eventually the victim turns inward and questions their own mental well-being, wondering how they could have gotten things so wrong. Finally, diverting happens when the person changes the focus of the discussion always avoiding to engage or connect regarding the topic the victim is trying to address. Or the abuser diverts the communication by questioning the victim’s credibility and believability putting the victim’s focus on the defending themself instead of on the topic they raised in the first place.
In whatever form it occurs, 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.
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 (or yourself) to make sure you heard it right, it is likely 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 spouse, 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 on these issues will provide clarity and strength to you. Importantly, please join our team at the end of March 2022 when The M3ND Project hosts a special training geared towards victims/survivors and those who want to advocate for other victims. In this 7-week course offered virtually, participants will learn how to identify covert emotional abuse and gain deeper understanding about the ways it impacts our relationships, health and well-being. Registration is opening soon. Don’t miss it by signing up to at the following link to find out more: https://themendproject.com/i-want-to-help-someone-being-abused/gain-tools-to-respond-to-abuse/
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.
The Effects of Gaslighting in Narcissistic Victim Syndrome. By Christine Louis de Canonville, B.A. (Hons) Theology & Psychology, MIACP, MSIACP, CMH, CHyp, MPNLP: https://narcissisticbehavior.net/the-effects-of-gaslighting-in-narcissistic-victim-syndrome/
What is Gaslighting: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/gaslighting
National Domestic Violence Hotline: What is Gaslighting: https://www.thehotline.org/resources/what-is-gaslighting/
Stories of Healing: https://themendproject.com/am-i-the-victim-of-emotional-abuse/#storiesofhealing