How to Recognise Gaslighting Behaviour and What You Can Do About It
By Dr Becky Spelman
The term “gaslighting” originally comes from a theatre play, later developed as a movie, in which a husband gradually convinces his wife that her own memory and perceptions are faulty, even causing her to doubt her own sanity, so as to cover up a crime that he has committed.
In psychology, the term “gaslighting” has been used since the 1960s to describe an individual’s persistent efforts to cause someone else to doubt their own memory and sanity, with the cause of destabilizing them and making their beliefs appear not to be legitimate. The term is often occasionally used to describe the actions of corrupt or propaganda-driven governments or politicians seeking to confuse the public for the purpose of concealing their own actions or statements.
What Exactly is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting behaviour is an unusual one in psychology and doesn’t seem to fit any logical analogy or etymology. And today, it’s used to describe a covert type of behaviour – of psychological manipulation – in which one or more people attempt to influence another individual or group for their own gain. It’s a tactic that’s most commonly associated with narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths and other manipulative types.
Gaslighting is often found in abusive relationships. The abusive individual will typically deny having said or done something so persistently, and with such conviction, that their partner will start to doubt themselves. They may even move on to trying to convince them that they themselves have said or done something they have no memory of. The gaslighting may start when they attempt to cover up something, such as an affair, and gradually extend to every aspect of their relationship.
Gaslighting is frequently employed by psychopaths, who find it easy to overlook the social norms about lying and exploitation, and are often very good at denying ever having engaged in wrongdoing. In the context of the family, it can occur among partners, and even among parents and children, where one family member insists that things did not happen as others remember, with such conviction that they start to doubt themselves.
Once someone starts to doubt their own capacity to remember things correctly, and even begins to doubt their sanity, they become incrementally more dependent on the person who is abusing them, who can then take further advantage of their lowered self-esteem to manipulate them even more easily. As their self-esteem becomes lower and lower, they will typically start to accept worse treatment, as they perceive themselves as being less deserving of love, care, and respect.
While both women and men can be involved in gaslighting as both perpetrators and victims, when someone is in a situation of financial or physical dependence on the other, they are particularly vulnerable, as they may have few options to leave the relationship at an early stage, before things escalate. For this reason, historically more women have tended to be victims of gaslighting on the part of their significant others.
Unless the cycle is broken, victims of gaslighting are very vulnerable to developing psychological disorders, up to and including serious depression. In the worst cases, the crisis can even culminate in suicide, as they feel that they have no way out of a situation that has become unbearable.
What is actually happening in a gaslighting scenario is that the antagonist is trying to undermine your confidence in an attempt to gain more power or control over you. The way this works is by getting you to question your reality through a series of denials and barbed comments. This isn’t the same as more immediate type of emotional abuse and is played out over the long-term. Anyone is susceptible to this form of manipulation. If someone is extremely skilled, they can plant seeds of doubt that are so subtle that it can appear like they’re worried about the state of your wellbeing, when in fact, you’re actually being subtly controlled.
Although gaslighting is itself a form of manipulation, there are actually many tactics that an abuser will employ as part of their repertoire. If you’ve ever found you’ve in abusive or dysfunctional relationships whether it be with your partner(s) or family members, there is a highly likelihood that you may recognise some of these traits in your own experiences. Here are some of the most common:
Projecting Their Own Faults onto You
This is the gaslighter’s classic technique. It’s a way of deflecting attention away from themselves, which has a twist or irony about it. Projection involves assigning all the worst characteristics or the abuser to you and can be done with such conviction, because the gaslighter is speaking from a position of first-hand experience. They know how to make their stories convince other’s even if you know they’re not true. In the end, you have to spend much time and energy defending yourself you become blind to their other behaviours.
They’ll Use Confusion to Wear You Down (And Throw You Off Their Scent)
The main goal of the gaslighter is to make you question everything you know about yourself. We all need a sense of stability to perform at our optimum levels and maintain our mental health. By questioning you, they pass themselves off as the concerned friend or lover that is only looking out for you, pulling you more into their grasp. They may say something quite cutting but then quickly follow up with positive reinforcement creating a push and pull effect.
They Manoeuvre People Against
Gaslighter’s are masters of playing other people off against one another. They have a keen sense of who will back them up no matter what the cost and also who’s opinion you happen to value the most. They use this knowledge to set up what is known as ‘triangulation.’ They’ll bring a third party in their conversations with you who’s had no interaction on the subject you’re discussing. And this person will be used as a means to undermine by insinuating they secretly disagree with you.
They Will Isolate You from Friends and Family
As an extension of the triangulation technique, as well as positioning people against you in the imaginary sense, they will also reverse this tactic. They’ll insist that people are lying to you and that can’t be trusted. They’ll install themselves at the apex your support network – the one and only. They’ll convince you that they’re the only person you can trust. However, this is only so you’ll willingly turn to the gaslighter to hear the truth and giving more of your power away in the process.
Common Gaslighting Phrases
The following are phrases that you’ll likely hear a gaslighter use of not in this exact phrasing then certainly in some other variation.
It’s You That’s the Problem Not Me (“I Think You Have Issues”)
In this instance, the gaslighter or narcissist will try to deflect all of the focus back on you. This is the form of projection we talked about earlier. They’ll try and convince you that it’s you that’s the gaslighter and narcissist – not them.
You’re Overreacting (Or, I Think You’re Just Too Sensitive)
This phrase is perhaps one of the most damaging, because deep down we don’t want to feel like we’re creating unnecessary drama. It causes extreme self-doubt that allows you to enable the emotional abuse you’re experience by dropping your boundaries even further.
Why Can’t You Just Let It Go?
This phrase relates to the state of confusion the gaslighter will try and create within you. They may be abusive towards you and then turn up the next day acting as if nothing has happened. Then when you try and bring up the incident, they dismiss it out of hand.
I Never Said That (You’re Imaging Things)
People who’ve been victims of long-term gaslighting behaviour will often find themselves questioning their sanity. Although in an isolated incident, this may be easy to brush off, after repeatedly being told you’re wrong, it can cause you to doubt even the smallest of things.
How to Avoid Gaslighting?
Being aware of these tactics is the first step. But the truth is if you’re trying to play a gaslighter at their own game, you’ve already lost. They’re master manipulators and the best course of action in many instances – if the abuse is severe enough – is to put as much distance as you can between yourself and your abuser. However, in cases where this isn’t possible such as in work of close family situations, you need to become unshakeable in the belief of who you are as a person. Trust your own intuition and internal guidance. And don’t allow the suspected gaslighter to think you believe what they’re saying. Don’t over commit or invest yourself. But don’t blank them either, as this may be viewed as a sign of weakness. When they say something negative, just say, ‘ok.’ And change the subject. If you make this a consistent response, they’ll soon see that they can’t manipulate you and move on. Give the gaslighter as little as possible to work with.
About the author:
Dr Becky Spelman is a leading UK Psychologist who’s had great success helping her clients manage and overcome a multitude of mental illnesses.
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