Is your partner lying to you, criticizing, and denying facts to the point that you are questioning your sanity? Do you feel like you are being brainwashed? You may be falling victim to a form of psychological abuse called ‘gaslighting.’ Find out if your partner manipulates you and how to stop gaslighting in a relationship.
What is gaslighting in a relationship?
The term ‘gaslighting’ is used to describe the behavior that one person uses over another to gain power and control. It originates from a 1940’s film called ‘Gaslight’ that depicts a husband slowly undermining his wife’s reality. One of the subtle ways he does this is by completely denying things happening in the house, such as the flickering of the gas lights. He aims to steal her fortune, and he goes about it by lying and confusing her until she can no longer trust her judgment.
It is all about control. Gaslighting is not exclusive to a romantic relationship; it can happen between family members, friends, and colleagues. The more time you spend with a gaslighter, the easier it is for them to carry out the manipulation because it is something that they do over a long period. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, but unlike other types of it, it can be incredibly subtle and can take the victim a long time to realize that it’s even happening.
Gaslighters prey on their victims’ good nature, taking advantage of their desire to please them and using it as a way to gain control over them. They take the love and trust offered and twist it for their gain, leaving their partner hurt and confused.
Being gaslighted is a harrowing experience because it makes the person on the receiving end question their very sanity. A gaslighter will lie, cheat, and blame the other person, continually sowing seeds of doubt in their mind so that they no longer know what to believe. One of the most common signs of gaslighting is that the abuser distorts facts, memories, and events to invalidate their victim’s experience. Eventually, when their partner can’t trust themselves anymore, they bow to the decisions of the gaslighter – and that is what they want.
In the best-case scenario, gaslighting affects power dynamics in a relationship. However, at its worst pathological form, it can result in severe mind-control and psychological abuse.Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, but unlike other types of it, it can be incredibly subtle. Click To Tweet
Why do people gaslight?
In my experience as a hypnotherapist, the majority of victims of gaslighting have been women. Perhaps this is because men are less likely to come forward and ask for help or admit that this is happening to them.
Whether male or female, the person inflicting the emotional abuse is generally a narcissist or someone with little empathy, who may need constant reassurance that they are in control, they usually come across as arrogant and self-centered. Power and control are at the root of this type of behavior, and the gaslighter will go to any lengths to get it. Ultimately, the aim is to make the person believe that none of their memories are reliable, destroying their trust in themselves and turning them dependent and pliable.
It is important to mention that gaslighters are also likely to be insecure with low self-esteem and fragile egos. They find it very difficult to accept criticism and are easily humiliated, so they may use gaslighting to protect themselves.
The gaslighter may have been exposed to this type of emotional abuse as they were growing up. If they were victims of their parents’ gaslighting, they would have learned to replicate their behavior and may not even be aware that they are carrying out this gaslighting abuse. Alternatively, they may have picked it up from a previous relationship and realized that it helped them get their way.
Most common gaslighting examples
So, how exactly is gaslighting different from other types of emotional abuse? To start with, it can be more subtle with the emphasis being on making you feel doubt and confusion. The gaslighter will gradually undermine your confidence and sense of self. For example, they may completely deny doing or saying something, making you feel like you are going crazy. They might invalidate your feelings and emotions, tell you that you are too sensitive, or always take things the wrong way.
Another common gaslighting tactic is called ‘splitting’ where the gaslighter will discredit you to others, leaving you humiliated and hurt.
Paradoxically, the more you try to defend yourself, and the more you argue with the gaslighter, the more unreasonable you sound, which gives the gaslighter even more ammunition to fire at you.
Here are the most common phrases you can hear from a gaslighter:
- I am worried about your mental health
- Why are you shouting (raising your voice)?
- You know you have a bad memory
- If you ever bothered to listen
- You’re overreacting
- You can’t take a joke
- You are the only person I have problems with
- Stop taking things so personally
- You are being irrational
- Your family don’t understand you
- You don’t know how to communicate
- You’re making that up; it didn’t happen
- I only criticize you because I love you
Am I being gaslighted?
More and more clients are coming to me suffering from self-doubt, low self-esteem, a lack of confidence, and even suicidal thoughts. Upon further investigation, a gaslighting relationship is often at the root of the problem. Frequently, the client will start blaming themselves, explaining that they are too sensitive, or that their behavior is unreasonable. They may not even realize that what the other person is doing is abusive, or that their relationship is toxic. One of the main reasons these clients come to see me is because they want to ‘save’ their relationship. These thoughts and feelings are usually profoundly embedded, and it can take several sessions to change their perception, re-establish their self-worth, and help them realize that they deserve to be treated with more respect.
Gaslighting is a gradual process; manipulation and mind control can be drip-fed over a long time. You’ve probably heard the story of a frog being placed in a pan of boiling water and jumping straight out. But if that same frog was placed in cold water, and the heat was turned up gradually, the frog would eventually boil. It doesn’t register the incremental increase in the temperature. The same applies to the victim of gaslighting; the effect is so gradual that even the most self-aware person can get slowly sucked in without realizing what is going on. It can happen to anyone, not just the gullible or naive.
To make it harder to detect, victims of gaslighting rarely speak out about what’s going on because they feel embarrassed or confused, and they may even try to protect the gaslighter. Unfortunately, by not talking about emotional abuse, they don’t get the opportunity to see things from a different perspective and never see the bigger picture. They are so entrenched in the details that they fail to see the destructive patterns that keep recurring. As you can imagine, that’s precisely how the gaslighter wants it.Gaslighting is a gradual process; manipulation and mind control can be drip-fed over a long time. Click To Tweet
Does this sound familiar?
Gaslighting can take many forms and can occur in varying levels of intensity. However, at its worst, it can lead to the victim feeling completely isolated and helpless.
Here is a snapshot of how a client of mine described her experience with a gaslighter:
I feel like I’m going mad! What’s wrong with me? No wonder he’s always telling me that I contribute nothing to the relationship, I’m not good at anything. The problem is, I’ve got a terrible memory, so I always have to agree with his version of things even though I don’t see things the same way. He says I blow things out of proportion and take things too seriously. When he’s horrible to me, it’s just banter, but sometimes it doesn’t feel right. When I try to tell him how I feel, he always manages to manipulate what I say and turn things around, so I’ve stopped trying. I usually just say sorry even when I’m not sure what I’ve done.
He’s got high standards, so he’s only critical because he loves me and wants me to be a better person. I don’t mind that so much when we’re on our own because I get it, but I hate it when he does it in front of other people. He thinks it’s funny, but it’s humiliating. I sometimes wonder why he’s actually with me. If he believes all the things he says about me, he can’t like me very much.
I can’t talk to anyone about it, though, because they’ll think badly of him, and I know he loves me deep down. I just don’t feel like me anymore. I used to be out-going, but I seem to have lost all my confidence. Why am I even here? What is the point of me being here?
I hear these things regularly. The victims of abuse are usually depressed with little self-esteem, and they don’t know where to turn for help. They typically blame themselves a lot and, in many cases, spend a lot of time defending the gaslighter.
How to stop gaslighting
It is nearly always the victim of gaslighting that seeks help, usually when they have hit rock bottom and feel that their mental health is suffering. I have never had the perpetrator of the abuse come to me for help, and this is probably because they either don’t recognize the problem or believe that the other person is at fault.
It is unlikely that you will change the behavior of a gaslighter while they feel that they are benefiting from their manipulation. If you want to stop gaslighting, the best solution is to start working on yourself.
Gaslighting victims suffer from low self-esteem, low confidence, and minimal self-worth. They find it difficult to make decisions and often try explaining how everything is their fault.
Here are some simple techniques that can help you deal with gaslighting:
- Keep a diary and look out for patterns in their behavior
- Develop a support system and talk to people you trust to get a different point of view
- Try to remain as calm as possible and don’t engage in arguments or become defensive
- Make statements like, ‘I don’t remember it that way’ or ‘we seem to see things differently’
- Trust your gut
- Remember that the gaslighting isn’t really about you, it’s about the other person’s need for control
If these techniques don’t work, or if the gaslighter isn’t willing to change, it may be necessary to leave the relationship altogether. However, this may be easier said than done, as your partner is likely to increase their controlling behavior at this point. They won’t want to relinquish their control and will fight hard to keep it.
The best approach is to keep explanations to a minimum and simply state your intention clearly. Don’t be drawn into long conversations believing that you can get them to take any responsibility or acknowledge their part in the problem; you will find yourself back at square one.
Once the relationship has ended, don’t be tempted to go back or communicate with the gaslighter in any way as they know all the right buttons to press, and they will soon be back to their old, manipulative techniques.It is unlikely that you will change the behavior of a gaslighter while they feel that they are benefiting from their manipulation. Click To Tweet
Can a gaslighter change?
For many reasons, a gaslighter is unlikely to change without some sort of intervention. Firstly, they might not even be aware that they are abusive – if they have picked up the behavior in childhood, they probably don’t know any different. Secondly, they often don’t want to change because they use these techniques to get what they want. If this is working, why would they risk changing and not getting their way?
People who use gaslighting are usually self-centered narcissists with little empathy for others. Gaslighters think that they are always right and are unlikely to seek help because they genuinely believe that the other person is wrong (sometimes even thinking they are helping the other person!). However, deep down, they are very insecure and will do anything to hide this from people.
It would take something quite drastic for a gaslighter to want change, but if they did recognize their abusive behavior, and wanted to do something about it, it is possible. In that case, a specialist’s intervention would be needed, such as couples therapy, counseling, or hypnotherapy.
Being in any type of relationship where gaslighting is present is extremely stressful. You might wonder why anyone would stay in a toxic situation. The answer may be that gaslighters can also be incredibly charming and engaging in different ways. Life can become a roller coaster of emotions, leaving the victim, not knowing if they are coming or going. It’s important to say that people who use gaslighting are not necessarily bad. They may have grown up in an environment where gaslighting was used, and it may seem normal to them.
If you feel like you may be the victim of gaslighting or any other emotional abuse, please talk to someone about it and get help. I’ve seen too many people suffer in silence and end up depressed, anxious, or even suicidal. Don’t be afraid to make the first step as there is a way out.