Therapy Blog

Seeing Through Gaslighting: A Reality Check

Posted on Tuesday, July 9th, 2024 by Cristina Vrech

The Origins of Gaslighting

The origins of the term “gaslighting” trace back to the 1938 play ‘Gas Light’ and its subsequent film adaptation. In this psychological thriller, a husband attempts to drive his wife insane by subtly dimming the gas-powered lights in their home and then denying any change when she notices. This insidious tactic, aimed at making her doubt her perceptions and sanity, highlights a form of emotional abuse that undermines another’s trust in their feelings and instincts, increasing their dependence on the abuser.

Culturally, the concept of gaslighting has since evolved from its theatrical roots to become a widely recognised term in psychology. Psychologists and counsellors have adopted this term to describe similar patterns of emotional abuse seen in ‘Gas Light’ to those they observed in real-life relationships. Gaslighting, now understood as a deliberate strategy to destabilise and control, involves:

  • Making subtle changes in the environment.
  • Invalidating other’s experiences.
  • Sowing doubt about their perceptions and memories.

This method of psychological manipulation leaves you feeling neurotic, hypersensitive, and disconnected from your sense of truth.

Woman Sad Lonely Sits on Windowsill

What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a manipulative tactic used to gain power and control, often in abusive relationships. It involves creating a false narrative that makes a partner question their judgments, perceptions, and sanity. Over time, this persistent doubt erodes the partner’s confidence and self-esteem, increasing their dependence on the abuser. Motivations for gaslighting vary but often include a desire for emotional, physical, or financial control.

Common phrases used in gaslighting include: “Calm down,” “You’re overreacting,” “You’re making things up,” and “That never happened.”

Gaslighting undermines a person’s perception of reality, leading individuals to second-guess their memories and feelings. They may feel dazed and believe they are overly sensitive or at fault. This confusion fosters dependency on the abuser, who seeks to achieve dominance and control.

Gaslighting in Relationships

Gaslighting can occur in both personal and professional relationships, targeting those experiencing the gaslighting at their core and affecting their sense of identity and self-worth. Initially, a relationship with a gaslighter may seem perfect, with the abuser offering excessive praise and quickly confiding in you, a tactic known as love bombing. This rapid establishment of trust makes you more susceptible to manipulation. Gaslighting usually unfolds gradually; early behaviours might appear harmless, but over time, the patterns of abuse lead to increasing confusion, anxiety, isolation, and depression. Consequently, a gaslit partner may lose their grasp on reality and become increasingly dependent on the abuser to define what is real, making it extremely challenging to break free from the toxic relationship.

Parental Gaslighting: Impacting Future Relationships

Gaslighting can also be found in controlling friendships and among family members. In the context of parenting, gaslighting involves toxic manipulation tactics such as distorting facts, denying a child’s experiences, or playing the victim. Whether intentional or accidental, this manipulation can negatively impact a child, leaving them feeling confused, invalidated, and emotionally unstable. Parents who gaslight intentionally manipulate their child’s perception of reality to maintain control or avoid responsibility. At the same time, unintentional gaslighting may arise from a lack of awareness or understanding of the child’s feelings and experiences.

This form of abuse undermines children’s perceptions of their feelings, thoughts, and actions, causing long-term effects like low self-esteem, self-doubt, anxiety or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adulthood. Gaslighting can lead children to distrust themselves and others as they mature. This distrust can make it difficult for them to form healthy relationships in adulthood.

Little boy sits along on tree in the sunset

Loss of Identity and Mental Health

Gaslighting not only inflicts emotional abuse but also undermines our fundamental sense of self. In our quest for ontological security, the belief that we know ourselves and can recognise our stable boundaries is paramount. Gaslighting disrupts this self-knowledge, leaving us disoriented and unbalanced. Being consistently told that you’re wrong, confused, or “crazy” can devastate your mental health, causing isolation and powerlessness.

Gaslighting can be especially devastating for individuals with ontological insecurities, as it exacerbates the profound instability about one’s existence and identity. The constant manipulation and denial of reality undermine self-knowledge, disrupting a person’s core understanding of themselves and leading to intense disorientation, fragmentation, and existential distress.

This erosion of ontological security makes it difficult to trust oneself and others. Recognising and addressing the ontological issues exacerbated by gaslighting is vital. Therapy can be particularly beneficial in this process, supporting individuals in rebuilding their sense of self and reclaiming their reality.

Gaslighting can impair your ability to function at school, work, or socially, leading to a profound loss of personal identity. Gaslit individuals may feel like a shadow of their former selves, numb or hollow, and may start to believe they are mentally unstable due to the constant questioning and derision from the abuser. The anxiety and worry induced by gaslighting drain your energy, leaving little room for self-care or pursuing interests. Ultimately, gaslighting robs individuals of their essence, leaving them struggling to reclaim their sense of self amidst the turmoil.

Recognising Gaslighting

Gaslighting Behaviours:

  • Lying and Distortion: Habitually lying and distorting facts, even when confronted with evidence.
  • Discrediting: Spreading rumours to portray others as emotionally unstable or unreliable.
  • Distracting: Evading accountability by changing the subject or deflecting questions.
  • Minimising Feelings: Belittling emotions and dismissing concerns as overreactions.
  • Invalidating Experiences: Refusing to acknowledge others’ thoughts or feelings, causing isolation.
  • Shifting Blame: Twisting conversations to blame others for their actions.
  • Denying Wrongdoing: Denying responsibility for actions, leaving others feeling powerless.
  • Using Kindness as Manipulation: Using compassionate words to manipulate and avoid accountability.
  • Rewriting History: Distorting past events to favour their narrative, causing doubt in others’ memories and perceptions.

Gaslighting can Cause Feelings of:

  • Constant Self-Doubt: Frequently second-guessing your thoughts and actions.
  • Questioning Sensitivity: Wondering if you’re overly sensitive or emotional.
  • Confusion and Doubt: Often feeling confused and questioning your sanity.
  • Excessive Apologising: Apologising excessively, even when not at fault.
  • Inexplicable Unhappiness: Struggling to understand why you’re unhappy despite having good things in your life.
  • Making Excuses for Partner: Frequently making excuses for the gaslighter’s behaviour.
  • Withholding Information: Hiding information from friends and family to avoid explaining the gaslighter’s actions.
  • Inability to Express Concerns: Sensing something is wrong but struggling to articulate it.
  • Resorting to Lying: Lying to avoid confrontations or put-downs from the gaslighter.
  • Difficulty Making Decisions: Finding decisions challenging due to fear of mistakes.
  • Loss of Former Self: Feeling like you used to be more confident.
  • Feelings of Hopelessness: Feeling hopeless and joyless, unable to see a way out.
  • Sense of Inadequacy: Constantly feeling like you can’t do anything right.
  • Doubts About Relationship: Questioning your worth and adequacy as a partner.

Overcoming Gaslighting

Gaslighting can be emotionally draining and challenging to navigate, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself. First, gaining some distance from the situation can provide clarity and relief. Try practising relaxation exercises like deep breathing or grounding exercises to help manage intense emotions. Additionally, saving evidence of your experiences, such as keeping a journal or preserving text conversations, can remind you of your reality when doubts arise. Setting boundaries is crucial, as is communicating that trivialising or denying your experiences is unacceptable.

Person helps another person traverse over a gap between ridges on a mountain.

Seeking an outside perspective from a trusted friend, family member, or therapist can offer valuable support. Ultimately, if the gaslighting persists despite your efforts, ending the relationship may be necessary to prioritise your well-being and put an end to the abuse. Whether you continue in the relationship or not, counselling can offer a safe space to regain power and control. It allows you to explore and process painful emotions and establish healthier boundaries.

Gaslighting is a damaging form of emotional abuse. It manipulates others into doubting their perceptions and sanity, eroding confidence and increasing dependence on the abuser. Recognising gaslighting behaviours is crucial for overcoming its effects. Identifying these signs and seeking support can help those who have experienced gaslighting regain their sense of self, improve their mental health and break free from the cycle of abuse.

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