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How to catch a gaslighter

Written by Relationships

The term gaslighting has become a quotidian concept when we talk about manipulation and forms of emotional abuse.

For those who haven’t had direct experiences, it’s a term still shrouded in enigma. The transitive verb to gaslight, as per the Oxford English dictionary, is to manipulate a person by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity. 

The phrase derives from the 1944 film Gaslight dir. George Cukor, about a man who manipulates his wife into believing she is descending into insanity by making the lights dim and flicker in their home. While on the surface this could be seen as an arbitrary, innocuous act, to make somebody doubt their perception is to erode their trust in their own memory which can be a tool to deprive someone of autonomy and ultimately as a means of control. 

“While gaslighting is usually contextualised in romantic relationships, gaslighting can occur in various interpersonal relationships and is the intimation of a power-struggle dynamic.”

Image: Ayo Ogunseinde (unsplash)

Though the term has become mainstream, the extent of its’ emotional and psychological consequences isn’t universally recognised, perhaps because of the broadening of the term following its’ filmic coinage. While gaslighting is usually contextualised in romantic relationships, gaslighting can occur in various interpersonal relationships and is the intimation of a power-struggle dynamic. Adults can gaslight children, bosses can gaslight employees and politicians can gaslight the public. Often the most insidious forms of gaslighting will occur romantically because, unlike the previous examples, it is difficult to gauge a power imbalance where there is no socially circumscribed power dynamic.

Psychologist Robin Stern Ph.D. has identified some of the red flags and signs to look out for when you are being gaslit:

Second-guessing yourself

You might find yourself doubting your recount of how certain situations have occurred that have upset you if your partner has been dismissive, told small lies about the situation or outright denying that situations have ever occurred.

Feeling and/or being told “you’re too sensitive”

If your partner is invalidating your feelings as being too “sensitive”, this is often a glaring sign – This shifts the blame onto the victim for being sensitive to an action rather than the perpetrator taking accountability for the action that has upset their partner.

Feeling as though you can’t do anything right

Often when you express upset, a partner who is gaslighting you might flip the situation to make it seem like you are the one being malicious or ‘crazy’. 

Justifying behaviour and with-holding information from friends and family 

When your confidence in yourself and your reality has been eroded, you might find yourself withholding things from the people close to you because you know it will concern them. This, of course, isolates you from others that aren’t your partner.

Feeling that you used to be a very different person to who you are now

Being gaslit will heighten your emotions and can consequentially negatively alter your personality. Often when people are manipulating your perception, they’re also manipulating other people’s perception against you in order to maintain their version of events as absolute. 

“Like most things, the longer gaslighting occurs, the harder it is to heal emotionally.”

The defining trait of gaslighting and why it is so insidious is that it is so covert – If your reality and perception is dismissed frequently and gradually by somebody close to you, often somebody you have become co-dependent on, then it becomes very easy to dismiss your perceptions of emotional abuse as delusions. Like most things, the longer gaslighting occurs, the harder it is to heal emotionally. If you find yourself identifying with the tell-tale signs, it’s integral to work towards removing yourself from the dynamic and regaining control of your reality. 

For further information, Dr Robin Stern’s blog covers a lot of the strategies for overcoming and understanding gaslighting.

Last modified: 19th October 2020

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