How to tell if you are being gaslit

Image by AliceKeyStudio from Pixabay

A couple of years ago and no one had heard of the term gaslighting, and to be honest until extremely recently, I still wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, other than it wasn’t nice.  Gaslighting has become a new buzzword to represent being manipulated which can be destressing, dangerous and could destroy lives.

In an article in Platinum magazine Ronia Fraser explains that the term came from the 1944 movie Gaslight where the husband in the relationship manipulates the wife’s reality and isolate her until she becomes more and more confused to the point she feels she’s going insane. He makes subtle changes to her environment, such as dimming the gaslights, while having her believe the changes in light are all in her head.

Gaslighting can be very subtle in the beginning but is a highly effective way of manipulating and inflicting psychological torture.  It’s a form of emotional and mental abuse where the abuse distorts and undermines the victim’s reality to the point they think they’re losing their mind.  Everything the victim remembers appears to be untrue, leading to severe confusion and self-doubt. 

Once the victim has been destabilised it can be easy for the abuser to erode their boundaries and even identity to a point where they are no longer have a sense of themselves too.  In turn the victim then relies totally and exclusively on the abuser’s validation of reality for their self-wroth and happiness. 

Abusers can use mind-altering drugs or alcohol to take advantage of blurry memories.  Gaslighting is often found in abusive romantic relationships but can occur in dysfunctional family dynamics, friendships and even in the workplace.  It can be connected to narcissistic abuse.

It can have severe adverse effects on the victim’s mental health and quality and perception of life.  It can cause anxiety, depression. PTSD and self-harm and worse case even suicide. Many victims spend years in toxic relationships without even realising they are being abused it happens so gradually.  It can be easy to explain away someone else’s unacceptable behaviour especially when we’re told it’s all in our mind.  So, it’s important to recognise the red flags so we can identify it in others.

According to Fraser’s research 33% of women were called crazy or insane by their romantic partner, seven out of ten psychologically abused women showed symptoms of PTSD and/or depression. Of course, it doesn’t just happen to women.

Common manipulation tactics include:

  • Projecting and shifting blame – whatever a gaslighter is or does, they will project those behaviours and characteristics onto their victim. Shame, guild, insecurities. They may call you a liar, cheater, abuser, narcissist, selfish or other things when its’ them. The moment you confront them about it they will turn it back on you.
  • Creating a false narrative – the abuser will always twist the story in their favour regardless of what has really happened.  They literally rewrite history by introducing alternative facts. Not only will they create a false narrative for their victim but will also spread it around them.  So, when the victim reaches breaking point and starts speaking up, no one will believe them.
  • Making empty promises – narcissists tell their victims exactly what they want to hear, creating the illusion of having found their soulmate, promising unconditional love and living together happily ever after.  Moving in together, getting married, going on holidays, never cheat again. None of it is actually true but will keep the victim stuck and chasing a dream that will never come true.
  • Denying things they said or did – this one is incredibly frustrating. You could swear on your life that they said or did something, but they’re adamant it never happened.
  • Calling your crazy – this is the epitome of gaslighting.  Once the victim mentions something along the lines of “I think I’m going crazy” the abuser will not hesitate to validate this narrative and push it going forward.  As a result, the victim starts to believe it and acts accordingly, which in turns makes it very easy for other people to believe it too. And so, the “crazy women” very quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, what can be done about it?  There’s no magic pill or knight in shining armour.

  • Listen to your gut – if something feels work, it usually is.  Deep down you already know, even if you can’t yet rationalise it, you can trust yourself.
  • Write things down – if you doubt yourself and your recollection of events, start writing it down as they happen. It will highlight the reality distortions and allow you to start trusting yourself again.
  • Connect with others – isolating victims from friends and family is one of the most common abuse tactics.  Having external reference points is really important to expose the manipulation and see the reality.
  • Get out – there’s no way to outsmart a gaslighter or beating them at their own game.  Don’t retaliate or engage.  Their manipulation tactics are systematic and calculated. The only way tot deal with that is to get out as fast as you can. 
  • Get help – damage caused by emotional abuse is deep and complex.  Even if you are used to fixing things yourself it’s ok to ask for help from a qualified professional.
  • Self-care – an absolute must to the recovery from abuse.  You might need to learn to develop self-acceptance and self-love.

Having read the signs and symptoms, I can say that I don’t think I’ve ever been in that situation myself.  My ex did used to make me feel slightly inferior and what he was allowed to do, I wasn’t, but I don’t think he ever got as bad as trying to manipulate me.  Luckily, I woke up to that relationship and that helped me be stronger in the next one.  And luckily this one isn’t anything like it.

Its useful to be aware of these things though as it could help us identify someone who may be being gaslit and not realise it.


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