Gaslighting refers to a psychological manipulation strategy that is used to influence, intimidate or gain power over someone. It can make the victim doubt their own thoughts, emotions and reality.
What Is Gaslighting?
It is a type of emotional and psychological abuse commonly observed in toxic relationships. The abusive person using the strategy attempts to covertly manipulate another individual or a group of people by making them question their own memories, judgment and sanity. The victim may seriously doubt their own perception of reality, experience high levels of anxiety, feel confused and may even have trouble trusting themselves. The gaslighter may use this tactic to implant seeds of doubt in the targeted victim(s) to acquire control and power over them. This form of manipulation is observed in a wide range of relationships, like parents and offspring, between siblings and even friends. However, the phenomenon is mostly seen in unhealthy romantic relationships and marriages where it can be extremely damaging.
According to a study 1, “The Gaslight Syndrome, a scenario in which one partner of a conjugal unit attempts to have the other labelled insane and institutionalized, is probably more prevalent than is commonly realized.” The study adds that it is found in sado-masochistic romantic & marital relationships that involve underlying sexual jealousy. This can drive the aggressive partner to try to gain power over the other partner or end the relationship by making them question their own sanity and reality. This can make the victim wonder if they are mentally ill or going crazy. This pattern of manipulation is also widely prevalent in the workplace and in professional relationships between managers and employees. According to one study 2 , emotional manipulation by employers or co-workers in a professional setting is regarded as whistle-blower gaslighting.
A 2018 study 3 explains that it is “a type of manipulation that attempts to spread self-doubt in individuals or communities, with the intention of making them rethink their own memory, insight and understanding.” The term gaslighting is derived from a popular 1938 play, which was later made into a 1944 movie, “Gaslight” where a wife is manipulated into believing that she is insane by her husband. The psychological manipulation tactic is commonly used by abusers, cult leaders, dictators and people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD 4 ).
The strategy is typically implemented in a covert, steady and gradual way to make sure the victim is not aware of this brainwashing technique. The objective is to slowly wear down the self-esteem and self-confidence of the victim so that they become pathologically dependent on the abuser for validation and support. Recent studies 5 also show that this psychological manipulation can even lead to cognitive dissonance and adversely affect the mental health of the victim. The gaslighter may use different tactics like disinformation, misdirection, lies, denial, exaggeration of the truth and contradiction to make the victim doubt their core beliefs and sanity. It is often considered as a type of narcissistic abuse 6 as it enables the narcissist to satisfy their constant need for narcissistic supply and affirmation. By making the victim their emotional slaves, the narcissist experiences an ego boost.
According to one 2017 study 7 , the abuser may use verbal and non-verbal behaviors to deliberately misalign their words and actions to make the victim feel confused and doubt their memories and judgment. The gaslighter may even lie pathologically, deny or even justify their abusive behavior & harassment by communicating in “a language of legitimacy.” The perpetrator will manipulate the victim’s perception of reality to not appear abusive or controlling. They may disguise insults and criticisms as jokes and inappropriate behavior may be presented as fair consequences. This can significantly damage the mindset and psyche of the abused individual and negatively affect their daily functioning, engagement, performance, productivity, morale, confidence and their sense of self.
Read More About Narcissism Here.
Sociology Of Gaslighting
Although some narcissists and gaslighters may not be conscious of their harmful behavior, most abusers are aware of the abusive conduct. They may be influenced by negative social norms or their overall community & culture to deliberately create an imbalance of power. One 2019 study 8 found that this phenomenon is “rooted in social inequalities,” such as gender inequality. The researchers claim that the gaslighter may use manipulation when they believe in gender-based stereotypes & structural vulnerabilities & inequalities in sexuality, race etc. “These tactics are gendered in that they rely on the association of femininity with irrationality,” adds the study. Research 9 also shows that gaslighting is associated with certain male behaviors in romantic relationships, marriages and extramarital affairs which influences their abusive attitudes & behaviors towards their spouses. It was found that husbands often have a contributing role to play in women’s distress.
Although this manipulation tactic is primarily perpetrated by men against women, researchers 10 believe that “the agent and patient of gaslighting can be mixed in any number of ways in terms of gender.” Hence, it can be carried out by men to women, men to men, women to men and women to women. Moreover, it can be seen in different relationships such as biological, romantic, professional or social. Gaslighting “is possible in many interpersonal contexts involving trust or authority,” add the researchers. The role of the abuser and the victim primarily depends on the nature of the relationship and other cultural & social factors. Studies 11 have found that even doctors and healthcare professionals may also gaslight their patients at times.
Signs Of Gaslighting
Victims often find it difficult to realize or understand that they are being manipulated by a gaslighter as their manipulation techniques are mostly covert and subtle. Moreover, as the victim is generally emotionally or psychologically dependent on the dominant and authoritative abuser, they may not doubt the gaslighter’s intentions or judgments. This is why it is essential that the victims learn to identify the following signs of gaslighting:
- Constantly doubt own memories, judgments and sanity
- Lack of self-confidence and poor self-esteem
- Persistently doubt themselves and feel confused
- Inability to make basic decisions
- Engage in self-blame, self-criticism & negative self-talk
- Inability to enjoy pleasurable activities or feel joy
- Believe they are highly sensitive and overreact
- Repeatedly apologize to the abuser without any clear reason
- Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, incompetence & worthlessness
- Isolation and social withdrawal
- Difficulty sleeping 12
- Defend their abuser against family and friends
- Issues with self-identity
- Experiencing high levels of anxiety and even depression 13
This form of psychological manipulation can also lead to trauma in the long run, especially when experienced with other forms of abuse.
Read More About Major Depressive Disorder ( Depression )Here.
A narcissistic individual or an abusive person can use this manipulation strategy in a number of ways. Often the abuse can involve verbal and emotional tactics, while at other times it can be used indirectly to influence the victim’s thought process and to make them second-guess their reality. Here are some of the most common forms of gaslighting:
This tactic involves the abuser questioning the authenticity of the victim’s memories. The gaslighter may invent new details about an event or deny the occurrence of events as the victim remembers them. The abuser may say “You can never remember anything accurately,” or “Are you sure it happened like that?”
During this technique, the narcissist may pretend that they forgot about a particular event or some specific details about it. They may completely deny the truth and make the victim question their memory. The narcissist may say “I never said anything like that?” or “What are you even talking about?”
The narcissistic person will refuse to listen, engage, respond or react to what the victim is trying to communicate. They may also pretend not to understand what the person being abused is trying to say. The gaslighter may say “You are not making any sense,” or “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Using diversion, the perpetrator of the manipulation may change a topic or discussion and divert the victim’s focus and attention from a topic. This form of gaslighting challenges the victim’s credibility by assuming that they have a certain idea from others or are being brainwashed by their family or friends. For instance, they may say “Your friends are filling your mind with rubbish,” or “Who is putting these crazy ideas in your head?”
The gaslighter makes the victim feel that their thoughts and emotions have no value by belittling them or claiming that the victim is highly sensitive and overreacting. This can make the victim think that their feelings are inaccurate, invalid and unimportant. The abuser may say “ Why are you overreacting?” or “You’re being too sensitive about it.”
Other common manipulation techniques used by gaslighters are pathological lying and stereotyping the victim’s gender, race, age or sexuality in order to manipulate and control them.
How To Deal With Gaslighting
If you can identify the signs and techniques of gaslighting in your relationship, then it is crucial that you take steps to overcome this psychological manipulation as it can negatively affect your mental health. Here are a few quick coping techniques to deal with the malicious behaviors & efforts of your gaslighter:
1. Gain a new perspective
Look at the situation from a different perspective as if you are an outsider. Shifting your perspective will help you realize if you’re being truly manipulated and gain better clarity.
2. Don’t buy their lies
Remember that you are not responsible for their abusive behavior. It’s never your fault that they are abusive despite how much they claim that you provoked them. Don’t believe their excuses.
3. Focus on the truth
Do not allow the abuser to bend, distort and define your reality regardless of how confident they may be or how much you may doubt yourself. Focus on remembering the truth instead of paying attention to their opinion.
4. Don’t defend them
Instead of sacrificing your needs and happiness to feed their ego. Focus on building your self-esteem. An abuser will never be happy or satisfied with their victim’s efforts as they simply want to gain control over their target.
5. Don’t use logic with the abuser
One of the core aspects of gaslighting is pathological lying. They will deny everything you say and falsify the facts to win an argument. However, refuse to accept their judgments and conclusions which are based on lies.
6. Walk away
In extreme cases, it may be best to simply walk away from the situation and leave the relationship as the most important thing is to protect yourself and your mental health. If threatened with physical harm or violence, speak to law enforcement authorities or your loved ones and move to a safer place.
Here are some other tips on coping with gaslighting:
- Talk openly with trusted family members and friends and seek validation & emotional support.
- Maintain a daily journal and write about the events, dates, time and mention the details.
- Document their abusive behavior by making videos, taking pictures or audio recordings to check & validate the facts.
- Create a safety plan so that you can leave safely when required
- Reach out to support groups or domestic violence hotlines
- Seek therapy and talk to a counselor as this can help you better care for your mental health
Gaslighting can be a devastating and seriously damaging manipulation tactic that makes you doubt your perceptions and question your sanity. This form of emotional abuse affects your social relationships and makes you emotionally reliant on your abuser. However, identifying the warning signs and being aware of the manipulation can help someone take the first steps to overcome this controlling and abusive behavior.
Once you have learned to manage the adverse effects of such emotional and psychological abuse, take steps to trust yourself and rebuild your sense of self. It may take some time and patience, but with determination and support of loved ones, victims of gaslighting can recover. In case, you find it difficult to cope with the psychological and emotional effects, then it may be necessary to seek medical help from a mental health professional. With therapy, you can make better decisions, build healthier relationships and live a happier life.
Take This Free Gaslighting Test
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