In a 1944 movie called Gaslight, a husband tries to convince his wife that she is insane. He makes strange noises and small changes to their home, and he insists she’s imagining things when she asks about them. The name of the film comes from the gas-powered lights in their house that he slowly dims over several days. When she asks what’s wrong with the lights, he pretends nothing has changed, and something must be wrong with her.
The name of this movie is where the term “gaslighting” comes from. The film is a powerful metaphor for what happens in relationships where this type of abuse is used. Gaslighting leaves its victims feeling confused, trapped, powerless, and unable to clearly see what’s right in front of them.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that’s used to control people. It can be used in any kind of relationship. Romantic partnerships, parent/child relationships, friends, religious groups, and even political leaders have all used this technique. It’s so profoundly damaging that it’s been compared to torture.
An abuser seeks to confuse and undermine their victim, slowly making them dependent on their abuser for approval and protection. It can be very hard to recognize because the experience itself is so disorienting. Even if the victim realizes that something is very wrong in the relationship, they often feel so demoralized and worthless that they blame themselves for the problems.
By its nature, gaslighting leaves victims doubting themselves and feeling painfully insufficient. This can make it hard for them to get the help they deserve, because they don’t trust themselves or believe they have worth. They often feel embarrassed or weak because they can’t cope with what’s happening.
But it’s important to remember that people who use gaslighting are extremely skilled at manipulation. They have an intense drive to maintain control in a relationship, and they are adept at finding what will hurt someone. You do not have to be weak to be affected by gaslighting; in fact, they do it because they want to weaken you.
How Gaslighting Works
As Psycom explains, abusers use a carefully orchestrated campaign to undermine their victim’s sense of self, confidence, and ability to think clearly. They will lie to their victim, tell them they’re wrong about how they remember events, accuse them of doing things they haven’t, mock their feelings, and convince them that no one likes them.
Gaslighters do not respect boundaries, and when they are confronted with their actions they usually escalate their abuse. People generally use these tactics simply because they want to exert control over someone else. It’s also possible that they were raised by someone who was also a gaslighter. They learned these techniques in order to survive and believe that relationships are supposed to work this way.
How Can You Tell If Someone Is Gaslighting You? Here Are Five Signs To Look For.
By nature, experiencing gaslighting is confusing. The abuser works hard to keep you questioning yourself and to undermine your confidence. According to Psychology Today, here are five signs that what you’re going through is gaslighting.
- Lies. The abuser may start with little “white” lies. But even seemingly unimportant lies lay the groundwork for more dishonesty. Over time, they escalate into larger, more meaningful untruths. They want you to feel unsure about what’s real and what isn’t.
- They use what you love to hurt you. They may tell you that the promotion you received is silly, or mock you for the things you’re passionate about. They recognize the roles you play that are most important to you, and they undermine you in those areas — telling you that you’re a bad parent, for instance. If you’re feeling good about yourself, they will point out a flaw (real or imagined) to make you feel insecure.
- They are relentlessly critical, but with confusing moments of praise. When you live with a constant stream of negative comments about your looks, intelligence, successes, and personality, an unexpected moment of praise gives you a powerful jolt of pleasure. This leaves you increasingly anxious to earn their rare moments of approval.
- They are confusing. It doesn’t have to be about something big; abusers know that keeping you confused makes it harder for you to realize how much you’re being manipulated. They might get rid of something you bought and insist you never brought it home. Or they tell you that something you both saw happened in an entirely different way. They might hide something important to you, then laugh when you get upset that you can’t find it. If you make a mutual decision about something, they may later insist that they never agreed to it.
- They turn others against you. They are very good at manipulation, and they will convince others to take their side against you. They will also lie to you and tell you that the people you love secretly hate you or laugh at you behind their back. The goal is to eliminate other sources of support in your life, so you only have their confusing worldview to depend on.
What Can You do About It?
If you’re struggling to make sense of a relationship in which you’re being gaslighted, it’s vital to look at what the other person is doing, instead of what they say. They are very good at playing with your emotions, but if you can ignore their words and pay attention to their actions, you can usually start to see the destructive patterns.
All abuse has a negative effect on how people think and feel, but the mental impact of gaslighting is profound. To help you escape the abuse and live the life you deserve, it’s important to have support. Individual psychotherapy can help you work through the confusion you may be experiencing and heal the damage that’s been done. If we can help you understand and recover from gaslighting or any other kind of abuse, please contact us.