One of the great things about having easy access to so much information right at your fingertips is that it can shine a bright light on certain forms of covert and abusive relationship issues that were not previously well-known or discussed in our society. A newer “buzz” word that seems to be talked about a lot these days is gaslighting. What exactly is gaslighting and how does it affect the victim? More importantly, how do you know when you’re caught in the proverbial spider web and what, if anything, can you do to free yourself?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological warfare that causes the victim to question their own judgment and reality. It is an extreme and very specialized form of brainwashing. And, gaslighting commonly goes hand in hand with narcissism, which is yet another form of psychological abuse- has its own sliding scale, and depending on the severity, it may even be associated with certain types of personality disorders. But that’s a can of worms for another time. For now, let’s dive into gaslighting.
Make no mistake, when used in a consistent and pervasive manner, gaslighting is a form of masterful manipulation and abuse and it is crippling for the victim. For example, say you have befriended someone and you find yourself on the phone with this person and they are telling you how depressed they feel, how they can’t sleep, and how terrible everything in their life is. They bring up their past experience with attempted suicide. Naturally, the context of all of this leaves you feeling frightened, helpless, and unsure of what to say or do. Suddenly, they abruptly tell you that they have to go because they have something they need to do. You try to text them, but they don’t respond. You call, but they don’t respond. You leave a voice message, but again, they don’t respond. Hours later, after you have worked yourself up to the point of being physically sick with worry, they text you and tell you that they had to go because they needed to get a birthday gift for a friend. When you express how they steered your perception and how upset you are, they act as though you overreacted, are too sensitive, or treat you like you’re crazy and imagined the whole thing.
Or, say you are dating a man who has a history of lying and twisting things so that you always feel like the crazy one or the one in the wrong. He feels like you are slipping away from him so he begins to insist that you must be cheating on him. There is no truth to it and you tell him so, but he continues to accuse you of cheating and questions everything you do. He even goes so far as to set up cameras, without your knowledge, so he can “catch” you in the act. After weeks of this behavior, he gains enough evidence to realize that you are not cheating and never were. Instead of apologizing or showing remorse, and doing all he can to make it right, he behaves as though you somehow brought all of this on yourself, that you made him feel like he had to resort to such extreme measures. Clearly, It’s not his fault, it’s yours.
As a final example, imagine that you are having a conversation with someone and they are telling you a story. You listen intently. The following day, the story comes up again in conversation but this time, the details are different. You question it and immediately the other person goes on the defensive. They tell you that you weren’t listening to them, that you’re trying to make it seem that they are dishonest and then they tell you how hurt they are that you don’t trust them. They go on and on about it and you can feel yourself shrinking, second-guessing yourself, and you find yourself apologizing over and over again for not believing or trusting in them. And, so it goes. The lies and manipulation get worse and worse and you become less and less of who you once were before this person entered your life.
In the end, you are left feeling like nothing you do is ever good enough, you’re always wrong, and you always seem to be apologizing for something. As the victim, you no longer feel like yourself, you’ve lost confidence, and typically feel confused, anxious, and/or unable to trust yourself. You might even wonder if you are too sensitive and blame yourself.
According to Preston Ni, a writer for Psychology Today, there are 7 core traits to the insidious practice of gaslighting.
- Exaggeration and blatant lies
- Repetition of abuse
- Escalates when challenged
- Wear you out, going around and around
- Forms Codependent relationships
- Gives false hope
- Dominates and controls
Ultimately when you challenge them (which you will, especially in the beginning), they will refute the evidence (no matter how concrete), deny, blame, misdirect, create confusion and doubt, and manipulate you into submission. They want complete power over you mentally and emotionally so that you feel like you need them for acceptance, approval, respect, safety, and security. You will be full of fear, vulnerable, and marginalized so that they can exploit you at will for their own power and personal gain. If you do receive some small kindness or a glimpse of remorse, it will be fleeting, fake, and superficial- its only purpose is to keep you dancing on the puppet strings.
By now, you might be wondering what, if anything, can you do to get out? In order to start the process of freeing yourself, it is necessary to recognize that you are in the gaslighting spider web in the first place. Once you do, talk to someone you trust about what you are going through, compile some examples, do your research, write things down, and then seek help from a therapist. Make a plan and take steps to get out of the relationship as soon as you can by lining up someplace to live, finding a job, or setting money aside whenever possible, so that you can rebuild your life. It will not be easy, but it can be done. Don’t give up and remember, you are not alone.