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Understanding and Managing Gaslighting in Relationships

What to do when someone in your life makes you feel crazy.

Key points

  • Gaslighting is a form of emotionally abusive and manipulative behaviour. It may involve denying a person's emotional and physical reality.
  • Typical forms of gaslighting include denial, minimizing another person's experience, blaming, invalidating feelings, and questioning decisions.
  • To combat gaslighting, it is important to understand and name the specific problematic behaviours, enlist support, and be prepared to leave.
Photo by Renè Müller on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Renè Müller on Unsplash

Gaslighting is a term that comes up in my work with survivors of a range of relational traumas (i.e., traumas that have been inflicted within the bounds of some kind of interpersonal relationship). The term first entered the popular lexicon after the 1944 film Gaslight, where a husband convinces his wife that she is going crazy by subtly dimming their gas-fuelled lights each day, and telling her she is hallucinating.

The term is most often used within family or intimate-partner violence parlance, but I also see it occurring very often when adults describe emotional abuse they experienced during childhood, and sometimes when they describe the initial grooming behaviours of perpetrators of sexual or physical abuse. Occasionally, it can occur in workplaces or with certain enmeshed friendships.

At its most fundamental, gaslighting involves trivialising and dismissing the experiences of another, and projecting blame at them for voicing their experiences.

A Few Facts About Gaslighting

Gaslighting does not always involve someone telling you that you are crazy. This is an extreme form of the behaviour unlikely to occur at the initial stages.

The more typical forms of gaslighting involve denial (“I didn’t say that," “you don’t remember correctly”), minimising (“you always exaggerate things,” “it wasn’t as bad as that”), blame (“you need to lighten up,” “you are too sensitive”), rationalising (“I had to say that to set you straight”), invalidation (“you shouldn’t feel angry/scared about that”), and consistently questioning your decisions (“why are you friends with those people? They are losers”).

The key is — gaslighting is a pattern of behaviour, not a stand-alone event. Most, if not all of us, will have said something along the lines of the above during any close and long-standing relationship. This is normal. The two questions I like to ask any relational trauma survivors I work with are:

  1. Was this a consistent pattern of behaviour?
  2. Did you find yourself doubting your emotional or physical reality?

Gaslighting is often an unconscious behaviour on the part of the person engaging in it and will occur for a range of reasons. As a responsible psychologist who understands the complexities of human behaviour, I will not provide a neat, clickbait answer such as “people gaslight because they have low self-esteem.” Behaviour is complex.

The possible reasons that people might gaslight someone else include: because they don’t know any other way of relating, because they have low self-esteem and need to make other people feel worse about themselves, because they have overly high self-esteem and believe that only their experiences are valid, because it is in their best interests to deny the reality of what is occurring, as a strategy to isolate a victim, as a means of keeping someone in a relationship, as a way of validating their own experiences, because they cannot engage in perspective-taking, as a way of deflecting blame and shame, or as a way of protecting self-esteem.

Ways of Identifying Gaslighting

The majority of my clients who have experienced gaslighting, blame themselves for it. They can see it very clearly when in the therapy room but this is often after they have left the relationship and have had a number of hours of therapy, where we have typically focused on shoring up their self-esteem and boundaries. Remember that hindsight bias is 20/20 and that you cannot expect past-you to understand behaviours through the lens of the knowledge that present-you holds. Gaslighting is often subtle and is likely interspersed with times of love and validation, making it more difficult to notice.

When trying to identify gaslighting, if you are asking the question, you likely already have the answer. If you are in a healthy and good relationship, you will know that you feel happy and secure and won’t be questioning it. Some key signs may include:

  • Someone always questioning you, belittling you, laughing at you or telling you not to feel the way you are feeling.
  • Someone denying that events occurred, when you clearly recall them.
  • Always questioning yourself when in the company of a specific person.
  • Questioning your own reality and memory and feeling confused.
  • Questioning your social circles because of what someone else has said about the people in your life.
  • Starting to experience anxiety and low self-esteem.
  • Noticing that someone is trying to isolate you or encouraging you to cut people out of your life.

If in doubt, I always recommend writing down some specific examples of difficult behaviours you have noticed and workshopping this with a therapist.

Ways of Managing Gaslighting

Managing gaslighting is difficult. Like any form of abusive behaviour, it can sometimes be unhelpful to address it as it may escalate the risk of harm in a relationship. Some general principles of managing this behaviour include:

Identifying the behaviour and collecting evidence. The first step to managing any behaviour is identifying the behaviour and naming specific examples of it. Writing down things that have been said and done can be very helpful, especially if the gaslighting involves telling you that you have perceived or recalled things incorrectly.

Naming the behaviour if it is safe to do so. Sometimes, naming a behaviour is very unsafe. If there is any risk of physical harm at all, I would strongly urge you to skip this step and the next. If in doubt, it is helpful to talk to a trained psychologist (ideally one with forensic expertise) to try and assess risk. If it is safe to do so, then addressing the behaviour with the person may be helpful (e.g., “I have noticed that you often laugh at me and tell me I am being too sensitive when I say that your jokes about race are not funny, I don’t think this is appropriate”). You may or may not choose to use the word gaslighting.

Ensuring that the person engaging in the behaviour is accountable and seeks support. If you decide that it is safe to confront the person and name the behaviour and ask for change, then I want you to remember the number one forensic psychology edict: Past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour.

People will continue in behavioural patterns unless a strong force (such as good therapy) acts on them to change behaviour. Enlist support, including an appropriately qualified therapist for both yourself and the person engaging in the behaviour, set some timelines and specific markers of change, and be prepared to ...

Leaving. Be prepared to leave if Step 3 doesn’t work, and especially if you have ascertained that the risk of pointing out the behaviour is too high (please seek support from a family violence organisation around safety planning before leaving if this is the case), or if you have simply had enough of the behaviour. This is a valid choice — your happiness and sense of safety come first.