The term “gaslighting” owes its origins to a play and the 1944 film based on it called Gaslight, in which a man manipulates his wife into believing she has gone insane. Gaslighting refers to various forms of psychological manipulation which can lead the person on the receiving end to question their memory, judgment, and sense of what is real. If someone is on the receiving end of gaslighting for some time, it can be damaging to their self-esteem and extremely disempowering, leaving them open to controlling and abusive behaviours.
The impact of gaslighting behaviours cannot be overestimated. It is a form of emotional abuse which goes straight to our core beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.
Here are five tactics people use to gaslight:
- They lie. Gaslighting relies on the abuser’s ability to tell blatant lies. They will lie about things that happened, things you said, and things they did. If you’re not like this yourself, it’s very easy, at least initially, become confused when someone confronts you with a lie. You may question your own version of events. Even if you know their version is wrong, you may worry about causing conflict by confronting them and choose to ignore their lie. Gaslighters are masters of repetition. Let them off with lying once or twice and they’ll keep on to the point where they’ve repeated their version of things so often that if you tried to challenge it they would point out that you accepted it the week before.
- They use your insecurities against you. When we’re in a close relationship, we soon find out what our partner’s insecurities are. When this is a loving relationship, we are there to support our partner and help them deal with their insecurities, helping them feel better about those parts of themselves which they have been brave enough to reveal to us. Gasllighters use these insecurities as ammunition against their partners. If you have revealed that you have trust issues, instead of reassuring you when they are going out, the gaslighter will use your trust issues as a way to tell you that you’re overreacting because “you have a problem” when they come home inebriated at 5 am.
- They challenge your interpretation of past events. When something happens in the present, it’s fairly reasonable to bring up past events to suggest that your partner is displaying a particular behavioural pattern. For instance, if you catch your partner having a drunken kiss on a night out, and it’s not the first time, you may well bring up the fact that this has happened before. Confronted in this way, the gaslighter will tell you that your version of what happened in the past is wrong. They will use all kinds of “evidence” to support their argument, such as the fact that you forgave them – so it wasn’t that bad, was it? They might remind you that you were going through a difficult patch at the time and your judgment was skewed. They may tell you that you’re prone to over-exaggeration because of your nature and criticise you for the fact that “you’re always bringing up stuff from the past” – making you feel that the mere fact of doing so is unacceptable.
- When challenged, they turn the challenge back to you. When you do challenge a gaslighter – which may be hard to do if they react in an extreme way to being challenged – they’ll turn the challenge back on you. Instead of an adult discussion, accusing a gaslighter of unreasonable behaviour turns into a game of tit-for-tat. You tell them they’re aggressive, they point out that you’re the one getting at them. Point out that they don’t listen and they’ll point out that you’re always moaning. Tell them you’re unhappy and they’ll point out that you make yourself unhappy. It’s almost impossible to win an argument with a gaslighter and, however unreasonable they’ve been, they’ll make you feel like you have a problem.
- They accuse you of being over-emotional. It’s frustrating, demoralising, and destructive to be on the receiving end of gaslighting. No wonder you start crying or becoming angry during discussions in which you’re trying to state your case. There’s nothing a gaslighter loves more than an interaction during which they look calm and aloof and in control. In your emotional state, they can point out that you’re too riled to understand what really happened, that your judgment is skewed and that you have over-reacted. They can also use it as a chance to comfort you, which is a great opportunity to dismiss the discussion altogether and for them to look like the reassuring adult in the relationship.
Gaslighters use these tactics and others to undermine your sense of what is real. This powerful tool leaves them wide open to controlling you, through silencing and disparaging you and removing you as an empowered person in the relationship. If you are in a relationship with a gaslighter, it is important to seek help and put into place the behaviours you need to in order to exit.
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