Gaslighting is something that can damage a relationship beyond repair. It occurs when one person in a relationship says or does something that causes their partner to question their memories, thoughts, or events that occurred. It’s abusive and in its most extreme forms, causes the gaslighted victim to question their understanding of reality, what and who to trust and even their sanity.
The term gaslighting comes from a play that was turned into a movie called “Gaslight.” In the movie, the husband manipulates his wife to convince her she is going crazy. The character’s actions are intentional, but not all gaslighting needs to be. In fact, for most who gaslight it is a subconscious, passive aggressive behaviour designed to keep that person in control.
Some people who practice gaslighting do not intend to do psychological damage, but they also aren’t aware or knowledgeable on how communicate or interact in a healthy manner. According to Stephanie A. Sarkis, Ph.D., “Even if a person is practicing gaslighting behavior without being consciously aware of it, they may get a ‘payoff’ when their victim becomes more dependent on them. And then the cycle continues.”
Sarkis explains that the gaslighter gets a “boost” when nobody holds them accountable for their behavior.
But even if gaslighting is not intentional, it is not acceptable. It’s pathological and solely the responsibility of the person doing it.
How Do You Know You are a Victim of Gaslighting?
Relationships that involve gaslighting often start great. In retrospect, you might realize your partner confided in you early, tried to establish trust quickly, and maybe even “love bombed” you. But these tactics might not raise any red flags until you’re well into the relationship.
Gaslighting usually starts slowly. The person will lie about simple things, like how they feel versus how you observe them behaving but, over time, it grows and will happen more and more. You might be accused of lying by your partner. They’ll also deploy occasional positive reinforcement to keep you feeling confused and unsettled, while simultaneously mistreating you.
As the target of someone who is gaslighting, you’ll experience a range of thoughts and emotions. Some of the most common include:
- Feeling different than you used to – just not yourself
- Experiencing anxiety
- Suffering a decrease in confidence
- Wondering if you are too sensitive, or too demanding
- Feeling as if everything you say or do is wrong
- Thinking it’s your fault when things do go wrong
- Sensing something is wrong, but not knowing for sure what it is
- Feeling as if you need to apologize all of the time
- Wondering if you’re being too unreasonable
- Feeling as if you need to make excuses for your partner
- Feeling like there is a growing power imbalance in your relationship.
- Feeling isolated from your friends and family
- Struggling to make decisions even if you didn’t have problems in the past with decision-making
- Feeling hopeless and/or depressed
When you are in the midst of a relationship with someone who gaslights you, it can be difficult to spot what they’re doing. Gaslighting is manipulative and many victims are left wondering why they feel like they do when their partner isn’t actually doing anything obviously wrong, such as cheating or hurting them physically.
But gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. Examples of gaslighting include:
- Minimizing your emotions and feelings or telling you not to feel sorry for yourself
- Calling into question your trust in other people, often by telling you that friends and family are talking behind your back about you
- Hiding things from you and acting as if you’ve lost them
- Insisting on your physical whereabouts inaccurately, including denying the two of you did something together
These are more obvious ways to gaslight someone. There are also more subtle ways. One of the most common types of gaslighting occurs when someone says something and later denies saying it or does not say something but insists they did. This creates a difficult situation in which it’s your word against theirs and there is no easy way to clear up the situation.
Is Gaslighting the Same as a Personality Disorder?
A personality disorder is not the same as gaslighting, but many people with PDs practice gaslighting in their relationships.
People with PDs such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, or an Authoritarian Personality have an insatiable need to control others. If you are in a relationship with someone with a PD, chances are good you’ve experienced gaslighting at one time or another. And if your significant other frequently gaslights you, there is a chance they may have a PD.
What Should You Do If You are Being Gaslighted?
If you’re in a relationship that involves gaslighting, it is possible to get help. The best thing you can do is speak to a therapist or other trained professional. This allows you to discuss your doubts and get a grip on what’s really happening.
As a victim of gaslighting, you’ve been systematically fed false information that has led you to question what you know to be true, including about yourself. Developing a professional relationship with someone who will give you objective information to help you recover your honest experience is the pathway back.
Once you know where you stand and what’s going on, a therapist can help you develop strategies to manage your doubts and anxiety. You’ll gain coping skills that will help you feel better about your situation and be better prepared for when gaslighting occurs.