How to Deal with Gaslighting?
Suppose there’s a person in your life who wants to convince you that you have some sort of psychological disorder. In contrast, other people don’t notice anything strange in how you behave. In that case, chances are you’re being gaslighted.
It’s completely normal that other people can misunderstand your intentions and motivations from time to time. Still, a gaslighter is more likely to do this on purpose, perhaps attempting to extract some sort of gain by making you doubt yourself and your own ability. A gaslighter might exaggerate other people’s mistakes by using labels to demean others and shake their self-confidence. Join us as we move on to explain the most essential aspects of gaslighting and how you can deal with it.
What is Gaslighting?
This is basically when somebody convinces you that you are “crazy” or that there’s something wrong with you. Gaslighting may indeed have a worryingly close link with abuse. However, there are no standard definitions of gaslighting – the term is a colloquialism originating from a British drama piece called Gas Light (1938). This play showcased the type of behaviour associated with gaslighting – dismissing a victim’s perspective as invalid or pathological; isolating the victim from other sources of information; manipulating evidence and the environment to change the victim’s perceptions.
Often, there seems to be a motive or a set of reasons behind gaslighting. When gaslighting happens in an intimate relationship, this might be a desire to achieve control over the partner. In the workplace, gaslighters may be trying to convince others that they are working too little and that they must work even harder. Some gaslighters seek financial gain, which is also known as economic abuse. Others may simply use gaslighting as a way to support and feed narcissistic tendencies by making themselves ‘bigger’ than others. This is done ultimately to conceal their own insecurity and fears of worthlessness.
Whatever the circumstances, being at the receiving end of gaslighting can be a very distressing experience.
How does Gaslighting work?
There are many ways gaslighting can take place:
- Questioning the validity of the victim’s memories – this weakens the victim’s self-confidence and could pave the way for further gaslighting; your friend constantly trying to convince you that you two didn’t make a particular agreement with them, for instance.
- “Diagnosing” the victim – gaslighters tend to demean their victims by labelling them as “crazy” or “ill”. This is often the case with economic abuse – where a gaslighter attempts to gain control over someone’s financial sources with the pretext that the other person cannot make sound decisions.
- Convincing other people that there’s something wrong with the victim. For example, a family member who very often points out your passive-aggressiveness as a way to ‘win’ an argument.
- Isolating the victim from other perspectives (e.g., always accompanying the victim; not allowing independent relationships with others). This might be a rather extreme version of gaslighting, and the gaslighter in this situation likely controls many or all aspects of the victim’s life. A rather tragic example of this would be Charles Manson and his cult-like group.
- Planting false evidence, distorting past events, and getting rid of actual evidence (e.g., accusing the victim of theft). In the play Gas Light, the husband dimmed the gas lights, made them flicker, and then convinced his wife that she imagined it all and that the gas lights in their apartment were fine.
There’s also a possibility that gaslighting might happen unintentionally. Some people may engage in what could be seen as gaslighting behaviour, without really aiming for wrongdoings and without a genuine intention to gaslight. Essentially this would be unconscious gaslighting. Nevertheless, other people can still be hurt by unconscious gaslighting. Some adolescents, for instance, have very protective parents who may unconsciously believe that their child is simply not ready to be more independent. This can be very stressful and frustrating to adolescents, thwarting their needs for autonomy and self-expression.
Can Gaslighting be Positive?
This isn’t really possible as, by definition, gaslighting involves attempts to control that are often in the service of some kind of gain to the disadvantage of the victim.
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Gaslighting and other Psychological Concepts
Gaslighting and Narcissism
There seems to be a strong link between gaslighting and narcissism. A person with narcissistic tendencies might engage in hostile or demeaning behaviours towards others in a way that fosters their ego and defends them from experiencing shame and embarrassment. Indeed, gaslighting as a type of controlling behaviour is one of the main symptoms of narcissism .
Can Gaslighting Cause Psychosis?
In a way, it can, which usually takes on the form of folie a deux – sometimes referred to as psychosis. This is when a person who has a mental disorder exerts such pressure upon another that they also start experiencing psychological distress. Something like this may happen in some sects and cults with powerful and influential leaders.
Can Gaslighting Cause PTSD?
PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) often arises from experiencing or witnessing highly traumatic events. While gaslighting can be quite stressful and even traumatic, it is unlikely to cause PTSD on its own. However, emotional abuse lead to many psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, stress, etc. . Moreover, when emotional abuse, coupled with gaslighting, is extreme, you may be exposed to traumatic events that can potentially trigger PTSD.
Nonetheless, gaslighting theoretically could result in you being led to believe that you have PTSD (or other mental health issues) without this being really true.
How to Recognise a Gaslighter?
Keep in mind that this is just a typical gaslighter and that some won’t exhibit all or even most of these behaviours:
- Refuses to back away when faced with solid arguments – it’s as if you’re talking to a stonewall. No matter how logical or convincing your ideas are, the gaslighter will continue convincing you that there’s something wrong with you and them.
- Lying about past statements – they often sound like untrustworthy politicians – refusing to admit they’ve uttered false promises in the past even if this may seem obvious.
- Trying to decide things for you because of your alleged lack of ability.
- Generalisation – it’s one tiny mistake from your side that’s enough for a gaslighter to start; even though you sometimes make mistakes like everyone else, a gaslighter might make you feel like this very often or always happens to you by focusing on isolated events.
More generally, a gaslighter is likely to show these kinds of signs:
- A tendency towards controlling behaviours
- Lack of empathy
What is Gaslighting in a Relationship?
Gaslighting usually happens in a relatively closer relationship between two (or more) people. It’s rare for gaslighting to occur outside such relationships. For instance, you cannot be gaslighted by a random acquaintance if you’re not really affected by what this person thinks about you. On the other hand, you are much more likely to be gaslighted by your partner because what your partner makes of you is likely to be very important to you.
In the play Gas Light, the wife became more and more anxious as she was becoming convinced that there was something wrong with her; she was hurt by her husband’s reproaches but was also inclined to believe him, as he was after all her husband. In the end, she started to experience psychological issues, but not the ones her husband wanted her to believe. In conclusion, gaslighting in a relationship and, more generally, emotional abuse can drastically impact the victims’ lives.
What’s it like to be Gaslighted?
You’re on the receiving end of gaslighting, you likely feel often distressed and frustrated. When you start believing that there’s something wrong with you, you may become more anxious and afraid about your future. You may also experience a reduction in self-confidence, depression, and chronic stress. This is why it’s essential to consider some of the ways you can deal with gaslighting:
How to Deal with Gaslighting?
If you think that someone is gaslighting you, here are a few things you can do to start dealing with it:
- Terminate the discussion – if you see that the debate is going nowhere and that your arguments are constantly tossed aside, feel free to simply end the conversation. Continuing it may have the potential to make you feel more agitated and hurt. It’s important to prioritise your wellbeing over attempting to argue with a gaslighter. Try calmly breaking up the conversation with something like: “I am sorry, but I don’t feel like this conversation is going anywhere useful, and I am out of it”.
- Get an objective opinion – as we’ve mentioned, gaslighters may try to exert control by isolating you from other sources of information. Seeking more diverse, honest opinions from your friends, family, or a professional may be a good way to deal with it. If the gaslighter instils doubts that there’s something wrong with you or that you may even have a mental health issue, don’t just accept it as true: do your research, ask other people who know you if they’ve noticed anything unusual about you and contact a professional if doubts are still there.
- Communicate your feelings openly and straightforwardly – as we’ve seen, gaslighting is sometimes unintentional, so it’s important to be clear about the way you feel. If gaslighting continues, this is a sign that you might have to re-think the whole relationship. If things get tough in a conversation, give the person a second chance by saying something like, “What I am hearing from you is making me feel hurt. I need to ask you to tone it down if you want this conversation to continue”.
- Make a list of your skills and good traits – gaslighting may lead you to doubt yourself, lowering your self-esteem and even making you feel worthless. Therefore you should keep your positive characteristics in mind, perhaps with the help of a journal where you write the things that make you proud of yourself, the good things you’ve done, and the skills you are equipped with.
- Reframe the other for what they are – if you’ve been a victim of gaslighting, chances are the abuse you have received has much more to do with the abuser than with you. Keep in mind that gaslighters might put you down precisely because of the good things you did and the value you really have.
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Gaslighting can be a very insidious way to affect others deliberately or unconsciously. You should be careful not to let others “diagnose” you or make you believe that you have some sort of psychological problem. Psychiatrists and psychologists with years of training still make less drastic conclusions than most gaslighters. Finally, many victims of gaslighting feel anxious, depressed and betrayed. Fortunately, there are ways to deal with gaslighting, one of them being psychotherapy.
If you feel that you’re being gaslighted and want to talk about it, you can contact us for a free 15-minute consultation.
Howard, V. (2022). (Gas) lighting Their Way to Coercion and Violation in Narcissistic Abuse: An Autoethnographic Exploration. Journal of Autoethnography, 3(1), 84-102.
Shapero, B. G., Black, S. K., Liu, R. T., Klugman, J., Bender, R. E., Abramson, L. Y., & Alloy, L. B. (2014). Stressful life events and depression symptoms: the effect of childhood emotional abuse on stress reactivity. Journal of clinical psychology, 70(3), 209–223. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22011