Once you understand and can recognize the warning signs and negative effects of gaslighting, you can easily disentangle yourself from it, right?
Not usually. While increased awareness is necessary to address gaslighting, it is not sufficient. It can take a large amount of effort to change the dynamics of gaslighting relationships, and it is very difficult to do this alone. Because of this, gaslightees commonly feel alone and helpless to change their situation. However, it is possible to free yourself from gaslighting to live a full, meaningful life with healthy relationships. While each person’s journey is different, there are three steps of recovery that can help you empower yourself and reclaim your life.
Step I: Get a Reality Check
There is an old saying in psychology: “What you monitor, you manage.” In order to change a gaslighting dynamic, you have to first know it is happening. But this awareness can be a huge challenge, as gaslightees have been trained over time to blame themselves and distrust their own judgment and experiences. In other words, these individuals may begin gaslighting themselves. This further obscures reality for the person, as they are not only used to being invalidated by others, but also by themselves.
Gaslightees often need a reality check, and one of the best ways to get one is to ask for a third party perspective. Remember, though, that one of the warning signs of gaslighting is that the gaslightee hides or lies about the gaslighter’s behavior. When this occurs it makes it impossible to get the needed reality check to see what is happening in the relationship. Thus, the first step to addressing gaslighting for many clients is to identify a safe and non-threatening third party, and to disclose information about the relationship to them.
This third party may be a friend or family member but if this is not possible, or you are not comfortable with this, consider seeing a psychologist. The benefit of seeing a psychologist in this situation is that they cannot, by law, share any personal information about you with others. Also, psychologists are extensively trained to help clients manage unhealthy relationships, as well as the negative outcomes of those relationships (such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD). It is frequently the case that when gaslightees have the opportunity to talk about their relationship with a neutral third party, they become better at recognizing instances of gaslighting. Moreover, once clients open up to a therapist about their experiences with gaslighting, it becomes more likely that they will seek out other supportive and healthy individuals with whom they can share their experiences.
Once an individual becomes skilled at identifying examples of gaslighting, they can begin to recognize the impact these events have on their health, emotions, thoughts, and behavior. A structured way to do this is to log every gaslighting occasion. Along with a description of the event or statement, clients note how they reacted to it when it took place, including how they felt, thoughts they experienced, and resulting behaviors. Examples of reactions may include, “I felt depressed,” “I cancelled the dinner with my friends,” “I told myself that I am worthless,” “I felt sick to my stomach,” etc.
When people are able to recognize not only when gaslighting takes place, but also the impact it has, they greatly increase self-awareness and begin to reconnect with themselves. Additionally, acknowledging the harmful effects of gaslighting can motivate individuals to want to take action against the gaslighting occurring in their lives.
Step II: Begin to Take Back Your Power
Once you are able to recognize gaslighting, it is time to explore your role in this dynamic and make some changes. Acknowledging your role does not mean you are to blame for the gaslighting, or that anyone ever deserves gaslighting. Rather, understanding your role implies that you possess power in the relationship, and that you may be able to shift your relationship dynamics. For most people, what happens is that they unwittingly become involved with someone prone to gaslighting (due to upbringing, values, socialization, etc.). When the gaslighting begins, the person does not recognize it, and unknowingly reacts to it in ways that reinforce it. For instance, they may try to defend themselves when called “crazy” or “too sensitive,” etc. The mission becomes to convince the gaslighter that their feelings are valid, with real emotions and experiences. These reactions to gaslighting are completely normal, as they are very similar to other interaction patterns in relationships in which one partner is challenged and feels a desire to defend a stance. However, in the context of gaslighting these reactions can actually reinforce the bad behavior, as it sends the gaslighter the message that it is okay to challenge one’s reality or try to force another person to stop feeling something. When you experience gaslighting and continue to engage with the gaslighter, your participation “fuels the fire.” So how do you stop reinforcing gaslighting?
First, define (in your own mind) the objective of serious conversations before you start them. You likely already know the topics or types of statements that will prompt the person to gaslight you, and you may find yourself avoiding these subjects for fear of being gaslighted. The next time you feel a need to bring up one of those topics, pause for a moment and set an intention for the conversation. What is the objective, or main goal, of this discussion? Objectives may include:
- Validation of my feelings
- Reassurance that I am valued
- An understanding that a behavior is harmful to me and needs to stop
- Agreement to take some sort of action
Every conversation has an objective, and it can be useful to clarify what your own objective is at the outset. With gaslighting, it often happens that the objective quickly shifts away from productive goals to control and manipulation. This is precisely what needs to be avoided. Defining your objective allows you to mentally revisit the objective as you engage in the conversation, to make sure the discussion has not been derailed.
Second, if you find that a discussion that began with the objective, “Come to an agreement regarding where we should live” has devolved into an argument with the objective, “Make me agree that I am too sensitive,” it is time to:
- Reassert the original objective (“I want us to focus on where we are going to live…”).
- Label the phenomenon (“This is gaslighting…”), and if that does not work...
- Disengage (“My feelings are not up for debate, so I am done with this conversation…”).
When you first try this new way of interacting it may prompt the other person to gaslight even more, in the hopes of pulling you back into the conversation that they want to have. Expect to hear things such as, “You’re just like your mother!” or “See how childish you are?” These statements are designed to make you reengage and defend. But remember, the engagement fuels the gaslighting. No matter how difficult it is to distance in that moment, stand your ground. Identifying the gaslighting and disengaging from it are the main tools you possess that can shift this unhealthy dynamic, so refuse to continue the conversation until the objective can be mutually defined as something productive.
Step III: Get Out (If You Need To)
Not all gaslighting relationships need to end. It is sometimes the case that gaslighting is a learned behavior that, like other behaviors, can be reshaped and extinguished with some work. Some partners who gaslight will be horrified to learn about what they are doing and will genuinely want to stop. Others may be more resistant but ultimately willing to shift how they interact with others. Sometimes couple or family therapy can help restore relationships. However, if your attempts to stop gaslighting fail, and there seems to be no hope to change this dynamic, you may consider leaving the relationship altogether. If this sounds like you, there are some things you should expect.
First, expect that leaving will be difficult. While some people find is easy to walk away, that is not the norm with gaslighting relationships. In part, this is because individuals who have suffered long-term gaslighting tend to underestimate their own abilities and suffer from low self-esteem and self-efficacy. Also, gaslighting relationships can be intense and co-dependent, making disengagement extremely difficult.
Second, expect that you will try to leave several times before succeeding. Most relationships that contain abuse (whether physical or emotional) are exceptionally difficult to end, and it may take 5-10 attempts before a partner is able to truly break free. Thus, if you know you need to leave but feel bad that you keep going back, take heart. This is part of the process. Keep focused on your goal, recognize the barriers to leaving (emotional, financial, or otherwise), and seek support from friends, family, or a mental health professional.
Finally, expect that life will get better once you do break free. Believe this is not only possible, but probable. A common fear that long-term gaslightees express is that no one else will love them if they leave the relationship, or that they will not be able to make it without the other person. It is tempting to believe these frightening thoughts without examination, but it is important to recognize that these thoughts can imprison you and, if taken too seriously, can make it even more difficult to leave. When you have these kinds of self-limiting, “spam thoughts,” be very suspicious of their truthfulness, just as you are suspicious of spam emails (you know, the ones in all caps yelling at you to send money to a Nigerian king). You may not be able to prevent the “spam thoughts” from appearing, but you can make sure they do not dictate your actions!
This article was originally posted at Psychology Today on January 6, 2017.