Bringing Gaslighting to Light, Part IV

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:

  1. Reassert the original objective (“I want us to focus on where we are going to live…”).
  2. Label the phenomenon (“This is gaslighting…”), and if that does not work...
  3. 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.

10 Signs of Gaslighting, Part III

My last post ("Bringing Gaslighting to Light, Part II") discussed why gaslighters gaslight, and the contextual factors that can lead to gaslighting. In this post, the focus shifts to the gaslightees.

Gaslighting is defined as a form of manipulation (on the mild end), emotional abuse, or even psychological warfare (on the extreme end) that results in the slow dismantling of a gaslightee’s self-trust. What makes someone vulnerable to experiencing gaslighting, and what are the warning signs of gaslighting?

Three main needs that set the stage for gaslighting. In no particular order, these include:

  • Our need to be liked.
  • Our need to be loved.
  • Our need to be understood.

These needs are part of being human, and are hardwired into most of us. The bright side of these needs is that they motivate us to form close and loving connections with other human beings, which is healthy. The dark side is that these needs, when combined with certain tendencies, make people vulnerable to gaslighting. Among these tendencies are: 

  • Self-doubting tendencies.
  • People-pleasing tendencies.
  • Conflict-avoidant tendencies.

Do any of these sound like you? If so, you may need to pay attention to the possible presence of gaslighting in your relationships. Gaslighting is more likely to occur when people enter into relationships that contain a substantial situational or relational power differential, such as when one person is especially vulnerable due to losing a job, or suffers “fear of abandonment” issues due to a previous loss or trauma. Keep in mind that it is not the need to be loved, liked, or understood that is the problem; it’s the combination of these needs with specific tendencies and habits that makes individuals susceptible to gaslighting.

Here are the 10 signs to watch for that might indicate you are being gaslighted:

  1. You feel pulled by the other person to constantly blame yourself when things go wrong in the relationship, while the other person assumes no responsibility.
  2. You frequently second-guess yourself and question whether your perceptions of a situation are accurate. Over time, you may even question your sanity.
  3. You conclude that you are “just too sensitive” and should “get over it” when something about the other person bothers or hurts you.
  4. You hide your partner’s behavior from friends and family (or lie about it), because you know something is wrong, but you are not sure what exactly it is.
  5. You begin to withdraw from close friends or family.
  6. You find it increasingly difficult to make decisions because you think you can't do anything right.
  7. You notice your self-esteem plummeting, and you start to feel depressed and self-critical. You may even feel worthless and undeserving of love.
  8. Your memory seems hazy and you have difficulty remembering what happened during conflicts with the other person.
  9. Conflicts with the other person are almost never productive. They usually result in the other person playing the victim, even if they have behaved irrationally or abusively.
  10. You notice that you sometimes gaslight yourself by invalidating and questioning your own reality and experiences.

If these warning signs feel familiar, you may want to ask yourself whether you are in a gaslighting relationship, and assess the impact of this on your life and health. Remember that relationships should enhance people’s lives and help them become better people through encouragement and support, not disempowerment and manipulation.

My next post will focus on how to cope with, manage, or—if needed—leave a toxic relationship. 

This article was originally published at Psychology Today on October October 24, 2016


Bringing Gaslighting to Light, Part II

As discussed in Part I, gaslighting is defined as “a sneaky, difficult-to-identify form of manipulation (and in severe cases, emotional abuse)” that results in the gaslightee questioning his or her own perception, experiences, and even reality. In severe cases, this psychological warfare can result in the victim becoming dependent on the gaslighter for his or her own sense of reality.

Gaslighters must be villains, setting out to destroy the lives of unwitting victims. Right?

Not necessarily. If you’re looking for scary predators lurking in the night, ready to jump out and gaslight you, you’ll miss the real danger. Many writings on gaslighting portray gaslighters as vicious and intentionally manipulative, but this isn’t always the case. People who gaslight aren’t always monsters, rather, they are friends, romantic partners, parents, and siblings. They are people with whom we laugh and fall in love, and their identity is more complex than “part-time gaslighter.” This is important to realize because when we vilify gaslighters, we tend to overlook the gaslighting behavior of those close to us and make excuses for it because we don’t want to see those we love as bad. As the old saying goes, “love blinds.” Also, when we believe that gaslighting reflects a sort of inherent badness within the individual, we miss the broader context of gaslighting and the ways societal norms and history encourage and perpetuate this phenomenon.

So if gaslighters aren’t gaslighting because they’re bad people, what underlies the behavior and why are they doing it? Here are the three main underlying destructive beliefs that can lead to gaslighting. Note that these beliefs are often not consciously held, but are deeply ingrained and subtly communicated through patriarchal values, the media, our legal system, politics, etc.

Destructive Belief 1: Overwriting another person’s reality is okay. Gaslighting occurs because the gaslighter, at some level, consciously or unconsciously, believes that it is both possible and acceptable to overwrite your experiences and replace them with his or her own. This seems outrageous to say, but the fact is that the erasure of certain people’s lived experiences is not new. We have a long history of erasing the histories and realities of a whole lot of people, including but not at all limited to…

We see erasure happening through cultural appropriationwhitewashing, media and movies, the enforcement of harmful stereotypes, and many other ways.  The overwriting of experience is so common that it’s hard to recognize most of the time! But given its pervasiveness, it’s not unreasonable for people in positions of power and/or privilege to have an unconscious (or conscious!) belief that it is both possible and okay to overwrite the realities of others. After all, history has shown that it is indeed possible, and common. In fact, it’s a really effective way to reinforce one’s own power and privilege by making sure only their perspectives and realities exist.

Destructive Belief 2: People can be controlled or possessed. According to Shea Emma Fett from Everyday Feminism, “The distinguishing feature between someone who gaslights and someone who doesn’t is an internalized paradigm of ownership.” Gaslighters often equate closeness and intimacy with control and possession. This can be seen through jealously and controlling behaviors, which are often misidentified as romantic gestures early in a relationship. Examples might include grabbing a romantic partner and kissing them to “shut them up” when they are angry, persistently pursuing a potential partner in a response to believing the partner is “just playing hard to get,” etc. While movie portrayals of such behaviors are intended to be romantic, they encourage a dynamic of invalidation, control, and ownership in real-life relationships. This dynamic often grows with time, and can lead to gaslighting and other forms of manipulation and even abuse that are designed to maintain control. 

Destructive Belief 3: Challenging me is unacceptable. We all find being challenged frustrating sometimes. Parents of toddlers often become exasperated due to constant questions and challenges presented by their children, and in response may blurt out, “Because I said so!” in irritation and exhaustion. Disengaging while being challenged isn’t ideal, but sometimes we just don’t have the resources to handle it well.

In gaslighting, however, the gaslighter doesn’t shy away from being challenged because they’re too tired or in a bad mood. Rather, the mere act of being challenged is intolerable and unacceptable to the gaslighter, who not only needs to be right, but also needs you to wholeheartedly believe that he/she is right. “Agreeing to disagree” is not an option; the only acceptable outcome is for you, the gaslightee, to unquestioningly align with the gaslighter. You must see the world exactly as the gaslighter does, because even the possibility of being challenged causes intolerable anxiety. Strong anxiety in response to being challenged may be linked to childhood abuse or other traumatic events, a lack of self-regulation or coping skills, or just plain arrogance. In any case, when challenged, the gaslighter works hard to undermine the gaslightee’s perceptions and to overwrite their reality. Over time this erasure of experience eliminates all possibility of being challenged by the gaslightee, as the gaslightee’s self-confidence and personal sense of reality diminish. Eventually, not surprisingly, the gaslightee begins to look to the gaslighter to define reality for them. The result is that the gaslighter may go through life unquestioned and unchallenged, while the gaslightee suffers a devastating loss of self.

These three destructive beliefs (one or more of them) are often at work when gaslighting occurs. Overwriting reality, a need to be in control, and an inability to tolerate being challenged can serve as attempts to maintain power or privilege, to avoid loss, or to preserve and elevate the gaslighter’s self-esteem. If you want to learn how to recognize the signs of gaslighting, revisit the blog soon for Part III of “Bringing Gaslighting to Light.”

This article was originally published at Psychology Today on May 5, 2016