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We’ve heard about it and many have been victimized by it—gaslighting.
What is it though, really?
“Gaslighting” originated from the 1938 British stage play, “Gas Light.” About a husband intent on convincing his wife she’s insane, the play was also made into two films. Today, gaslighting refers to manipulating someone into questioning their reality, memory, or perceptions, usually to serve an ulterior motive.
There are shades of gray when it comes to interpreting gaslighting behavior. It can arise from unconscious habit rather than malicious intent. For example, thoughtless, dismissive communications, which have become normalized in some relationships, can still cause the recipients to question their reality. Despite the absence of malicious intent, these mindless, dismissive communications can be considered gaslighting.
Common thoughtless, dismissive communications include:
“You’re too sensitive.”
“You’re being too emotional about this.”
“It’s not that big of a deal.”
“No one cares what you think anyway.”
“You’re going to hurt yourself, I can do it better.”
Communications that are more intentionally manipulative and abusive might include:
“I didn’t do it. You did.”
“I never said that.”
“You’re seeing things. That didn’t happen.”
“This is hysteria feeding into paranoia, maybe you should see a doctor.”
“Your friends are just jealous and hateful, they’re making up stories to hurt you and shut me out.”
“Your family is oppressing you, it’s better to cut them off and only trust me.”
Gaslighting often happens in romantic relationships. Stereotypically, men can gaslight women they judge to be overly sensitive, emotional, or irrational. Indeed, these gaslighters often don’t know they’re using their prejudgment as an excuse to repeatedly dismiss their partner’s behavior as “female” feelings and experiences. Over time, the recipients are left confused about whether they can trust their own feelings and experiences.
A few other common forms of gaslighting include child-parent, political, and racial gaslighting. No matter what our experience looks like, as the victim of gaslighting, we can easily feel powerless. Our reality feels distorted and we’re not sure who or what we should believe anymore.
So how do we retain your power and respond to a gaslighter? Here are five steps:
1. Recognize that you’re being gaslighted
The first step is to recognize when you’re being gaslighted. People can simply disagree and speak harshly using words that sound exactly like gaslighting, but without manipulative intent. Indeed, they might just have a strong opinion: (“How can you think that way?” or “You’re wrong!”)
If someone is repeatedly trying to change your sense of reality by denying what you can see and sense at face value, you’re possibly being gaslighted. To figure out what’s going on, think of how the situation makes you feel and seek external support from friends and family who can validate your experience.
Are you constantly in doubt and questioning yourself? Do you apologize all the time? Do you feel unhappy, confused, or not like your usual self? Have you isolated yourself from loved ones? Has the gaslighter convinced you that people you once trusted are “the bad guys?”
2. Talk to other people
One of the most important things you can do to avoid losing your sense of reality is to talk to other people about your situation. Try to be objective when explaining both sides of the story.
Sharing with other people broadens perspective and deflates your abuser’s isolating influence by saying, “so and so is lying to you.” Share your experiences with a counselor—they’re trained to help you.
3. Make notes of your conversations
If you feel confused about what you believe is real, keep track of your conversations. Journal, record personal audio messages, take pictures, and videos…whatever helps you confirm what was actually said and when.
Revisit your memories and records for clarity when you feel confused. You’ll feel more secure and be able to reference them during your conversations accurately.
4. Start by making a small decision
It can be hard to recognize gaslighting, especially when you’re unsure about your experiences. If you’re starting to question yourself or your reality, take the first step of disengaging from the situation.
Tell the other person you need a break from the conversation. Get your bearings. Create space for yourself and ground yourself back into your own power.
The quickest way to do that is to find some kind of literal, physical support, like sitting in a comfortable chair or leaning against the counter. Then, focus on an “anchoring” or “grounding” image in your mind that makes you feel safe and secure; something you feel confident and sure about.
After that, turn your attention to your breathing. Follow the breath as it expands your lungs and reminds you that you have a true, inner space. The wisdom of your own knowing and sensate experience lives there. If it’s comfortable, you might even try to meditate, in order to get in touch with your own energy and conscious awareness.
Moving forward, decide to focus on your own self-care and alternative relationships and support systems, so you are not solely dependent on one person to dictate your reality.
5. Call the other person out on their behavior
The final step is to call the other person out on their gaslighting. It may take some time to truly understand what you’re going through, but when you feel confident enough, tell the other person that their actions amount to gaslighting and you refuse to be manipulated any longer. Be wary, in abusive relationships gaslighters often refuse to acknowledge their gaslighting, even when called out.
Ultimately, we must decide if a person who gaslights us is worth keeping in our lives. Don’t go at it alone—get the support you need from friends, family, and counselors. Your life, any life, is way too valuable for you to spend it feeling confused, uncertain, and powerless. The only way to assert ourselves with someone who gaslights is to reclaim our power by setting boundaries and speaking up for ourselves.
Through all of this, it’s worth remembering what you’re working toward. By retaining your power, you’ll build strong, happy, and fulfilling relationships with people who respect and look out for you.