Gaslighting: the most subtle emotional abuse

Gaslighting: the most subtle emotional abuse

Have you ever been told these phrases in response to a complaint: “you are crazy”, “that never happened”, “you are very sensitive”, etc.

If so, they may be using the “Gaslighting” technique to confuse you .

What is Gaslighting?

“Gaslighting” is a pattern of emotional abuse in which the victim is manipulated into doubting his or her own perception, judgment or memory . This makes the person feel anxious, confused or even depressed.

This term comes from the classic Hollywood film called “Gaslight” , in which a man manipulates his wife into believing she is crazy in order to steal her hidden fortune. He hides objects (paintings, jewelry) making his wife believe that she has been responsible, even if she does not remember. He also dims the gas light (there was no electricity) and makes her believe that the fire is still shining at the same intensity as before.

Of course, this makes the protagonist feel that she is going crazy, does not want to leave the house, is anxious and cries continuously. The husband warns her that he will leave the relationship, and threatens to send her to a doctor for mediation or seclusion. Of course, the abuser knows exactly what he is doing and would almost have gotten away with it if it weren’t for an investigator who figured out the situation and unmasked the thief.

The characteristics of this type of deception

Although this film presents us with an extreme case, this manipulation technique is used consciously or unconsciously in relationships .

Let’s look at some scenarios. For example, you can say:

“When you said that you hurt me” and the abuser says “I never said that, you’re imagining it” and there he plants the seed of doubt.

It could also happen this way:

“When you did that I felt very bad”, to which the abuser replies “you’re very sensitive, it was just a joke”. He tries to persuade us to believe it was a matter of misperception on his part.

Similarly, you may fight and defend yourself but still get the same words: “You are exaggerating”, “you are making a storm in a glass of water” or “you are delusional” etc. so instead of continuing to confront or withdraw, you allow doubt to arise within you in an attempt to favour the relationship and seek the approval of your partner or family member.

This kind of manipulation is very subtle but dangerous, as it leads to continuing toxic relationships, believing that there is really something wrong with us, being unsafe and depending on the opinion of others. It can also keep us from our loved ones for fear of being confronted about your relationship.

How to notice Gaslighting

These are 10 signs to know if we are being “gaslighted” (information collected from psychologist Robin Stern, author of the book The gaslighting effect ).

  1. You constantly question your ideas or actions.
  2. You wonder if you’re too sensitive too many times a day.
  3. You’re always apologizing: to your parents, to the couple, to the boss.
  4. You wonder why you’re not happy, if apparently so many good things are happening in your life.
  5. You constantly offer excuses to your family or friends for your partner’s behavior.
  6. You see yourself withholding or hiding information so you don’t have to explain or give excuses to partners or friends.
  7. You start lying to keep them from changing your reality.
  8. You have trouble making decisions, even simple ones.
  9. You feel like you can’t do anything right.
  10. You wonder if you’re being good enough as a daughter/friend/employee/boyfriend all the time.

What can you do?

As subtle as this kind of manipulation is, we are not helpless against it. There are ways of dealing with this kind of attack, unless there is already a strong precedent for abuse and we cannot deal with the situation with a minimum of serenity. To take action in cases of Gaslighting, you can follow these guidelines :

1. Trust your intuition

If you feel that something is not right, pay attention to that and examine which parts do not fit . When analysing our own experiences, our experience counts more than the rest.

Furthermore, communication is not a game where you have to strive to understand everything that others say. In a couple, if a message has not been understood, the responsibility is often shared (as long as we have paid attention to it).

2. Do not seek approval

Resist the temptation to convince the other person to approve , instead you can say “We disagree” or “I thought about what you said but it doesn’t feel true to me” or “I hear what you say, but my reality is very different from yours”. You are perfectly free to end a conversation.

This is only recommended in cases of Gaslighting, since in any other context, such as in a discussion where the other person’s arguments are solid, it can become an excuse not to admit that you are not right and, ultimately, a tool of cognitive dissonance.

3. Remember your sovereignty over your own thoughts

Remember that emotions are neither good nor bad, and no one can tell you if what you feel is true or not. If you say “that made me feel criticized” or “I felt sad about what you did” you are not debating it. In the end, if you feel that you are being humiliated or psychologically damaged, only you feel that; what you experience is not subject to debate.

Don’t apologize for feeling , what you should avoid is assaulting, manipulating or acting in a harmful way.

4. Be aware of your values

What values do you want to be remembered by? Create a list of personal values. For example, “spend quality time with my loved ones”, “keep promises”, “be generous/compassionate”, “tell the truth”, “travel”, “be open-minded”, “maintain spirituality”. That will help you to stay focused and also know what you value in others .

Somehow, values act as the backbone of our behavior. Whatever happens, what others say or do or don’t should force us to go against them. The moment someone pressures us to violate these basic principles, we will know that we are being manipulated.

5. Keep your personal boundaries

If someone goes through them, let them know and raise a consequence . For example, if you are shouted at or verbally abused, you can say “I don’t feel comfortable with what you said, it seems disrespectful and I won’t let it go”. Stand your ground.

If it is repeated, let it be known again and depending on the relationship, look for a sincere dialogue where you both commit not to do it again or walk away.

If the person does not take responsibility for their faults and continues to “gaslighte” you ask yourself if you want to continue the relationship or the frequency of visits in case of family or friends.Working on one’s own assertiveness is essential to assert one’s interests with dignity.

Bibliographic references:

  • Rey-Anacona, C. A. (2009). Physical, Psychological, Emotional, Sexual and Economic Abuse in Dating: An Exploratory Study. Acta Colombiana de Psicología 12 (2): pp. 27-36.
  • Rodríguez-Carballeira, A. (2005). A comparative study of psychological abuse strategies: in couples, in the workplace and in manipulative groups. Yearbook of Psychology.

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