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  • Writer's pictureBen Selby

Gaslighting - A Guide To Recognising The Signs



Gaslighting
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“It’s all in your head.”

“You’re just being paranoid.”

“I don’t understand why you’re making this into such a big deal…”

 

A new subject came up for me recently in the form of gaslighting.

 

The term originates from a 1938 play called Gas Light. The husband continuously dims the lights in their home in an attempt to drive his wife crazy and make her feel that she is unstable. When this is questioned, he insists that nothing has changed and the lights are the same as before.


“Gaslighting” is a term used to describe emotional control and manipulation that causes the victim to question their feelings and ultimately, their sanity. The perpetrator gains a considerable amount of power from this and can successfully convince other people that the victim is in the wrong.


Very often, it begins with small things. Minor details may be questioned in a conversation, which may be used in the future as “proof” that the victim’s memory or judgement is not reliable.


Over time, it escalates - often to the point that the victim cannot make their own decisions because their sense of reality has been eroded.

 

There are several stages involved in “gaslighting”. To begin with, the perpetrator is very charming and will often appear to be a “perfect” and adoring partner.

 

In the subsequent stage, the victim is made to feel that they cannot do anything right and that they are to blame for anything that goes wrong. They are repeatedly second guessing themselves and making significant attempts to repair both the relationship and the “damage” to the perpetrator’s emotions. Having previously experienced the “perfection” of the previous stage, the victim is desperate to make things right and the perpetrator gains yet more power.

 

“Gaslighting” can take several forms:

Withholding - The perpetrator refuses to listen to the victim or pretends that they do not understand what they are saying. They may claim that the victim is not making sense, for example.


Countering - The perpetrator questions the memory that the victim has of a particular situation and they believe that they had misinterpreted events. “You’re not remembering this right” is a common example of this form of gaslighting. The perpetrator may also add in “factual” details that did not happen to embellish their argument.


Blocking - The perpetrator questions the victim’s thought processes and changes the subject.


Trivialising - The perpetrator makes the victim feel that their feelings are insignificant or out of proportion to reality. They may insist that the victim is being paranoid or overly sensitive.

 

Denial/forgetting - The perpetrator denies that they had previously agreed to something or insists that they do not remember a particular event taking place.


The victim repeatedly second guesses themselves and feels as though they are crazy.  They apologise frequently, often without understanding why they are doing it. They may find themselves apologising to other people for their partner’s behaviour and feeling ashamed of their “mistakes”, which can lead to isolation. Ultimately, the victim will query their memories and feelings, to the extent that they rely on the perpetrator to tell what is “real”. In the back of their mind, there will be a vague sense that something is not right but as so much of gaslighting is subtle, they may not realise what is behind it.


Why does the victim not leave, you might ask? Recognising that you are in a manipulative relationship is not always easy.  The signs are often very subtle and because the perpetrator gradually erodes the victim’s perception of reality, they often put themselves forward as the victim. This can mean that the true victim feels that they are to blame and are unlovable, even after the relationship has ended.


The effects of gaslighting can last far beyond the end of the relationship and can leave victims questioning themselves and feeling unable to trust for many years.  


What can you do if you suspect that you are being “gaslit”?

An important thing to recognise is that you will never make the perpetrator happy or be what they appear to want. Their behaviour often stems from narcissism and as with abuse in general, it is done to gain power and control. Although we generally start to accept things as “truth” if they are repeated often enough, the perpetrator’s version of reality is not the definitive one.


Therapy can offer a safe place to talk through your emotions and regain a healthy perspective on reality.  It can also be invaluable in rebuilding self esteem and trust.

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