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What exactly is gaslighting and how do you deal with it?
This common form of abuse can have long-term effects on your well-being. Here’s how to spot it and confront it.
Politicians are notorious for gaslighting. They may spread false narratives to paint a picture of the reality they want us to believe. Or maybe they create diversions to distract us from issues they perceive as a threat to their power.
Yet they’re not the only ones who use this form of manipulation to control others. Gaslighting can happen in personal relationships, too. And it can be just as damaging as physical abuse, says Gin Love Thompson, PhD. She’s a psychotherapist in Orlando, Florida, who specializes in relationships and trauma.
This type of abuse can be hard to recognize. Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself.
Need to talk? Our network of licensed therapists can help you right from home. Learn more about virtual mental health care from the Optum Store.
What is gaslighting?
Although gaslighting isn’t a clinical term, psychologists use it to describe a form of manipulation that makes the victim feel like what he or she experiencing isn’t valid.
“It’s a subtle type of abuse designed to make the person question their perception of reality,” says Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD. She’s a clinical health psychologist and mental wellness expert in Boston. “It literally is ‘crazy-making’ in that the victim usually starts to wonder whether they’re going insane.”
Gaslighting in relationships is common, though it happens in varying degrees. “It can appear to be as benign as a partner denying saying something you know they said or convincing you that it’s your imagination,” Thompson says.
It can even escalate to complete dominance of your mental state if it’s not discovered and reconciled.
Abusers may, for instance, deny a situation happened. They may call you crazy or dismiss you as not being mentally stable or knowledgeable. In perhaps the most damaging situation, gaslighters try to convince you that they didn’t physically or emotionally abuse you by twisting facts, Thompson says. When victims, who know the incident occurred, try to reason with a gaslighter, they’re dismissed and accused of being too sensitive or crazy.
What are the consequences of gaslighting?
Nobody should ever try to manipulate your thoughts. But if it happens with your life partner, the consequences can become particularly dangerous. “Anxiety, self-doubt, even depression or mania can be a result if the partner doesn’t realize they’re a victim of gaslighting,” Thompson says.
“Convincing somebody their perceptions of reality are skewed can lead to devastating confusion,” she adds. “And it’s no less serious than any form of abuse, possibly more so because it deals with your psychological welfare.”
Why does gaslighting happen in the first place?
Like all abuse, it’s based on the need for power, control or concealment. The most effective gaslighters tend to have controlling and narcissistic personality traits. “They want to destroy your mental stability while feeding off your need to rely on them,” Thompson says.
Gaslighting can happen to anybody, and it doesn’t mean you’re naive. “These gaslighting experiences most often happen with people you share a close or intimate relationship with,” Thompson says. “It doesn’t mean that you’re weak but that you’re human and you’ve placed your trust in this person, believing you’re safe.”
Still, there are a few situations in which somebody might be more vulnerable to being gaslit. They include times when you’re seeking approval or admiration from another person. It can also happen when you’re feeling a bit insecure or when you place the person on a pedestal, Dattilo says.
Signs of gaslighting to watch out for
Gaslighting happens gradually, so you may not even know it’s happening at first.
One major red flag: doubting your own decisions, thoughts or memories. You may even feel a need to apologize for simple things that you never used to apologize for, Thompson says.
Or you start to think, “Is my partner right? Am I too sensitive/forgetful/ungrateful?”
Your partner might also frequently shut you down. They could say something such as, “I’m not going to talk about this again.”
You may also question whether you’re good enough or even smart enough, adds Dattilo. Or perhaps you consistently put your partner’s needs ahead of your own and have trouble making simple decisions. Maybe you even feel as if you can’t do anything right.
“Ultimately, you may feel helpless, hopeless and trapped,” Dattilo says.
What to do if someone is gaslighting you
As soon as you realize that you’re being gaslit, one of the best things you can do for is to enlist the support of a mental health professional, Thompson says. (Start your search here.) A therapist can offer you support and guidance to move forward.
There are a number of ways you can benefit from therapy if you think you might be a victim of gaslighting. These include:
- Learning to recognize the gaslighting behaviors for what they are
- Knowing how to disengage from the abuser. Once you recognize the behavior, it’s important to disengage from the gaslighter in the moment. “There is no reasoning with a gaslighter,” Thompson says. Disengaging can take the form of creating distance, setting boundaries, or removing yourself from the relationship.
- Knowing how to communicate and protect yourself in moments when you identify you are being abused. You can say something such as: “We see things differently. I’m not imagining anything.” Or simply: “I’d like some space now, so I’m going to head out for a bit.”
- Healing and regaining self-trust. Gaslighting can erode your sense of reality and self-esteem, through no fault of your own. Therapy can help you recover your intrinsic value and strength.
- Deciding whether to stay or leave the relationship. It’s vital to have professional support while you make this decision and in the months that follow. “This will help you heal and regain a sense of control and balance,” says Thompson.
If seeing a therapist isn’t possible, lean on a trusted friend who can act as a sounding board and help you keep perspective, Dattilo says.
The challenge of staying with a gaslighter
If you want to stay in the relationship, therapy for both people is the most effective treatment and offers the highest chance of managing the issue.
Occasionally, the gaslighter doesn’t realize what they’re doing and the damage they’re causing. In these cases, intense therapy is usually necessary for change to happen. “The gaslighter must become aware of the behavior and take accountability for it,” says Thompson. “They must be sincere in their efforts to change and show remorse and a noticeable change during therapy.”
But because many gaslighters are diagnosable narcissists and have a need for control, they rarely will change.
Whether or not you stay with your partner, try to spend more time doing things that remind you of your strengths and give you self-confidence. “Do things that make you feel competent and empowered,” Dattilo says.
Most important, don’t play this down. As Thompson says, “Abuse is abuse.” And gaslighting counts.
You deserve to be heard. Our medical providers and therapists can support you every step of the way — no insurance required. Start a free assessment now.
Signs of gaslighting: National Domestic Violence Hotline. What Is Gaslighting?