In case you’ve not heard this word, ‘gaslighting’ is a manipulative, slightly sociopathic behaviour used to make someone doubt his or her own reality.
It’s actually an effective technique—dictators, cult leaders, emotional abusers, certain politicians, and narcissists have all employed it. Gaslighting is kind of a slow poison, brainwashing by one lie at a time. The word takes it name from a 1944 movie (Gaslight), which was based on an earlier play.
The process of gaslighting
Usually, a gaslighter starts with a blatant lie, which you recognise as such. But they’ve said it with such a poker face, void of all emotion, that the situation may set you off-centre a bit. From here on out, you can’t trust anything they say and come to doubt yourself in their company.
Another common gaslighting tactic is to deny saying something, despite solid evidence. When someone sticks to their own mangled version of reality, it can make you question yours and accept theirs—just through the fierceness of their conviction.
A gaslighter will attack other people, especially those most important to your identity, to shake you up. If your relationship with a parent is central to your life, they’ll mock you for that bond. Gaslighters are free with harsh criticism, listing all your “faults” in a major assault on your ego. They’ll spread these negative comments to other people in your life, so you hear them back and their power is reinforced.
And just to keep you even more confused, an emotional abuser like this will throw in a few kind words and compliments now and again. There’s nothing kind in their empty words though—they’re just trying to further confuse you by making you think they’re not all bad.
Gaslighters are skilled at stringing people along over long periods of time—it’s the only way their game works, really. Even the most confident, self-aware person can be gradually broken down by constant attacks. Gaslighters also project their own traits onto other people (cheating, stealing, lying) to draw attention away from them. They understand that confusion breeds fear, and to calm this fear their target will latch on to what they perceive as being the most stable—in this situation, the gaslighter.
One of the most despicable ploys of a gaslighter is to tell other people in your life that you’re crazy, or a liar. As soon as you tell others that the gaslighter is abusive or cruel, the first thing that comes to their mind is “he/she could be crazy,” because it’s been suggested. The gaslighter will probably tell you you’re crazy too.
What to do if you’re the victim of gaslighting
Obviously, gaslighting is destructive to people and relationships. It’s one big ugly mind game that can be hard to get out, let alone identify. One of the most important things you can do towards identifying a gaslighter is to watch their actions. People with integrity align their actions with their words. People without integrity, who are just running a game, will talk endlessly but their words mean nothing, they’re background noise. Watch what the person is doing—that’s where they reveal themselves. If they stole money from your wallet, that’s the issue, not whatever story they made up around it.
Keeping all of the above signs in mind when you’re around a possible gaslighter is another way to protect yourself. You could even write a list of their actions and words, and see how many match up. Ask a trusted friend if the gaslighter has said anything about you, especially if the gaslighter trashed talked this friend in particular. Who have you known longer, and who has proven themselves to you?
If you’re feeling completely trapped in an abusive relationship and are unable to break free, consider therapy. A therapist is a neutral third party who can help see exactly what’s going on, and come up with concrete strategies to confront the behaviour or end the relationship.
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Clinton Power is a relationship counsellor and Gestalt therapist with over a decade of experience helping individuals and couples move out of relationship pain and create great relationships. Get Clinton’s FREE report: 10 Tips for Moving Out of Relationship Pain, by clicking the button below.