How To Cope When Someone is Gaslighting You

May 12, 2023   •  Posted in: 

This article is about a form of psychological manipulation called gaslighting. It explores what gaslighting is, how and why it happens, and what to do if you suspect someone is gaslighting you.

 

What is gaslighting?

According to the American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology, the definition of ‘to gaslight’ is:

vb. to manipulate another person into doubting his or her perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events. The term once referred to manipulation so extreme as to induce mental illness or to justify commitment of the gaslighted person to a psychiatric institution but is now used more generally. It is usually considered a colloquialism, though occasionally it is seen in clinical literature, referring, for example, to the manipulative tactics associated with antisocial personality disorder.
—gaslighted adj. [from Gaslight, a 1938 stage play and two later film adaptations (1940, 1944) in which a wife is nearly driven to insanity by the deceptions of her husband]

In other words, someone who is being gaslighted begins to question what is real because the person who is gaslighting them repeatedly tells them that their version of events is incorrect.

For the victim of gaslighting, life can become very confusing and distressing as you begin to lose trust in yourself and your own experiences.

It’s important to remember that gaslighting is a form of behavior that occurs alongside seemingly affectionate, loving behavior from the same person. The latter keeps the relationship from ending, and also serves to reinforce the insecurity of the gaslighted person in the relationship who is kept guessing over whether they are at fault.

 

What are some examples of gaslighting?

Gaslighting can take many forms, commonly through insults, accusations, and blaming. Examples of what someone who is gaslighting might say include:

  • “That’s not what I said, you must have misheard me” (when you mention something they said)
  • “You’re making it up” (when you talk about something that’s happened)
  • “That’s not what happened” (when you give your version of events)
  • “Prove it” (when you try to stand your ground)
  • “I’m just trying to help” (when you challenge their motivation)
  • “I’m not having an affair. You’re paranoid/insecure/jealous” (when you feel something isn’t right in their relationship with someone else)
  • “You’re overreacting” or “You’re being very sensitive” (when you try to tell them how you feel)

Examples of what someone who is being gaslighted might think and feel include:

  • Second-guessing yourself repeatedly
  • Becoming less confident
  • Apologizing for something you don’t remember saying, thinking, or feeling
  • Questioning your words, thoughts, and feelings
  • Questioning your sanity
  • Believing you are flawed, forgetful, or stupid
  • Low self esteem
  • Becoming reclusive
  • Feeling confused
  • Becoming less sure about your wants and needs
  • Apologizing for the gaslighter or taking the blame for their behavior
  • Avoiding confrontation
  • Feeling trapped

 

How does gaslighting happen?

One study[1] suggests the process of gaslighting that unfolds within a romantic relationship has four stages:

  1. Love-bombing – characterized by excessive affection, attention, gifts, and charming behaviors, and describes the typical beginning stages of the relationship.
  2. Isolating the victim – characterized by the perpetrator giving negative opinions about members of victims’ friends and family. This serves to bypass accountability, (as victims were unable to receive advice about their partner’s behavior), to make victims easier to control (as they had fewer paths to fulfill other social needs once isolated), and to contribute to victims’ sense of “losing their grip” on reality or becoming a “shell of themselves”.
  3. Perpetrator unpredictability – perpetrators unpredictably changing their behavior from one emotional extreme to another in order to disrupt victims’ ability to predict their partner’s behavior, leading to uncertainty and confusion.
  4. Cold shouldering – when the perpetrator intentionally rejects the victim and withholds affection, not necessarily an example of gaslighting itself but instead is a pattern of problematic behavior that can contribute to and enable the overall relationship dynamic.

What is The Best Way To Deal With Gaslighting

n this podcast episode, Dr. Jantz takes you on a journey through the dark terrain of gaslighting. He not only sheds light on the often covert and damaging behaviors that gaslighters use but also provides invaluable guidance on recognizing and addressing them. You’ll gain the knowledge and tools needed to confront gaslighting effectively.

Listen to Podcast

Why do people gaslight?

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is defined by The National Domestic Violence Hotline as:

When someone uses non-physical tactics to control or manipulate a person or intentionally damage their self-esteem.

Emotional abuse tactics are designed to belittle, isolate, and frighten the person on the receiving end. Gaslighting is a very specific form of emotional abuse which takes the form of manipulating the other person for their own benefit, at huge psychological cost to the victim.

Once the victim of gaslighting has begun to believe and internalize the idea they are unreliable, forgetful, and/or confused, the perpetrator has achieved their initial goal. Now, they are free to control their victim’s behavior and also – importantly – to avoid taking responsibility and accountability for their own behavior, subtly turning critical conversations about their own behavior into critiques of their partner.

People who gaslight may or may not be aware of their own behaviors. Those who are aware of their gaslighting behavior are likely to be using it as one in a range of planned ways to gain control and power over their victim. Those who are not aware of their gaslighting behavior may have been raised in a family where gaslighting was common, and learned this way of operating through first-hand experience.

Either way, the controlling behavior exists in place of more healthy ways of relating. However, the motives of a gaslighter do not matter to the victim of gaslighting who is likely to experience more and more damage the longer it goes on.

If you are reading this article and recognize gaslighting behaviors in yourself, it is possible to learn new ways of relating. The best way to heal is to work through your early experiences, psychological suffering, emotional abuse, and many other issues, while receiving support from a trained professional.

Please get in touch with us for more information on how the team at The Center • A Place of HOPE can help you recover.

 

Who is at risk of gaslighting?

Gaslighting most often occurs within a romantic relationship but it can also happen in friendships, within family dynamics, or even in the workplace. In any relationship where one person is seeking to have control over the other, gaslighting could be happening. Gaslighting in medical settings has been documented[2], as has legal gaslighting[3]. It can also be applied to different groups in the form of cultural gaslighting such as racial gaslighting[4] or even by a political administration[5].

In terms of the type of person who finds themselves in a relationship with a gaslighter, it’s important to remember this can happen to anyone. Part of the impact of being gaslighted is you might have been convinced there is something wrong with you or you are somehow to blame. This simply isn’t true, and is one of the tactics a gaslighter uses to erode your sense of self. There is nothing wrong with you, you are not to blame. The gaslighter is responsible for their behavior, not you.

 

What to do when someone is gaslighting you

Stage one: Realization and acceptance

The path to recovery for victims of gaslighting begins with the realization and acceptance that the other person is gaslighting you. This can take one of two forms:

  1. In situations in which gaslighting was motivated by wanting to avoid accountability for secretive behavior (e.g., infidelity), the realization that you are being gaslighted can be quite sudden, often connected to an incident such as reading text messages or emails.
  2. For most cases in which there was not some concrete, easily interpretable, singular motivation for gaslighting, the process of realization and acceptance of gaslighting is a slower, gradual one.

Stage two: Reframing

It is only once you have recognized you are being gaslighted that you can view the gaslighter’s actions in a new, more accurate, light. This reframing is fundamental to the process. This is because the gaslighting relies on you believing the gaslighter has your best interests at heart, that they love you, and/or they do not wish you harm.

As you begin to see what is really at play, the foundation of the gaslighting behavior is no longer stable so it becomes less possible for you to be gaslighted. Now, you can interpret your gaslighter’s behavior in a way that is more in keeping with their motivations.

Once this reframing has happened and the gaslighting cycle has been disrupted, victims often begin to find ways to recover, which can include ending the relationship.

A note on ending relationships with gaslighting individuals:

While much advice on gaslighting in romantic relationships recommends victims leave the abusive relationship, this is not always possible. There could be practical issues such as the safety of children and pets, shared property, and insufficient financial resources.

Stage three: Spending time with others

Whether victims leave their abusers or not, spending more time with others is crucial to recovery. This reverses the process that happened at the beginning of the relationship, which was designed to isolate the target of gaslighting from others who might endanger the perpetrator’s plan.

Social time is particularly beneficial if it is spent engaging in activities that independently re-establish self trust or a ‘sense of agency’ (this term refers to the feeling of control over actions and their consequences). Spending time with people who have faith in you helps to re-establish your faith in yourself. This re-builds your sense of self.

There is no ‘right’ way to approach this stage. It’s likely to look different from person to person, so think about what works for you as an individual. Perhaps you enjoy casual conversation, socializing, or playing board games. Perhaps you prefer more active hobbies like sports, dancing, or music. Ultimately, any time spent with others who do not attempt to undermine your agency will be helpful for recovery.

Stage four: Reclaiming yourself

Interestingly, physical activities are often helpful in re-establishing a healthy sense of self and trust in your own abilities. These activities could include yoga, meditation, exercise, sports, games, dancing, and playing music, among others.

Physical movement is a way of developing what’s known as interoceptive awareness or the ability to identify, access, understand, and respond appropriately to the patterns of internal signals. Over time, increased interoceptive awareness contributes to the stability of your self-concept, pulling together its various layers and limiting your susceptibility to outside influences[6]. In other words, it could mean you are less likely to be the victim of gaslighting again.

Creative activities that require self-reflection, such as journaling, writing or creating art, can also be helpful in allowing you to express yourself and clarify aspects of your self-identity. Performing music is considered a combination of physical and creative activity, making it a definite one to pursue if you are able.

Stage five: The growth stage

Some people who have experienced gaslighting go on to experience psychological growth. This is usually characterized by seeking to establish healthier boundaries or having a “clearer” and “stronger” sense of self. For many, they are left with a feeling of having learned from this negative relationship experience. Likewise, surviving a gaslighting experience can result in being less dependent on others for happiness.

Not everyone is able to manage the experience of being gaslighted, however. If you feel you need support to overcome the abuse you have suffered, help is out there.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we have decades of experience working with people just like you to heal from their experiences of being gaslighted as well as all forms of emotional abuse. We offer traumatic abuse-related intensive programs for victims of emotional abuse (as well as sexual and physical abuse).

We deeply understand the scars that gaslighting leaves. And we also have immense hope that you can heal from within, which is backed up by our experience helping others who have been through similar experiences. Our proven Whole Person Care model addresses the entire you — your emotional, medical, physical, psychological, nutritional, fitness, and spiritual needs. You are more than just the abuse you went through.

We’re here and ready to help you. Please get in touch with us for more information or to set up an intake appointment with one of our compassionate staff members.


[1] Klein, W.B., Wood, S., Li, S., 2022. A Qualitative Analysis of Gaslighting in Romantic Relationships [WWW Document]. doi:10.31234/osf.io/cjrpq
[2] The toxic power dynamics of gaslighting in medicine, Sarah Fraser
[3] Legal gaslighting, Alvin YH Cheung
[4] Davis, A.M. and Ernst, R. (2022) “Racial gaslighting,” in Politics of protest: Readings on the black lives matter movement. S.l.: ROUTLEDGE.
[5] The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, Robin Stern, New York: Harmony Books, 2018, 271 pp.
[6] Monti, A., Porciello, G., Panasiti, M.S. et al. The inside of me: interoceptive constraints on the concept of self in neuroscience and clinical psychology. Psychological Research 86, 2468–2477 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-021-01477-7

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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