What is Gaslighting?

Think someone might be lying to you or gaslighting you? Would you like to know the difference and learn how to identify possible gaslighting in your relationships?

Hi I’m Mel I’m a counsellor and I specialise in helping people identify and recover from toxic relationships and I would like to take a minute to teach you about gaslighting and how to recognise when someone might be doing it to you.

Does this sound familiar to you:

Maybe you’ve approached a friend, parent, partner or colleague and tried to have a discussion with them. But somehow, instead of having the discussion, you end up talking about something else, being accused of something you are sure you didn’t do, or you are told that you are too sensitive and that you are the one with the problem.

Before you know it, you are so preoccupied with defending yourself that you have forgotten what you were originally talking about. It all seems to have turned around and you are the one apologizing and defending yourself and wishing you had never said anything in the first place.

They storm off leaving you standing there wondering what on earth just happened. You feel stupid, embarrassed, confused, wondering if you are going crazy, and you decide never to pursue the subject again.

The term gaslighting comes from a 1940’s film called Gas Light, in which a scheming husband plots to get rid of his wife by convincing her she is losing her mind and that she belongs in an asylum. He makes subtle changes in the home like hiding things, moving things around and dimming the lights, but he tells her that she is the one doing these things and that she must be going crazy if she doesn’t remember doing them. Over time her husband breaks her spirit and she believes she is going crazy. She ends up thinking what her husband wants her to think, and she feels confused, powerless, and no longer able to trust her own reality or judgement.

Gaslighting is anything a person says or does that makes you doubt your own perception, memories, judgement or reality, forcing you to doubt and second guess yourself.

A gaslighter will deny that something happened and tell you that you are overreacting, imagining things or are confused, even if you are sure that something did happen and you feel you have the right to be upset.

They will invalidate and criticize your emotions, and shift any blame onto you. They will forget or dismiss events, deny saying or doing things they have done, and rewrite history.

They don’t want you to have your own thoughts and perceptions because they want to have influence and control over you so you eventually doubt yourself to the point that you cannot rely on your own perspective or the truth of your own experience.

Gaslighting is also the reason why we don’t recognise what’s really happening: they invalidate our feelings and experiences so that we are no longer able to trust our gut instinct or intuition.

There can be many reasons why someone uses gaslighting but the main purpose is usually either to gain power and control over someone, or to avoid taking responsibility.

Signs and symptoms of gaslighting:

  • You constantly second guess yourself
  • You think you might be too sensitive
  • You feel like you are going crazy
  • You struggle to make decisions
  • You feel like you can’t do anything right
  • You frequently make excuses for their behaviour
  • You have the sense that you used to be more confident, relaxed, a different person
  • You feel like your vulnerabilities are used against you
  • You know something is wrong but you can’t put your finger on it

Examples of things gaslighters say:

  • ‘That didn’t happen’
  • ‘You’re wrong about that’
  • ‘You’re always making stuff up’
  • ‘I never said that’
  • ‘I never did that’
  • ‘You are the one with the problem’
  • ‘Your feelings aren’t normal’
  • ‘You need to learn to communicate better’
  • ‘It’s always something with you’
  • ‘Why are you being so defensive’
  • ‘I don’t have time for your games’
  • ‘You won’t be able to do that’
  • ‘Get over it’
  • ‘You should be over it by now’
  • ‘You’re too sensitive’
  • ‘It didn’t happen that way’
  • ‘You are remembering it wrong’

What’s the difference between lying and gaslighting?

Lying and gaslighting are very similar but once you learn the signs of gaslighting you will soon be able to spot the difference.

A person lies by making false statements, denying the truth or saying something that isn’t true, usually to cover up something they’ve done or to avoid getting in trouble.

Gaslighting is also denying the truth, but it is different because it’s done to deliberately confuse the other person, gain control, flipping and shifting the blame onto them and making them doubt the truth and their perception of events, and distracting them so they don’t pursue the matter any further.

Say for example I was running late meeting a friend for coffee. If I wanted to lie, I might say: ‘The traffic was bad’ ‘I had to take a phone call’ ‘I couldn’t find a parking space’.

If I wanted to gaslight and not take responsibility for my lateness, I might say: ‘I’m sure you said 2pm and not 1pm’ ‘I think you gave me the wrong time’ ‘Maybe your memory isn’t what it was’ ‘You keep getting things wrong’.

By gaslighting my friend, I would: look blameless, stop them being annoyed with me for being late by distracting them, I wouldn’t feel bad about myself, I wouldn’t have to admit that I have trouble with my time keeping, and I wouldn’t have to apologise for letting my friend down.

Another example: A wife decides to confront her husband about his debts but he doesn’t want to be confronted or found out. He has an angry outburst and storms off. This leaves his wife hurt, confused, and distracted with trying to defend herself.

Wife: ‘Some money has been taken out of our savings account, was it you?’

Husband: ‘What! I never did that! You must have read the bank statement wrong. You’re always doing that. I can’t trust you to do anything right, especially when it comes to money. And why would I want the money! I work every day to look after you and the kids and that’s the thanks I get. Anyway, it was probably you that spent the money, like that time you bought that dress that makes you look fat. Well clearly, I can’t trust you with our accounts anymore, so I will look after them from now on. Or maybe I should just leave if you don’t trust me’.

Wife: ‘You have to mention that dress every time don’t you! You know I’m sensitive about my weight. I’m sorry, of course I trust you. Please don’t leave me. I guess you’re right, I probably did make a mistake like last time. You’re probably right, maybe you should look after our bank accounts from now on’.

Conclusion: The husband has successfully managed to gaslight his wife by changing the subject, distracting her with his outburst and insults, and by saying that she is the one in the wrong. The wife feels bad for questioning him about the money, and now she is preoccupied with defending herself and thinking about the hurtful things he said and wondering if she did make a mistake when reading the bank statements. She concludes that she was in the wrong and she must have made a mistake, and she decides not to confront him again.

Do you see how this has changed her perception of events?

‘The script for this tactic is simple: when you’re confronted on something you know will expose you for the unsavoury character you are, act offended and hurt, appear unshaken and resolute, and question the very sanity of your accuser. Its a simple but often highly effective script’. Dr George Simon.

So basically, gaslighting is about flipping, attacking, confusing and blaming, whereas lying doesn’t involve attack or blame. 

What can you do about it?

Become an expert in gaslighting!

Learn more and educate yourself about gaslighting and other manipulative behaviours so you can recognize it and start to react differently, which will change the outcome of the interactions, and you can even start to heal from the abuse.

Reconnect with your gut instinct and intuition and listen to your inner voice so you can start to rely on what you say and how you feel about situations.

Respond by saying things like ‘I think this conversation has gone far enough’ ‘I don’t want to continue this argument’ ‘I don’t like the way I’m feeling right now and I’m not willing to continue this conversation’.

Write a journal so you can keep track of conversations and events.

Talk to trusted friends. Spend time with people that treat you well. Have a good support system around you. You need other people in your life who can confirm your reality and worth. Check out your perceptions by talking to other people who witnessed what the gaslighter is calling into question.

Remind yourself of other times in your life when you have felt grounded, sane, stable, and generally felt good about yourself.

Gaslighting only works when you are not aware of what’s going on. Once you become aware of it you will be able to spot it instantly and it will not affect you as much. You will eventually get to a place where you think ‘Here we go again’ and shrug it off.

Keep in mind that the gaslighting isn’t about you, it’s about their need to maintain power and control. They have few other coping skills or other ways to negotiate differences or resolve conflict. This does not excuse their behaviour, but knowing this may help you take it less personally.

We don’t always recognize the signs even though we know we might be feeling uneasy or confused. Acknowledging the problem, seeking help, educating yourself and keeping good boundaries is the best way to have a healthy relationship.

There are plenty of resources and options for people seeking help or support including helplines, books, online support, blogs, youtube videos and counselling. Connect with your support networks and people you trust to make sure you are getting the emotional support you need. If you feel unsafe or in danger in your relationship, it is important to get help and support. It is your life and you deserve to be happy. Do whatever you need to do to make positive changes in your life, and seek professional help if you need to.

How can I help?

Has this article been helpful to you? Do you recognize any of the signs of gaslighting in your life or relationships? Do you think you might be in a relationship with a controlling, manipulative person? The solution is not to try and change them or even change yourself, but to recognize the signs and learn how to protect yourself from manipulative people and toxic relationships.

I offer specialist online counselling to anyone that has been in a toxic relationship with a parent or partner.

Check out my website, email me to arrange online counselling with me.

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