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A Guide to Gaslighting
A comprehensive look at this confusing abusive tactic that makes you doubt your reality
- Oct 20, 2021
In yet another tactic of power and control, abusive partners can use gaslighting to confuse and manipulate a survivor. This type of psychological abuse involves an abuser denying a survivor’s memories of an event, questioning their perception of reality and accusing the survivor of “going crazy.”
What Is the Definition of Gaslighting?
Gaslighting in intimate partner relationships is a manipulative abuse tactic where a survivor begins to question their own reality. This is done by the abuser questioning facts, denying memories the survivor has, undermining their judgment and bullying them into believing the abuser’s reality.
Where Does the Term Gaslighting Come From?
“Gaslighting” stems from a 1930’s play called Gas Light. In it, the main character is ultimately trying to convince his wife that she’s going insane by dimming the gas lights in their home ever so slowly while convincing her the darkening house is all in her imagination. Later, the play was adapted into a movie starring Ingrid Bergman as the woman questioning her sanity.
Her husband’s lie is so convincing, so unwavering, that Bergman begins to believe she is truly unraveling. She becomes dependent on her husband to discern fact from fiction while he confines her in her house for her own good. You know, because she’s insane and all.
Survivors of domestic violence may feel a shivering sense of familiarity with this plot. Abusers rely on gaslighting to convince survivors of any number of things that are or aren’t happening as a means of control.
There Are Often Other Types of Abuse Present with Gaslighting
Gaslighting often overlaps with all types of abuse: physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, financial and spiritual. Abusers can use a grooming process at the start of a relationship to set a survivor up to believe the abusive partner is trustworthy, and then a good deal of brainwashing can occur, including gaslighting.
The more a survivor doubts their memories of the abuse, the more they question whether they’re really going to be believed if they disclose to someone what’s happening, and the more they begin to rethink leaving. Gaslighting can trap a survivor indefinitely.
Like any other type of abuse, gaslighting can happen to anyone—men, women, same-sex relationships, to all ages, all education and income levels, as well as to children and other family members of the survivor. Being gaslit is not a reflection on the survivor. Oftentimes, it’s not until after separating from an abuser that survivors can more clearly see the warning signs that occurred early on.
7 Gaslighting Warning Signs
These are seven common signs to look for that indicate you’re being gaslit:
- Feigned Confusion. An abusive partner pretends they don’t understand what you said or simply refuses to listen, shutting you down when you try to confront him or her about anything, but especially about previous abusive incidents.
- Over-Apologizing. If you find yourself apologizing every time you speak, this could be a subtle tactic of gaslighting. Subconsciously, you could be afraid that sharing your thoughts or opinions will put you in danger.
- Questioning. An abuser who’s gaslighting you will assert that you aren’t remembering things correctly, even when you’re sure you know what happened.
- Lies. These are often bold and outright, everything from, “I’ve never hit you,” even as you can see a bruise on your arm to “Your family’s never been kind to you,” in an attempt to isolate you from a support system. You know they’re lies, but the abusive partner will insist repeatedly that they’re telling the truth until you begin to doubt yourself.
- Diversion. If an abusive partner keeps changing the subject each time you bring up their abusive tactics or blocks you from even talking about it in the first place, such as by saying, “Let’s talk about that later,” or “You know your memory isn’t the best,” this is yet another gaslighting technique.
- Trivializing. An abuser might call you “too sensitive” or act skeptical when you try to complain about their behavior, questioning why you would get upset over “something so dumb.”
- Forgetfulness. It’s all too convenient that the abuser seems to constantly forget the sequence of events that occurred. If they consistently say things like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “That never happened,” this is gaslighting.
9 Questions to Ask to Determine Gaslighting
To help determine if your partner is gaslighting you, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I regularly doubting my version of events?
- Do I feel confused when I speak to my partner, and find myself not able to follow their train of thought?
- Am I relying more frequently on my partner to tell me what “really” happened?
- Am I afraid to share my opinions on things with my partner for fear they’ll tell me I’m wrong?
- Does my partner often make me doubt my intelligence or intuition?
- Does my partner call me things like “dumb” or “crazy” or accuse me of being too sensitive?
- Do I always feel like I’m walking on eggshells around my partner, afraid to speak up?
- Am I feeling increasingly more isolated from my friends and family?
- Am I constantly apologizing to my partner or others?
How Gaslighting Affects Mental Health
Gaslighting can make a victim feel like they’re literally losing their mind, just like the play and movie portrayed. While the person may start out defending their own reality, over time, an abuser can wear them down psychologically to a point where the victim begins to feel:
- Loss of hope
- Dependence on the abuser or trauma-bonding
How to See Gaslighting
If you suspect gaslighting, it helps to disclose this to someone you trust who won’t take the side of the abuser. This could be a friend or family member, a coworker, a counselor or a trained advocate at your local domestic violence shelter (find one near you here). This person can help reinforce reality for you, helping you to identify abusive behaviors in your partner.
Additionally, consider taking these steps when you suspect gaslighting:
Start a Journal. “Keep a record of things that happened, so that when they’re challenged later, you can go back to your journal and rest assured from your own words that, yes, in fact, this did happen,” Kate Balestrieri, Psy.D., licensed psychologist and certified sex addiction therapist supervisor told DomesticShelters.org. It can also help to collect any evidence that will dispute your doubt later—screenshots of text messages, dates and time of arguments, an audio recording (if safe to do so) of your conversations.
Get Space. If you’re able to, put space between you and your partner. This could be anything from stepping outside for fresh air when you suspect the gaslighting starts to taking a week to visit family. Clearing your head can help you better see the difference between reality and abuse.
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Remain Calm and Practice Self-Care. Gaslighting can take a toll on your mental health. Prioritize self-care practices like yoga, meditation, working out, creating art or music, talking to friends, eating regular meals and getting fresh air. Keeping your mind clear and strong will help you figure out the best and safest way out of an unhealthy relationship.
How to Escape Gaslighting
Gaslighting is a manipulative abuse tactic, and reason enough to separate from a partner. But if you’re feeling uneasy, unsafe or threatened by this partner, these could be signs the abuse is escalating. If you’re ready to separate from this partner, consider reaching out to a trained domestic violence advocate for help with safety planning, or refer to one of the safety planning guides on this site:
- A Safety Planning Worksheet
- Safety Planning with Your Kids
- Customizing Your Safety Plan
- Planning for Pet Safety
- Packing Your Bags
We've prepared a toolkit A Guide to Gaslighting to help you understand even more what the gaslighting is so you can better assess and understand your situation.
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