Gaslighting: How to recognize and respond to it


When Joey Ackerman was training to be a psychotherapist, her mentor told her that to truly understand gaslighting — a form of manipulation that often occurs in abusive relationships — she needed to rent the movie from which the term originated. Then they would talk about it.

That film is the 1944 psychological thriller “Gaslight” (based on the 1938 play “Gas Light”) and starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Angela Lansbury and Joseph Cotton. In it, Bergman’s husband tells her she’s imagining things when their belongings mysteriously start going missing and she seems to see the gaslights dim and hear footsteps.

It turns out, however, that her husband is hiding the belongings, and that the flickering gaslights and the footfalls are the result of his secretly turning on the lights in the attic to search for lost jewels. His goal is to make her so mentally unstable that she will need to be institutionalized, leaving him free to pursue the treasure. “So, historically, gaslighting has meant a conscious way to control and manipulate someone,” said Ackerman, who is based in New York City.

Gaslighting made the leap from psychological lingo to trendy buzzword with the 2016 presidential campaign. More recently, it has morphed into what Ackerman calls a “catchall phrase” — often used incorrectly by people referring to simple disagreements over issues or interactions that don’t meet gaslighting’s historical definition.

Some mental health experts are concerned that overusing the term could obscure the abusive nature of gaslighting and reduce its power to help victims recognize ongoing manipulation. For them, it’s important that gaslighting retain its original meaning: the experience of having your reality repeatedly challenged by someone who holds more power than you do.

Why a single slap struck so many

Gaslighting “is a manipulative form of communication where a power differential exists,” said Angela Corbo, an associate professor and chair of communication studies at Widener University in Chester, Pa. It can occur in romantic relationships or friendships, between parents and children, when seeking medical care or even at work. “I see it as one party distorting information and preying upon another’s vulnerability,” said Corbo, who liked it to a “more sophisticated way of looking at bullying.” (Medical gaslighting, another trendy term, refers to when a medical professional downplays a patient’s concerns and tries to convince them that their symptoms are imaginary or perhaps even the result of mental instability.)

Gaslighting is a “devastating” psychological tactic combining “elements of manipulation, control and exploitation of trust,” said Naomi Torres-Mackie, a psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, and head of research at the Mental Health Coalition. “Those things are the building blocks of gaslighting.”

It is also a pattern of behavior that occurs over a long duration and not on a one-off basis. A gaslighter will repeatedly twist events to shift blame to someone else, and this emotional abuse can result in his or her victim questioning their own sanity. (While experts used to believe that gaslighting was always intentional, they now think it’s possible that some gaslighters aren’t aware of their manipulative behavior.)

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Over the long term, being on the receiving end of gaslighting can lead to lowered self-worth, feelings of insecurity, depression and anxiety. It can also cause someone to be consumed with self-doubt, said Torres-Mackie, who has worked with many patients who have experienced gaslighting. “It can be difficult to trust people in the future or to connect with people,” she said. Plus, “you often feel very disconnected from yourself, because of this experience of feeling out of touch with what’s real and what’s not.”

Signs that you’re being gaslit

Gaslighting is common in toxic relationships and situations where one person wants control and perhaps feels as if they’re losing their grip over their partner (or their child or work colleague), Torres-Mackie said. Among the signs that it’s happening are if your partner constantly:

Invalidates your emotions. People who gaslight often trivialize or invalidate their victim’s feelings. “Very undermining comments are common,” Torres-Mackie said. For example, someone might say: “You’re just being dramatic,” or “Why do you care about this so much?” Other common phrases include: “You’re too sensitive,” “You’re crazy,” “You’re imagining things” and “Don’t get so worked up.”

Suppose a friend shows up to your birthday dinner late, and you tell them afterward that their tardiness hurt your feelings. Someone who gaslights might respond: “I didn’t see you feel hurt” or “That wouldn’t be hurtful to me,” said Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, a psychologist based in Santa Barbara, Calif. When a gaslighter decides to “fight with your feelings,” she said, it can be disorienting as you reflect back on how you felt and start to question yourself.

Twists reality. A person who gaslights will “flip things and twist them back on you,” Torres-Mackie said. He or she will be adamant that you did — or said — things that you know you didn’t do. For example, Torres-Mackie describes this situation: During a fight, one partner calls the other “stupid,” and then that person says, “Hey, you called me stupid!” The person who initially made the derogatory comment might then say, “I didn’t call you stupid; you called me stupid,” which is a lie intended to distort reality and control the situation.

Forces you to apologize. Even if you feel betrayed in a certain situation, a gaslighter will “change the narrative” to blame you so that you end up apologizing, Peck said. He or she might say “You made me do it” or find some other way to pin their bad behavior on you. People who have people-pleasing tendencies, in particular, will catch themselves taking responsibility for things they didn’t do. “It’s because the person gaslighting is often so assured and confident and strong — or even explosive,” Peck said.

Leaves you mistrusting your perceptions. If you’re being gaslit, you’ll start doubting yourself, constantly questioning what’s real and if, for example, you were overreacting or misunderstood a certain situation. “If you start to have a disproportionate amount of doubt in yourself that was not previously there, then that’s a sign” that gaslighting is happening, Ackerman said. You might think to yourself: “Maybe I am crazy,” or paranoid or too sensitive — whatever that person is calling you.

The first step to stopping gaslighting is understanding what it is. Peck is encouraged that the term has become more common, because, when used correctly, it raises awareness of “this subtle form of interpersonal abuse,” she said. “Just knowing and labeling what’s happening can be a life raft in the midst of the storm.” When you know what’s going on, “you’re giving yourself some clarity and removing the extra tax on your brain as is struggles to make sense of what’s happening.”

Here are steps experts suggest taking next:

Pay attention to how you feel, perhaps by writing it down. Corbo suggests asking yourself how you feel when you’re around the person gaslighting you: “Do you feel anxious? Do you fear that the person is going to contradict you? Do you find that you might be really confident and outgoing when you’re with certain people, but when you’re around that other individual, you feel fuzzy? Do you think something’s wrong, and you can’t quite identify it?”

Write down the time and date you have these feelings, so that later — when self-doubt begins swirling around — you can remind yourself how you felt. That will help you ultimately trust yourself enough to take action, whether that’s leaving the relationship or seeking help.

Assert yourself, and then stop the conversation. If you’re involved in a conversation with a gaslighter, “assert your own reality as much as you can, and as much as is safe,” Torres-Mackie said. For example, you could say: “No. You were the one who called me stupid. Do not twist it.”

Or, Peck said, you could use an approach like this: “It sounds like you’re having a really hard time hearing what I’m saying. I know what I felt, and it’s important for me to voice this. It doesn’t sound like you can take in this perspective. I no longer want to engage in this conversation; if you’re ready to hear how I felt and discuss, I’d be open to that at a later time.”

Then, walk away and call someone you’re close to, Torres-Mackie suggested. You might tell your friend: “’I know this thing happened, and he’s trying to tell me it’s not true. I need to share this with you in order to ground myself,’” she said. “Otherwise, you only have that one person who’s telling you this false reality, and it’s easy to get swept into that.” Enlisting support from those not involved in the situation can be invaluable.

Address it at work, with HR if necessary. Not everyone can afford to leave their job, even if they’re being gaslit. Document everything that’s happening, Torres-Mackie said, and if it feels doable, address the situation with the colleague responsible for the behavior. She suggests saying: “Hey, you’re telling me X. But my sense is this other thing is right or true. How can we account for that difference?” If you don’t feel comfortable starting such a conversation, talk to the human resources department. Another idea: “See if you can find colleagues who may be experiencing the same thing,” Torres-Mackie said. “There’s strength in numbers, and if someone is doing it to you, it’s likely they might be doing it to more people in the workplace, and it can help you get support.”

Talk to a professional. Recovering from gaslighting can take years, and working with a therapist is often key to healing. “This is a form of emotional abuse, and if somebody feels like this has kind of taken over their life, I always say talk to a professional,” Corbo said. Doing so can help you “break the pattern so it doesn’t happen again.”

Angela Haupt is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @angelahaupt.

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