Every day, more people are learning and becoming curious about different, subtle forms of emotional and psychological abuse. One such type of abuse, and one that has piqued much interest recently, is gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which one person, usually a romantic partner or a family member, leads another person into a state of confusion or doubt about their own experiences. Gaslighting behavior is extremely toxic and can lead to or evoke mental health issues in its victims.
In this article, we’ll further explore what gaslighting means and what it looks like so you’ll be prepared to recognize it if it happens to you or someone you love and practical tips on how to deal with gaslighting. It’s crucial to learn and study the signs and tactics of gaslighting because, as per the nature of this form of abuse, the perpetrator can make you doubt yourself. You need to learn about even the most subtle signs of gaslighting to prevent yourself from getting caught in the perpetrator’s trap.
Whether it happens among family members, in intimate relationships, or in the workplace, gaslighting can have a detrimental effect on your well-being. It can be hard to recognize, and such is the nature of clever emotional manipulation. It might help to understand why people engage in this abusive behavior in the first place, but don’t let your understanding and empathy get in the way of protecting yourself.
According to an article in Perspective on Psychological Science, ‘gaslighting describes the act of manipulating others to doubt themselves or question their sanity.’
According to Aletheia Luna, gaslighting is “a form of emotional abuse that slowly eats at your ability to make judgments. Essentially, a gaslighter spins their negative, harmful, or destructive words and actions in their favor, deflecting the blame for their abusive deeds and pointing the finger at you.”
Luna explains that gaslighters “achieve their goal by ‘making you feel ‘overly sensitive,’ ‘paranoid,’ mentally unstable,’ ‘silly,’ ‘unhinged,’ and many other sensations which cause you to doubt yourself.”
Why do people gaslight?
The gaslighter uses their emotionally manipulative tactics usually because they want to avoid responsibility or want to save face when confronted with an issue. They use clever tactics, logic, and rationale to devalue their victim’s argument.
Typically, gaslighting behaviors stem from narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissists are people who live with an inflated ego. They have a grandiose sense of self and strive to keep their image, their sense of self, and their social persona high. They want others to see them with respect and admiration and go to great lengths to avoid being seen or thought of otherwise.
A narcissist will gaslight others, whether that’s other family members, a friend, or a romantic partner, usually when that other person has seen some ‘flaw’ in their character or has made some criticism or judgment about their behavior.
The narcissist doesn’t want to be seen in a negative light, so any confrontation about their behavior triggers a defense reaction. They gaslight the other person because that helps them avoid having to take responsibility for something they did wrong.
Not everyone who gaslights is a narcissist, but a common trait among all people who gaslight others is a sense of fragility and insecurity in themselves. This insecurity is also present in narcissists and explains some of their defensive, ego-protecting behaviors.
Signs of gaslighting and gaslighting emotional abuse
As with any form of psychological and emotional abuse, for your health and well-being, you must be able to recognize the signs of gaslighting behaviors. Recognition can be hard when you’re deep under the spell of an emotional manipulator’s gaslighting tactics, especially when it occurs in romantic relationships.
To help you be a more astute observer of this toxic behavior, we’ve outlined some of the most common signs of gaslighting below.
- You think you’re ‘going crazy’ or imagining things
- You’re filled with an unusual amount of self-doubt and low self-esteem
- You’re questioning your reality
- You’re blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault
- You apologize when you don’t need to
- You doubt your decisions
- You feel confused
- You don’t feel like yourself anymore
- The other person shuts down your attempts at confrontation
- You’ve become increasingly isolated from your family or friends
There are many ways one person can gaslight another, so it’s helpful to discuss the concept with trusted friends and family. Later in this article, we’ll explain why it’s important to seek the support of those you love and trust, but for now, let’s take a quick look at its benefits.
Many people suffer from emotional manipulation abuse – a lot more than you might think. It is heartbreaking that so many of us don’t recognize when it’s happening. So, when you turn to others for support, you may also help them in return. Your concern about your issues may shed light on issues in that person’s relationships, issues of which they may not have been entirely aware previously.
In discussion, you and a trusted friend can explore and discuss the concept of gaslighting and may help each other recognize instances of this behavior in each other’s experiences.
How to deal with gaslighting and what you can do about it
Know when to seek help
First and foremost, understand that gaslighting is extremely toxic behavior and can evoke or lead to the onset of challenging mental health issues in its victims. Those who gaslight don’t always intend to harm your mental health, but if that’s the consequence of their behavior, then their intentions are irrelevant. If you believe you have been the victim of gaslighting and that your mental and emotional health is suffering, as a result, don’t hesitate to seek help and support.
If you can, reach out to a close, trusted friend or family member and let them know what you’re going through. They’ll know you well enough to be able to notice any changes in your behavior or unusually self-deprecating ways you’re speaking or behaving.
Bear in mind that although it’s important to have a social support system in place, we shouldn’t always solely rely on friends and family to help us with our mental health issues. They can offer a compassionate ear and a space to vent, but so many of us struggle with our own mental health that it’s not always wise to offload our issues onto another person.
As well as seeking support in your social circle, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional. Since gaslighting can have such a detrimental effect on your self-esteem, self-worth, and overall well-being, it’s wise to speak to a professional who can support you in a safe and grounded way. Someone who you don’t need to worry about will soak up your issues and suffer from their mental health issues as a consequence.
Manipulative behavior is most successful when the target is unaware that it’s happening. This is how gaslighters and narcissists succeed in getting their way. As such, your first line of defense against this toxic emotional manipulation is to become a keen observer of the person’s behavior and your own inner experience.
Learn to recognize the signs of gaslighting and take notes when you see them. You don’t necessarily need to call it out every time you see it. It’s wise to take note on several occasions. As the gaslighting behavior happens, take note, and try to stay calm.
Don’t fuel the fire
As with any form of emotional abuse, the abuser feeds off the energy that you give back. It’s best to starve the abuser, the gaslighter, the emotional manipulator of that energy. It may make them feel frustrated but stand your ground. That being said, standing your ground isn’t always the safest option, especially if that person tends to become violent. In such cases, the wisest approach is to distance yourself from that person as soon as possible and seek professional help.
People who emotionally manipulate others do so for many reasons, but usually, one of their biggest fears is that their target will wise up, realize that they don’t need that person, and hastily move on.
If you find that someone in your life has been gaslighting you, don’t hesitate to detach from them and even put some physical distance between the two of you. This will take some consistent effort and action because that other person will unlikely be willing to let you go so easily. This is because they benefit in some way from their abusive behavior, and they won’t be quick to lose that benefit.
Still, one of the most important things you can do for your mental and emotional health and well-being is to distance yourself from someone whose behavior is toxic. This is a valuable life skill that will serve you far beyond a single toxic relationship. It will prepare you to detach from anyone in your life, an abusive partner, friend, and even a family member who doesn’t have your best interests at heart.
Set healthy, firm boundaries
Though anyone can be a victim of gaslighting, emotional manipulators tend to target and abuse those who already struggle to stand up for themselves and be assertive. By no means does anyone deserve to be emotionally abused and manipulated, whether they can stand up for themselves or not, but understand that if you’re easily manipulated, an emotional manipulator will notice.
The good news is that we can all learn to set boundaries in our lives. Boundaries are a means of protecting your well-being from the toxic behavior of others. They are a barrier between other people’s behavior and feelings.
So, how do we set boundaries with a gaslighter? An important first step is to use your observation skills, as mentioned above. You need to collect enough evidence, not just one instance, of gaslighting behavior to make a firm stand against this toxic person.
Understand that boundaries are about us, not about the other person. We can’t control what other people do or don’t do, but we can control what type of bad behavior we will tolerate in our lives. Setting boundaries with a gaslighter doesn’t mean telling them to change. It means letting them know that their actions will have consequences.
For example, if you’ve noticed that someone has been gaslighting you, you can let them know that if they continue with that behavior, they will no longer have the chance to do it again. You could let them know how their behavior affects you and that you’ll need to separate yourself from them to protect yourself. This is an effective way to set a boundary because you’re not trying to change the other person. You’re simply giving them a choice as to whether they want to be in your life or not.
Focus on your well-being
Whether you were able to resolve the issues of gaslighting in a relationship for the relationship to continue, or you’ve had to nullify the relationship together to protect your sanity, dealing with the aftermath of gaslighting and any form of emotional abuse for that matter can be taxing.
It’s important to take time to process what happened, allow yourself time to integrate your experience and move forward with your life and reconnect with any part of yourself that you lost during your experience.
Focus on your well-being, if you’re not already prioritizing your health and well-being, your wants and needs, above those of others. It’s not selfish to look out for oneself and make sure that you’re living as well as possible.
The effects of gaslighting and emotional abuse are such that they can sever a connection you once had with yourself, so do all you can moving forward to restore it. That means loving yourself, practicing self-compassion, focusing on your physical as well as mental health, and aligning your life with your core values.
As mentioned earlier, not everyone that gaslights are trying to abuse you. Sometimes people are unaware of how unhealthy and toxic their behavior is. Still, regardless of their intentions, gaslighting behaviors are a form of emotional abuse and should not be taken lightly.
The tips and advice outlined above may help you understand why gaslighting is so unhealthy and may help you take confident and assured action against this behavior. However, we understand that emotional abuse can be frightening and confining, so let us emphasize that you don’t need to go through it alone.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out for social or professional help and support if you’re concerned about your well-being. The national domestic violence hotline is a 24/7 resource available to anyone struggling with or concerned about their well-being within a relationship or in their home. Emotional abuse is quite often a prerequisite for physical violence, so it’s wise to take preventative action.