What is Gaslighting?

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As we discussed in our last post, domestic violence can take many forms, including emotional and psychological abuse. One tactic abusers utilize that is both very prevalent, and often very difficult to identify as it is occurring, is something called “gaslighting.” Almost every client we meet with will say something to the effect of, “He acted like I was crazy, but I swear this is what happened…” This is gaslighting –  a manipulation tactic where the abuser causes the victim to doubt her own perception of reality, recollection and even sanity. The victim may start to believe that she has a terrible memory, is stupid, or is even going crazy. When an abuser causes a victim to internalize these beliefs about herself, the victim can become easier for the abuser to control and manipulate. 

Gaslighting can appear in several different forms. For example:

  • The abuser may insist that the victim is misremembering or inventing facts, in an attempt to make her doubt her own memory. He might insist that she is remembering something inaccurately, or that she completely fabricated a memory. Often, he will also remind the victim of times in the past when she has “misremembered” things (and often these were also a result of gaslighting) in order to prove that she has a terrible memory and should defer to the abuser’s version of events.
  • The abuser may act as if he simply does not understand what the victim is talking about when she attempts to discuss certain topics with him. Often times, an abuser will use phrases like, “you’re trying to confuse me!” to distract the victim from the fact that she has raised valid and logical concerns. This can cause the victim to doubt her own motives for broaching certain topics, which, in turn, can prevent her from even bringing up those topics in the first place.
  • The abuser may also cause the victim to question her general outlook on life. For example, he may say things like, “you are always so negative!” or “you always fly off the handle!” This can cause a victim who responds to abuse in an objectively reasonable manner to believe that she is just being overly negative, reactive, or sensitive. This can be a powerful tool for abusers. The victim ends up blaming her anger, sadness, and anxiety on her perceived inability to respond properly to situations, as opposed to attributing her negative feelings to the abuse she is experiencing. 
  • The abuser may also minimize the victim’s feelings by saying things like “why are you letting something like that bother you?” A victim may begin to think that her reactions to abuse are inappropriate because she isn’t sufficiently thick-skinned and resilient – she’s simply overreacting. Again, the victim blames herself for reacting in ways that are, in actuality, appropriate and reasonable. 

These behaviors are often subtle and tricky for victims to spot, especially as they are occurring. Often times, the victim won’t realize what was happening until she is safely removed from the situation, and recalls what happened. Some general signs that may indicate that a victim is currently being gaslit are:

  • She is no longer sure in her decisions or convictions;
  • She may try to tell herself that she is just too sensitive;
  • She may find that her self-confidence in other aspects of her life, like her job, has decreased;
  • She may stop talking with her partner about anything that could be construed as negative, and / or stop raising concerns about the relationship to her partner;
  • She may feel like she doesn’t have any positive qualities;
  • She may isolate herself from friends and family in order to avoid questions about her relationship; or
  • She may feel a general sense of anxiety and / or sadness, but is have a hard time putting her finger on what is causing it.

As with most things in life, every situation is different. If you or someone you know are experiencing gaslighting, we urge you to seek help. You are not alone. There are many resources available to help those in need, including safety planning, transitional housing, and legal assistance.  

Note: when referring to perpetrators, we use he/him pronouns, and when referring to victims and survivors, we use she/her pronouns. This is solely for consistency and ease of reading. We recognize that both men and women can perpetrate or be victims of domestic violence, but the sad truth is that the majority of perpetrators are male, and the majority of victims are female.