When Someone Else Alters Your Reality: Gaslighting

Gaslighting:  The attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality.

In 1938, Patrick Hamilton wrote a mystery thriller play called Gas Light, where a husband manipulates his adoring, trusting wife into believing she can no longer trust her own perceptions of reality. He does this by dimming the gas-powered lights in their home, and then denying that the light changed when his wife points it out. From this the term “gaslighting” was born.

In the last few years, there has been attention around this term. Awareness has been heightened about gaslighting in the media, in politics, and in relationships. Also known as “crazy-making,” gaslighting leaves its victims questioning their very perception of reality.  I frequently see gaslighting in relationships where one of the partners battles an addiction; the supporting partner may suspect a relapse or regression, but the using partner may use gaslighting tactics to protect themselves by convincing the other that their instincts are wrong. My hope is to delve a little deeper into the specifics of gaslighting so my readers are better able to spot it and be armed against it. 

The phrase “to gaslight” refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings. Gaslighting can occur in personal relationships, at the workplace, or over an entire society. Targets of gaslighting are manipulated into turning against their cognition, their emotions, and who they fundamentally are. It is an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity, which gives the gaslighter a lot of power. Obtaining power and control is at the heart of gaslighting. 

In relationships, gaslighting typically happens very gradually; in fact, the abusive partner’s actions may seem harmless at first. Over time, however, these abusive patterns continue and a victim can become confused, anxious, isolated, and depressed, and they can lose all sense of what is truly happening. Then they start relying on the abusive partner more and more to define reality, which creates a very difficult situation to escape.

Gaslighting has several faces. The first is withholding–where the gaslighter pretends not to understand or refuses to listen. Second is countering–where the gaslighter questions the victim’s memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately. The third is blocking or diverting–where the gaslighter changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts. The fourth is trivializing–when the gaslighter makes the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant. And the final is forgetting or denial–when the gaslighter pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to the victim. 

People are not born gaslighters like some are born introverts or extroverts. A gaslighter is a student of social learning, or nurture. They witness it, feel the effects of it, or happen upon it and see that it is a potent, effective tool. Although some individuals gaslight intentionally–like my previous example of an individual trying to cover up a relapse or slip, in their addiction, from a partner–others may not even know they are being manipulative. I have seen some people unknowingly gaslight because they lack self-awareness and/or simply think they are expressing themselves directly and saying it “like it is.” Whether intentional or unintentional, gaslighting leaves its victims discouraged, resigned, pessimistic, fearful, debilitated, and self-doubting. They also question their own perception, identity, and reality; thus, the gaslighter gains control.

The following are common signs that you may be a victim of gaslighting:

  • You constantly second-guess yourself.
  • You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” multiple times a day.
  • You often feel confused and even crazy.
  • You frequently apologize to your partner.
  • You cannot understand why–with so many apparently good things in your life–you aren’t happier.
  • You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
  • You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
  • You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is–even to yourself.
  • You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.
  • You have trouble making simple decisions.
  • You have the sense that you used to be a very different person–more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
  • You feel hopeless and joyless.
  • You feel as though you cannot do anything right.
  • You wonder if you are a “good enough” partner.

At its extreme, the ultimate objective of a gaslighter is to control, dominate, and take advantage of another individual or a group. But, as I always say, this is not a life sentence. If you have been or are a victim of gaslighting or believe that you have used gaslighting in relationships, you do not have to continue that pattern. Get help. Learn how to break the cycle and create healthy relationships. I am a trained, licensed therapist, and I am here to help. My door is always open! 

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Abuse: When Love Hurts

“If you walked away from a toxic, negative, abusive, one-sided, dead-end low vibrational relationship or friendship—you won.”  ~Lalah Delia

Healthy relationships involve respect, trust, and consideration for each other. Relationships where abuse is present, on the other hand, involve mistreatment, disrespect, intense jealousy, controlling behavior, and/or physical violence. I tend to focus more on building healthy relationships in my blog posts, but after attending a recent training, I realized I cannot ignore a topic that so many readers can relate to. While Hollywood is depicting the vast majority of relationships as happy and fulfilling, more than 12 million American women and men experience some type of abuse in their relationship over the course of a year. Relationships where abuse is present, unfortunately, are NOT uncommon. I hope this post is not only informative for my readers that may find themselves in a relationship where any kind of abuse is present, but also motivational for them to speak up.

What types of relationship abuse are there?

Abuse is the misusing or regularly/repeatedly treating someone with cruelty or violence. While that definition is straightforward enough, there are many types of abuse that need to be discussed when defining abuse.

There is physical abuse (any form of violence, such as hitting, punching, pulling hair, and kicking).

There is emotional or psychological abuse (threatening the physical health of the victim or the victim’s loved ones, purposely controlling the victim’s freedom, and/or acting to undermine or isolate the victim, intimidation, gaslighting, putdowns, controlling behavior, and betrayal).

There is sexual abuse (being forced into any sort of sexual activity).

There is verbal abuse (yelling, put-downs, name-calling, making threats, constantly correcting or interrupting a person, and even employing the silent treatment).

There is spiritual abuse (also known as religious abuse; a form of controlling a person under the guise of religion or the misuse of religion for selfish or secular ends).

Basically, abuse is about domination and submission; it is about giving and withholding in the extreme. In a relationship where abuse is present, a form (or multiple forms!) of abuse is (are) employed by one partner to maintain power and control over the other partner in an intimate relationship. The feelings of love, loyalty, and devotion in the relationship make it difficult to recognize reality, break the cycle, and get help.

Who can be in an relationship with abuse?

Anyone can be a victim to a relationship where abuse is present. No matter the race, age, sexual orientation, religion or gender, anyone can be a victim (or perpetrator!). It can happen to people who are married, living together or who are dating. It affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels.

What causes abuse in relationships?

In relationships where abuse is present, often the offender has low self-worth, or has a history of abuse in their family-of-origin and thus feels powerless. Because of this, they use behaviors, such as threats, violence, and mind games to gain a sense of power and control over their partner. The following infographic from the National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines and gives specific examples of abuse in relationships. Regardless of where you start reading on the wheel, everything comes back to the center, the true motive for any kind of abuse: power and control.

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What are the signs of relationships with abuse?

As previously mentioned, relationships with abuse are not limited to physical violence. Here are some warning signs to be aware of for any type of relationship where abuse is present:

  1. Trying to control where you go/who you see/what you say.
  2. Demanding to know where you are every minute.
  3. Accusing you of being unfaithful or of flirting.
  4. Isolating you from family and friends, often by behaving rudely to them.
  5. Constantly comparing you unfavourably to others.
  6. Deliberately breaking things you value.
  7. Threatening to use violence against you, your family, friends or pets.
  8. Harming you physically.
  9. Forcing you into unwanted sexual encounters.
  10. Punishing you by withholding affection.
  11. Insulting, demeaning, criticizing, or shaming you with put-downs.
  12. Controlling every penny spent.
  13. Preventing you from making your own decisions.
  14. Refusing to trust you and acting jealous or possessive.
  15. Telling you that you are a bad parent; threatening to harm or take away your children.
  16. Intimidating you with guns, knives or other weapons.
  17. Pressuring you to use drugs or alcohol.
  18. Making everything your fault (gaslighting)
  19. Controlling your appearance: your clothes, how much/little makeup you wear, etc.
  20. Using sarcasm and unpleasant tone of voice.
  21. Saying things like “I love you but…” or, “If you don’t _____, I will_____.”

It is common for someone who is being abused to believe that the abuse he/she is experiencing is his/her own fault and that the abuse is somehow deserved. This is a form of abuse itself and could not be farther from the truth! If you walk away with nothing else from this article, I hope that you know that you are never to blame for the abuse!

Being a victim of any type of abuse in a relationship is traumatizing. It can cause anxiety, lowered levels of self-esteem, diminished self-worth, distrust or difficulty connecting with others, and–in severe cases–post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Getting out of and moving on from a relationship where abuse is present will require a steady support system of family, friends, and often a support group. In many cases, the victim needs drugs an advocate–someone to give them a voice in order to break free from the toxic relationship.  That is where I come in; I am an experienced, licensed therapist who has seen multiple couples and individuals work through relationships with abuse. I can help. If you are concerned that you may be a victim of a relationship where abuse is present, please do not hesitate to contact me with questions or to schedule a session. My door is always open and I am here to help.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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