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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