Has anyone ever said something to you that stopped you in your tracks and made you question your very sanity?
Did it make you doubt your memories and your perception of reality itself?
Chances are you’ve been the victim of gaslighting.
Gaslighting is one of the most harmful forms of mental and emotional abuse. It takes aim squarely at a person’s sense of self-confidence, gradually whittling away at it until they are left questioning whether what they experience, think, and feel is real or some fantasy their mind has made up.
The aim is clear: to confuse and disorient the victim so that the perpetrator can gain total control over them. The more seeds of doubt that can be sown in the victim’s mind, the easier it becomes for the perpetrator to dictate every situation to their liking.
Gaslighting also degrades a person’s ability – and desire – to challenge their abuser because each time they do, the goalposts are moved yet again in order to turn their arguments against them.
Eventually, the victim becomes so incapacitated by fear and doubt that they are easily manipulated into doing whatever the perpetrator wishes. They lose all their fight and become the metaphorical puppets of their abusive masters.
Gaslighting is a tactic employed by narcissists, Machiaevellians, cult leaders, dictators, and control freaks. Sometimes, even “ordinary” people can resort to it in the hope of swaying another’s opinions toward their own.
To help you understand and identify this tactic of manipulation, here are some examples of it in action.
Gaslighting In Relationships
Perhaps the most common use of gaslighting is by one partner in a couple. Those in the relationship might insist to the outside world that it is loving and intimate, but it is anything but. Indeed, the very use of this form of manipulation rules out true love and affection.
The controlling partner will begin to sprinkle a little gaslighting into exchanges quite early on in the relationship. Perhaps the last time you saw them, you agreed to do something on Saturday, but when you bring it up later in a message or on the phone, they backtrack:
“No, silly, I said Sunday. I’m busy all day Saturday.”
This seems like a fairly innocent comment and it’s one you won’t question too much because you’re in the smitten stage and perhaps you just misheard or remembered wrong.
This sort of thing, in isolation, doesn’t necessarily mean you are being gaslighted. It might be that you really did mishear, or that they misspoke without meaning to. If this type of confusion becomes a regular thing, however, you need to start asking why.
As things progress, you might notice further inconsistencies between what they say at different points in time. You may suggest going to a Thai restaurant one evening because they once said they really liked Thai cuisine. Only, you might get this response:
“I’m not a huge fan of Thai, but I know a great Mexican place we should try.”
Are you mistaken? Was it somebody else who said they liked Thai food? Or has their story changed between then and now? If you are sure as sure that they expressed a liking for one thing only to have them turn round and deny it later on, this could be their way of putting you on the back foot and shaming you into thinking you aren’t paying attention.
As the gaslighting is taken to the next level, the perpetrator will begin to make out that it is you who are now backtracking on what you have previously said. Depending on how long you have been an item, they may or may not call you out on it directly. This is one possible conversation you might have:
You: “I’ve told my family that you’re coming to our Easter lunch. They are excited to meet you.”
Them: “Didn’t we agree that we’d wait a little bit longer before doing the family thing?”
You: “We spoke about this the other day and you said you were happy to come.”
Them: “I said it’d be nice to get to know your folks, but I also suggested we give it another month. You seemed to agree with me. But it’s done now, and I don’t want to disappoint them, so I’ll come.”
Of course, they now seem like they are being accommodating by agreeing to come, even though they had said yes to it already.
Another step that the perpetrator will take is to graduate from reacting to your statements or questions with lies, to starting conversations with lies about something they or you have said or done. You might hear:
“Do you remember you said I could borrow your credit card? Well, I’ve just ordered a new pair of shoes. I’ll pay you back soon.”
This time, they fabricate a conversation in which you gave them permission to spend your money. They know it didn’t happen. You know it didn’t happen. But if you try to confront them about it, they will spin further lies about how they asked when you were busy cooking and you said it was fine… or some other believable story.
Again, this is designed to make you doubt yourself and to allow them to assert control over you and your life, feelings, and possessions.
As your resolve begins to weaken, the abuser will rely less and less on subtle deceptions and switch to more barefaced lies. They will tell you that you/they did (or didn’t) do something, or did (or didn’t) say something. Maybe you begin running a bath and leave the room to do something else while you wait. When you return, they have jumped in and taken your place. They’ll insist:
“I came in here a few minutes ago and opened the taps. You must be imagining it if you think you did. Perhaps you heard me do it and got the idea in your head.”
As ridiculous as it sounds, this work of pure fiction is not beyond the realms of possibility. Each time it happens, your self-belief is diminished that little bit more and you reach the stage where you question everything your mind is telling you.
Gaslighting Amongst Family
In a family dynamic, the most likely direction for gaslighting to take place is from parent to child. Unfortunately, children are especially vulnerable to this form of manipulation because their worldview is largely influenced by what their parents say and do.
The child is often a focal point for aggressive behavior by one or both parents and they are told off or punished regardless of whether they were to blame. Imagine a scenario in which parent and child are late leaving the house for school one morning through no fault of the child. The parent might insist it was their fault nonetheless:
“You’re going to be late for school now because of all your mucking about this morning. Why can’t you just behave yourself and do as you’re told?”
A common theme for many families, perhaps, and kids being kids, sometimes the tardiness really will be down to them. But if words such as these are spoken even when the child has done nothing wrong, that’s gaslighting. It teaches the child that they are troublesome and disobedient even if they are no more so than any other child, warping their beliefs and perception of themselves.
Children will naturally test the boundaries set by authority figures such as parents and teachers. This happens from a very young age and is a vital process that teaches kids self-control and accountability. Enforcing reasonable limits is healthy parenting, but some parents are so unwilling to see their rules broken, that even the smallest indiscretion is met with a harsh rebuke:
“You are such a naughty child and I really don’t know what we’re going to do with you.”
This sort of statement only serves to reinforce the child’s belief that they are not good enough. It also hints of serious consequences should this behavior continue, creating fear in the child that stifles their desire to explore and discover who they are. They have been labelled and they believe this label to be true.
Gaslighting can not only make someone question the events in their life, it can sow the seeds of doubts about the very feelings they experience. This is especially true in children who are still coming to terms with their emotions and what they mean.
Imagine the situation where a beloved family dog passes away and the child is distraught with tears flowing freely. A parent might flippantly toss the child’s feelings aside by saying:
“I don’t know why you’re crying so much, you never really loved the dog. You’re just acting and forcing some crocodile tears to get attention. You should be ashamed of yourself when I’m the one who is really sad here.”
In one fell swoop, the parent has totally invalidated the child’s sadness and even suggested they should feel shame for missing the dog. They have also informed the child that it is they, the parent, who is really suffering – regardless whether or not they actually are. The message is clear: my feelings matter; yours do not.
As a child grows into a young adult and then an adult, the forms of gaslighting change somewhat. The child may have developed some awareness that things are not normal and that one or both of their parents is manipulating events for their own benefit.
The parent has to adapt. One way they might do this is by relying less on complete denial of what was said or done, but insisting that things have been taken out of context and misunderstood. Phrases such as these come out of the woodwork:
“That is not what I meant at all. You haven’t understood what I was trying to say.”
“You’re making up your own story to fit what I said when it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Essentially, what this type of remark does is cast doubt in the child’s mind about how they have interpreted their parent’s words (similar phrases could be used when their actions are the bone of contention).
Friends and romantic partners may come and go as a child grows up, but their importance remains throughout. The parent understands this, but rather than celebrate these meaningful connections, they will attempt to undermine them.
Gaslighting is one of the ways they will seek to do this. They wish to convince the child that their friends and partners don’t actually like them. To do this, they may spout words such as:
“You know your friends don’t really like you, right? They are just using you because you have a car.”
“Patrick is going to leave you soon, you mark my words. He doesn’t love you and is only waiting for someone better to come along.”
“Debbie told me that she and your other classmates only invite you to parties because they feel sorry for you.”
“Why do you let Michael treat you so badly? Can’t you see that he is taking advantage of you?”
Upon hearing these phrases and others like them, the child may begin to question whether these things are true. Even if they know their parent to be a manipulative liar, it can be hard not to let their comments get to them. Just as with all gaslighting, it plants the seed of doubt and sometimes it will grow and destroy a relationship that is important to the child.
We discussed above how memories can be used as a means to confuse someone in a romantic relationship, and the same can happen in a parent-child setting too. Only this time, there are many years during which memories for the child might be less well preserved because they were young at the time.
A parent can take advantage of this by effectively retelling an event and insisting that the “facts” were different than what the child thinks they were. An example might be a situation where a sibling once got in trouble at school for fighting. The parent might turn this around like so:
“You caused me no end of headaches when you were younger. Like that time I was called into school because you were caught fighting. I was so embarrassed.”
The child might feel certain that it was their sibling who got into trouble, but it was a long time ago, so could they be wrong? Was it, in fact, they who go into a fight? If they try to correct their parent, they will likely be met with a swift and firm rejection of this point from the parent; after all, they were older and you were just a child, so of course they remember it better than you.
When a child grows up, gaslighting is often used by the parent to defend themselves and prove that they are and were a good parent. This could involve retelling the past or lying in the present. Let say, for example, that the child is now a parent themselves and this conversation comes up:
Child: “You have never once said how cute your grandchild is.”
Parent: “Nonsense, I say how adorable he is all the time.”
The parent has to say this because, well, they’d look like a pretty bad parent and grandparent if they didn’t, and this is not something they are ever going to admit to. It’s a simple lie, but it once more puts the child on the back foot because it’s difficult to prove.
While the examples in this section refer specifically to a parent-child relationship, gaslighting can involve any family members. Siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, or distant relations – there is no limit to when and how it can occur.
Gaslighting At Work
Whether it’s a boss or colleague, it is possible to find yourself being gaslighted in the workplace. Often used as a tactic to gain or maintain power, it can drive you to despair if you let it.
After being asked to perform a particular duty, you report back to your boss that it is done, only for them to reply:
“Why have you been wasting your time on that when I told you to do X instead?”
And if you get a little agitated by this (which is natural) and try to defend yourself, you might be faced with this common retort:
“Don’t you think you’re over-reacting just a little bit?”
Or let’s say you were promised a raise after a certain amount of time, only to be told this when you bring it up with your boss:
“I never said I’d give you a raise. I said I’d think about it based on your performance and that remains somewhat lacking.”
And then there’s the colleague who is scheming to get a promotion ahead of you who will casually drop some of the following lines into conversation to undermine your confidence and make you doubt your worthiness when it comes to moving up the career ladder:
“I heard the boss wasn’t happy with that report you sent him. Someone’s in trouble!”
“Weren’t you in that email? I guess the boss doesn’t trust you with that sort of information yet.”
“I only said you need to up your game a bit. Jeez, someone’s a bit sensitive today!”
Of course it might be actions as well as words that form the gaslighting. Maybe they turn off your computer screen while you’re away from your desk or move some equipment to a different place than you left it.
Remember, gaslighting is designed to confuse you and make you feel insecure, and this can take many different forms.
The Secret Ingredient
In some instances – though not all – the confusion is magnified using one simple technique.
Up until now, we’ve explored instances where the perpetrator generally talks their victim down, making them seem forgetful or weak or inadequate. Yet, if this were always the case, the victim would try to flee the relationship – whether from a partner, job, or family unit.
This is why, to prevent this possibility, the perpetrator might sometimes do a full 180 and pour on the charm, kindness, and loving behavior. What this does is it keeps the victim hoping for a positive outcome. It shows them that things aren’t all bad and that they can stick things out for another day.
It has a side-effect which is just as powerful when it comes to confusing and disorienting the victim. By being pleasant on occasion, the perpetrator sows further seeds of uncertainty into the minds of the victim. Instead of knowing what to expect, the victim will forever remain unsure which version of their abuser they will face each day. Will it be the nice one or the cruel one?
This final element is especially common in romantic relationships where the concept of love is what holds the victim in bondage to their partner.
Gaslighting Is A Weapon
No matter which way you look at it, gaslighting is a malicious act. It aims to degrade someone’s mind in such a way as to make them vulnerable to another’s control or suggestion.
It can only be described as a weapon because it causes so much psychological and emotional damage. It is a clear form of abuse and a violation of the victim’s love and respect.
Hopefully the examples above will at least help you identify instances of gaslighting in your own life or past. Recognizing it is the first step toward combating its harmful effects.
Just remember: nobody has the right to manipulate you in this way, regardless of the type of relationship.