Gaslighting is the act of making a person question their own perceptions of reality. It is a technique sometimes used by narcissists, people with antisocial personality disorder, sexual harassers, con artists, politicians, racists, cult leaders, toxic bosses, perpetuators of domestic violence, rapists, and cheating or abusive spouses.
The term is based on a movie called Gaslight, in which a husband went so far as to light the gas lamps so they would flicker and then deny that was happening to make his wife think she was insane. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse designed to deliberately keep the target off balance and damage their self-esteem to gain power and control over them. Gaslighting occurs in the workplace, in politics, and in close or intimate relationships. But how do you recognize it? Unlike overt bullying, gaslighting can be subtle and insidious.
How do you know you are dealing with a gaslighter?
Below are five things gaslighters do. Although research on gaslighting is scarcer and mostly descriptive, clinical psychologists see many patients who are subject to this type of manipulation. Gaslighting can lead to anxiety disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It can create chronic psychological stress that can damage your physical health over time.
1. Lie about things you know to be true.
Gaslighters gain control or avoid facing the consequences of their behavior by hiding and distorting information. They may tell blatant lies or subtle ones. Even when confronted with specific facts that contradict what they are saying, gaslighters may continue to repeat the lies. A partner who is cheating may deny cheating even after you see incriminating texts on their phone. Gaslighters may also claim they "don't remember" doing things you saw them do or that the situation you are talking about didn't happen.
2. Accuse you of doing the things they are doing.
Gaslighters use a defense called "projection." Projection involves denying a negative quality in yourself by seeing it in another person, even when it isn't really there. Projecting means you can continue to feel like an innocent victim. It may be a way of getting around a guilty conscience. Every now and then I receive e-mails from potential clients claiming their wife is a narcissistic abuser and painting themselves as a victim. When I dig deeper, I see that, lo and behold, they are the ones perpetuating the abuse. In a situation of intimate partner violence, the abuser might provoke rage in the victim by being demeaning, withdrawing affection, making false accusations and so on. When the partner gets angry, they then say: "I'm not abusive; you are the one yelling and losing control."
3. Call you crazy, emotionally unbalanced, or too sensitive.
Gaslighters repeatedly claim that they don't have any problems, it's all you. They impugn your mental health by accusing you of being too sensitive and overreacting when you try to talk about how they are treating you. They may even tell your friends and family that you are emotionally unbalanced to erode your sources of support. One trick of gaslighters in the workplace is to exclude you from important meetings or e-mails then deny that they did it or hide the meeting from you. When you confront them they accuse you of being paranoid or jealous.
4. Undermine you in subtle ways.
Gaslighters gain control over you by focusing on your flaws. If you tell them your insecurities, they will weaponize these against you. Under the guise of helping you, they may get you to question your own competence. They may humiliate you in public, make fun of you, then claim to be "only joking." They may give backhanded compliments or make barbed comments about your parenting, performance, competence, or intelligence.
At work, they may deliberately focus the conversation on your flaws. They may take credit for your ideas then accuse you of being jealous. They may talk you into buying a luxurious item, then criticize your spending habits. Gaslighters make you feel incompetent so they can take control of the finances or agenda. They may say that looking after money isn't "your thing" or that they are better at it. They may also speak badly of you to your family, work colleagues, or friends. They may accuse you of being a bad parent in front of the children.
5. Deflect and distract.
When you confront gaslighters about their behavior, they often change the subject or counter-attack by telling you that it's all your fault or you are the one with the problem. They may say that you made them act the way they did because you irritated them. Without addressing your concerns, they may refocus the conversation on your flaws or raise a gripe about something you did. Alternatively. they may contradict everything you said and cherry-pick the facts to support their viewpoint and undermine yours. A favorite trick of gaslighters is to focus on your tone of voice or the words you use rather than the facts of the situation. They may accuse you of being "angry" or "negative."
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What to do when you notice gaslighting.
Gaslighting can knock you off balance, making you feel confused, surreal, or enraged. Yet gaslighters won't admit they are doing it. Below are some coping strategies that can help.
- Minimize contact. Don't chat to them in the halls or go for coffee because they will have a hidden agenda.
- Don't believe what they say or give them too much "real estate" in your brain.
- If you retaliate or get enraged, they will try to make you look bad or act like a victim to garner sympathy. Therefore, you are better off giving them ambiguous responses like "really?" or "I'm confused."
- Say you are confused then ask them to clarify the contradiction: "You say this didn't happen, but I have a photo of it. I don't understand. Will you clarify what you meant."
- Talk to friends or colleagues who will validate your point of view, encourage you, and help you strategize.
- Remind yourself of your good qualities and successes to counter the negative narrative.
- Journal or keep a diary of what happened.
- Changing jobs or leaving a relationship to get away from the gaslighter is often the best response.
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Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, Ph.D. Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People -- and Break Free