Gaslighting is defined in the Urban Dictionary as “a form of intimidation or psychological abuse, where false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory, perception and quite often, their sanity”. In short, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that comes from how someone talks to you and treats you, manipulating the truth so that you gradually and persistently question your own reality.
What gives gaslighting its power is that it can be incredibly subtle. Gaslighters can be anyone: a partner, parent, friend, sibling, colleague, boss or politician. They seek to manipulate and gain power over people – and they’re not always consciously aware they’re doing it.
Dr Stephanie Sarkis has researched and written about this topic in her book Gaslighting: How to recognise manipulative and emotionally abusive people… and break free.
She says gaslighters seek to gain control over others to meet their own neediness. They may have learned to do this to survive their childhood upbringing, or they may have seen parents behave in this way too. In the chapter Is it me, or is it you making me think it’s me? she outlines some typical traits and tricks of a gaslighter.
How to spot gaslighting behaviours…
- Apologising only to get something out of you. Otherwise they’ll say something along the lines of “sorry you feel that way” – which isn’t a real apology.
- Working behind the scenes to pit people against each other – such as relaying messages through a third party. Seeing confrontation between other people gives a gaslighter power.
- Flattering and praising profusely at the beginning, and then dropping or ignoring you once they’ve achieved what they need from you. This can feel disorientating. The key is to spot that their flattery is fake from the start – not always easy.
- Expecting special treatment from their partner – and becoming angry if their needs aren’t met exactly how they expect them to be. It can feel quite scary if their anger, over time, turns into an explosive temper. Victims of gaslighters can then end up going the extra mile to please their partner just to avoid triggering this temper – losing themselves in the process.
- Obsessing about their image and your image, sometimes dropping not-so-subtle hints that make you feel not good enough.
- Associating with people who fawn over them. They’ll drop you if you’re not reflecting back their wonderfulness.
- Creating emotional dilemmas. The example Dr Sarkis offers is someone who tells you to lose weight then serves a selection of desserts with dinner. This tactic puts you in a double bind and you become unsure of yourself. Again, this gives the gaslighter power.
- Refusing to take personality responsibility – always putting the blame on the other. They won’t admit to having caused any problems themselves.
- Wearing you down over time with a combination of compliments and criticisms. You just never know where you stand.
- Lying – and denying your version of the truth.
- Teasing and mocking you in front of others – or using personal information you’ve shared with them to shame or humiliate you.
Reading the above traits, and perhaps recognising that you’ve been lured into a gaslighter’s game, may put a chill down your spine. Recognising is the first step to understanding – and the second step is to seek to reduce a gaslighter’s influence in your life. You can’t fight back using the same tools, but you can begin to show that they’re not affecting you. Ultimately, you can walk away. You can value yourself and resolve not to be treated in that way.
If you’ve experienced any form of emotional abuse and are seeking support to explore and overcome the effects of it, then get in touch with us. We can match you with a therapist who can help. We have sessions available online and by phone, as well as a growing number of face-to-face appointments at our centres in Clapham and Tooting. Call 020 8673 4545 or email [emailprotected].
With a 20-year career in print and online publishing and an MA in creative writing, Karen Dempsey has worked as a journalist, editor and copywriter and has managed large editorial teams. She is a qualified, accredited and practising psychotherapist with an MA/diploma in transpersonal integrative counselling & psychotherapy.