Have you ever had a friend, partner, family member, coworker, or even an acquaintance do/say something stunningly mean, but when confronted about it, the person suddenly completely denies, minimizes, redirects, distracts, deletes the evidence, calls you a liar, tries to make you feel like you are “crazy”, and/or otherwise attempts to invalidate your perfectly legitimate outrage?
If so, welcome to the dark, twisted, manipulative, maddening, bizarre world of gaslighting.
The effects of being gaslighted can range the gamut from simple, but utter, puzzlement if it is a unexpected situation by a Twitter acquaintance all the way to devastating, destabilizing self-doubt if it is done on an ongoing basis by a loved one.
The term gaslighting was named for the 1944 Ingrid Bergman/Charles Boyer movie, Gaslight, in which a diabolical man manipulates his wife into doubting her own sanity.
The term now is used to refer to an insiduous form of psychological manipulation in which the gaslighter attempts to confuse and disorient by twisting facts and clouding reality.
As evidenced by the movie, gaslighters have been around since the “good old days”, but now social media has exponentially increased their visibility and reach, allowing gaslighting to even happen on a hit-and-run basis from internet acquaintances.
Gaslighting examples might include:
**Your partner makes a derogatory comment about you while you are present. When you confront her about it, she denies that it ever happened, says you misunderstood, says you are always “too sensitive”, and/or blames you for the situation. As a result, you begin to doubt your own perception, and you may even end up apologizing when there is nothing to apologize for.
**You can never do anything right, according to your mother. She belittles your weight, your hair, your clothes, your books, your choice of career or partner, even the color of your shoes. When you tell her how a specific demeaning comment makes you feel, she denies ever saying anything of the sort (even though you heard her say it yourself). She starts crying, saying that you are ungrateful and selfish and always “misunderstand”. You end up feeling guilty that you could have possibly blamed your poor little old mother and vow to keep your mouth shut next time.
**A Twitter acquaintance suddenly attacks you (or an ally)…seemingly out-of-the-blue. Horrid name-calling and complete rudeness ensues from the gaslighter. When confronted, however, the gaslighter vehemently (and very treacly-sweetly) denies ever saying anything nasty at all, and, in the meantime, the gaslighter has deleted all of the offending tweets. The gaslighter then garners sympathy from unwitting outsiders (who never saw the offending deleted tweets) by saying: 1). that you are inexplicably lying about her; 2). that she would never-ever-EVER do such a thing, because she is such a nice person and everyone should know that; and 3). that she often deletes her tweets (although you can’t help but notice that she did not delete any of her tweets…except for the ones in which she looks bad).
**Your best friend flirts in an obvious and inappropriate manner with your partner. When you confront her about it, she says that you imagined it, that you are always so unreasonable and possessive, and that you are always so insecure and needy. You end up apologizing for the “misunderstanding” because, after all, you tell yourself, friends are forever. Right? (Then why do you feel like you just got run over by a Mack truck)?
This kind of dynamic can play out in endless scenarios; the above examples are just a few of the possibilities.
Regardless of the players or the topic, however, the underlying factors are always the same and involve some or all of the following:
1). The gaslighter will not take responsibility for her own actions nor admit any fault.
2). Instead of taking responsibility for her own actions, the gaslighter manipulates the gaslightee and the situation in order to destabilize the gaslightee’s sense of reality and to twist the facts.
3). Gaslighting techniques might include (but are not limited to) denying, minimizing, lying, insulting, demeaning, destroying evidence, twisting facts, bringing others in for support, and/or manipulating people, the situation, and/or the physical environment to support their contorted version of events.
4). The end result is typically the gaslightee feeling guilty, bad, confused, self-doubting, and/or unsettled. The gaslightee often questions herself and her perceptions of events. The gaslightee will often end up apologizing, even when she did nothing wrong. The gaslightee’s feelings after such an incident are somewhat akin to a bad hangover, although much more long-lasting and damaging.
5). Often, others who are naive to gaslighting tactics will jump on the bandwagon in support of the gaslighter, rather than understanding that they are only pawns in an intricate game of deception. Some may be intentionally brought into the situation by the gaslighter, for the dual purposes of gaining support as well as to further make the gaslightee doubt her own perceptions.
6). Gaslighters are typically charming and well-liked by acquaintances and the general public who have not had the misfortune of being their target, yet. They are usually articulate and friendly to strangers/acquaintances, which also helps them succeed in looking credible and gaining support, contributing further to the gaslightee questioning herself.
So, what can you do when faced with gaslighting? Here are a few suggestions:
1). Read The Gaslight Effect by Robin Stern, Ph.D. (and read it immediately if you are in a romantic relationship where gaslighting is happening). Dr. Stern’s book thoroughly covers the topic and gives many practical and insightful suggestions. As Dr. Stern says here in regard to the gaslight effect in long-term relationships:
“Gaslighting is the systematic attempt by one person to erode another’s reality, by telling them that what they are experiencing isn’t so – and, the gradual giving up on the part of the other person. Gaslighting takes two – one person who needs to be in control to maintain his sense of self, and the other, who needs the relationship to maintain her sense of self and is willing to acquiesce. The Gaslight Effect happens when you find yourself second guessing your own reality, confused and uncertain of what you think, because you have allowed another to define reality and tell you what you think — and who you are. Gaslighting can be maddening in the early stages and soul destroying when it fully takes hold.”
2). Trust your own intuition and observations. If you have seen something with your own eyes or heard it with your own ears, and someone is telling you that you are wrong, realize that you are not the “crazy” one in this situation.
3). State your truth, then disengage from the gaslighter as quickly as possible. You aren’t going to “win” a battle with a gaslighter, because she will never admit she is wrong nor acknowledge your legitimate concerns. Stick up for yourself, assertively but briefly, then move on.
4). Be aware of this behavior, so you will know how to recognize it quickly in the future and act before becoming close to a gaslighter.
5). If you see this behavior in someone you do not HAVE to interact with, avoid that person at all costs, no matter how “sweet” and “friendly” she may seem. A good analogy is a cobra in a bunny suit; the bunny suit looks fluffy and happy and safe, but make no mistake, the cobra inside is coiled and waiting to strike.
6). If you see the behavior in someone who you do currently still have to interact with, stay on guard. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of well-being.
7). Keep a private journal in a safe place, and/or talk to a trusted friend or therapist, in order to maintain your own sense of reality and self-esteem. Write down exactly what happens, as specifically and in as much details as possible. Refer back to your notes frequently. Look for patterns of behavior.
8). If the altercation occurs via email, letter, or online, consider keeping physical evidence of the event ~ for your own sense of reality ~ not as a way to argue or engage with the gaslighter. (Keep the email or letter, or screencap the nastiness if it happens on social media, and email yourself a copy).
9). Minimize your contact with the gaslighter, and keep interactions neutral whenever possible.
10). Consider your part in the interactions. As Dr. Stern says, it takes two to engage in the dance of gaslighting. If there are ways you can protect yourself or change the outcome of feeling disempowered, do so.
11). Seek mental health or legal or other professional advice if needed (please see **Notes**, below).
12). Above all, take care of yourself and don’t let anyone’s manipulations crush your sense of self or confuse your sense of reality.
In summary, I wanted to bring up a well-known Maya Angelou quote:
“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”
When you see serious gaslighting behavior, please don’t just write it off as “a fluke” or excuse it by saying “She was just having a bad day”.
Of course, everyone can be grumpy and say things we don’t mean, but the critical difference to consider is that most people are capable of analyzing our own actions, taking responsibility, respecting the other person’s feelings, apologizing when necessary, and learning important lessons when altercations happen.
Note that a gaslighter does none of these healthy behaviors, but rather, a gaslighter makes the situation even worse by engaging in the gaslighting behaviors listed above.
You cannot get blood from a turnip, and you cannot get reason nor empathy from a gaslighter.
So, when a gaslighter shows you who she is…please believe her…the first time.
1). I am using “she” for this post for simplicity’s sake, but please note that gaslighters and gaslightees can either be male or female.
2). As always, please be aware of this standard disclaimer: Nothing I write is ever intended to be professional advice, nor is it intended to be a substitute for the advice of a professional. Please take appropriate precautions, and always seek professional help regarding any/all mental health issues/needs.