Gaslighting is a psychological manipulation tactic used to induce confusion and doubt; it is, in fact, a form of emotional and psychological abuse in which the manipulator distorts reality, falsifies information, denies obvious truths, with the purpose of making someone doubt their own perception, thus becoming more vulnerable and easier to control.
The term originates from a 1944 film called "Gaslight" in which a husband manipulates his wife into believing that she has lost her mind. Every evening, she notices that the gas lamps in their home are getting dimmer (hence the title), and that there are strange noises in the house. When she tries to discuss these things with her husband, he accuses her of having psychological problems, even though he is the one orchestrating all these events.
This type of behavior, whose main purpose is to exert power over others, can be found (but not exclusively) in individuals with narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, or psychopathy. For example, in the case of narcissistic individuals, gaslighting is often a defense mechanism. Narcissists create an idealized image of themselves to compensate for the chronic shame they feel. They try to convince themselves and others that they are that ideal image. They do not admit when they are wrong, even for minor mistakes, because they do not want to jeopardize that image in any way. Therefore, even if they know deep down that their behavior is, in one way or another, inappropriate, it is very difficult for them to admit it because they can’t handle feelings of guilt, shame, or inadequacy. They prefer to deny, blame others, minimize, or distort the truth.
So, what are the gaslighting techniques?
Denial and "forgetting" - pretending that something that happened did not happen or that something that did not happen did occur. The other person will also "forget" when it is convenient for them. For example, if you confront them about a previous negative behavior or something they said, they will claim not to remember it.
Playing the victim - the other person will play the victim, shifting the focus away from their own actions and making you feel guilty or responsible for their "suffering."
False accusations - they accuse you of things you did not do, leading you to doubt your own integrity and defend yourself in a "trial" where you are not sure if you are guilty or not.
Emotional withholding - the manipulative person withdraws their affection and ceases to provide any form of validation and approval, making you feel unloved and worthless. These behaviors are, in fact, control techniques.
Distraction - changing the subject to something insignificant.
Projection - the manipulator attributes their own abusive behaviors to you, making you feel like you are the one with the problems.
Blaming others - the manipulator refuses to take responsibility for their own words and actions, placing blame on someone or something else for situations they are directly responsible for.
Sudden changes in behavior - for example, in private, the person behaves rudely, can be cruel, disrespectful, or mocking, but in public, they suddenly change their attitude and become the most affectionate and charming person. If those around you see your partner as supportive, warm, and kind, they may not consider your situation as serious as it is and may question your words or perspective. This emotional rollercoaster, where one day you are treated with affection and love, and the next with harshness and coldness, leaves you feeling confused and disoriented, unable to predict the other person's behavior.
Minimization - your feelings or experiences are invalidated or minimized, and you are told that you are being too sensitive, exaggerating, or that you have no right to feel the way you do: "You're too sensitive", "You're exaggerating", "What's the big deal?", "You have no reason to feel this way."
Rhetorical questions - rhetorical questions are used to question your perceptions: "Are you sure you're not mistaken?", "How can you believe such a thing?"
Falsifying information - inventing or distorting information to create confusion and make you feel insecure.
Withholding certain information - the other person keeps important information to themselves that could be of great help to you. This way, the manipulative person places themselves in a position of power by holding knowledge that you don't have and manipulating reality in their favor.
Excusing inappropriate behavior by comparing it to a minor mistake made by someone else and giving the impression that the other person's mistake is just as serious or even more serious: "Yes, I did that, but what you did was just as bad."
Denying their own mistakes and highlighting yours - the other person constantly points out your mistakes, no matter how insignificant they are, while presenting themselves in a favorable light as if they were "perfect."
Bringing up past mistakes is another manipulation technique, as it makes you doubt your perceptions. For example, irrelevant past incidents in which you did or said something wrong are brought up: "You always mess things up; don't you remember when... / you don't remember, but you always make mistakes like these."
Making contradictory statements - for example, one evening they might tell you how much they enjoy going out to restaurants, but if you prepare a surprise date and make a reservation at the best restaurant in town, they might say, "Where did you get that idea? I'm not the type to eat out...". With statements like these, the other person aims to make you feel like you are imagining things or inventing them.
Avoiding discussing with you if it's not in their favor - if you suggest discussing something that really concerns or upsets you, they avoid the discussion or rush to a conclusion to end the conversation, even if the issue has not been resolved. They may even accuse you of trying to deceive or manipulate them.
Accusing you of misinterpreting things, being paranoid, or "crazy" - the other person claims they did nothing wrong and that you have misinterpreted the situation. Also, there is repeated lying.
Discrediting you and attempting to turn others against you - they accuse you in front of other people of not remembering things correctly, having a habit of inventing things, or becoming confused quickly. They use other people to form "alliances" against you and support their claims. They might say things like, "Everyone else agrees with me; you're the only one who thinks this way," "X believes you're wrong," "Y said you can't..." even if those people never said such a thing. The purpose is for you to no longer know whom to trust and rely solely on the manipulator for confirmation and validation.
Omitting context / taking things out of context - the other person blames you for certain things and portrays you in a certain way without considering the context in which you said or did those things. For example, "You're a very aggressive person, always yelling and reacting impulsively" (even if you raised your voice only once due to a loud noise).
Normalizing inappropriate behaviors - the other person claims that there is nothing wrong with their behavior: "Everyone does it," even if this is not true. Most people would not choose the same kind of behavior.
Downplaying the gravity of their actions and presenting them as acceptable or even good by giving examples of worse behaviors they haven't done: "It's not a big deal; I could have... What would you have said then?", "Don't overreact; at least I didn't do something worse."
Inducing feelings of guilt and shame - the other person makes you feel guilty or ashamed for your actions. For example, if you express your disagreement with how the other person is behaving, if you tell them that the way they treat you bothers you, or if you set boundaries, they may say things like, "You're selfish; you only think about yourself," "Do you really want to make me feel bad? Why bring up this topic?", "You're always criticizing me."
Isolation - by isolating you, the manipulator maintains control over your perception of reality by limiting your opportunities to seek help, get other opinions, have contact with external sources of support, or engage in constructive interpersonal interactions with those around you.
Gaslighting starts subtly and turns into a repetitive pattern of manipulation. Therefore, it's important to be aware of how you feel in that relationship, whether it's a romantic, family, or professional one. Someone may try to convince you that they are right and you are wrong, not because they want to manipulate you, but because they firmly believe what they know is true (even if it may not be), and they want to defend their beliefs and opinions at all costs. Another person might say, "Don't you think you're overreacting?" because they can't find more appropriate words to encourage you to reconsider the situation at that moment. Observe whether it's a repetitive pattern, whether the person consistently makes you doubt your own perceptions and reality.
How do you feel when someone is gaslighting you?
You often feel unhappy, anxious, confused, as if you are not yourself anymore.
You feel like you can't do anything "right."
You feel trapped or powerless in your relationship.
You sense imminent danger when you are around that person, as if something bad could happen at any moment.
You feel "threatened" or uneasy without knowing why.
You feel lonely and often have the sensation that others consider you "weird," "crazy," or "emotionally unstable," just as the manipulator has made you believe.
You repeatedly take the blame upon yourself.
You frequently apologize; you assume that others are disappointed in you and apologize constantly for what you do or who you are; you always feel like you're making all sorts of mistakes.
You doubt yourself, your judgment, intuition, and perceptions.
You try to convince yourself that the way the other person treats you isn't that bad, that you're actually misinterpreting things. You're afraid to express your thoughts and emotions. You've learned that doing so often makes you feel worse in the end (due to the other person's reaction), so you've become increasingly silent.
You frequently wonder if you're too sensitive and end up criticizing and despising yourself for it.
You find it difficult to make decisions because you don't trust yourself. You'd prefer someone else to make decisions for you, and most of the time, you delegate this responsibility to those close to you.
You feel that your thoughts and feelings are often minimized.
You feel like you're losing more and you’re your self-confidence.
You doubt your memories.
You feel much more stressed and less joyful than before.
You feel like you're "losing your mind" or becoming increasingly incompetent and worthless. You wonder if you really are as they say you are – clumsy, emotional, irrational, and incapable. Often, you end up repeating all these things to yourself in your inner dialogue and feel like you're never "good enough. You try to meet the expectations of others (even if they're absurd) and please them.
You often wonder what's wrong with you. You're disappointed in yourself and the person you've become. You feel weak and passive and believe that you used to be much stronger and more assertive in the past.
What does a person who tries to gaslight you frequently say?
"I didn't say that / I didn't do that."
"You're too sensitive."
"You're exaggerating / dramatizing."
"I don't understand why you're making a big deal out of this."
"You're the one with a problem, not me" or "You are the problem, not me."
"You're crazy," "You're paranoid," "You're imagining things."
"You're making things up."
"You're selfish if you don't do this for me."
"If you loved me, you would do this."
"You lack self-confidence; that's why you think this way."
"That never happened."
"It's no big deal."
"You made me do this."
"I don't think you feel that way / you have no reason to feel that way."
How can you respond?
"Don't tell me how to feel. I know how I feel."
"It's important for me to discuss these matters, and I have the right to get some clarification. Don't tell me I'm dramatizing."
"I won't continue this discussion if you keep minimizing my feelings / making fun of my opinions."
"Please don't deviate from the subject; we'll discuss this later."
"I know what I saw / heard; don't try to convince me I imagined it."
"It bothers me when you tell me I'm too sensitive. My feelings are valid, even if you do not like that."
In personal relationships, especially in romantic ones, it can be difficult to realize if you are the target of gaslighting, especially if you trust that person. You may become emotionally drained, lose self-confidence, become anxious or depressed and may have begun to develop certain physical conditions. You feel like you're the source of all problems, especially because you're minimized, ridiculed, and disregarded. However, if you start to notice that this is happening, that you no longer feel good about yourself or the relationship, ending that relationship can be the most effective and safe way to stop the abuse. Seek the help of a specialist to support you in this process.
As a temporary strategy, maintaining your calm and not engaging in endless contradictory discussions that cause even more confusion can be another useful thing you can do. Express your thoughts and feelings and even insist on repeating them if the other person tries to divert the conversation or convince you of something you don't want.
Talk to trusted people about what's happening to you, your concerns, and how you feel. Another external perspective can help you see things more clearly.
Listen to your intuition - if you feel that something is not right in your relationship, it most likely isn't. Trust yourself and what you feel, and don't allow the other person to tell you how you should feel, what you should think, or label you and give you "diagnoses." You have the right to be respected and also have your opinions and feelings respected, so don't settle for anything less.
In the next article, we will discuss gaslighting in the workplace and in friendship relationships, so stay close!
Dr. Ursula Sandner