Gaslighting: Signs, Symptoms and what you can do
Updated: Aug 16
Gaslighting is back in the news again. It is essential we understand the damage that coercive relationships can have on our mental health.
However, as with many terms, as they grow in "popular usage", their meaning can get distorted, and because "gaslighting" is a very large word - used as a synonym for "coercive control" (thus on a par with words like harassment) - it is important that we get it right.
In particular, while some of the behaviours do include "belittling" the other, or blaming them rather than taking any responsibility for a situation - when someone is gaslighting these are calculated and executed as a drip feed of control. It is far more subtle than someone shouting abusive language to make another person feel small - of course that behaviour is also abhorrent, but it is not gaslighting.
ORIGIN OF THE TERM
“Gaslight”, promoted as a "Victorian thriller" told the story of one man's obsession with an old crime was written in the late 30's, made into two films and remains a favourite on the amateur circuit. The protagonist return to the scene of a vicious crime he committed 20 years previously looking for a jewel he couldn’t find at the time, and he brings with him his wife who he is slowly, systematically manipulating to make her think she is going out of her mind. The play suggests it is because she is the niece of the victim (giving him access to the property), and she is “beginning to know too much” - it could also be simply because he found it enjoyable.
We meet the couple when the wife, Bella, is already seemingly on edge, with the act of buying a treat for tea being something to fret over. We learn that she believes she is seeing things and hearing things which are frightening her, exacerbated by her husband, Jack, telling her not only is it her imagination, but that she is likely going mad - and he is trying to protect her. We witness what her husband must see - a picture goes missing off the wall, and Bella, despite her protestations knows where it is...and we wonder, is it her? As the play progresses we learn the depths of Jack's cruelty - including the act of hiding the picture himself as part of a long game he is playing.
CHARACTERISTICS OF GASLIGHTING
- Systematic manipulation of the abused's memory (eg. taking things from where the person knew they put them, hiding them and asking the person to look for them)
- Shows of kindness (words, actions) while also making comments to the abused such as "are you mad?"
- Projecting behaviours onto the abused if they dare to question anything eg "Are you accusing me?"
- Making the abused believe they are always in the wrong eg "It's you who thinks that, darling".
- Blatant lying eg. clearly flirting with someone in front of the abused and then saying "I was just talking" if they dare to question it.
- Isolating the abused from others who might bring some reality to their perspective (sometimes with extra lies that help elevate the abuser's position "They don't like me, and all I'm doing is looking after you - you don't need people like that around you.")
This results in the abused not being able to trust their own judgment helping to make them completely dependant on the abuser. The sporadic positive reinforcement offered by the abuser colloquially termed “breadcrumbing”, will often be enough to keep them hoping to recapture what it was like at the start of the relationship.
WHY DOES IT HAPPEN?
While there is limited research supporting this, it is also possible that the more compassionate a person is, the more likely they may fall for such an abuser - often excusing any early indiscretions as such and believing they will change. It is also worth noting that while gaslighting can completely damage a person's sense of self worth - the abused often did not start out that way. Gaslighting is often committed by those with Narcissistic personalities - who would be more likely to be attracted to a vibrant, confident partner (prey) in the first instance and break them down.
It is also worth mentioning that in order to be 'the person of your dreams' you need to be clear on that, and express it - it is often confident people who are and do so, and therefore quite easy for the gaslighter to know how to act...you've said so.
But, anyone can be abused (cf. Domesticviolence.org; Psychcentral; NHS.org; Mind.org), which is why, although the play is about a male perpetrator, I have otherwise refrained from applying a specific gender to abuser or the abused.
BEHAVIOUR PATTERNS OF THE ABUSED (that others may recognise)
- Always on edge – “walking on eggshells”, unsure whether actions will provoke kindness or reproach...or nothing at all.
- Desperation for approval - every crumb of compassion is something seized upon often to the point where something tiny can make you euphoric.
- Isolation - from being very social, you may find you now barely leave the house – it may even be that they believe it is for your own good, or insist it is your choice not to go out.
- Accepting blame – always thinking that unpleasant and emotional scenes are because you provoked them.
- A change in personal grooming and esteem. Perhaps thinking you are "not fit to be seen" or that you “really are going mad”
- Fear of letting anyone see what is going on – partly because you believe it is largely your fault. Because of the pattern of gaslighting starting with being “the lover of your dreams” and the “love bombing technique often employed when the abuser feels they are losing control, the abused is likely to remember that they “used to be happy and now we are not” – and potentially believe it is because of them. Sometimes you may even believe you are “…a bad person”, or that you must have changed for the worse in some way.
- No longer trusting your own judgment. Maybe you “misplace” things which turn up in unexpected places, or maybe you even see your partner in a compromising situation and are told “stop imagining it.”
- You may no longer feel attractive and believe it's because of your own behaviours - crying, shouting, choosing not to leave the house...
- You may even feel your partner is doing you the favour of keeping you around – so damaged can self esteem become.
Worst of all – it often takes much more than being told this is happening to convince the abused to leave.
It is not right that someone is trying to tell you what you have experienced, and gaslighting is done over time. It is more than projection - which can sometimes be misplaced empathy eg "I know how you feel" (when you are thinking - you have no idea!"). Further, it can happen to anyone. It can happen for no reason other than because the gaslighter wants to do it – and is really really good at it, or that they simply function through security in their ability to control others. So often we do make excuses for behaviours in relationships, especially when we are in love – it is no wonder gaslighting can boil us like the frog in water.
WHAT CAN YOU DO if you think you are being gaslighted?
Recognise if someone is trying to control your behaviours - even if they have "good reason" eg "It's for your own good." As an adult you have the right to decide that.
Recognise you are beginning to mistrust your judgment - perhaps you notice you are deferring to your partner, or to others more, just to check that you did "read that right". And also, if you find that you are deferring opinion to your partner, that is another warning sign.
Related to the above, if you start going against what you would have liked because "[your partner] will get upset", that is another red flag.
Try and keep a diary of what is happening so that you can look at your account and compare it with what you may be told later.
Try and see people who are not part of the direct situation...and recognise if you are being cajoled not to see them!
…and try to have the confidence to ask someone you trust (or a helpline such as MIND) "This happened...is this right?".
If you are able to leave the abuser, do so completely, your self-esteem is likely to be in a position where it is too easy to be seduced back
…and find a therapist who understands the phenomenon and who is able to help build your self esteem and empowerment rather than a focus on taking responsibility for your actions.
MIND - helping someone else: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helping-someone-else/
MIND - seeking help yourself: https://www.mind.org.uk/need-urgent-help/?ctaId=/need-urgent-help/using-this-tool/slices/using-this-tool/
INTERNATIONAL RESOURCE GUIDE:https://www.mysticmag.com/psychic-reading/domestic-violence-resource-guide/
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt