What is Gaslighting?
Social media is fabulous for getting the word out about anything. I’m so happy to see people openly talking about mental health and things like gaslighting. Unfortunately, the downside is that the information isn’t always accurate. So, let’s talk about what is gaslighting.
Gaslighting is not simply lying. Lying is confusing and destroys trust. Lying is a part of gaslighting, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Gaslighting is also not saying no. People are allowed to disagree and set boundaries. Gaslighting usually includes disagreeing with you, but again, it’s more than that.
Gaslighting is the intentional manipulation of reality to make the receiver of that information doubt him or herself, question her sanity, or stay off balance. The term comes from the 1940’s movie, Gaslight, In the movie, the husband raises and lowers the gaslamp flame then denies that it’s been changed. This causes his wife to second guess her reality and feel like she’s going crazy. This is a perfect example of what gaslighting looks like.
Gaslighting is when someone manipulates words in such a way that their version of reality is right and yours is wrong. It’s usually done so that some parts of their story is plausible. That causes you to doubt despite evidence that supports your version of reality. Gaslighting is a power play to give the gaslighter the upper hand. It is habitual and includes small things that have no real importance to huge things that are deal breakers.
The Elements of Gaslighting
Lying. A good liar is hard to spot, but when someone lies about little things that you know are not true, this is a warning sign that they are not trustworthy. There is more that they are hiding from you than that! A trustworthy person is able to speak the truth regardless of the consequences. If there is a misunderstanding, they explain it.
Denial. If you say, “Didn’t you say…” and the other person denies it, be wary! There may be more than one version of events because we don’t perceive things the same, but some things are black and white. Something was either said or it wasn’t. Something was either done or it wasn’t. That’s black and white and leaves nothing up to interpretation.
They Minimize Your Feelings. When you get upset, they say, “You’re too sensitive” or “Are you going to make a big deal out of that?” This is a tactic that diminishes you and takes away your power. If your feelings don’t matter, they don’t have to consider them. When you accept this too, they have all the permission they need to continue treating you as if you aren’t there.
They Use Flying Monkeys to Reinforce Their Reality. “Flying Monkeys” is a term comes from the Wizard of Oz. The bad witch didn’t attack Dorothy and her gang. She had her flying monkeys do it for her. Gaslighters will do the same. They convince others of their reality and then send them to either harass you or see things the way the gaslighter does. This reinforces the message that you are wrong.
They Pull You Away From Your Support. The gaslighter needs people around who can be manipulated. To do that successfully, they need to get you away from healthy people. They do this by casting doubt on your friends and family with statements like, “She didn’t really seem to be so happy about your promotion” or “I don’t think your parents treat you very nice.” This increases their power and increases your vulnerability.
They Are Always Right. This means that you are always wrong. They don’t take responsibility and don’t apologize unless it will give them even more power in the end. They protect their self esteem at the cost of yours. They weaker you are, the stronger they are, and the easier you are to manipulate. It’s a win/win for them and a lose/lose for you.
It’s healthy to self-examine. There is usually room for doubt. The gaslighter will count on your sense of fair play and willingness to self-examine. It gives him a way to avoid doing this. When in doubt, the healthy person generally will say, “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt since I can’t be 100% sure.” This allows the gaslighting to continue.
They Highlight Your Faults. This is another way to reduce your self esteem and increase their power. Sometimes they will criticize strengths to make them faults. For example, let’s say you’re a great piano player. They may say that your timing is off, your music doesn’t move them the way that it used to, or just ignore a great performance to undermine your confidence.
Equilibrium is Restored When They Feel Good. If your discussions and arguments end when they feel good, and you often feel rotten and you’re the one apologizing, that’s not a great sign. It’s healthier when you both take responsibility for what you brought to the problem and both feel good.
What Gaslighting is Not
Many of my clients learn Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). One of the features of DBT is the ability to hold two opposing beliefs as true at the same time. This can confuse people because it seems like the same thing that gaslighters are trying to do. For example, “I want to be better” and “I don’t want to go to therapy” can both be true at the same time. “I am still upset about the argument last night” and “I still want to be with you” can also be true at the same time. The difference between this and gaslighting is the intention to manipulate and gain control. Practicing dialectics is healthy. Gaslighting is not.
How to Respond to Gaslighting
Set Clear Boundaries. Know what you will and will not do. Be clear. Stand your ground. Make a yes mean yes and no means no. This will reduce the likelihood of becoming a target for gaslighters. They want easy prey.
Focus on You. A gaslighter may try to minimize your feelings, but he can’t tell you what you feel. For example, if you say, “When X happens, it doesn’t feel good” is not something that can be manipulated. He may try with, “Aw, you’re so sensitive” to make you back down. It doesn’t change the way you feel. A gaslighter may try to make you do something or not do something, but he can’t tell you what to do. For example, “I don’t want to argue anymore” and walking away avoids all talk of blame, so you get around the manipulation that usually accompanies who did what.
Don’t Engage. Some people gaslight because they haven’t learned good social skills. When you engage with healthy relationship skills, they respond in the same way. There is a chance that you can have a mutually satisfying relationship with this person because they are willing to grow. Someone who doesn’t want to change is probably not worth investing in because it will cost you a lot of time, self-worth, and power. If you reduce or eliminate contact, your life will be smoother.