Paula: “But he said there wasn’t any letter. He said I was going out of my mind.”
Inspector Cameron: “You’re not going out of your mind. You’re slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here – and saying that chances are you haven’t seen this 1944 psychological thriller starring Ingrid Bergman on Netflix recently.
But I’m sure you’ve heard of the psychological maneuver that got its name from this famous flick – Gaslight. In this Academy Award Nominated film noir, the main character’s husband Gregory convinces his doting wife Paula into doubting her own view of reality. He even causes their home’s gas lights to flicker and when she comments on that, he tells her it’s all in her mind. Gregory sets up a web of deception so silent and sinister that Paula can’t even detect it without an outsider’s help (as evidenced in the scene above). And that, my friends is what makes gaslighting an indispensable trick in the manipulator’s toolbox.
Isn’t it just like lying, you might ask? Nope. It’s more than that.
It starts a little here. A little there. At first you might sense your partner (or friend) isn’t telling the truth but you’re not sure. Then, you catch them in outright lies – big, bold ones – but they claim they never said what they really said. Confused? Yup, that’s the idea. Manipulators want you to question yourself – and wonder if you just imagined it all.
The systematic plot to undermine your sanity makes it way more menacing than simply lying. The perpetrators’ ultimate goal is to knock you off your rocker and keep you guessing. Ever see a cat play with a mouse? That’s exactly what it’s like. Many manipulators actually enjoy watching others squirm and experience pain. The more unstable you are, the more you rely on them as you search for stability and calm. By the way, a desire for safety and peace is a natural, healthy impulse all humans have – and gaslighters take advantage of that.
I think Dictionary.com defines it best:
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse or psychological manipulation involving distorting the truth in order to confuse or instill doubt in another person to the point they question their sanity or reality.
Manipulators like narcissists and sociopaths will deny a clear fact – in such an emboldened way that you start questioning it yourself. You can be the smartest person in the world, but if the person you love is gaslighting it’s hard to tell what’s truth or fiction. A further complication? The manipulator intersperses these “gaslighting” events with the appearance that they truly care about you – and they are the “good guy” you can count on in the chaos. Narcissists love to be the rescuer. (I’ll cover that in another blog!)
“My ex was gaslighting me all the time,” says Giana of her long-time boyfriend and dance studio partner. “He said we’re doing great, we were ‘an amazing partnership.’ Then he did dance gigs without me, saying only one of us could go, and I questioned his fidelity. He insisted I was imagining things and he didn’t have time for other women – but I found out later there was a brothel in the Dominican Republic he was going to.”
Giana says her ex also tried to convince her that their dance studio students were turning against her. “He told me the students didn’t like me and he was defending me to save my image and our business – but I realize now it was all made up,” she says. “It was devastating and I developed severe anxiety and paranoia.”
These types of abusers also like to isolate you from family and friends so there are few outlets to check their crazy making behavior. It’s important to share what’s going on in your situation with others you trust because their distance from it often provides a needed perspective – and can shed light on what’s really going on. Sometimes, you’re just too close to it to separate truth from lies.
Plus, gaslighters love saying things like:
- “It’s no big deal.”
- “You’re overreacting.”
- “I love you – why would I lie about this?”
- “You’re just being paranoid!”
- “That’s just not true.”
- “You’re imagining things.”
- “You’re so ungrateful for everything I do.” (Laying on the guilt trip!)
- “I’m so hurt that you think I’m not telling you the truth.” (Can be accompanied by crocodile tears.)
So how do you detect it?
Here are some key signs you’re being gaslighted:
He says “You’re being so sensitive.” a lot. And you find yourself asking yourself, “Am I too sensitive?”
Questioning whether your response to your partner is appropriate (ie. Were you unreasonable and not loving enough due to their sensitivity accusations?)
You feel like you’re going crazy. You keep running scenarios through your mind but can’t get to the bottom of the truth due to conflicting stories and emotions.
Your manipulator twists things around in a pretzel so effectively you actually find yourself apologizing for even questioning his lie – which actually hurt you and betrayed the trust in your relationship.
Your partner pretends to have forgotten what actually happened and/or denies the promises he made to you.
You make excuses for your partner’s behavior to others because you just want peace and want the chaos to go away.
You are on edge and walking on eggshells all the time.
You are not happy – and often fluctuate between thinking your partner is your enemy and also your hero, depending on the moment. (Because when they’re gaslighting they play both roles.)
What to do:
Educate Yourself – Familiarize yourself with gaslighting. Often people discover they’re dealing with a narcissistic partner after identifying one manipulative tactic like this one – and then see the whole picture they’re dealing with.
Be an Investigator – Collect evidence to document your interactions with your gaslighter. These could be screenshots of texts and emails. Write down times and dates of conversations. Keep a notebook where you summarize conversations. I did this with my ex because there were so many stories and inconsistencies – and when I strung them together on paper the case for gaslighting was rock solid.
Speak Up – Talk to people you trust like family, friends and a therapist about what you’re experiencing. Share your evidence. When it comes to speaking up to your manipulator, this depends on the situation. It may not be safe to confront an abuser. If you fear for your safety, the best plan is to get out of the situation altogether.
Believe in Yourself – Gaslighting is all about shaking your confidence and making you doubt your own good judgment. Get in touch with your intuition and trust it. Manipulators want you to silence your intuition and trust them instead – for their own gain. The best defense is believing that you know what you saw or heard, no matter what they say.
Stay Calm – If you do confront your abuser, show your evidence and do not engage in conflict with them. Again, if the situation escalates, remove yourself from it immediately. Narcissists don’t like being challenged because their disorder is all about control – and controlling you.
Get Professional Help – Gaslighting is just part of the invisible abuse that is emotional. Therapists can help you make sense of what’s going on and help you come up with a plan to protect yourself.
Domestic Abuse – It is common for gaslighting to be a key component in an abusive relationship. If you fear for your safety or need immediate help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The telephone and chat support is free and confidential 24 hours per day, 7 days a week. The number is: 1-800-799-7233.
Remember the cat and mouse analogy? Whatever you do, it’s about taking your power back from the cat (a.k.a. gaslighter) and putting the control back in your hands.
p.s. Good people don’t gaslight. So healthy relationships don’t have gaslighting either.