Gaslighting: How to Recognize and Cope with This Manipulation Tactic
Of all the manipulative mental warfare that human beings wage against one another, gaslighting is of the more insidious sort — leaving the victim’s mind unsure of itself. This is also why gaslighting finds itself as the crux of multiple twists and turns in plotlines; the term itself originated from the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play, Gaslight, and has found space in more recent films and TV shows like Girl on The Train, Jessica Jones, Homeland, Archers, Westworld, Rosemary’s Baby and Whiplash.
However, considering the devious nature of the manipulation involved, trying to identify gaslighting alone can prove to be both tricky and mentally taxing. This is why we spoke to Naina Shahri, a counseling psychologist at The Alternative Story, Mumbai, to help demystify what gaslighting really is. Her respones have been paraphrased below.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that makes an individual doubt their own understanding of situations. Very often, it comes from another person whom we trust and who has some power over us. Hence, it can be very difficult to identify gaslighting behavior. Gaslighting can be seen in various areas of life — at work, in an intimate relationship or with family.
One common example of gaslighting within an intimate relationship involves a cheating individual convincing their partner of imagining, or making up any proof they might have of the infidelity. The person who cheated might even alter facts about their whereabouts, call logs and chats to further confuse their partner. Along with this, the person who cheated might blame their partner for doubting them.
A person who gaslights might say, “You’re doubting me because of your own insecurities,” “You are too sensitive,” “Why can’t you just trust me?” “It’s all in your head with no basis in reality,” or “Are you calling me a liar?” These phrases remove accountability from the person who gaslights and transfer the blame to the victim.
At workplaces, a superior might give work instructions to employees, but after the employee completes the work, say that the instructions were completely different. Or the terms of an oral agreement can be twisted, by saying that other people involved in the discussion don’t remember it correctly.
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Is gaslighting linked to power dynamics in a relationship?
Gaslighting occurs when there is a power difference in a relationship. This means that one person might have more authority to make decisions or call the shots than the other(s). The person who gaslights wants to control the other individual’s actions/ perceptions in order to get their way. When one trusts the word of another over one’s own feelings, gaslighting becomes possible.
Even when a relationship seems to be on an equal footing, several circumstances — including gender and socioeconomic status, afford one individual power over another due to societal standards. In such less-obvious power dynamics, gaslighting might start out with smaller instances or offenses, which then snowball into a pattern of interaction. Whereas, in an equal relationship, both the people involved have equal say in the decisions being taken and feel valued, respected and trusted while expressing themselves.
How does one recognize gaslighting?
Certain statements can be an indicator of gaslighting, such as: “I don’t want to hear you doubt me again,” “You are too insecure,” “You are imagining things,” “Are you crazy?” and “How could you even think of something like that?” With these statements, the person who gaslights is trying to deflect blame by insulting the victim’s sanity — which makes the victim doubt their own sanity.
When an individual is being gaslighted, they may notice a change in their thoughts and feelings about a situation. If an individual once felt assured and confident in expressing themselves, but then began second-guessing themselves — it might be good to re-evaluate previous conversations. Feeling anxious, nervous or guilty while thinking of something, or bringing up something that’s been on your mind is an effect of being gaslit.
Gaslighting can make mental health issues and low self-esteem concerns worse. Such incidents can make the victim believe that their mental health is deteriorating, they need more support from their abuser, and that they have no one to turn to. It can make them dependent on the abuser, which is often the end goal of gaslighting.
All forms of emotional abuse tend to isolate survivors from their peers and social support. Creating supportive systems, reconnecting with friends and family that the victim was isolated from can be the first step of seeking help. Cultivating new hobbies, recognizing one’s own strengths and trusting one’s own intuition can help, as well. A counselor can help identify strengths and work towards building self-esteem.
How does gaslighting affect mental health?
Gaslighting is very dangerous, as it leads to a victim second-guessing themselves at every point. It can take power and voice away from the victim and leave them feeling helpless. It can take away an individual’s identity and make them susceptible to other forms of violence and abuse.
Some common emotions that come up when an individual has been gaslit are guilt, anxiety, and shame. They might find it difficult to bring up unpleasant feelings, or something that is bothering them, especially if it might cause conflict, or make anyone else uncomfortable. It can become difficult to stand up for oneself and feel safe in many situations involving others with more authority.
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What is a safe way to leave a gaslighting situation?
The safest option for each situation might be different in each situation given the circumstances and involves many facets of the relationship. A good idea would be to have a therapist help the patient devise a safety plan for the client who has decided to leave.
But the fact that the victim has recognized they are being manipulated is a great start. Deciding to leave directly points to a decrease in the power that an individual who gaslights holds over the person being gaslighted. A clean break could help with moving on and to convince a person who’s been gaslighted that it isn’t their fault. It is important to seek support from peers who can help identify gaslighting behavior, and remind the victim that its not their fault.
Can therapy help people who gaslight unlearn their manipulative behavior?
Yes, therapy can definitely help identify and change manipulative behavior. It is a safe space where a person who has exhibited gaslighting behavior can talk about their needs, beliefs and the behaviors they have learned. Therapy can very often be a space to unlearn unhealthy patterns and reconstruct healthier ones. However, therapy is helpful only if people are willing to put in the effort to change
What is the difference between gaslighting and criticism?
Gaslighting is different from criticism. A person can disagree and give feedback or criticism without altering facts or dismissing a point of view. Gaslighting is when only one perspective is considered valid, while the other individual’s perspective is completely negated.
Gaslighting is disrespectful and the outcome of such conversations is that the person who gaslights always gets their way. It can take away the victim’s right to express freely. Criticism can be a discussion, where inputs are given and the person receiving criticism has the agency to choose what they want to do with that information.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. As told to Aditi Murti.