The term gaslighting* refers to an emotional abuse tactic that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity, putting the abuser in a position of power. A clear indicator of a gaslighter is one who overrides your truth and tries to convince you that your perception of reality is false. A gaslighter will blatantly deny their own manipulative behaviour and ignore evidence when confronted with it; they will become angry if you attempt to disprove their delusions with facts.
*The term gaslighting originates from the 1944 film Gaslight in which the husband manipulated the environment to convince his wife that she was insane (basically the stuff of nightmares).
Gaslighting is a common tactic of those within toxic families or who fall on the narcissistic personality disorder spectrum. Gaslighting can be hard to identify because it can present in varying levels of intensity (subtle to overt), or abusers may inflict their abuse with only a select few victims. Gaslighting abuse can be done consciously or even unconsciously (*this behaviour can often be seen intergenerationally in families whereby abusers come to normalize what they are doing towards a targeted family member as warranted (the classic “scapegoat” scenario) – “if he/she wasn’t so ___________, I would treat them better”). Gaslighting presents most commonly in intimate partner relationship but can also be found in family dynamics, the workplace, or religious and government structural organizations. It can be hard to recognize when one is a victim of gaslighting which further contributes to the victim’s mental and emotional distress (making one feel they are going “crazy”). Being a victim of gaslighting can cause what is known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder (for more on this: https://blacksheepcounselling.com/2017/08/complex-posttraumatic-stress-disorder/).
I have been asked a few times why I hadn’t yet written a blog on gaslighting. The reason for the delay is that it had taken me a long time to fully accept the fact that I had been a victim of gaslighting by individuals who were once close to me. These individuals are certainly not the only people who have gaslighted me (sadly, it is fairly commonplace). But, due to my misplaced sense of love and loyalty, they are the ones who caused me to question my sanity for the longest duration of time (it can be terribly hard to accept that people you care about harbour resentment towards you and wish to make you feel “wrong” as a means of making themselves feel superior). Now I understand that their actions are probably a manifestation of their own pain.
HOW TO TELL IF YOU ARE A VICTIM OF GASLIGHTING:
- You second-guess yourself
- You wonder if you are “too sensitive” (exacerbated by your abuser’s use of passive-aggressive tactics)
- You feel as though you can’t bring up innocent topics of conversation for fear it will be adversely twisted or reframed in a negative way
- You deny or down-play the abuse (“they were drunk”; “they were going through a hard time, they didn’t really mean it”)
- You are not honest with others about the abuse you are incurring from another because it brings about a pervasive self of personal shame (believing you somehow deserve this treatment)
- You run through a check-list of what you have done that might send the abuser off before you see/talk to them
- When you confront the abuser, they lie, deny, change the subject, avoid, justify, or minimize their actions (the abuser might say: “I won’t dignify that with a response”)
- “toxic amnesia” (a gaslighter pretends not to remember events or conversations – this is done to create chaos and doubt in the victim)
- The abuser discredits you to others
- You start lying to avoid the put-downs and reality twists
- You experience a paralyzing sense of shame/feel as though you can’t do anything right (for more on shame: https://blacksheepcounselling.com/2017/09/shame/)
- Your abuser uses assertiveness, confidence, and fake compassion making it harder for you to validate the reality and severity of the abuse (the physical variety of abuse has a concreteness that cannot be denied, whereas, psychological abuse causes the victim to question their reality and self-worth – this almost always has more enduring trauma effects)
- Your abuser often accuses you of possessing the very traits or behaviours that they themselves possess and do – this is known as “psychological projection” (for more on this: https://blacksheepcounselling.com/2017/08/projection/)
- You cope with the distress in maladaptive and harmful ways (self-harm, substance abuse)
- You isolate yourself
- Your confidence decreases, while your anxiety and depression increase
- You have become easily confused and struggle to make decisions
- Your abuser may use your financial dependence or job security on them to justify their behaviour
- The abuser may use fear tactics and threats – “if you don’t do ____________, I will see to it that you will lose (something of importance/value to you)”
- The abuser sets about to exclude and “other” you/keep you from anyone who may support you
So, why do people engage in gaslighting tactics? Often, their own sense of internalized shame is the culprit. Internalized shame in something that we can inherit from our family members and ancestors – these ways of being are referred to as “intergenerational trauma”; there is a branch of science entitled “Behavioural Epigenetics” that is dedicated to researching this phenomena (for more on this: https://blacksheepcounselling.com/2017/04/behavioural-epigenetics/).
When individuals experience shame, it creates a sense distress, that understandably, one wishes to purge themselves of. There are many ways we react to shame, with two common presentations being attacking Self (we see this with self-criticism, self-harm, addictions, perfectionism), and attacking others (gaslighting, blame, criticism, projection, rage, violence, contempt). While we cannot change others, we can choose to do our own personal work. If you identified as either a victim or perpetrator* of the examples of gaslighting detailed above, help is available. One of the greatest gifts I have given myself was choosing to do healing work from the victimization of gaslighting and embracing my Black Sheep-ness!
*although it can be hard to feel compassion for those who inflict harm, oftentimes, they too can be experiencing pain and could benefit from exploring the roots of what has given rise to inflicting emotional abuse and projecting their shame symptoms onto others.
Banich, M. T. & Compton, R. J. (2017). Cognitive neuroscience (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York, NY: Jason Aronson.
Kaufman, G. (1980). Shame: The power of caring. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc.
Nathanson, D. L. (1992). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the Self. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Richardson, R. W. (2015). Family ties that bind (4th ed.). North Vancouver, BC: International Self-Counsel Press Ltd.
Szyf, M (2013 July 27). Epigenetics of early life adversity: The implications for mental health. Brain Development & Learning Conference. UBC Interprofessional Education.
Wolynn, M. (2016). It didn’t start with you: How inherited family trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle. New York, NY: Viking.