10 Things I’ve Learned About Gaslighting As An Abuse Tactic

 November 20, 2015

10 Things I’ve Learned About Gaslighting As An Abuse Tactic



Gaslighting is the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality.
There’s a good chance that you now know more about gaslighting than most therapists.

And that is really unfortunate, because if you have experienced gaslighting, it’s going to be really hard to untangle it yourself.

Unfortunately, you may have to, and I want to tell you that you are not alone.

Let me share my experience. Here are ten things I wish I’d known at the beginning. Let’s do this together.

 

1. Gaslighting Doesn’t Have to Be Deliberate

About the fifth time I called a close friend of mine on the phone, gasping for air, asking “Am I a monster?” he finally said, “Emma, he’s gaslighting you.”

What the hell is gaslighting? I thought.

Wikipedia told me that it came from an old movie, where the main character makes changes in the environment and then insists to his victim that she is simply imagining these changes.




Whaat? I thought. My partner isn’t doing that. I could not imagine him plotting and manipulating my environment or our interactions to make me feel crazy. He’s a human being who is hurt, who I keep hurting. It’s me, not him.

Unfortunately, the first definition I looked up was woefully inadequate. Gaslighting does not require deliberate plotting. Gaslighting only requires a belief that it is acceptable to overwrite another person’s reality.

The rest just happens organically when a person who holds that belief feels threatened. We learn how to control and manipulate each other very naturally.

The distinguishing feature between someone who gaslights and someone who doesn’t is an internalized paradigm of ownership. And in my experience, identifying that paradigm is a lot easier than spotting the gaslighting.

Gaslighting tends to follow when intimidation is no longer acceptable.

I believe that gaslighting is happening culturally and interpersonally on an unprecedented scale, and that this is the result of a societal framework where we pretend everyone is equal while trying simultaneously to preserve inequality.

You can see it in the media constantly.

For instance, every time an obvious hate crime is portrayed as an isolated case of mental illness, this is gaslighting. The media is saying to you, What you know to be true is not true.

Intimate partner violence wasn’t seen as a serious crime until the 1970s. So, did we, in the last forty years, address the beliefs that cause intimate partner violence? No.




But now if you abuse your partner, you’re usually considered to be a bad person. So what do you do, with all the beliefs that would lead you to violence, if violence is no longer an acceptable option?

You use manipulation, and you use gaslighting.

 

2. Manipulation and Gaslighting Are Distinct Behaviors

Maybe a better way to put this is that gaslighting is a type of manipulation, but not the only type.

Manipulation usually centers around a direct or indirect threat that is made in order to influence another person’s behavior. Gaslighting uses threats as well, but has the goal of actually changing who someone is, not just their behavior.

It’s important to recognize that gaslighting and garden variety manipulation are not the same.

Both will degrade your self-esteem, but gaslighting, when effective, will actually damage your trust in yourself and your experience of reality.

 

3. Gaslighting Doesn’t Always Involve Anger or Intimidation

The book The Gaslight Effect refers to a type of gaslighting called glamor gaslighting.

This is where the gaslighter showers you with special attention, but never actually gives you what you need. They put you on a pedestal, but then they’re not there. In fact, they may get angry at you when you need a shoulder to cry on.

It becomes difficult, after a while, to identify why it is that you feel so alone and hollow.

In another type of gaslighting, the gaslighter is always transformed into the victim. Whenever you bring up a problem, you find yourself apologizing by the end of the conversation.

For me, these were the worst exchanges.

Every gaslighter/gaslightee relationship is different, but for me, there was a very specific pattern. I would say something to him. He would have a very strong emotional reaction to it, far above what I would have anticipated. I would backtrack to try figure out what I had said and how to make it better.

He would accuse me of inconsistency when I backtracked.

I would try to explain that I was adjusting to try to communicate best with him, because clearly I was failing.

He would tell me that my inconsistency implied that I was lying.

I would say, “No, no, I know I’m not lying. Maybe I just can’t remember it right.”

“It seems I can’t trust your memory,” he would say.

We would never return to the original issue. I usually ended up crying hysterically.

 

4. It’s Normal Not to Be Able to Remember What Happened

This, more than anything, is something I wish I had known.

It was a secret I kept, that fed my self doubt and guilt for years after I left. I used to black out. I remember conversations where I would start standing in the kitchen and end up in a ball on the floor.

Just days after it happened, I wouldn’t be able to remember what happened in the time in between. I wouldn’t even be able to remember what the conversation was about. My abuser accused me of abuse while I was with him – and then publicly for years after.

It’s one of the reasons I left  –  because I couldn’t figure out what I was doing or how to fix it, and I couldn’t bear the thought that I might be abusive to someone. I’ve ripped my memories apart, trying to figure what it was that he experienced. What it was that I did.

And I have found some things in me that needed to change, as all people who look deeply at their abusive tendencies will find. But I couldn’t, in my own memory, find what it was that he saw in me.

I could not find the narcissist. I could not find the vicious manipulator. I could not find the home wrecker. But I had black spots in my memory. Completely black. And I wondered ,  Is that when it happened? Is that when I abused him?

Losing spots in your memory makes it very plausible when someone tells you that they cannot trust your memory. It makes it very plausible when they tell you that you are abusive.

But it’s normal to lose your memory when you’re being gaslighted. In fact, it is one of the signs that you should look for. It’s a good sign that it might be time to leave.

 

5. There Are Distinct Stages (And These Stages Can Progress After the Relationship Is Over)

A gaslighter doesn’t simply need to be right. They also need for you to believe that they are right.

In stage one, you know that they’re being ridiculous, but you argue anyways.

You argue for hours, without resolution. You argue over things that shouldn’t be up for debate  – your feelings, your opinions, your experience of the world.

You argue because you need to be right, you need to be understood, or you need to get their approval.

In stage one, you still believe yourself, but you also unwittingly put that belief up for debate.

In stage two, you consider your gaslighter’s point of view first and try desperately to get them to see your point of view as well.

You continue to engage because you’re afraid of what their perspective of you says about you.

Winning the argument now has one objective :  proving that you’re still good, kind, and worthwhile.

In stage three, when you’re hurt, you first ask, “What’s wrong with me?”

You consider their point of view as normal. You start to lose your ability to make your own judgements. You become consumed with understanding them and seeing their perspective. You live with and obsess over every criticism, trying to solve it.

Looking back, I see that I was deep in stage two when I left the relationship. However, I continued to try to have a friendship with him for months after. I longed for resolution, understanding, and forgiveness.

And when I finally went no contact, instead of healing, I actually moved into stage three. I didn’t understand, nor did I know how to solve, the gaslighting that I continued to do to myself after the relationship was over.

If I could go back and give myself one piece of advice, it’d be to go no contact immediately for at least a year. And maybe that’s what other might need, too.

It’s really, really hard. It’s hard because it may still feel like that understanding and resolution is right around the corner. It’s hard to let go of that.

But think: You don’t have to yet. Just commit to a year. Because anyone who isn’t abusive won’t punish you for the space you need to heal.

And when I say “no contact,” I mean complete no contact. Distance yourself from mutual friends. Block your gaslighter on social media. Ask your friends not to give you any new information about them unless it directly pertains to your safety.

Fuck anyone who says you are being unreasonable.

You need this to heal, and you need the space to learn how to stop gaslighting yourself.

 

6. There Are Distinct Traits That Make You More Susceptible to Gaslighting, But They Can Also Be Super Powers

There are three tendencies that will pull you into a gaslighting exchange. These tendencies are the need to be right, the need to be understood, and the need for approval.

Additionally, certain traits – such as being empathic, being a caretaker, needing to see your partner in a positive light, and being a “people pleaser” – might make you more susceptible.

But I would strongly urge you to not go in and try to crush these wonderful things about you.

You care strongly about your ideas, and about other people. You want to understand and be understood. You care about your effect on other people, and you’re willing to change to accommodate the people around you.

And ironically, your gaslighter probably told you that you were selfish and cruel and oblivious. And then perhaps your therapist told you that you need to stop caring so much because it draws you into abuse. What to do?

Empathy is important. It’s important for all of us. It makes me angry when people tell me that my empathy is a weakness. My empathy is a super power. My desire and ability to empathize kept me locked into a cycle of abuse, yes. But my desire to empathize wasn’t the problem.

The ability to hear criticism and then to change yourself for the better based on that feedback is also a fucking super power. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. My problem was not my willingness to change, but my willingness to change for the wrong reasons.

Change should make you bigger. It should increase your tank of self-love. It should make you stronger, clearer, more directed, more differentiated, and more compassionate.

The pain of growth is different than the pain of destruction. One will fill you with love and pride, even when it’s hard, and the other will fill you with shame and fear.

No one should use shame or fear to try to get you to change. When they do this, they’re not asking for change – they’re asking for control.

 

7. You Know What Your Truth Is – You Always Have, and You Always Will

Your gaslighter doesn’t see you.

You are a shadow standing to the side, trying not to attract attention, while they showers their image of you with love and attention. And no matter how much your mind is in knots, you know this to be true.

You know the space you occupy, even if you hate yourself for it. If you look back, if you look inside, you will see that you always knew that something was wrong.

It may feel like you lost your core. But it was always there.

The alarm system always worked. You just learned to stop listening to it. You have not lost as much as you think.

 

8. The End Game Is Not Confrontation, It’s Non-Engagement

A really common trope I see in movies and literature is the survivor who confronts their abuser. They confront them years later, and in that moment show themselves and their abuser that they don’t have to be afraid anymore.

I crave that catharsis, because I am afraid. But I can never address that fear through confrontation. I can only address it by confidence in my ability to set and enforce my own boundaries.

When you engage in any way, you tell your gaslighter and yourself that your reality is up for debate.

Your reality is not up for debate.

If you’re like me, you’ve had a million conversations in your head, and it’s those conversations that are killing you. Your reality is not up for debate. You don’t have to rehearse for a conversation that you will never have.

It’s ridiculous when someone tries to tell you who you are, what you feel, what you think, what you intended, or what you experienced. When it happens, you should be angry, puzzled, or maybe even concerned for them.

You might stop, stunned, and ask, “What would make you think that you could know what’s inside of me? Are you okay?”

Instead, many of us will find ourselves trying to reach understanding.

No, that’s not what happened, that’s not what I felt, that’s not what I feel!

And this is a reasonable response – to a point. But if the goal of the conversation is to exchange power, and not to exchange understanding, you will never, ever, ever win.

I would like to propose that one solution to feeling less susceptible to gaslighting is to learn how to identify the objective of a conversation.

A conversation with the purpose of mutuality should not make you feel afraid, ashamed, disoriented, or confused.

You don’t have to figure out what it is they’re doing, you only have to figure out what you are feeling. You only have to know when mutuality is no longer the objective, and learn how to stop engaging when that happens.

Try:




20 comments on “10 Things I’ve Learned About Gaslighting As An Abuse Tactic

  1. Thank you! I knew I’d read this somewhere else first. Great piece, and shame on this site for reposting it without credit.

  2. Wow – I recently had a conversation with my mother that went something like this:

    Me:So what you are saying is that you know my feelings and my reasons for doing things better than I do? And even if I do not agree with the way you are presenting my story that is okay because you know it better than I do?

    Her: Yes, I have spent thirty years working on myself to be as wonderful as I am, and I have this knowledge and understanding of people – I know why they are the way they are and why they do things.

    Me: Well I do not agree with the way you are presenting my reality – it is far from what is actually happening.

    Her: Yes dear. (said in tone that implies she is humouring me and will continue to do what she describes as going into my biofield , believing that she is actually finding out information about me – even though I have told her she can’t do that without permission and I certainly haven’t given it).

  3. One of the best pieces I’ve read written on this subject ! Lived it and had no idea of it until the damage had set in and eventually turned to physical abuse. Thankyou so much for sharing this, I wish I had of understood it a few years ago. I still cant comprehend why anyone would intentionally want to do this to another person. It’s really sickening.

  4. If this article pertains to you and u will know if it does Please look into Narcissistic behavior and abuse the mental and emotional toll this takes on you is immense! Abuse does not only mean getting physically abused. This behavior does not happen over night it happens in time and u stay because u remember that man u fell in love with that was so sincere and loving he was everything your heart desired your prince charming! Im sorry but that mask fell off and that “act” that pulled u in did the job you will never see those traits again no matter how long u wait and try to fix things. These people do not feel inside as we do remember the person u fell in love with was a fraud. Think of them as vampires the will suck the life out of u and continue as long as u stay and u will lose yourself you will be shocked by this behavior “where did he go” Jeckyl and Hyde” he is so mean and cruel he makes you believe its YOU and your crazy! They have no sympothy or empathy they lie constantly they cheat they are very sneaky they hide things from you like there possessions things that u could care less about they now dont trust u and not because u did ANYTHING when u try to commuicate its always a debate you become weak from trying over and over you are lonely and everything is your fault. they eve smear your name to anyone who will listen you become angry that u invested all this time u blame yourself they make a ton of broken promises they hide money from u they believe all is THERES only u are there gas and they will take as long as u allow the ONLY way to save yourself and your life is to Leave and must have NO CONTACT they will try to get u back convince u they changed its bullshit NO CONTACT they never care about your needs they dont care how u feel. If any of this sounds familiar all i am asking is that u research Narcisisst and I hope u will get out. I am a victim of this it took me 9 years and i left 7 times. My 7th was my last i slowly am regaining my life YOU CAN YOU DONT NEED HIM there is help. I am still a work in progress i finally am finding myself again i did not like the person i was around him i became isolated financially controlled the more i gave the more he took and neglected me in every aspect. Hope this helps i am just paying this forward…

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