By Reon Janse van Rensburg
Has anyone intentionally distorted reality to make you feel that what you see or feel is not real and that there is indeed something wrong with you? You may have been a victim of gaslighting abuse or gaslighting manipulation. This behaviour can come from your spouse, a family member, your manager or anyone else in a position of power.
“Oh, come on, I never said that.”
“You are just too sensitive.”
“I don’t know why you make such a big thing out of this …”
The term originates from a British play from 1938 called “Gas Light”. In the play, a woman’s husband tries to convince her that she is emotionally and mentally unstable. He makes small changes in her immediate environment, such as dimming the gas lights in their house. He then convinces his wife that she is simply imagining these changes taking place. His ultimate goal is to have her admitted to an institution so that he can steal her inheritance.
Psychologists use the term “gaslighting” to refer to a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator tries to get someone else (or a group of people) to question their own reality, memory or perceptions. And according to psychologists, this is always a serious situation.
This type of emotional abuse is often subtle at first. For example, when someone tells a story, the abuser may question a small point. The person may admit that he or she was wrong about that specific point and then continue with the story. The next time, however, the abuser may use the previous “victory” to further discredit the vulnerable person, perhaps by questioning the person’s memory.
The person may argue about it at first. They may feel there is something wrong in the relationship or marriage, but because every gaslight incident seems to be so minor, they cannot pinpoint a specific cause for their unease. Over time, the person may start to question his or her own emotions and memories. They may rely on their abuser to tell them if they have remembered something correctly or if their emotions are appropriate. The abuser then uses this trust to gain control over the victim.
The scenario in which gaslighting takes place is often depicted as a husband abusing his wife. Yet people of any gender can use this to manipulate others. Gaslighting can also take place in platonic contexts such as a workplace. Anyone can become a target
Whether it takes place in a marriage or between a manager and his or her staff, it is important to be aware of the danger signs that indicate there is a serious problem – which is also the first step to being freed of the situation.
Gaslighting techniques you should be aware of:
Contradiction: Questioning the memory of the target. The abuser denies certain events although the target remembers the events accurately. They can also add details that never happened.
Example: “I heard what you said! You never remember our conversations.”
Withholding: Refusing to listen to any problems or pretending he or she does not understand your problem.
Example: “I don’t have time to listen to this nonsense. You make no sense.”
Trivialising: Claiming that someone is overreacting to hurtful behaviour. With this technique, someone could come to believe that his or her emotions are invalid or excessive.
Example: “You’re so sensitive! Everyone else thought the joke was funny.”
Blocking/diverting: The subject is changed to divert attention from the target. An abuser may twist a conversation into an argument about the person’s credibility.
Example: “Have you been talking to your mother again? She always plants these ideas in your head!”
Forgetting/denial: Pretending the target has forgotten certain events to further discredit the victim. An abuser may deny making promises in order to avoid responsibility.
Example: “What are you talking about? I never promised you that or said that.”
Signs that you are a victim of gaslighting also includes the following:
- You rethink and re-examine perceived character flaws, for example that you are too sensitive, or even the recurring thought that you are not good enough for the manipulator.
- You are constantly apologising to the manipulator.
- You often make excuses for your partner’s behaviour.
- You know something is wrong, but you just don’t know what.
- In a confrontation with the person who may be subjecting you to gaslighting manipulation, you feel as if you have suddenly ended up in an argument that you did not intend to have, that you are not making any progress, or that you are repeating the same thing over and over again but that you are not heard.
- You feel confused about your relationship. (You may think: “I thought I had this wonderful husband/wife, but I always feel a little crazy” or “I thought I had this beautiful partner, but then I sometimes feel like I’m on the losing side when we’re together”.)
If you are victim of such behaviour, here are some tips you can use to defend yourself:
Don’t sacrifice yourself to spare the abuser’s feelings – Even if you dedicate your whole life to making the person happy, you will never completely fulfil the manipulator’s desire for being in control. People who subject others to gaslight manipulation are often trying to fill a void in themselves.
Remember your truth – Just because the other person sounds sure of himself or herself does not mean they are right. The abuser may never see your side of the story. Yet their opinion does not define reality, nor does it define who you are as a person.
Prioritise your safety – Victims of gaslighting abusers often doubt their own intuition. But if you feel you are in danger, you can always remove yourself from the situation. You do not need to prove that threats of violence will become a reality before calling the police. It is often safest to consider every threat as credible. Do not be silent either. Talk to someone you know and can trust.
Don’t take responsibility for the other person’s actions – The other person may claim you provoked the abuse. If you avoid the actions that offended the abuser in the past, the abuser will probably come up with new excuses to justify the abuse.
Don’t argue about their terms – If the manipulator fabricates facts, it is unlikely that you will be able to have a productive discussion. You could spend all your energy debating what reality is, instead of substantiating your point. The other person may use some of the above techniques to declare that he or she has won an argument. However, you do not have to accept his or her conclusions that are based on a wrong premise.
Remember that you are not alone – It may be helpful to talk to others about your experiences. Friends and family can provide emotional support.
If you are a victim of gaslighting manipulation and are struggling with any of the above symptoms, consider seeking help from a mental health counsellor or other therapists. This may help you to work through the trauma.
Also, you should not question your own thoughts any longer. The chances are very good that there is nothing wrong with you and that the problem lies entirely with the abuser. Empower yourself!
What is gaslighting and how do you deal with it? – https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/what-is-gaslighting/
Gaslighting – https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/gaslighting
What is gaslighting? And how do you know if it’s happening to you? – https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-gaslighting-how-do-you-know-if-it-s-happening-ncna890866