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- Gaslighting, which gets its name from the 1944 movie, Gaslight, is a form of psychological abuse where one person tries to convince another not to trust herself.
- It is most associated with narcissistic personalities — the types that will say things like, “You’re crazy.”
“Gaslighting” is one of those terms you may have heard tossed around but you may not know exactly what it means. In a nutshell, it’s a form of abuse where your partner makes you question your sanity. They may say things like: “You’re crazy. I never said that.” Or: “Are you sure you’re remembering that correctly? You have a bad memory.” Basically, they try to convince you that you didn’t hear what you heard or see what you saw, and you start to wonder if you’ve confused things in your mind.
While we all forget things sometimes and there’s a chance your partner is right, it’s also possible that they’re gaslighting you.
What is gaslighting?
The term gets its name from the 1944 movie, Gaslight, starring Ingmar Bergman and Charles Boyer. In it, Bergman’s character begins to suspect that she’s losing her mind because strange things keep happening to her: items disappear and reappear, she hears footsteps coming from an empty attic, and she sees the lights in the house get brighter and dimmer at random. In actuality, Boyer’s character is behind it all — moving the items with sleight-of-hand, sneaking around the attic, turning on and off the lights — and he gets her to doubt herself as a form of emotional manipulation.
Today, gaslighting is used to describe the same kind of behavior, where one partner tries to convince the other that what they’re hearing, seeing, or feeling isn’t real. “It’s psychological abuse, and it’s the worst kind,” says Tara Fields, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family counselor in Marin County, California and author of The Love Fix. “What’s most damaging is that it takes away your ability to trust yourself — and when that happens, you start feeling crazy.”
Watch out for the warning signs of gaslighting.
“The goal of a gaslighter is to isolate you so that you become more dependent on the gaslighter for their version of reality,” says Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., author of the book Gaslighting. She says to beware of these behaviors, which are the big red flags:
- Gaslighters project their flaws onto you. “They are notorious cheaters,” she says. “However, they’ll accuse you of cheating, even though they have no proof of it — blaming you for behavior that they’re actually doing.”
- They hide important items of yours and then accuse you of being irresponsible.
- They tell you that everyone thinks you’re crazy.
- They isolate you by telling you that your friends and family are bad influences. “Or they’ll lie and tell you that your friends and family said terrible things about you,” Sarkis adds.
- They constantly lie, even when there is no need.
- They tell you that you’re a terrible parent and spouse.
- They tell you to your face that you didn’t see or hear behavior that you swore you saw or heard them do.
In addition, “Gaslighters tend to be narcissists,” says Sarkis. “This means that everything must be about them. They demand constant attention, and if they don’t get it, they’ll torment you. When you try to leave the relationship, they try to suck you back in.”
How to deal with gaslighting in the moment.
No matter how heated a disagreement gets, no one has authority over your emotions. “‘Don’t tell me I’m not feeling what I’m feeling,’ is essentially a response to gaslighting,” says Alexandra Sacks M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist, coauthor of What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood, and host of the Motherhood Sessions podcast. “You can always say, ‘My description of my emotions is valid because I’m the only one who knows what it’s like inside my head.'”
Dr. Sacks notes that in some cases, being direct and telling your partner that you feel like you’re being manipulated can put a stop to their behavior. “Sometimes a gaslighter is trying to make the other person feel victimized, but other times it’s an unconscious tactic that they use because they can’t come up with a better way to communicate, or they learned it in a cycle of abuse.” Reflecting what your partner is doing back to them might make a lightbulb go off for them.
If you think someone is gaslighting you, take these steps.
If you think your partner is purposely manipulating you, do the following:
- Let go of any shame. “Gaslighting can happen to the most brilliant, successful women who have really good self-esteem,” Dr. Fields says. “If you love someone, it’s so easy to be vulnerable to the gaslighting because you don’t want to believe your partner could be capable of it. When there is abuse going on, there is a tendency to hide what’s going on out of shame. But the more you become isolated, the more vulnerable you are to the gaslighting.”
- Ask for a reality check. Talk to a trusted friend and a therapist. “Take a time out, clear your head, calm down, and see how your logic surfaces,” Dr. Sacks says. “Then you can revisit your interpretation of events outside of the emotion of the moment, and see if there really is intentional gaslighting going on.”
- You don’t necessarily have to leave. “If he’s not a sociopath, meaning he’s able to feel a healthy shame about what he did — if he’s willing to take full ownership and go into couples’ therapy — then your relationship doesn’t necessarily have to end,” Dr. Fields says.
- Whether you stay or go, you should consider therapy. “You have to undo the damage that’s been done by the gaslighting, particularly where you’ve lost your ability to trust yourself,” Dr. Fields says. “Therapy will also help you process the grieving and sadness from finding out what your partner did.”
- Know when it’s time to leave. “It is very important that you get out of this type of relationship,” says Dr. Sarkis, who recommends always leaving a gaslighter. “They ramp up their abusive behavior over time. Staying can cause long-term harm to you and your children — including hurting your physical and emotional health and your self-esteem.” She says to block phone numbers and emails, refuse any messages, and, if you have kids together, set up a detailed parenting plan with an attorney so the gaslighter has less room to manipulate you through your children.