Getting Smart About Gaslighting
Relationships psychotherapist Lissy Abrahams sets the record straight on what gaslighting is and what it isn’t.
Everyone uses the term ‘gaslighting’ these days. It’s everywhere. I hear this uttered in the streets, from my friends, on social media, and in my consulting room with my clients – especially in sessions with my couples.
The problem is that we’re misusing and over-utilising the term to refer to anyone lying, in any situation. But this isn’t the full picture.
Did you know? The term comes from the 1944 film “Gaslight,” in which a husband manipulates his wife into believing she’s losing her mind.
Today, gaslighting is used to describe a form of psychological abuse. It’s a method of gaining control over someone by causing them to question their own sanity, memories, or perception of reality to the point of no longer trusting their own judgement. Gaslighting can happen in any interaction, although, as you will see, the real aim is to dominate and abuse.
The Gaslighting Checklist:
Gaslighting in intimate relationships – This can be seen in couple relationships where after earning a new partner’s trust, an abusive partner will start suggesting that their partner is forgetful, unreliable, or that they are mentally unstable. Once their confidence has been undermined and they’ve lost trust in themselves they are easier to control.
Gaslighting in parent-child relationships – Gaslighting can be used by abusive parents to undermine a child. For example, a parent not taking responsibility for their child’s distress, naming them “too sensitive” and shaming them to make them stop.
Medical Gaslighting – this is when a patient's health concerns are dismissed and they are told "it's all in your head" or shamed with statements like "is that what Dr. Google told you?"
“Cause” gaslighting (I coined this one) – where there is an attempt to discredit a group of people by making them appear extreme or exaggerating them in a position as an outlier. For example, dismissing vegans as “fundamentalists” or “hippies” instead of engaging them in discussion about why they’ve chosen compassion instead of eating animals or using animal products.
Political Gaslighting – manipulating information to control people. For example, a politician discrediting their opponent using false information, using shaming tactics, creating doubt about their mental or physical stability, or simply denying factual information about themselves that doesn’t fit with their own image.
Signs that someone is experiencing Gaslighting:
- Feeling uncertain of their perceptions
- Frequently questioning if they are remembering things correctly
- Believing they are irrational or “crazy”
- Feeling incompetent, unconfident, or worthless
- Constantly apologising to the abusive person
- Defending the abusive person’s behaviour to others
- Becoming withdrawn or isolated from others
Methods of Gaslighting:
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, gaslighting can happen in a variety of ways. Some examples include:
- Countering: This is when someone questions a person’s memory. They may say things such as, “Are you sure about that? You have a bad memory,” or “I think you’re forgetting what really happened.”
- Withholding: This involves someone pretending they do not understand the conversation, or refusing to listen, to make a person doubt themselves. For example, they might say, “Now you’re just confusing me,” or “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
- Trivializing: This occurs when a person belittles or disregards how someone else feels. They may accuse them of being “too sensitive” or overreacting in response to valid and reasonable concerns.
- Denial: Denial involves a person refusing to take responsibility for their actions. They may do this by pretending to forget what happened, saying they didn’t do it, or blaming their behaviour on someone else.
- Diverting: With this technique, a person changes the focus of a discussion by questioning the other person’s credibility. For example, they might say, “That is just nonsense you read on the internet. It’s not real.”
- Stereotyping: An article in the American Sociological Review says that a person may intentionally use negative stereotypes about someone’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, or age to gaslight them. For example, they may say that no one will believe a woman if she reports abuse.
Tips on how to respond to gaslighting in an abusive relationship:
It’s imperative to gather evidence of events which may help someone prove to themselves that they are not imagining or forgetting things. Domestic violence agencies suggest:
- Discussing with a trusted confidante – Have a safe place to talk to a friend, family member, GP, or therapist can help recover one’s mind.
- Documenting events – Keep a secret journal, take photos and/or use voice memos to refer back to the event from one’s own perspective. Keep documents safe – erase your search history, take documents out of the house and send copies to a trusted confidant.
- Safely plan your exit – Have a plan to safely leave the relationship, home, or situation with emergency contact details and/or safe places to go (refuges, family).