Gaslighting: What’s the Deal?
In my work, buzzwords and catch phrases arise and are popular for a while. I hear many potential clients repeating the phrase. Lately, one of those phrases has been “gaslighting” as in “my spouse is gaslighting me all the time.” Some folks understand the phrase and some really misunderstand what gaslighting is.
So first, the definition:
Gaslighting is a technique that undermines a person’s perception of reality. When someone is gaslighting you, you may second-guess yourself, your memories, recent events, and perceptions. After communicating with the person gaslighting you, you may be left feeling dazed and wondering if there is something wrong with you. You may be encouraged to think you are actually to blame for something or that you’re just being too sensitive.
Gaslighting can confuse you and cause you to question your judgment, memory, self-worth, and overall mental health. It may help to know more about the tactics a person who is gaslighting you might use. These include lying to you, minimizing your thoughts and feelings, shifting blame to you for something they have done, distracting you, denying wrongdoing and rewriting history.
Ask yourself if any of the following statements ring true:
- You doubt your feelings and reality: You try to convince yourself that the treatment you receive is not that bad or that you are too sensitive.
- You question your judgment and perceptions: You are afraid of speaking up or expressing your emotions. You have learned that sharing your opinion usually makes you feel worse in the end, so you stay silent instead.
- You feel vulnerable and insecure: You often feel like you “walk on eggshells” around your partner, friend, or family member. You also feel on edge and lack self-esteem.
- You feel alone and powerless: You are convinced that everyone around you thinks you are “strange,” “crazy,” or “unstable,” just like the person who is gaslighting you says you are. This makes you feel trapped and isolated.
- You wonder if you are what they say you are: The person who gaslights you says words make you feel like you are wrong, unintelligent, inadequate, or insane. Sometimes, you even find yourself repeating these statements to yourself.
- You are disappointed in yourself and who you have become: For instance, you feel like you are weak and passive, and that you used to be stronger and more assertive.
- You feel confused: The behavior of the person gaslighting you confuses you, almost as if they are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
- You worry that you are too sensitive: The person minimizes hurtful behaviors or words by saying “I was just joking” or “you need thicker skin.”
- You have a sense of impending doom: You feel like something terrible is about to happen when you are around this person. This may include feeling threatened and on edge without knowing why.
- You spend a lot of time apologizing: You feel the need to apologize all the time for what you do or who you are.
- You feel inadequate: You feel like you are never “good enough.” You try to live up to the expectations and demands of others, even if they are unreasonable.
- You second-guess yourself: You frequently wonder if you accurately remember the details of past events. You may have even stopped trying to share what you remember for fear that it is wrong.
- You assume others are disappointed in you: You apologize all the time for what you do or who you are, assuming people are let down by you or that you have somehow made a mistake.
- You wonder what’s wrong with you: You wonder if there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. In other words, you worry that you are not well mentally.
- You struggle to make decisions because you distrust yourself: You would rather allow your partner, friend, or family member to make decisions for you and avoid decision-making altogether.
Some common phrases you might hear from your gaslighter are:
- You’re so sensitive!
- You know that’s just because you are so insecure.
- Stop acting crazy. Or: You sound crazy, you know that, don’t you?
- You are just paranoid.
- You just love trying to throw me off track.
- I was just joking!
- You are making that up.
- It’s no big deal.
- You’re imagining things.
- You’re overreacting.
- You are always so dramatic.
- Don’t get so worked up.
- That never happened.
- You know you don’t remember things clearly.
- There’s no pattern. Or: You are seeing a pattern that is not there.
- You’re hysterical.
- There you go again, you are so ungrateful.
- Nobody believes you, why should I?
Once you suspect that you are being gaslighted, here are some tools for dealing with gaslighting:
- Identify the problem. Recognizing the problem is the first step. Name what is going on between you and your spouse, friend, family member, colleague, or boss.
- Sort out truth from distortion.
- Figure out if you are in a power struggle with your partner. If you find yourself having the same conversation over and over again and can’t seem to convince them to acknowledge your point of view, you might be getting gaslighted.
- Engage in a mental exercise to encourage a mindset shift: Visualize yourself without the relationship or continuing it at much more of a distance. Importantly, cast the vision in a positive light, even if it causes you to feel anxiety.
- Give yourself permission to feel all your feelings. Accept and acknowledge that what you feel is okay.
- Give yourself the okay to give something up. Part of what makes it painful and challenging to leave a gaslight relationship is that the gaslighter may be the one “someone” you have committed to, such as your best friend, your mom, your sister or brother. It’s okay to walk away from toxicity, regardless of the source.
- Talk to your close friends. Ask them if you seem like yourself and do a reality check on your spouse’s behavior. Ask them to be brutally honest.
- Focus on feelings instead of right and wrong. It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to be right or spend endless hours ruminating about who’s right. But determining who is right and wrong is less important than how you feel — if your conversation leaves you feeling bad or second-guessing yourself, that’s what you need to pay attention to.
- Remember that you can’t control anyone’s opinion, even if you are right. You may never get your friend or your boss or your partner to agree that you aren’t too sensitive or too controlling or too anything.
- Have compassion for yourself. This is really hard even when you are not in a compromising dynamic. But now is a time for extreme self-care.
And finally, here are some super practical phrases that you can use if you find your self caught up in gaslighting moment:
- “We remember things differently.”
- “I hear you and that is not my experience.”
- “I am stepping away from this conversation.”
- “I am open to discussing a solution with you, I am not open to debating my feelings.”
Sources: Gaslighting Explained, Robin Stern, Vox January 2019; Signs of Gaslighting and What to Do, Sherri Gordon, VeryWellMind.com, July 25, 2022; I Weigh Community, Instagram