What exactly does gaslighting mean? How can you tell if someone is gaslighting you? If you have been asking yourself these questions, then chances are someone is making you distrust your reality.
According to Loren Soeiro, Ph.D., gaslighting is “the manipulative techniques by which one person may cause another to doubt their sanity.” Gaslighting can happen in any relationship, where someone is trying to assert power over someone else.
It is a tool used by abusers, narcissists, dictators, and even cult leaders. It is important to note that any of these signs happening once, does not constitute gaslighting. Gaslighting is the pattern of these behaviors over time, meant to have a debilitating effect on the other person.
There are signs you can look out for, but remember, you will likely not experience them all at once, as it is instead a slow-building process.
Signs someone is gaslighting you
1. They lie
They justify big elaborate lies and small “fibs.” It doesn’t matter what it is about, only that they do it with a straight face usually, while they carry on about the importance of telling the truth.
My grandmother would continuously punish us for lying and rant about how “lying to her was calling her stupid.” Yet, she would lie to her friends about her plans; she would lie about our ages to save a dollar; she would lie about our parents. Every one of these lies had a reason, but she could do it without a hint of hesitation.
2. They deny, and deny, and deny.
I was not allowed to go to the prom because I bit my fingernails. My grandma put nasty tasting stuff on my nails, smacked me, and removed the few privileges I was allowed, during her twelve-year attempt to force me to stop that bad habit.
To this day, she tells anyone who will listen that I chose not to go to my senior prom. I have found myself going to my best friend for clarification because I question my recollection. Thankfully, she also remembers the tear-filled night and the reason I couldn’t go.
3. They chip away at you little by little.
A master manipulator belittles their victim frequently and to varying degrees. Sometimes it is small snide comments, and other times it is outright insulting and hurtful.
It can be reminding you of a time you failed to do something, and pointing out that were you to try again, it would only lead to failure another time.
4. They follow these insults with positive words and deeds to keep you unbalanced
In one breath, they say things like, “I love you, and you are so special.” In the next breath, they are critiquing the way you wrung out the towel after you mopped the floor because you didn’t do it right.
They might use physical violence and then take you on a trip. When you try and discuss any of the abuse, they get defensive and remind you of all the lovely things that they did for you.
The reason any of the bad stuff “might” have happened is likely something you did anyway, so you should just be better and not make them act that way. It is confusing and erodes at your sanity.
5. The gaslighter deliberately uses confusion against you.
By keeping you confused and of balance, they can keep you from feeling safe and secure…and sane. Then they can turn around and use the need you have for normalcy to provide it to you. They become the only thing you can trust and believe.
6. They erode your confidence in others and try and turn people against you.
My grandma hated anytime I wore makeup or tried to dress like a teenager. She would critique my choices and say horrible things to me. If I said that anyone had complimented me on said outfit or makeup, she would tell me that they were lying.
When I asked why they would lie, she would say something along the lines of “they want to make you look stupid (or trashy, or fat, or ugly).” Then whenever I tried to reach out to anyone for help, she would deny all of what happened in our house.
She would tell the therapist, or the guidance counselor, or the teacher about how lazy and terrible I was. Then she would say to me that they sided with her. That was likely a lie too, but I don’t know for sure because I stopped speaking to others.
7. They tell everyone that you are lying.
Not only does the gaslighter tell everyone else that you are lying, but they accuse you of trying to hurt them with your lies.
“Remember, a fact is a fact, no matter how hard the liars amongst you might try hushing it up.” ― Billy Childish
What to do if this is happening to you
The first thing you have to do to stop the cycle is to recognize it is happening. Acknowledging it is an excruciating step, and you will likely try and excuse the behavior and blame yourself. Please resist this urge. You have been conditioned over time to react this way.
The fact that you are reading this means you inherently know you are not crazy. You have not “exaggerated an isolated incident.” You are not “making it all up.”
Gaslighting is not a response to something that you have done. It is not because you did not do something “well enough.” It is because the person needs to be in complete control. According to Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed. D:
“Often, the gaslighter is a very insecure human being. In order to feel “equal,” they need to feel superior. In order to feel safe, they need to feel they have the upper hand. They have few other coping skills or other ways to negotiate differences. That doesn’t excuse the behavior. But knowing that may help you take it less personally while you decide whether to maintain the relationship.”
That is where the next steps get even harder. You have to decide what you are willing to accept and what you are not. You can not change this person’s behavior. It is deeply rooted in their issues and the life they have lived.
While these things do not give them the right to behave in this manner, understanding might help you gain some perspective. This perspective will help you decide what to do now. Ultimately, you have two choices.
Continue to try and have a relationship
This choice is only something that you can choose. I would highly recommend that if you do decide to continue this relationship, that you get some professional assistance. A therapist can help you rebuild your self-esteem, help you build a support system, and aid you in healing.
They might also be able to help you communicate in a way that the gaslighter can understand. This option will be an arduous journey. After putting in the work, it might still end up with walking away from this relationship.
Option two is to walk away. It doesn’t matter what type of relationship that this is. You can walk away from any attachment that is not healthy for you: familial, romantic, work, or friendship. If you can not accept the behavior, and the gaslighter refuses to put in the work or respect your boundaries, then this is the only option left.
You will likely still want to find a therapist to help you heal, build a support system, and repair your self-esteem. Therapists are lovely resources when dealing with these types of toxic relationships.
Do not believe the lies your mind tells you
One thing that I have learned in therapy is that our minds will believe whatever we tell ourselves is true. Be careful of the things you allow yourself to accept as truth. If you know something happened and another person tries to convince you it did not, you must question why they would do such things.
Protect your sanity and be mindful if someone in your life is trying to manipulate and gaslight you. You can break the trauma bonds and move on with your life. You are capable, and you are strong. You are so much more than someone else’s opinion of you. Do not lose sight of the things that make you who you are. I will leave you with these last few words from Loraine Nilon:
“Emotional abuse can leave a victim feeling like a shell of a person, separated from the true essence of who they naturally are. It also leads to a victim feeling tormented and tortured by their own emotions.”
Please let us know in the comments how you were able to recognize a loved one was gaslighting you, and how you overcame it. Knowing that we are not alone might help us all reclaim the true essence of ourselves so that we can be who we are truly capable of becoming.