“Gaslighters are master manipulators,” says Tampa-based psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, LMHC, author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free. “They lie or withhold information, pit people against each other, and always place blame elsewhere, all the while gaining control over those they are gaslighting.”
According to the American Psychological Association, the term “once referred to manipulation so extreme as to induce mental illness or to justify commitment of the gaslighted person to a psychiatric institution but is now used more generally.”
The term gaslight comes from the play Gas Light, by Patrick Hamilton. The play tells the story of a cunning man who attempts to convince his devoted wife she is going insane. He hides and moves various articles in their home and, when she notices, tells her she either lost the items or moved them herself but can’t remember. The husband’s goal is to secretly increase his own fortune by stealing his wife’s inheritances. When she sees the gas lights in her room fading and is led to believe it’s not really happening, she starts to question her own sanity. 1
How to Spot a Gaslighter
Gaslighters need control and power. In a relationship, they need to be in charge, and they need to be right about everything, routinely imposing their judgments on you. A gaslighter’s tactics—constantly criticizing, blaming, making verbally abusive statements, intimidation, denial of responsibility, minimizing abusive behavior, and proclaiming dissatisfaction with a relationship—may be subtle at first.
You may not sense something is deeply wrong until you find yourself existing in a never-ending state of confusion and self-doubt. Gaslighters are blamers, using lines like, “You made me do it” or “I did it because you wouldn’t listen to me.” They may accuse you of having issues or needs that they actually have, such as suggesting you’re not being honest with yourself. They may find ways to take credit for your accomplishments. When a gaslighter gives a compliment or apology, it is often backhanded: “You look almost as good as you did when I first met you” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Why Do People Gaslight?
The goal is always to weaken resistance, break spirits, appear blameless, and create chaos and confusion in the mind of the “gaslight-tee.” Gaslighting isn’t an isolated or occasional event. It’s an insidious and persistent pattern of behavior that keeps you questioning yourself and those around you while slowly eroding your self-esteem and even your identity.
“There are two main reasons why a gaslighter behaves as they do,” Sarkis explains. “It is either a planned effort to gain control and power over another person, or it because someone was raised by a parent or parents who were gaslighters, and they learned these behaviors as a survival mechanism.”
Children learn from a gaslighting parent that they are the golden child who can do no wrong or the scapegoat who is blamed for doing everything wrong, Sarkis adds. That teaches the child a false belief that people operate in absolutes, that people are either all good or all bad, without any gray areas, and so they start to behave towards others as if this is true.
Reasons for Gaslighting
It bears repeating that gaslighting is an unhealthy form of control arising from a need to dominate others.
Certain mental health conditions such as narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder lend themselves to gaslighting as those illnesses give people a distorted view of themselves and others and a propensity toward manipulating others for their own ends by any means necessary, as well as never acknowledging their own culpability or faults and projecting that onto others.
Persistent gaslighting can be catastrophic for the mental health of the person on the receiving end causing him/her to believe they deserve the abuse. The impact can last long after the gaslighter is out of the victim’s life and very often leads to a lifetime of self-doubt and difficulty making decisions.
Gaslighting and Mental Health
Gaslighting causes chronic stress and severe emotional distress. The constant barrage of verbal (and sometimes physical) assaults eventually wears away your sense of identity, self-worth, and self-confidence while also eating away at your sanity. You may be more vulnerable to gaslighting if you suffer from any mental health issues that weaken your resistance, such as a history of abuse or trauma, low self-esteem or depression, for example.
Can gaslighting cause mental illness?
Gaslighting can lead to increased anxiety and depression, says Stern. “Gaslighting may not be the only factor leading to mental illness but the same factors that leave a person vulnerable to gaslighting may result in lower self-esteem, uncertainty about their own reality, anxiety, and ultimately depression,” she says. “Over time, you begin to believe that there is something wrong with you because one of the most important people in your life is telling you this.” Dr. Riba adds that gaslighting can escalate and become chronic. "It can affect a person's functioning in terms of work, school, and socialization," Dr. Riba explains.
What causes a person to gaslight?
People are not born gaslighters. Rather, it is socially learned, Stern says. You may witness gaslighting, be a target of gaslighting, or happen into it, she explains. For some, it then becomes an automatic response to feeling off-balance in an argument, and a way to deflect responsibility, and gain control.
A gaslighter is determined to exert control over someone, Stern says. They engage in and want to win a power struggle, and in gaslighting relationships, the gaslighter seems to have unlimited stamina to undermine the gaslight-tee. They realize that gaslighting is a powerful way to destabilize their partner, Stern explains.
What is an example of gaslighting?
Here is a typical scenario of how gaslighting occurs, Stern explains. A couple may be at odds as soon as they leave the house and walk down the street because the woman likes to say hello and stop and chat with acquaintances, while the man does not. He prefers to ignore those around him and becomes upset when she occasionally engages with others. Then he gets angry and accuses her of looking ridiculous in public because she is ignoring him.
She defends herself, saying she is friendly and wants to greet the people she knows. But he grows angrier and accuses her of both ignoring him and looking like a fool. He repeatedly tells her that she thinks that other people want to engage with her but that really they probably think she has serious problems because she is ignoring the person she is walking with preferring to engage with them instead. At first, she thinks he is just being difficult, but over time, she begins to think: is he right? Do I have mental problems?
In that way, she grows confused and unsure of herself.
How can you be smarter than a gaslighter?
“Standing in your own reality is the surest way to stop and prevent gaslighting,” Stern says. “This is not easy to do and requires the support of others and practice over time.” Practice paying attention to what you think and feel. Notice when the conversation veers away from a back-and-forth discussion to a “blaming you” session.
In some situations, you could even be in danger if gaslighting escalates in terms of physical abuse, Riba adds. “If you are feeling emotionally manipulated and threatened, seek help from trusted friends and family, and consider professional treatment from a mental health professional,” she advises.
It is important to examine your relationship with the gaslighter. If you feel like your gaslighter is in power all the time, you may want to consider whether or not you really want to stay or leave the relationship. “If you stay, you need to ask if you can be strong enough to stand in your reality,” Stern says.
How do I talk to a gaslighter?
Talking to a gaslighter means paying close attention to where the conversation pivots. Stern says. If a power struggle ensues, tell the gaslighter that since the two of you are just going back and forth in the same conversation, that you want to stop the conversation.
Explain that you can talk more when the conversation is not so heated. Or just say that you are not willing to discuss a particular subject any longer, and that the two of you are just going to have to agree to disagree on this one, Stern advises.
What are gaslighting tactics?
“The person with the power—the gaslighter—will wear you down over time with his insistence and certainty about his reality,” Stern explains. Gradually, the effect of this gaslighting is to undermine your sense of yourself and destroy your ability to trust your perception of yourself and the world around you.
“When you are the gaslight-tee, it is as if you are listening to an old-fashioned radio and you can only turn the dial to one station,” Stern adds. “You begin to believe the gaslighter. You can’t turn the knob on the radio to any other station.” But, she says, when you recognize the gaslighting and get the support you need, you can take steps to stop the gaslighting. “You can begin to listen to those other channels, including your own.”
Protect Yourself from A Gaslighter
If you suspect you are being gaslighted, here’s some advice:
- Pay attention to what the person does, not what they say. Gaslighters say one thing, but their actions say another.
- Don’t listen to someone who constantly tells you “you’re crazy” or makes similar comments that make you routinely question yourself.
- Don’t believe anyone who tells you that others, especially your family and/or friends, agree with them and not you. Gaslighters will often use those closest to you as ammunition.
- Remember that it’s not you; the gaslighter is 100% responsible for their behavior.
- Present incontrovertible evidence and be direct with the gaslighter when they try to deny or evade the truth, as long as you are in a position of safety when doing so.
NOTE: If you are concerned for your safety, contact your local domestic violence shelter or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7333.
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