Gaslighting is a malicious and hidden form of emotional and mental abuse, designed to plant seeds of self-doubt and alter your perception of reality. The term comes from the play and later film Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.
Gaslighting refers to a deliberate pattern of manipulation calculated to make you trust the perpetrator and doubt your own perceptions or sanity, similar to brainwashing. Like all abuse, it’s based on the need for power, control, or concealment.
Some people occasionally lie or use denial to avoid taking responsibility or win an argument. They may forget or remember conversations and events differently than you, or they may have no recollection due to a blackout if they were drinking. These situations are sometimes called gaslighting, but aren’t the same thing. In the movie, Bergman plays a sensitive, trusting wife struggling to preserve her identity in an abusive marriage to Boyer, who tries to convince her that she’s ill in order to keep her from learning the truth.
As in the movie, the perpetrator often acts concerned and kind to dispel any suspicions. Someone capable of persistent lying and manipulation is also quite capable of being charming and seductive. Often the relationship begins that way. When gaslighting starts, you might even feel guilty for doubting the person whom you’ve come to trust. To further play with your mind, an abuser might offer evidence to show that you’re wrong or question your memory or senses. More justifications and explanations, including expressions of love and flattery, are concocted to confuse you and reason away any discrepancies in the liar’s story. You get temporary reassurance, and increasingly, you doubt your own senses, ignore your gut and become more confused.
The person gaslighting might act hurt and indignant or play the victim when challenged or questioned. Covert manipulation can easily turn into overt emotional abuse with accusations that you’re distrustful, ungrateful, unkind, overly sensitive, dishonest, stupid, insecure, crazy, or abusive. Abuse might escalate to anger and intimidation with punishment, threats, or bullying if you don’t accept the false version of reality.
Gaslighting can take place in the workplace or in any relationship. Generally, it concerns control, infidelity, or money. A typical scenario is when an intimate partner lies to conceal a relationship with someone else. In other cases, it may be to conceal gambling debts or stock or investment losses. The manipulator is often a narcissist, addict, or a sociopath, particularly if gaslighting is premeditated or used to cover up a crime. In one case, a sociopath was stealing from his girlfriend whose apartment he shared. She gave him money each month to pay the landlord, but he kept it. He hacked into her credit cards and bank accounts, but was so devious that to induce her trust he bought her gifts with her money and pretended to help her find the hacker. It was only when the landlord eventually informed her that she was way behind in the rent that she discovered her boyfriend’s treachery.
When the motive is purely control, a spouse might use shame to undermine his or her partner’s confidence, loyalty, or intelligence. A wife might attack her husband’s manhood and manipulate him by calling him weak or spineless. A husband might weaken his wife’s self-esteem by criticizing her looks or competence professionally or as a mother. A typical tactic to isolate the victim and gain greater control is to disparage friends or relatives so that they cannot be trusted or claim that they agree with the manipulator’s negative statements. A similar strategy is to undermine the partner’s relationships with friends and relatives by accusing him or her of disloyalty.
Effects of Gaslighting
Gaslighting can be very insidious the longer it occurs. Initially, you won’t realize you’re being affected by it, but gradually you lose trust in your own instincts and perceptions. It can be very damaging, particularly in a relationship built on trust and love. Love and attachment are strong incentives to believe lies and manipulation. We use denial, because we rather believe the lie than the truth, which might precipitate a painful breakup.
Gaslighting can damage our self-confidence and self-esteem, trust in ourselves and reality, and our openness to love again. If it involves verbal abuse, we may believe the truth of the abuser’s criticisms and continue to blame and judge ourselves even after the relationship is over. Many abusers put down and intimidate their partners to make them dependent so they won’t leave. Examples are: “You’ll never find anyone as good as me,” “The grass isn’t greener,” or “No one else would put up with you.”
Recovery from a breakup or divorce can be more difficult when we’ve been in denial about problems in the relationship. Denial often continues even after the truth comes out. In the story described above, the woman got engaged to her boyfriend after she found out what he’d done. It takes time for us to reinterpret our experience in light of all the facts once they become known. It can be quite confusing, because we may love the charmer, but hate the abuser. This is especially true if all the bad behavior was out of sight, and memories of the relationship were mostly positive. We lose not only the relationship and person we loved and/or shared a life with, but also trust in ourselves and future relationships. Even if we don’t leave, the relationship is forever changed. In some cases when both partners are motivated to stay and work together in conjoint therapy, the relationship can be strengthened and the past forgiven.
Recovery from Gaslighting
Learn to identify the perpetrator’s behavior patterns. Realize that they’re due to his or her insecurity and shame, not yours. Get support. It’s critical that you have a strong support system to validate your reality in order to combat gaslighting. Isolation makes the problem worse and relinquishes your power to the abuser. Join Codependents Anonymous (www.CoDA.org) and seek counseling.
Once you acknowledge what’s going on, you’re more able to detach and not believe or react to falsehoods, even though you may want to. You’ll also realize that the gaslighting is occurring due to your partner’s serious characterological problems. It does not reflect on you, nor can you change someone else. For an abuser to change, it takes willingness and effort by both partners. Sometimes when one person changes, the other also does in response. However, if he or she is an addict or has a personality disorder, change is difficult. To assess your relationship and effectively confront unwanted behavior, get Dating, Loving, and Leaving a Narcissist: Essential Tools for Improving or Leaving Narcissistic and Abusive Relationships.
Once victims come out of denial, it’s common for them to mentally want to redo the past. They’re often self-critical for not having trusted themselves or stood up to the abuse. Don’t do this! Instead of perpetuating self-abuse, learn how to stop self-criticism and Raise Your Self-Esteem. You also need to learn How to Be Assertive and how to set boundaries to stop abuse.
The gaslighting seems to be the cruelest of the manip tactics. It has taken me 16 yrs to finally “detach” myself from the anguish I have felt every time I have found my clothes with holes in them…a pattern of holes. He started telling me I needed to pay close attn to what I’m doing maybe write everything down so I could solve the mystery. Like a dummy, I did. Always such disappointment when I was ready to get out the door and found a new garment was again with that pattern of holes. A few cars and houses later, children, new environments and the holes persisted. He told me maybe I should move out of the closet to prove it was not him. He said maybe I should get foot lockers and lock away all my clothes. In the meantime he was setting me up to look like a nut if I did those things he suggested. I did not. But I finally caught him. I caught him putting holes in my clothes and caught him laying on the ground little things that I’d been picking up for YEARS and asking how did this get here, it isn’t mine. He has just sat back, smirking and watching me investigate and wonder aloud.
When I finally caught him in the act he denied it right then and there. What I thought I was seeing was not that at all. It just clicked for the first time ever; the apathy I felt for his mean tactics. I no longer felt angry, bewildered or scared. I don’t know why he does it and so much more that he says and does day in and out to bring out my fear and distrust and anguish. I realize it’s his shortcoming, not something I brought on myself. But what he accomplished all these yrs in his endless list of tactics was to isolate me. He helped me push away my family and friends support systems, leave the workforce, not make friends and completely dedicate myself to my kids as a way to shy away from the world.
I put my kids first and used that as my excuse to be lazy and hide away and just painfully look away as he launches his crazed psychological tactics on me. He controls everything; the money, the social life, the kids, my daily activities…I’m still here. Still don’t have any understanding of what he ever wanted to gain by stripping from me my spirit, smile and happiness in a yrs long process. I don’t get it. But finally, at the very least, I’ve taken step 1 and I see the truth and I’m not doubting myself.
Some believe that we choose our families. We knowingly descend into incarnation, a physical experience for the soul to work out its journey to perfection..I have no answers, look for the lessons. Know that the first step may be the hardest. keep moving forward, love yourself, and be kind to yourself. May you find peace, joy, and belonging.
Every thing I have read is like a story of my life the past 7 years . I have felt like I was crazy…am I imagining what’s going on? I know now it’s not. I’m heartbroken… pushed my friends and family Away. Feel as I am not worthy of love and will never be wanted. She is beautiful smart and can be caring…. but short lived and back to being abusive …demanding…accusations…. demeaning. I could use some help.
It’s essential you get counseling and attend CoDA meetings. Read my books also, especially Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People and Conquering Shame and Codependency. Then do the exercises in my ebook and webinar on raising your self-esteem. You won’t be able to heal without support from experienced people other than your family.
I don’t even know how to proceed from this day forth. Yesterday we ate out and he looked at cell the whole time. After I said that’s enough we ate in silence . On way home he blasted me. Of course I’m the bad guy according to him. We got home and he tore Christmas decorations off the door . He used the most awful language and after he unlocked the door he proceeded to fridge and took beer and wine bottles and poured down the drain. He had just bought them. Silent treatment has beganned once again. He has closed his bedroom door and he lays in his bed watching politics. He has gotten worse this year. We’re both in our sixties. Married 48 years
It doesn’t sound like you’re ready to leave, or you would have long ago. Do run to Al-Anon, and learn to detach and be assertive. Read Codependency for Dummies and my ebook/webinar on assertiveness. He may be aware his drinking is a problem and is trying to stop. You need support, so go to meetings and get counseling.
I recently broke up with a guy I believe to be a Narcissist. I caught him in more than one lie and he said I just heard what I wanted to hear. He continued to tell me what I did wrong and said he is a Dom and wanted me to be completely submissive to him. He wanted control of my finances and when I refused said I would never be a Sub. I chose money over him, but it is difficult. I loved him. Although he said he loved me, he never wanted me to ask him if he did.
hey sweety. you didn’t choose money over him. obviously you should be strong and choose yourself. all that money you worked for hard. your time. your life. be a dom yourself. see if he has any finances to give you 😉 dont worry choose take care of you is normal. dont let him make you doubt yourself. you seem sweet. take care
Same thing happened to me but I was with that guy for fourteen long years..I left him three years ago and now he is as miserable as ever. And I wish him nothing but the best. Hopefully one day I will find someone worth my love cause God knows that guy sure wasn’t worthy of it
Everything You have described here and about being in a relationship with a Narcissist I have been a victim of for three years. It’s over now but not for me. Knowing that my gut was right doesn’t make it any less painful. It’s also painful to have knowledge how she has no remorse and has already moved on and is hooking up with men looking for a new minion or minions to do for her all that I was. I lost three years but the damage I did to my own life in doing only for her will take a while to undo if even possible. She looks as good as the day I met her and I’ve aged ten years. There’s not enough room here to list my feelings at this moment.