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Are You Being Gaslighted In Your Relationship?

By Azriel ReShel on Friday November 25th, 2016

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What it Means to be Gaslighted and How to Avoid it

You believe you’re strong in your self-belief and solid in who you are…right? Well, it’s amazing how easily we can take on another person’s view of the world and perceptions of who we are.  If you’re not richly grounded in the soil of your own truth and innate goodness, it is terribly easy to lose your roots and be toppled.

I’ve only recently worked out that I’ve spent a decade being gaslighted. It sounds dumb, but you’d better believe it, I didn’t see any of it! My reality and my view of myself was constantly undermined by little and big insinuations and comments such as ‘oh you couldn’t do that, you’re not organised enough’, and ‘you’re far too emotional and sensitive’.

Words from a partner can seem harmless, but gaslighting is more insidious than that. It is designed to disempower you so the other person can control you and even make themselves feel better by having power over you.

disempoweredIt is designed to disempower you.

What is Gaslighting?

To gaslight is to manipulate someone psychologically so that they doubt their sanity. It is emotional abuse where the victim is manipulated to doubt their own memory and perceptions. It happens when one person tries to overwrite another’s reality.

The term gaslighting comes from a 1938 play, Gaslight, where the main character uses systematic psychological manipulation on his wife, to convince her, and others, that she is insane so he can have her committed and claim her inheritance. He does this by manipulating small things in their environment and then telling her she is mistaken when she notices the changes. Ultimately, he says she is delusional when she spots things that are different. The term comes from the dimming of the gas lights in the house, noticed by the wife and denied by the husband, who insists that she is imagining it.

Gaslighting has become known as an attempt to destroy someone else’s reality. It seems to be most common in intimate relationships.

Gaslighting is an attempt to destroy someone else’s reality.Gaslighting is an attempt to destroy someone else’s reality. Image: 1944 film adaptation.

“Gaslighting is the systematic attempt by one person to erode another’s reality, by telling them that what they are experiencing isn’t so – and, the gradual giving up on the part of the other person. Gaslighting takes two – one person who needs to be in control to maintain his sense of self, and the other, who needs the relationship to maintain her sense of self and is willing to acquiesce. The Gaslight Effect happens when you find yourself second guessing your own reality, confused and uncertain of what you think, because you have allowed another to define reality and tell you what you think — and who you are. Gaslighting can be maddening in the early stages and soul destroying when it fully takes hold.” Dr Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect.

I know several professional, beautiful, and intelligent women who have shared experiences of being gaslighted by their intimate partners, as well as men who have experienced it too.

The truly destructive thing about gaslighting is that it nibbles away at your self-worth, your belief in yourself, your talents, your beauty, and then pretty quickly, you’re minimising the problematic things in your life. Then the descent into shame begins. When you feel shame about either being gaslighted, or being “weak” or controlled, or you begin to believe the put downs another person tells you, then you are in the dangerous position of not being able to ask for help or to change your situation. You question your truth and deny your perceptions. You don’t share what is happening with others because either you don’t realize the truth of what is happening, or you feel ashamed that you have descended into such a pit. I believe this is one of the major tactics in domestic violence and the first signpost on the road to serious emotional abuse in a relationship.

The truly destructive thing about gaslighting is that it nibbles away at your self-worth.The truly destructive thing about gaslighting is that it nibbles away at your self-worth.

Signs you may be falling prey to gaslighting

These are some red flags to look out for:

  • Your partner is making you feel like you are crazy. If you feel like you’re going crazy, more often than not, you’re probably not and they are gaslighting you.  If you feel confused, constantly question yourself, and are mired in self-doubt, you could be a victim of gaslighting.
  • You feel insecure, wonder if you’re too sensitive/emotional and keep apologising. Or you find yourself walking on eggshells and gearing your actions, and words, to your partner’s moods.
  • You feel like you are losing yourself, don’t know who you are anymore, and feel you are becoming someone else entirely. When you’re being gaslighted you can take on your partner’s version of who you are. Your life can also become very narrow and you may be feeling deep shame about who you are as a person, and begin to isolate yourself from others.

Gaslighting can be a very subtle form of abuse which is why it is so dangerous.  It’s a lot about power, so chances are, if there’s a power imbalance in your relationship and you’re the one in the one down position, someone’s keeping you there through mental manipulation. It can also kick in particularly with a partner with addictions, or one who is having an affair. We all know the old, ‘don’t be ridiculous, how could you accuse me of having an affair! I was just working late,’ routine. You are blamed for being insecure and irrational, causing you to question your accurate perception of the situation.

My partner always told me, ever so kindly, that I was messy, disorganised, aggressive, and abusive. I heard these stories as if on repeat and something happened in my mind.  I started to take them on board, to believe them, and live out this alien version of myself. I absolutely gave away my own power to determine my own reality and handed it over to him.  I was blind to the projections and subtle putdowns. I allowed my own feelings of self-worth to be influenced by another’s world view and criticism. And what is worse, I didn’t see it!

depressed-woman‘ started to live out this alien version of myself

For years, I was told I betrayed him and over time I thought I had, until one day I woke up and very clearly saw that he had betrayed me right from the beginning and I just hadn’t noticed, or didn’t want to see it. Sometimes our deep need and desire to be loved will wipe clean any sensibility, deactivating our bullshit radars. A gaslighter senses this desperate need to be loved and accepted, which is often packaged with a long history of being empathic and a people pleaser, and uses it to his or her advantage. I feel quite stupid sharing these words. You’d think I’d know better and be able to see through such ridiculousness, but I didn’t.  This is the issue with gaslighting, it can be subtle, yet treacherous, and before long you’re colluding with the gaslighter. It can even be masked as caring.

Spiritual Gaslighting

For me, the worst kind of gaslighting is “spiritual” gaslighting, where in my case, the admonishments to my personality were couched in personal growth speak:

‘I’m telling you this because I care about you and if you become aware of how you’re acting and what you’re really like, you’ll be able to transform yourself and truly grow.’

‘I’m doing you a kindness and helping you with your level of consciousness, by keeping it real, and helping you to be authentic by pointing this out.’

'I'm doing you a kindness...'‘I’m doing you a kindness…’

While gaslighting happens to both men and women, I feel with the still large scale inequality in the world, where women are less valued than men, that many more women are gaslighted than men. I believe many men feel and sense the growing wildness, power, and incredible wisdom of women, and are quite frankly, afraid. If you’re insecure and competitive, and your partner begins to grow in stature, you will feel threatened and want to find a way to keep her under wraps. We need men who can celebrate the feminine and support the awakening of the feminine power that is bubbling under the surface.

Gaslighting is terribly insidious and eats away at the very foundation of your own relationship with yourself, of your integrity, and connection to who you are. This is what is so destructive about it. If you begin to doubt yourself, question your own mental or emotional capacity, you are undone. There is no certainty in your life anymore when you have lost your steady connection with your inner truth.

empoweredCreate your own life and live from what is real for you.

How to avoid this mental manipulation

Gaslighting is calling on us to develop an indestructible sense of self, based in deep value and love. When you become your own best friend, always cheering yourself on, and believing in your innate goodness, you will be far less easily manipulated and knocked off your course. It is also asking you to step-up to greater self-responsibility and power. While the person gaslighting you is not to be admired, being a victim and blaming them for their behaviour, without examining what needs to be changed in you, will only perpetuate the problem. Here are 8 things you can do:

  1. Develop a strong sense of yourself.
  2. Be immovable in your self-love and self-connection.
  3. Spend time alone and get to know yourself.
  4. Don’t put others on a pedestal and believe what they say above your own intuition.
  5. Always listen to your heart wisdom and your intuitive nudges. Trust yourself no matter what.
  6. Have a strong connection with something higher than yourself.
  7. Develop a mindful internal barometer – stop and check-in before taking on board someone else’s opinion of you or of life.
  8. Create your own life and live from what is real for you.

“Remember, there is good news about identifying the Gaslight Effect. The good news is that knowledge is power. Once you can name this all too insidious dynamic, you can work towards changing the dynamic, or getting out—take back your reality, and get more enjoyment from your life and your relationship.” – Dr Robin Stern.

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

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Azriel ReShel

Writer, Editor, Yoga Teacher & Healing Facilitator

 

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  • Helen Hughes

    I’ve only come across the term “Gaslighting” really recently, but straightaway recognise it as something that happens in my life. When my husband is angry he can do things like turn on the light in the bedroom and then ask me why I have turned it on and when I’m going to turn it off. It’s scarey. This has only happened in this extreme form a couple of times, thank goodness – but I am now so glad I’m able to put a name to it. I recognise what the author means when she talks about gaslighters using those who are basically trying to be nice to everyone. Bullies can do the same. And it can hurt so much because you just don’t expect this kind of behaviour from the one you have chosen to be your partner in life. Thanks for this article!

  • Trisha

    Ive never heard of this term, but its definitely what I spent nearly 2 decades in and didnt even realize it until it was over. Everything I thought about me came from him. Needless to say, I was extremely surprised when someone called me ” brilliant”. I still struggle to like anything about me. Its sick how deeply ingrained the words and actions of someone else can leave you. And you can leave them like that, too, if you arent careful. Im no saint.

  • Housecat 999

    My older sister once told me I had no power. Some of my family members will attempt to derail me whenever I exhibit confidence or leadership. I constantly have had to work to feel secure enough within myself to continue fighting for what I believe in or even say what’s honestly on my mind. I recently commented that the family “tradition” of spanking a turkey (one for each pound) was a little sick and twisted. You would think I’d said something that was untrue and hurtful directed at them personally, when I made it clear that what I was saying was that I thought the tradition was nuts. Then I let my brother who has cancer know I was going to shave my head in support when he lost his once the election was over. Then I did it and he acted surprised and shocked and told the rest of the family not to do it. That was another Charlie Brown/Lucy football moment.

  • Tracey Dawson

    I’ve read a lot of articles on emotional abuse but none have ever rung so true as this one has for me. It’s been four years since I left and I’ve chosen to remain single ever since. No dates, no companionship, just me learning to be me again; learning to trust myself, learning to listen to myself. I’m still working on it.
    I had no idea when I left the relationship just how many people I would have to cut loose. One thing the article doesn’t cover is that not only will YOU believe all the nonsense your partner says to you, so will a load of others believe the things he/she says about you and this includes family, friends (yours together and yours separately) business associates, your kid’s teachers, clergy, etc. People who gaslight are master manipulators and expert liars and most other people not only believe them and their lies but think they are nice guys/gals so when you inform your friends differently, when you begin to open up about your experiences, they look at you sideways and often don’t believe you. Salt in the wound.
    It is a viscous situation to escape from and the road to recovery is rough. If you are able to muster the strength and courage to leave, you will be able to muster the courage to let go of the people that don’t support you which can be very sad each time it happens but you will be better without them. Even if you feel that you’re letting go of everyone and there will be no one left for you, being alone is not a death sentence but an opportunity to learn to be happy all by yourself, on your terms, in your way in your own time. Besides, the Universe won’t let you stay alone if it’s not what you truly want. People who are good for you, who nourish your spirit, will come into your life unexpectedly.
    I believe the truth will always come to the surface eventually and I’m a strong believer in karma. Work on yourself and let the rest go.

    • Eric

      Thank you for sharing your story Tracy. I’m sorry you went through that, but I hope it has made you a stronger person.

      I agree that one of the terrible effects of gaslighting is on your other relationships. I’ve recently experienced this from a colleague and the subsequent outfall has damaged alot of work relationships. It’s difficult trying to put together what is true, and how the truth and lies have directed how other people relate to you. It’s caused alot of stress, anxiety, and loss of production. I didn’t recognise it soon enough, and by then the damage was done and I had no one to turn too.

      Now I’ve left that situation but the memories are pervasive. I think about what I should had done, or what will happen from here in out.

  • Jeremy Ball

    I am Jeremy Ball, the partner referred to by Azriel in this article.

    The information is so far from the truth to be incredulous, the Chinese rewriting of Tibetan History has more factual basis. Whilst I would like to honour Azriel’s experience it is so far from the truth of actual events that I can give it no credence. And was in the end why I ended the relationship with Azriel despite my deep love for her as a soul and splitting up our family, Her behaviour towards me throughout the years became so toxic, due to my gentleness and compliance and just not knowing how to deal with this impossible situation. In the end it was the lack of self responsibility that had me give up hope after many years of extreme suffering, I could take the verbal and physical abuse, the denigration of me and the sidelining me as a parent to an extent but with lack of self responsibility there was no room for change it was only going to continue to get worse.

    I had never heard of gas lighting before this article, now that I understand it I can see that it is yet another projection of Azriel’s shadow onto me (in the early days of our relationship she would constantly tell me (quietly giving me sage advice at first, followed by stronger demand I agree with her point of you, to pushing her head in my face to push it harder, to near and to physical violence when I did not completely accept her point of view ~ I would wake in the morning from my sleep being berated with it, I would be woken at 3 am being berated and I would often fall asleep at night being berated). This was not gas lighting this was napalm.

    What was I being berated with:
    1) I was controlling …. I new it was a projection but kind of half took it in and keep using my Buddhist thinking to take it on board and learn from it. Since leaving Azriel I realise she is very controlling and manipulative out of fear, I had so much compassion for this, but the behaviour is not mine, everyone is controlling to an extent. But I’m not over controlling in fact I’m a bit loose. Azriel was and still is extremely controlling of me.
    2) I’m not “present”. Look until we are meditation masters all of us struggle with being present, I day dream, and get bored but I was much much more present in relationship with Azriel than she was with me. She could not hold eye contact, she found it so hard just to sit wiht me and talk really talk and connect, even this projecting was not being present. I had so much compassion for this in Azriel I could see the pain it stemmed from and I tried my hardest to love it out of her.
    3) I was not experienced in relationships and she was – this was true, at 31 Azriel was my third girlfriend and really the first proper one. Azriel had had many boyfriends and been married before. But her experiences were really bad experiences, my non resume of just being friends with many many people actually had me far better at relating. I wasn’t good at it but neither was I damaging with lots of baggage and pain from past loves to project onto Azriel.

    When I met Azriel she was honest about her aggression and how she would berated her former husband. But as the years went by (very quickly actually, after a few days but got buried deeper in time) she took less and less responsibilities for her anger and aggression projected onto me. I had so much love for her and for our family, I really thought my love would win over and I dedicated so much time, energy and all my resources to try and help so Azriel would be free and we would have a happy healthy family (most of all I dedicated this to my personal growth, taking on board what she said and trying to heal me with the belief that she was reflecting something in me, I was only to happy to take her suffering on (on top of my own, don’t worry I was only to aware of my shortcomings). But the truth was much of it wasn’t me and could not be healed by me.

    So to Azriel’s three points:
    I said she was messy
    I said she was crazy
    I said she was aggressive

    Yes I said all these things to Azriel, not for the first several years I took her punishment, turned the other cheek … it started being a few times a week, then daily, then a few times a day and finally just before I left she would scream at the top of her voice veins popping for an hour at a time, often jostling me physically, getting right under and pushing her face into my cheek. I would lock myself on the veranada and sleep on the day bed with the mosquitos to be awoken to more abuse. This went on for weeks. It sounds terrible but it was only a step wise escalation of what had been happening for 10 years. Azriel became physically violent to me early on, I explained it away and told myself it would pass. It didn’t it got worse. The day I finally left Azriel had struck me 7/8 times in the back as I turned away from her abuse. She had struck me before but this was enough. I had started working outside the home and finally realised this was not normal behaviour.
    What happened over the next two years of on and off again separation was horrible her control and manipulation of children and access to children was truly horrific but still I hoped for change. Still I loved her deep down, I do still. I adore this woman who brought my children into the world and the tender moments we shared, that were whittles away over time.

    I allowed Azriel to move back in six months later. The physical violence stopped but the other behaviour was worse, much worse. As if how dare you no longer swallow my shadow. So as she attacked me each morning to hold my ground I would tell her in response to her attacks on me …. you are being very aggressive (she was not aggressive, this is the understating a soft Englishmen .. you were violent, not aggressive, your abuse was emotionally, mentally and physically violent when you did not get your way), you were messy incredibly messy leaving wet towels and clothes on the floor to be covered by cat pee and poo most nights, emptying hoover bags out the back door in the flower garden inches from the house and much much more … I’m not being chauvinist here expecting the woman to do the house work, I lived on my own from 18 years old and hoovered from 5 years old, nor am I fussy, I am quite messy yet there are limits that are intolerant … I was not pointing this out to gas light her I was trying to get order in the house so we could function. You are crazy … yes I said this many times to you, first gently in a kind “you are being crazy, calm down” trying to placate and cuddle and make right. To when the full extent of wrath occurred and she persued me through the house (not a few times as would be expected in a marriage but a few times a day) me trying to get out the house to have exits blocked, me shutting my self in bedrooms, children pushing her away. Then yes I shouted in the face of extreme provocation you are being crazy stop it. You were being many things in those frequent moments and crazy is a kind almost euphemistic term.

    Why did I put up wiht it all:
    1) I loved you
    2) I loved our family
    3) I didn’t trust myself, I knew what I was seeing and experiencing but my past experiences and your “gas lighting” of many years had me doubt myself
    4) I feared what would happen if our relationship broke down, how heartbroken you I our children would be
    5) I did not value myself
    6) I thought if I only tried a little harder, loved a little harder it would change
    7) I was afraid of the future, for years from before I first child was born you threatened me that if I ever left you you would make access to children hard … you repeated this in ever more painful ways many many times over the years, hundreds. You deny this as you deny most but it happened.

    At the end we went for counselling but you could not be honest about your pains and your troubles you were only seeking to protect yourself and not expose yourself to the counsellor.

    I had so much love and compassion for you. I know from what you shared with me and from my own insights and perceptions what led to you carrying the pain you do that would have you act in this way. I knew it was your pain surfacing and I was honoured in many ways that it surfaced with me because of the deep love we did share. But I could take it no more, more was putting put on me with less and less self responsibility. For three days after I left I lay in bed without eating, hardly drinking with clouds and masses of energy billowing out of me, the trauma and the emotional torment you had poured into me. I wish my taking it on could have changed things it only made them worse.

    You say you feel you were constantly apologising for yourself. May I reflect back my experience. I could see that in you, a torment of at some level not believing you had a right to exist. What I experienced was the opposite, I complete lack of being able to apologise or take responsibility for your actions … as if apologising fir hitting / harming me / making an innocent mistake was somehow feeding and affirming this tortuous belief. At first you would semi apologise when you really went off at me, through something hit me, were very late.You would also be a little honest about how you were aggressive with your former husband. But very quickly you shut this down to denial of any boundary invasions even blaming me. Of course we are all guilty of this but yours was to an extreme extent.

    Although of course my victim mentality had me accept this behaviour I never felt a victim. I felt the luckiest man in the world for many years …. I never thought I would have a partner, I really didn’t I had resigned myself to a life of morbid celebacy and my dream of having children I never thought it would come true. It did we have the four most beautiful children in the world. I still can’t believe I’m a father.

    And part of being a father is the journey from boy to man. I am journeying beyond the boy who feels responsible for the pain of others, who would go through whatever torment to prevent the torment of those he loves, not because I wouldn’t do it. I would do it in a heartbeat if it worked. But I have learnt, very very painfully and not without years of stubborn resistance and wanting it not to be so … that only the person with the pain (and we all have it, I have plenty) can face it through truthful acceptance and self responsibility. This was the way of the Buddha, all 12 step programmes and all true spiritual awakening.

    Azriel I challenge you that in place of this article where you have expressed some pain and some true grievance with me, to go a little deeper and instead of sweep aside and blame away some truth about your behaviour you write about what makes you crazy, how you feel when those emotions overwhelm you and you lash out wildly at the ones you love, the ones you are most intimate with. We all do. I feel that would be a million times more potent writing both for your healing journey and for people to read. It is true in all of us and we can learn from your honest experience. It may not be UPLIFTing but it is not for us to uplift. It is for us to honestly face ourselves, the pain and the suffering the torment, that is not truly ourselves but masks ourself. And in facing this in painfully honest ways we take ourselves down to the bare truth and then it is grace that lofts us up, not our minds, not our logic but divine truth and understanding. Amazing Grace …………

    This was the power of the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa, not plea bargain or diminishing responsibility but wholehearted free honesty about our own culpability in situations.

    I was not perfect in our relationship, I was flawed, I was weak, I did not know how to handle your wildness and your pain and your suffering. I have spent many hours (years in total) trying to become a stronger better man. But I was not responsible for your pain and I held more than anyone has held you before and I tried my absolute best to the point of exhaustion your PTSD pushed onto me. I am no longer angry at you for this although it required anger to get me out of the situation. I wish I could have been better done more. But I look back on it and I think I could not have done more.

    If you need to push against me and blame me to actualise yourself so be it. But what you present here is a slither of the truth. Face up to the emotional, mental and physical abuse you have dished out to me and your previous partners.
    It’s much more fashionable and acceptable in society to blame the man and excise the woman. For a balanced and healthy world this must stop.

  • manycolored

    And if you have been gaslighted, or are vulnerable to gaslighting, that advice at the end may scare the daylights out of you. How do I make sure I don’t just become a self-absorbed, selfish jerk?

    It’s simple:
    You’re doing what you need, making use of what you need, but you’re also giving them the leeway to do the same. You’re claiming your freedom and also giving them theirs. You’re making your decisions, consulting your loved ones when you see fit, but never letting them feel entitled to have their preferences override your needs – and you’re letting them do the same thing. You’re declaring your vast human worth and also validating theirs. When they need or want something of you, they can ask. They have to be willing to accept a no, but they can still ask, and if you want (and there are many different kinds of want!) to, you can still say yes. And the same goes for you, if you want or need something from them. Ask, but don’t feel entitled to their saying yes.

    You aren’t being selfish. You’re being yourself, which is the only thing you can be, so you might as well do it whole-heartedly. That way you are able to do the most good in the world without experiencing burnout or backlash.

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