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