We idealise and crave relationships that would end in a ‘happily ever after’ but sometimes, somewhere along the line the relationship takes a turn for the worse. You could fight all you want to try and make the relationship work but if you end up staying up all night wondering ‘Am I crazy?’, the relationship is clearly nearing its expiry date.
“You’re being delusional”, “You’re just being insecure and overly sensitive”, “That never happened, you're just imagining things”. If you have heard any of these sentences before, there is a chance you're a victim of gaslighting.
You may have loosely heard the word before but does anyone really know where it comes from? The term ‘Gaslighting’ has actually originated from a 1983 play called ‘Gas Light’ where a husband plays mind tricks with his wife and emotionally manipulates her into thinking that she is losing her mind just so he can commit her to a mental institution and steal her inheritance. Seems crazy right? well, sadly this premise became the reality for many as this word became Oxford Dictionary’s most popular word of 2018, just below toxic (seems ironic, doesn’t it?)
So what exactly is gaslighting?
Psychologists define gaslighting as a specific kind of manipulation where the manipulator tries to get someone else to question their own reality, memory, perception or even emotions! If this sounds twisted, it gets darker- gaslighting is so detrimental to one’s state of mind that it is now considered very dangerous and a subtle type of emotional abuse.
For instance, if a person accuses their partner of cheating after seeing them with someone else and their partner denies all claims that it even happened and defends themselves by saying ‘you’re over-imagining things, that's not what happened’, ‘we are just friends’ or ‘you need to stop spying on me’, there is a chance that the person is being gaslit by their partner.
To be manipulated by a person in such a way, the relationship has to be personal. Whether it is a parent-child, romantic or even a workplace relationship, gaslighting tends to occur when one person in the relationship holds more power than the other.
An unbalanced power dynamic sets the basis
Manipulating someone to make them question their own sanity, requires a significant amount of authority and power that only comes in a power dynamic that is not balanced. A relationship where one person has the upper hand and calls the shots for the other person is one that is most vulnerable to these kinds of situations. The person with the authority typically tends to gaslight the other person by controlling their actions/perceptions in order to get what they want. In a situation where one trust’s the other person blindly over their own intuition and feelings, gaslighting becomes a possibility.
In a parental or work relationship, a power balance is inherent where the parent has power over the child or the boss has power over his/her employee. This type of relationship could also surprisingly be vulnerable to gaslighting. However, recognising an unbalanced dynamic in a romantic relationship becomes tougher and even more dangerous since there is an assumed equal balance of power between the partners.
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In a romantic relationship, gaslighting behaviour is exhibited by the partner in control in the following ways-
1) Undermining of the partner with less power- The victimised partner is made to question their own sanity in various ways by making them believe that their thoughts, emotions and opinions are ‘wrong’ and that ‘it is all in their head’.
2) Calculated intent- A gaslighter wouldn't want to push his/her partner to such an extreme where they try and leave the relationship, so they would typically gaslight and then apologise just enough to make the gaslightee feel comfortable and ‘safe’.
3) Confusion and denial- Since manipulation is the main goal, the gaslighter typically tends to deny any claims and statements made by the victim in an effort to confuse them and make them doubt their sanity. This would then make them more reliant on the gaslighter for emotional support and the vicious cycle just keeps on continuing.
These behaviours can be extremely disorienting and tough to recognise, so how does one realise when they are the victims of gaslighting?
How does one recognise patterns of gaslighting?
If you find yourself resonating with any of these statements then there is a chance that you are being gaslit-
- You often doubt your feelings, judgements and perceptions while saying anything to your partner
- You constantly ask yourself ‘Am I acting crazy?’ because you have been previously told that you are
- You’re always apologising
- You feel insecure and unhappy most of the time
- You have trouble making simple decisions
- You feel isolated from everyone but your partner
- You worry that you are too sensitive and
- You wonder why you aren’t good enough
While these statements could indicate that you have self-esteem issues, depression or an anxiety disorder, you can categorise them as gaslighting if one particular person is making you feel this way. Since it is a fairly emotional form of abuse, gaslighters typically use their words to make their partners feel this way and some common phrases that they may use are-
- How dare you doubt me
- You’re imaging things
- You’re being too sensitive
- You’re of no use
- You’re being overdramatic
- It’s no big deal
- You need to stop being so paranoid
- You’re a liar
Using these statements, the gaslighter tries to shift blame from themselves by making the victim question their own belief and sanity. This second-guessing can be detrimental to one’s mental health as they begin to doubt what is real. Feelings of worthlessness, dejection and hopelessness may tend to surface in the gaslightee.
Mental health takes a hit
A gaslighted individual who has been told that everything they believe and feel is wrong will tend to be extremely withdrawn and confused. A once confident person, the victim now relies on their abuser for emotional support, even if it is rarely given. Mental health issues tend to worsen in such scenarios and since the victims are isolated, they have no one to turn to but the very person that gaslights them! This begins to form a vicious cycle that could snowball into a more dangerous situation, if not recognised at the earliest.
Since the victim is second-guessing themselves at every stage, their very identity is at risk. The power and voice that is taken away from them only make them more at risk for more emotional and mental abuse which could be significantly detrimental to their mental health. Issues of self-esteem and emotions of guilt, anxiety, shame, worthlessness and dejection are often faced by victims of gaslighting.
Over time, if these feelings are left to linger, could even be life-threatening to the victim and hence finding ways in which they could leave such a relationship is crucial.
Finding a safe way to leave such relationships is paramount
While giving advice on exiting such relationships is easy, actually doing so could not only be tough but extremely emotionally draining for the victim. Unlearning to not doubt themselves at every stage is a learning process that takes time. Robin Stern, Author of “The Gaslight Effect” suggests the following steps that a victim could take to safely leave such a relationship -
- Identifying the problem: The first step is always acknowledging that a problem exists and it should be dealt with. Coming to terms with the fact that your partner is knowingly undermining you and being emotionally abusive, could be a tough step for many to take but not an impossible one. “Once something has a name you can being to address it specifically and granularly. (Sometimes writing down specifics from a conversation that you can look back to later — when you’re out of the heat of the moment — can be helpful in sorting out the truth from distortion” Stern suggests
- Let yourself feel emotions that you have been previously denied to feel : Victims are often conditioned to dismiss their emotions and mirror what their partner is feeling, but realising that one’s own thoughts and feelings are valid is a step in the right direction. This could also help the person take their own decision based on what they feel.
- Don’t be afraid to cut the person off: An essential characteristic of a gaslighting relationship is the dependence the victim has on their partner. Learning to let go of that dependence for the sake of their own mental grown and sanity is extremely important. While the relationship may have had its wonderful aspects, no relationship is worth losing your own sense of self over.
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- Seek support: Whether it is elating onto your friends or family or seeking professional help, support is a much needed emotional crutch that one may need at such a time.
- Believe in YOURSELF: Learning to rely on yourself after being told that you cannot be tough, but it is what needs to be done. Whether you need to vent out your frustration, anger or sadness, any sort of outlet of your pent up feelings will help you in coming to terms with your situations and also give you some much-needed clarity on how to get out of it.
Gaslighting is truly one of the worst manipulation tactics in a relationship because it makes you question yourself. This questioning could fundamentally alter you as it is not a moment of indecisiveness where you cannot decide between chocolate or vanilla ice cream, but it when you cannot seem to distinguish whether what you believe is true or not. Losing your sense of self in a relationship is most frightening as it leaves you vulnerable at the hands of your partner. If they have malicious intents, like in this case, not only the relationship but you too are in danger. Cutting such a person off is the only option because at the end of the day the only person who has your back is YOU and anyone who makes you doubt that, definitely doesn’t have your best intentions at heart.