Gaslighting is the act of manipulation using psychological efforts to make a person question their own sanity and reality. The behavior ranges from toxic communication to severe emotional abuse, depending on how frequent it is. It is a tactic used by abusers, control freaks AND ordinary people. Understandably, most don’t recognize it when it’s happening to them. That’s how it’s designed, and why it works. It can be especially difficult to detect when we’re hopeful about a particular person, connection, or relationship (which we usually are). Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that ANYONE can fall prey to. Do not make the mistake of thinking it could never happen to you.
Many don’t realize that the following statements are common examples of gaslighting:
“I never said that, you’re remembering wrong”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“That’s not what I meant, you’re misunderstanding”
“You’re making up stories/ you’re lying/ that’s a false accusation”
“You’re twisting the story/my words ”
“I don’t remember it that way”
“You’re just trying to confuse me”
“What are you talking about?”
“If I said that, I didn’t mean it that way.”
“You said (x), remember? Why would you go back on that?”
“You are attacking me”
“You’re letting your friends turn you against me”
“You’re betraying me”
“You’re being unfair/unreasonable”
“You’re embarrassing me”
“If you tell anyone about this, they are going to think you’re crazy
“That never happened; you must be imagining it.”
“Everyone agrees with me — you’re wrong”
“This is your fault”
“I was obviously just joking”
“This is not a big deal, don’t be so sensitive “
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself”
“I don’t know why you’re crying, you must be looking for attention”
“I’m the one who should be upset, not you/ You’re the one who owes me an apology”
“You need help, you’re not well”
“You’re getting defensive”
Most of us probably recall using one or more of these statements in the past. In fact, I’d say it’s relatively common to resort to gaslighting in order to avoid accountability or to sway someone’s opinion toward your own. It doesn’t necessarily make you an abuser. Some gaslight more than others, and whether it’s abusive depends on your intentions. Are you gaslighting as a defense mechanism to dodge blame and conflict, or are you using it as a tool to maintain control over someone? Either answer requires reflection and self improvement, but the latter is significantly more dangerous.
Our human nature is to lie about or minimize uncomfortable truths. Even though it’s dishonest and unhealthy to do so, we justify this behavior as an effort to protect ourselves. In order to change our harmful behaviors, we have to start by understanding our deeper motivations. Then we can identify better ways to respond to confrontation. In my experience, I’ve found that once I stopped viewing criticism as the worst thing that could possibly happen to me, I’m able to reframe it as constructive which gives me an opportunity to learn and grow.
For example; people who criticize civil rights activists or feminists for being too emotional are attempting to undermine their group’s message. To some, opposing views feel like an attack against them. They would rather not think about the notion that these activists present. It feels to them like the activists are threatening their peace of mind by proposing that change is necessary. Instead of critical thinking, a person who feels this way may resort to tearing the activist/organization down. By stating any variation of “You’re overreacting! You hate America! You’re playing the victim!” the focus is now off of the actual message that threatens this person and onto how ridiculous this activist must be. This hypothetical person may or may not be an abuser, however, they are definitely gaslighting.
If someone were to point out that my rhetoric was offensive to any person or specific group of people, instead of taking it as an attack and responding with “You’re just sensitive!”, I would stop and listen to the person who is giving me feedback about how I made them feel. Then I would reflect on what I did/said wrong and allow myself to learn from this person. I could view this as an opportunity for growth, and use their feedback to correct my behavior for the future because I genuinely don’t want to hurt anyone.
On the more severe side, there is emotional abuse through gaslighting. Abusers gaslight in order to control what’s happening to them through controlling others. Their goal is to disorient a person so that they can gain influence and dictate every situation to their liking. The abuser will continuously take aim at a person’s self-belief and gradually wear it down, while simultaneously filtering in lies to fit their own desired narrative. This causes the person to doubt their own memories, perception, and feelings.
If you’re being gaslit by a partner/friend/family member, it feels like a ceaseless mix of anxiety, self doubt, confusion, isolation, and depression. You will find it difficult to make simple decisions, frequently question if you are overreacting, and constantly apologize. This confusion is calculated and designed to degrade a your ability to challenge the abuser. Maybe they are in a position of authority or you feel reliant on them, which makes it trickier for you to object to their behavior.
They may start off with a few seemingly innocent comments you decide not to challenge because its possible you just misheard or remembered wrong. That’s when you’ve unfortunately already begun to fall into it. You might start to notice inconsistencies between what your abuser says at different points in time, but they will seem like such trivial details. You will think they’re not worth mentioning because if you do, you risk being seen as unreasonable or irrational. The gaslighter has most likely already started to diminish your self-confidence by using any variation of the examples above during arguments. They use denial and projection to puzzle you. They will fabricate conversations and ask why you don’t remember them. You will ultimately reach a point where you question everything your mind is telling you, so it makes sense that you’d shy away from confronting them.
In conclusion, no matter the severity, gaslighting is manipulative and wrong. If you suspect you’re being gaslit, I want you to know that everything you’re feeling is valid. This is your life and you are in control. Speak your truths! It is your reality! You are not crazy or paranoid. Anyone who tries to make you feel guilty for expressing feelings or concerns is not worth the trouble. People who continue to gaslight you do not care for you. Gaslighting causes anxiety, depression and in some cases, psychological trauma. They are selfishly putting your mental health at risk in order to satisfy their own needs. It is not love. Love yourself, and leave them. As I stated above, if you recognize this unhealthy behavior within yourself, you can choose to improve or you can choose to continue to hurt people.