I’m going to run through three scenarios from my life, and I want you to ask yourself if they sound familiar to you:
- I dated a guy who, when he did something hurtful in our relationship and I called him on it, would sob over how miserable it made him to upset me. He didn’t talk about or apologize for what he’d done; instead, I’d have to comfort him for hours.
- I had a friend who openly criticized and mocked my appearance and personality. When I finally brought it up, she told me I was being too sensitive and that she wasn’t sure if she could be friends with someone she couldn’t be honest with.
- A supervisor at work suspected me and her other employees of shirking responsibilities. As far as I could tell, we were all hard-working and dedicated, but I started wondering if we were all terrible at our jobs.
In each case, the person involved was gaslighting. Gaslighting is a term you may have heard before—Sady Doyle addressed it in an essay she wrote for Rookie a while back. Even if you haven’t heard of gaslighting, you may have experienced its effects because it’s common. So let’s talk about what gaslighting is and how you can tell when it’s happening to you.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where the person on the receiving end is manipulated into questioning their own thoughts, feelings, and sanity. The term comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight in which a woman notices odd things happening in her home, like the lights going bright and then dimming with no explanation. Her husband is responsible for the odd occurrences, but when she attempts to talk to him about them, he responds by telling her nothing is wrong and that she may be going insane.
The goal of gaslighting is to overwrite another person’s reality. In a confrontation with a gaslighter, they may not address the situation at hand, but rather will question the validity of the other person’s feelings, or whether or not the situation deserves to be discussed at all. And while this is serious, it may not seem that obvious when it’s happening to you. It is very clear when certain kinds of abuse are occurring. Psychological abuse, like gaslighting, can seem like a weird miscommunication, but one that leaves you feeling terrible and questioning yourself. Often in life, we are taught to not make too much of a fuss over our own feelings and needs. Gaslighting plays directly into that, confirming our mistaken belief that we are being overly sensitive.
It’s important to note that being in a confrontation with another person does not automatically mean you are being gaslit. Healthy relationships absolutely include challenging and questioning: When someone asks you about your feelings, asks you to explain what’s happening inside your head or heart, or disagrees with you, it is not necessarily gaslighting. You may not enjoy every moment of the exchange, but that doesn’t mean that it’s emotionally abusive. (Here are a few tips for building healthy confrontation skills.)
And here’s something that makes gaslighting even more complicated: Not all people who gaslight others are doing so intentionally—they aren’t automatically evil, manipulative people. Some people may gaslight as a way to distract themselves from uncomfortable confrontations. They may find it easier to talk about anything except the actual issue at hand. If you are wondering if you’re being gaslit but think, Well, he’s a good guy overall, gaslighting can happen even with “good” people.
So how can you tell if you’re being gaslit, as opposed to dealing with the normal, healthy human relationships stuff? Here are a few things to look out for:
- Spending more time arguing over whether or not you’re feeling what you’re feeling, as opposed to the situation that triggered the feelings.
- Questioning your own thoughts and feelings after a confrontation or interaction.
- Having confrontations that end with you not feeling satisfied that you were understood, but rather more upset.
- Feeling that you’re persistently bad at relationships and wrong much of the time.
- Second-guessing simple decisions, like what to eat for dinner, or what kind of movie to watch on Netflix.
What should you do if you’re being gaslit?
If you are being gaslit by people in your life, there are a few ways to handle it and take care of yourself. First and foremost, finding a therapist or counselor is a fantastic idea so that you can talk through these situations and develop coping strategies specifically tailored to you. There are also strategies you can use to help yourself:
Recognize gaslighting when it’s happening. Being able to recognize when emotional manipulation is occurring means that it automatically has less power over you. Instead of feeling bad about yourself for being so “difficult,” you are seeing the strings your gaslighter is trying pull to make you feel bad. Identify the problem rather than trying to fix it, because it isn’t your problem to fix.
Trust yourself. Your emotions and thoughts are valid. Even if you decide to change your mind about something, you still deserve to have your thoughts and feelings treated with respect. In a conversation, you have the responsibility to understand yourself as best as you can, and to communicate what you understand. If you’re feeling unsure about yourself, write down your feelings, your thoughts, and the beliefs that help make up who you are. Sometimes when we are in the heat of a confrontation or intense conversation, it’s hard to keep our own thoughts straight. Writing them down helps you have something concrete you can consult that is all you. If you are comfortable and have people in your life you can trust, you can also check in with them to discuss your beliefs. There are many things in this world that want to try and make you forget what you believe in—the clearer a sense you have of yourself, the better.
Disengage, if possible. If you are in a relationship with a gaslighter that you have the ability to end, end it. This includes friendships and romantic relationships. You don’t have to justify ending the relationship to the other person, because you may be talked out of it. Wanting to end the relationship is reason enough. After ending it, do not have contact with the person. Surround yourself with people who validate and understand you.
Shore yourself up. If you are lacking in a support system, people who you can trust and enjoy spending time with, you’ll need to focus more on shoring yourself up when you are alone. Make lists of your positive qualities that you can consult later. Reflect on good decisions you’ve made for yourself. Express your negative emotions (these are emotions that are uncomfortable to feel—they are not incorrect) with physical activity, art, music, or just throwing a piece of ice at a tree. Journal all of your thoughts and feelings. Take care of yourself physically with food, exercise, and sleep.
Set boundaries. If you are not able to disengage with a gaslighter—if it’s a teacher, sibling, or parent—you have a couple of options. Recognizing that someone is attempting to gaslight you should help keep you from feeling guilty and wrong in your interactions, and it may help keep you from engaging in an argument with your gaslighter. Remember, there is no point to arguing with a gaslighter. You will not convince them, and this may upset yourself more. Neutral expressions like, “I think I am done discussing this,” “I’ll think about that,” or silence can be powerful, as you are not continuing an argument that will only hurt you, and you are not acquiescing to another person’s view of yourself.
You’ll be in many types of relationships throughout your life, and you’ll get entangled with people who teach you wonderful things about how people interact, and people who teach you terrible things about how people interact. Stay true to your own thoughts and feelings, and don’t blame yourself for falling into manipulative traps other people set. Learn what you can from every relationship and keep the ones that make you feel stronger, wiser, and happier. ♦