What Is Gaslighting? Psychology, Effects On Relationships, And Treatment
A frequent aspect of many toxic relationships, and one that has become increasingly visible in the discourse around relationships, is a phenomenon known as "gaslighting." Often used to describe behavior that’s meant to manipulate a person and make them question their sense of reality, gaslighting should not be taken lightly and may indicate that a person is not safe to be around. Not only does gaslighting often make it challenging to navigate conflicts or stand up for yourself, but it can also leave you feeling entirely dependent on the perpetrator themselves. Overall, the best way to manage gaslighting may be to distance yourself from the source of it so you can have time and space to reflect, heal, and move forward.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting refers to a form of manipulation that can lead someone to question their own reality. This may result in a distrust of one's feelings and memories. The term "gaslighting" was derived from a play and subsequent film that detailed how a man gradually led his wife to believe that she had lost her mind, all in the name of having her committed to a mental health institution and taking possession of her money. The term comes from the husband's behavior in the film. Throughout the film, he is seen fiddling with the gaslights on their property, then acting as though the flickering lights are entirely in his wife's imagination.
Unlike in the film, however, gaslighting is not always intentional. It can even be behavior learned throughout childhood and perpetuated in adulthood. Often, gaslighting is attributed to romantic relationships, but virtually all relationships can be affected by gaslighting. This includes friendships, familial relationships, workplace relationships, and even the relationship between a political figure and their constituents.
The Meaning Of Gaslighting And How It Can Affect Your Relationships
Why is gaslighting so important? Gaslighting can create extremely unhealthy, co-dependent relationships that may feel impossible to escape. Parents can gaslight their children, leaving psychological scars, and romantic partners can gaslight one another, creating an unhealthy or abusive relationship dynamic.*
Relationship gaslighting may be especially insidious because recovery from it can be difficult. Trust is usually completely eroded, including trust in yourself. This can make identifying what is real and what is not feel nearly impossible.
Many people may develop such strong, unhealthy dependencies on their abusers that they cannot recognize their behavior as inappropriate, dangerous, or abusive. Instead, they might feel grateful for even being able to keep the attention of someone and may cling even more tightly to the relationship. However, there may initially be pangs of distrust, suspicion, or doubt. Many people who continually gaslight can quell these moments of insight to create a compelling, convincing narrative of the experiencer’s descent into questioning reality.
Gaslighting In Psychology
Although the actual carrying out of gaslighting in the play and film that inspired its name may be over-the-top, most gaslighting can be far more subtle.
Gaslighting might start with small, seemingly normal quips, such as, "You're so dramatic," or "Why do you have to be so emotional?" Reacting emotionally to an emotionally trying situation can be a perfectly reasonable response. Being told that your behavior is dramatic, unwarranted, or overly emotional can pave the road to gaslighting as it may slowly make you question your behavior and ideas.
This can be quite dangerous from a psychological perspective; how you view yourself can powerfully influence daily behavior. It might affect how you engage with the people around you or set and chase your goals.
If you feel perpetually unsure of yourself, riddled with doubt and anxiety, and wholly dependent on the person who is gaslighting you, you may be more vulnerable to developing anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. Gaslighting may not merely be a symptom of a toxic relationship; it can be a pathway to effectively losing your sense of agency.
Warnings Signs: Are You Experiencing Gaslighting?
Some warning signs may suggest that a partner loved one, friend, or coworker is gaslighting you. These might show up right at the beginning of your relationship, or they may appear down the road. Here are some major signs that may help you answer the question, “Am I being gaslighted?”
Questioning Your Perception
When the gaslighter in question seems to lie all the time—or even lie on occasion—but is so confident in what they are saying, you may begin to wonder if you have indeed just misunderstood something or misinterpreted the situation. This may start to apply to situations that don’t involve the gaslighter, too.
For instance, if you have a coworker who gets into trouble for letting a project fall behind, and they immediately turn to you with a pained look on their face and says," "But…they were assigned to the project, not me," what might be your instant reaction? To emphatically deny this claim, or to pause and question yourself? Gaslighters often keep the people they gaslight on edge by regularly lying, even about seemingly unimportant things. This can translate to a general lack of trust in your own perception and a tendency to doubt yourself before anything else.
Accepting The Abuse
If you frequently experience gaslighting, you may not feel under attack when you are insulted or demeaned. A natural, healthy reaction to being put down may be to feel insulted, upset, or indignant. If, however, you find yourself sinking down and blithely accepting someone's claims that you are worthless, low, or any number of other insults, you may have been subject to gaslighting.
Although gaslighters will often start these attacks slowly, they may gradually increase the frequency and scope of the attacks, which can leave you feeling as though you are worthless, and that your perpetrator is right.
Treatment After Experiencing Gaslighting
Fortunately, many people who have experienced gaslighting can find meaningful help. Whether their abuser slips up one too many times and is caught in their lie or they gain the clarity required to stand up for themselves, it can be possible to get help and recover from the negative effects of gaslighting.
The first step in recovering from gaslighting is likely setting boundaries and getting away from the relationship if possible. If you are in a romantic relationship or friendship, you may want to consider stopping communication entirely. If you are in a familial or workplace relationship, you can create boundaries and limit contact as much as possible. In any situation and any relationship, getting some distance from your abuser may be an important part of setting yourself toward the road to healing.
Therapy can also form an important part of recovering from gaslighting. Licensed mental health professionals like therapists can help you find more detached, objective ways of looking at your life. The right therapist for you may help you find your way back to a healthier, stronger sense of self.
Resources like online therapy can make it even easier to seek out professional help in a way that makes sense for your needs. You can join sessions virtually any time and from any location with an internet connection.
Research also suggests that online therapy can be a more affordable treatment option without losing any of its efficacy. That means that an online therapist might help you save money, time, and hassle that you might encounter trying to navigate in-person appointments.
Gaslighting can be abusive behavior that may lead a person to question their sanity and reality itself, as well as their self-worth. As such, they may require the help of a support network, including a mental health professional, to work through the issues created or exacerbated by their abuser.
While there can be different severity levels associated with gaslighting, the overall effect of the abuse tends to be the same: lasting psychological wounds, lost trust, increased anxiety, and the potential for depression. Gaslighting is never the experiencer's fault. If you feel you may be facing this type of relationship, have experienced gaslighting in the past, or find yourself displaying the symptoms of perpetrating this form of abuse, get help for gaslighting from a trusted mental health professional to start your path to health and freedom.
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