The term "toxic relationship" is not new. This concept has long been used to describe unhealthy attachments. Calling a relationship "toxic" is a common way to describe the dynamic of a relationship where one or both individuals are not getting what they need or are even being used and abused. A frequent aspect of the most toxic relationships, and one that has become increasingly visible in the discourse around relationships, is a phenomenon known as "gaslighting."
Gaslighting refers to a form of manipulation that leads someone to question reality. This results 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 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 Affects You
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 relationship dynamic. A boss can gaslight his subordinates, creating a dangerous and unhealthy workplace dynamic, or keep a strict authoritarian reign over his employees using gaslighting (whether intentionally or unintentionally).
Gaslighting is 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 nearly impossible.
Many people have developed 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 will likely 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 is over-the-top, most gaslighting is 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 is a reasonable response. Being told that your behavior is dramatic, unreasonable, or overly emotional can pave the road to gaslighting as it may slowly make you question your behavior and ideas.
This is quite dangerous from a psychological perspective; how you view yourself powerfully influences daily behavior. It affects how you engage with the people around you and set and chase your goals. Suppose you are perpetually unsure of yourself, riddled with doubt and anxiety, and wholly dependent on the person who is gaslighting you. In that case, you are vulnerable to developing anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders that can pose serious risks to your health. Gaslighting is not merely a symptom of a toxic relationship; it can be a pathway to effectively losing your sense of agency.
Some warning signs 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.
Questioning your perception
You question your perception. When the person in question seems to lie all the time—or even lie on occasion—but is so confident in what they are saying, do you begin to wonder if maybe you just understood something wrong? For instance, if you have a coworker who gets into trouble for letting a project fall behind, and he immediately turns to you, with a pained look on his face, and says," "But…he was assigned to the project, not me" what your immediate instinct is? To emphatically deny this claim, or to pause and question yourself? Gaslighters keep the people they gaslight on edge by regularly lying, often about seemingly unimportant things.
You don't feel under attack when you are insulted or demeaned. The natural, healthy reaction to defaming is to feel insulted, upset, or indignant. After all, if you are not cruel to your children, why would you sit by and let someone claim that you are? If, however, you find yourself sinking down and blithely accepting someone's claims that you are worthless, low, or lucky anyone is willing to spend any time with you, you might be subject to gaslighting. Although gaslighters will start these attacks slowly, they 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 find meaningful help. Whether their abuser slips up one too many times and is caught in their lie or gains the clarity required to stand up for themselves, it is possible to get help and recover from the negative effects of gaslighting. Some relief can be found in work done independently, which requires more significant intervention.
The first step in recovering from gaslighting is 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 will be an important part of setting yourself toward the road to healing.
You can also begin from square one, identifying things you like and dislike about yourself without anyone else's input. Determining what you do and do not like about yourself can be extremely empowering and help you develop a working grasp of yourself and your identity.
Therapy can also form an important part of recovering from gaslighting. Mental health experts are trained to help you find more detached, objective ways of looking at your life and options and might help you find your way back to a healthier, stronger sense of self and a brighter perception of how you can exist in the world.
Gaslighting is abusive behavior that has grown increasingly common. Fortunately, gaslighting has become easier to recognize due to greater awareness of escaping it. People who have experienced gaslighting might 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 are different severities associated with gaslighting, the overall effect of the abuse tends to be the same: severe psychological wounds, lost trust, increased anxiety and increased 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, reach out to a trusted mental health professional to start your path to health and freedom.