Updated: Jan 21
To know how to spot gaslighting, you need to understand it. Gaslighting has become a popular term, but it can be a bit hard to get your head around. It is a manipulative manoeuvre used by an abuser to make someone question their own thoughts, memories and events occurring around them. Eventually, the victim may even question their own sanity.
The term is from a 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Where in the plot, a sinister husband tries to manipulate his wife into believing that she has gone insane so he can take over her estate.
In reality, the term gaslighting is used when an abuser wants to avoid being held accountable for their behaviours; and to gain control, and power over their victim. The abuser tries to convince their victim that any cruel action, betrayal or lies did not occur. Instead, these things were all in their mind. Sometimes they even suggest that it wasn't them that did the deed but someone else, maybe from their past. The skilled Gaslighter may convince their victim that they committed the act themselves, and the abuser was the person hurt by the action. In other words, the situation was turned upside down.
The victim is often pressured into suppressing their responses, finding themselves supporting the abuser and left wondering how that happened. Quite often, the victim is convinced that they had misunderstood the whole situation. If the victim resists said gaslighting, they'll be accused of being the 'bad person', negative, or not supporting the abuser.
Gaslighting can be in many different relationships, including work, friends, or family and domestic situations. It is this last category that I want to address in this blog.
On a basic level gaslighting is all about gaining control over the other person.
At first, the victim may argue back. They may feel that something is wrong within the relationship but can't put their finger on it. In the beginning, each gaslighting incident that occurs may be so minor, that they can't pinpoint any specific cause for their uneasy feeling. After a while, the victim may begin to second-guess their emotions and memories. They may start to rely on their abuser to tell them if their memory is correct, or if they are feeling the right emotions. At this stage, the abuser will realise that they trust him/her and are now able to use this trust to gain control over them.
Here are a few common techniques that gaslighters use;
Withholding: Refusing to listen to any concerns or pretending not to understand them.
Countering: Questioning the victim's memory, even though the victim accurately remembers an event, the abuser may deny things happened that way. The abuser may also invent details that did not occur.
Trivialising: Telling the victim that they are overreacting. This conditions a victim to believe that their emotions and feelings are invalid or excessive.
Blocking or Diversion: Changing the subject to divert the attention of the victim from a particular topic. An abuser may twist a conversation in an argument by questioning credibility or question the thinking of the victim.
Forgetting or Denial: Pretending to forget conversations or events that have happened to discredit the victim's memory, such as promises made or exchanges held.
Blatant lies: Most of the above points highlight that they are not telling the truth. The victim will know it is an outright lie, and they may have proof, but the Gaslighter will look at them straight in the face and convey a different story.
They will use anything close to their target: Gaslighters generally don't care what they distort or use. The abuser knows how vital their family, children or identity are to them. It may be that they say the victim is a terrible parent, and they will list a whole lot of reasons why. Additionally, they may tell them how 'bad' their family is, eventually turning their attack toward the victim's identity and foundations.
They will wear their victim down: Gaslighting is generally done gradually over time. A lie here, or there, a little dig on the odd occasion… Little by little, it then starts to become more aggressive. It is easy to be drawn into this kind of relationship without really knowing it is happening until they are deep in it.
They don't walk the talk: they will say things that do not match their actions.
Confusion: The Gaslighter will want to confuse their victim. They know they need to uproot and question everything that their target has confidence in. Eventually, the abuser will be the only person that they feel that they can trust, looking to them for validity and stability.
Project: Whatever the Gaslighter is doing, such as cheating, drug-using, alcohol reliance or even lies they tell others, is what they are always accusing the victim of doing. The more the victim defends themselves, the more distracted they are from the gaslighters own behaviour.
Find allies: Gaslighters are great at finding people that they can manipulate to stand by them no matter what, using them against their victim. They will say something like 'Peter agrees with me', or 'Fred' knows you're useless too'. In actual fact, Fred or Peter probably did not intimate that at all. Remember the Gaslighter is a blatant liar. This tactic is to question who the victim can trust and to isolate them further, giving themselves more control. Gaining allies will further silence their victims' defence. The victim will feel that no one will believe them if they disclose any abusive behaviours.
Undermine: The Gaslighter will tell everyone, including the victim that the target is 'crazy', being very dismissive of them. This creates an environment that the victim will question every behaviour. If they have children, the Gaslighter can use this tactic effectively to remove any authority that the victim may have in disciplining the children. They will try and make their target question their own sanity.
Warning signs that you may be in a Gaslighting relationship.
Do you no longer feel like the person you used to be?
Do you constantly think that it is your fault when things go wrong?
Are you more anxious and less confident than you used to be?
Have you begun to apologise all the time, even for little things?
Have you started wondering if you are oversensitive?
Do you feel like everything you do is wrong?
Do you feel like something is wrong but unable to identify what or why?
Do you question if your responses to your partner are appropriate?
Do you feel isolated from family and friends?
Do you make excuses for their behaviour?
Do you find it hard to make decisions?
Do you feel like you have lost your voice?
Do you avoid confrontation about your partner with family or friends?
Do you have an underlying fear but unsure why?
It is essential to say that not all Gaslighters are intentionally malicious. They may not even be conscious of their behaviours, or fully aware of the harmfulness, or their painful impact that their words and actions have on others. In these cases, if it is safe to do so, it is definitely worth having a conversation with the said Gaslighter to highlight these issues. On the other hand, other Gaslighters are perfectly aware of their coercive tactics, and they deliberately look to imbalance or gain power over another person's life. I would recommend to use caution and seek advice from a trusted friend or professional.
The Gaslighter makes generalised disparaging, and malicious accusations, putting the victim on the defensive. When they attack on a personal level, this causes the feeling of vulnerability, so they can exploit it to their advantage.
Some Gaslighters can manipulate their targets by frequently creating hostile environments by often throwing in the occasional positive affirmation. Because of this, the victim will want to avoid tension, and they may become ever more compliant. A co-dependent relationship can then be formed. In a Gaslighting relationship, the Gaslighter has complete power to give: respect, safety, acceptance, approval, and security, in the same manner, they also have the ability (and often threatens to) take those things away.
The following are phrases to look for if you suspect someone is trying to Gaslight you.
'If you were paying attention…'
'You are being irrational'.
'You need to learn to communicate better.'
'We talked about this. Don't you remember?'
'You are so oversensitive'.
'You can't take a joke'.
'You are overreacting'.
'If you knew how to listen'.
'I have to keep repeating myself'.
'If only you were listening'.
'Stop being so sensitive'.
'I'm only saying this because I love you'.
'Just listen to yourself, would you?'
'You are too emotional'.
'You always jump to the wrong conclusion'.
'I'm not arguing, I am discussing'.
'You're reading too much into this'.
'Why would you think that?'
'I was only joking, why are you so upset?'
'Stop taking everything so seriously?'
'Why are you so negative?'
'You are the only person who thinks the problem is me'.
'I don't have a problem with anyone else'.
'It's not a good time to talk'.
'You're talking rubbish'.
'It's you that needs to change.'
This list could be never-ending. If you feel that you are in a gaslighting situation or in fear of leaving, please feel free to contact me or find someone you trust to help you. Some organisations will support you. Read my 'Great Safe Escape blog for more information.
If you feel that you are in an abusive relationship, please feel free to contact me or find someone you trust to help you. Some organisations will support you, so google organisations near you.
Read my 'Great Safe Escape blog for more information on leaving an abusive relationship safely.
If you have found this helpful to understand trauma bonding, then please share and link this blog. If you would like to know more about my own personal story, you can buy my book 'Broken To Be Beautiful' here.
Author information: Xenia Schembri
Along with her husband, Simon, are the founders of the charity At the Ark based on the Gold Coast Queensland Australia. Since 2010 At The Ark have supported families whose children have been abused and families impacted by domestic violence.
Previously, Xenia was in a 15-year domestic violent marriage. Xenia has become a voice for the voiceless and has a passion to prove that the past does not have to negatively impact the future, but positively propel anyone to change to their future.
Xenia was Woman of the Year 2020 on the Gold Coast Australia and one of the Westfield's Local Heroes in 2020. She is an international speaker and author of 4 published books. The Brave Little Bear series equips families with self-protective behaviours and her own story Broken To Be Beautiful.
Here are links to some of her other blogs that you may find interesting.