I was gaslighted in a relationship – more than one, in fact – and while it doesn’t result in physical harm, the emotional abuse certainly takes its toll. I didn’t realize what was happening to me at first, and I reached a point where I was constantly questioning myself and my choices, wondering which one of us was really wrong. It took outside perspectives and interventions to help me see the signs, but now I know what to look out for so that I won’t be wrapped into being gaslighted again.
So What Exactly Does It Mean To Gaslight?
The term originates from the 1944 film Gaslight and its source materials, in which a man slowly drives his wife to believe she’s insane. From Bachelorette Katie claiming one of her suitors, Greg, gaslighted her to your friend saying she was gaslighted by her boyfriend, the unfortunate action permeates today’s relationship culture. But while some people are perfectly aware of their actions, others may not realize they they’re a gaslighter.
Ana De la Cruz, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Her Campus, “Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that makes a person doubt their perception or memory on a certain issue.” Anyone you know has the ability to do this to you, not just your SO. It could be your friend or even your parent. Even more disturbing, according to data from YouGov, 59% of adults have never even heard of gaslighting. “The term is fairly new,” De la Cruz says, “but this type of manipulation has existed for centuries.” Women are the most common victims, she adds, usually in an effort to make them believe that it’s their fault when they’re being abused.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, gaslighting “can be a very effective form of emotional abuse, because once an abusive partner has broken down your ability to trust your own perspective, you may be more vulnerable to the effects of abuse, making it more difficult to leave the abusive relationship.” I can personally attest to this; I always had trouble leaving the relationships in which I was gaslighted, because I convinced myself that those partners were actually nice to me. My friends saw what was happening, and they tried to remind me that I deserved so much more than what I had, but I couldn’t see it for myself.
But since breaking out of those relationships, I’ve come to realize my worth. Now I know what to look out for so that I never have to question myself again. If you think you or someone you know may be getting gaslighted, here are five things to help you recognize what’s happening, get yourself out, and keep yourself safe:
1. A Gaslighter will TuRN Everything Around On You
When somebody gaslights another person, it’s because the gaslighter has a need to be right in any situation, and an inability to admit or accept wrongdoing, according to De la Cruz. In order to never have to accept fault, a gaslighter will find a way to turn the issue around on you, no matter what it is.
When I was breaking up with one of my gaslighters, he claimed that he constantly dedicated time and effort to the relationship, even though we barely saw each other more than a few hours each week. Then, when I tried to give him advice to move on with, he snapped at me for blaming the situation on him.
As tempting as it can be to try to prove yourself right, De la Cruz says that if you’re toe to toe with a gaslighter, the best move is to not get involved with an argument, especially if there’s a history of abuse. “Move on,” she advises. “Always keep in mind that it’s better to be safe, than right.”
2. They Will Do Anything TO Avoid Admitting fault
Gaslighters are good at what they do, and they’ll do everything in their will to avoid having to accept that something is their fault – including causing physical harm.
“If [you fear that] your life is in danger, [it’s best to] agree with them and [work to put] a safety plan in place to get out of that relationship,” De la Cruz advises. “If it’s safe, let [the gaslighter] know clearly what they’re doing, but keep in mind that it’s really hard to argue. They’re experts at what they do and they believe their own lies.” It’s safer to just acknowledge that you can’t win and remove yourself from the situation.
3. Listen to your gut
It’s easy not to realize the grasp a gaslighter has on you, but if something feels wrong, it most likely is.
“If your gut is telling you that you’re right, most likely you are,” De la Cruz says. “If you get the feeling that someone is trying to manipulate you into believing otherwise, then you know that you are being gaslighted.” Especially if you get this feeling over and over again.
4. What They Think Doesn’t Matter As Long As You Know Your Truth
Since gaslighters often believe their own lies, there may come a time where you, too, start to question your own perception of things. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the best way to remember your truth – and eventually break free of your abuser – is to keep a journal of situations that have happened between you and the gaslighter, to speak to a friend or a family member about them, and to keep voice memos or take pictures of each incident. When you have a clearer head, take a look back at those moments and reflect on what really happened. In doing this, you can better understand that you were never in the wrong.
I’ve had plenty of self-battles where I think, was I in the wrong? because I think of a happy moment with my ex. Once I talk to family or friends, they completely shut down any of those thoughts. If that’s not enough for you, or if you’re having trouble with recalling events or backtracking everything that happened, seek help from a therapist or consider attending an abuse support group.
5. Always Put Yourself First
When you break it off with your gaslighter, cut all ties from them. If they say they want to be friends, it’s probably best not to. If you’re following them on social media, block them. “If we apply the principles of behavioral analysis, if gaslighting was reinforced [by getting what they wanted] before, then the behavior is most likely to be repeated,” De la Cruz points out. Since gaslighters are all but guaranteed to gaslight again, it’s best to initiate a full separation.
After that, I suggest spending as much time as you can with your friends and family and practicing healthy forms of self-care in order to gain mental space from that person. Remember to always put yourself first and stand by how you deserve to be treated.
YouGovNY’s Gaslighting Survey (2017).
Ana De la Cruz, LMFT