Gaslighting: What it is, and How to Recognize it

It wasn’t until after my first marriage that I first heard about the concept of “gaslighting,” and as soon as I understood what it meant, I thought, “Wow! I wish I’d known about that years ago. That perfectly describes my 6 years of marriage.” I’m hopeful that I can save you years of pain and frustration by sharing this information with you now.

The term comes from the 1944 black and white film, “Gaslight,” which I’ve actually taken the time to rent on Amazon and watch for myself. It’s dated, but still a wonderful psychological thriller, and I definitely recommend it. In the movie, the main character marries a man that seems perfect in every way. He’s charming, handsome, wealthy, and appears to be completely in love with her. After the wedding they move to his ancestral home where things slowly and insidiously start to unravel. The woman’s belongings keep going missing and appearing in strange places, and the gaslights (from which the movie gets its name) keep turning on and off at strange times.

When the woman tells her husband about these peculiar occurrences, he tells her that they aren’t actually happening and that she is losing her mind. He even goes so far as to get a psychiatrist to examine her and back up his claims of her insanity. His insistence on her mental instability is so pervasive that she actually starts to believe that she is going crazy until the big reveal in the end, when we find out what his devious plan was the whole time. I won’t spoil it for you.

“Gaslight” is a wonderful example of the slow, methodical and insidious nature of gaslighting. It’s a long game power play where the perpetrator slowly makes the victim question her/his own reality. The Psychology Today article, “11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting” by Stephanie A. Sarkis, PhD, describes gaslighting this way, “Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.” The slow and methodical nature of gaslighting is what gives it such power. Because of the steady and mounting message the victim receives that her/his senses can’t be trusted, it begins to feel like the truth.

11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting by Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D.

According to Sarkis, there are 11 warning signs of gaslighting to watch out for, and I’d like to explore them here.

  1. They tell blatant lies
  2. They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.
  3. They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
  4. They wear you down over time.
  5. Their actions do not match their words.
  6. They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you.
  7. They know confusion weakens people.
  8. They project.
  9. They try to align people against you.
  10. They tell you or others that you are crazy.
  11. They tell you everyone else is a liar.

Let’s explore these symptoms in more detail. I think that the first two make a good pairing. Gaslighters love to lie. They use it as a tool to confuse you. Even if you have a recording of them doing the thing that they’re lying about, they will continue to lie and tell you that it didn’t happen. They’ll do it with a straight face and belittle you for trying to stand up for yourself, truth and reality. Why do they do this? Well, because over time it makes you start to question the nature of truth and facts. It makes you think that maybe nothing in the world is certain, which is exactly what they want. When you no longer know the nature of truth, you are easily manipulated to believe whatever the gaslighter wants you to believe.

Number three, using what is near and dear to you as ammunition against you, is a potent tool. My ex-husband used to use my religion against me–attempting to control me based on religious beliefs about gender and relational power dynamics. I’ve worked with clients who intimidated their partners into staying with them by saying that they would take away their children if they left. Remember that this is a power and control tactic. It’s not based in reality, but because it touches on deep-seated fears, beliefs, or values it works to intimidate and control the victim.

Number four, “they wear you down over time,” is an important one. Gaslighters start out with a friendly and welcoming demeanor, and charm their victims into trusting them, and then over time begin to introduce their power and control tactics one subtle drop at a time. By slowly chipping away at the victim’s reality and relationship to truth, victims often don’t realize that their worlds have become more and more confusing until they don’t trust their own senses at all, which leaves them in the precarious position of looking to the gaslighter to tell them what to believe. This is exactly the outcome that the gaslighter wants.

Number 5 is probably the biggest give-away of a gaslighter. “Their actions don’t match their words.” They tell you that they are going to do something, and then they don’t do it. They tell you something was done, and you then find out that it wasn’t. They make promises that they don’t keep, and then they tell you that they never promised it in the first place. If you start to notice this trend, run!

Number 6, “They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you” works like this. The gaslighter has told you that you’re crazy and don’t know anything one too many times, and you’re starting to think this person is a bully and you need to get out of the relationship, leave the company, or even the country. Then, suddenly the gaslighter does something nice for you, gives you a gift or a compliment, a tax break, etc. You think, “well, maybe they’re not so bad. Maybe I was over-reacting,” and then the gaslighting resumes even stronger than before.

As the victim’s confusion deepens, number 7 comes into play, “They know confusion weakens people.” Our ability to trust our own senses and interpretation of reality gives us a rootedness in life. By eroding your ability to trust that you know what is true and not true, the gaslighter is literally cutting you off at the root, leaving you weakened and dependent on them for support. That is the entire point of the gaslighting process.

Number 8, “They project.” This one is super weird when you experience it. You confront the gaslighter about bad behavior, and instead of taking responsibility, they accuse you of doing whatever it was that they did instead. For instance, my ex-husband used to accuse me of being bad with money when I would talk to him about the fact that he had just emptied our bank account. Gaslighters do this because it distracts you from the reality of what happened and makes you start defending yourself instead.

Number 9, “They try to align people against you.” This tactic may or may not be reality.
Gaslighters tell their victims that others are against them, and that the only person that the victim can trust is the gaslighter. Remember that they lie, so they may be making it up, but they may actually go so far as to poison people against you. I had an ex-boyfriend who called me “psycho-bitch” to anyone who would listen. By making people believe that I was crazy, he isolated me from my support system in an attempt to make me more dependent on him. This tactic also served to make people question the validity of my statements, especially about him and the way that he treated me.

Number 10, “They tell you or others that you are crazy.” I touched on this earlier, but this one is super important and bears repeating. I find that the operative word tends to be “psycho.” If anyone ever calls you psycho, run. If they call their exes psycho, run. If they call their family members psycho, run. Don’t look back. This person is very likely a gaslighter.

Number 11, “They tell you that everyone else is a liar.” Your world is already on shaky ground. You don’t know what is real and what isn’t anymore. You’re not sure that you can trust your own senses or that you’re mentally sound. Then, the gaslighter tells you that your family, the media, your friends, other countries, or some group are always lying to you. Since you don’t know what’s true anymore anyway, this gives the gaslighter the power to shape reality to his/her own benefit.

Anyone can fall victim to these tactics. This isn’t something that only happens gullible people. It happens to smart, educated and powerful people all of the time. If you’re reading this and recognizing that there is a gaslighter in your life, don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. Don’t try to change the gaslighter or reason with them. It won’t work. Just leave.

It will take time for the world to start to make sense again after being gaslit, and that’s OK. Give yourself the patience and gentleness that you were missing with the gaslighter while you heal and find your footing again. The important thing is to just be with yourself as long as it takes to get to the other side of healing.

The Real Reason that Abusers Abuse: It’s Not Why You Think

One of my therapeutic specialties is helping people to work through abuse trauma. I honed my skills working in a domestic violence shelter, and also with Child Welfare Services, but I find that wherever I go, abuse trauma patients follow.

While there is endless variety in the types of abuse traumas that people have experienced, as well as the severity and duration of their abuse experiences, there always seems to be one underlying theme: a sense of shame and personal responsibility.

No matter how often I hear it, I never cease to be shocked by victims of sexual abuse who tell me that they somehow are to blame for their assaults, or the survivors of domestic violence who tell me that if they could have just been better spouses, their relationships could have been saved. These people tell me that their abusers must have seen that they were inherently flawed or unworthy, and that’s why they were chosen to be victims.

At first I would gently tell these people that they were mistaken, and that there was nothing wrong with them, but I quickly learned that the message that they were somehow to blame for what had happened to them was so deeply ingrained that they couldn’t take in any message that contradicted this belief.

That was when I had an epiphany about abuse. It’s not an action. It’s a process. Abuse is a process where the victims are slowly groomed to believe that they are at fault for their mistreatment. It’s an insidious message that starts out small, and grows over time. Abusers slowly push out other supports from the lives of their victims until the only message that can be heard is “You deserve this mistreatment because you are inherently bad and unworthy. If only you could be better, it would stop.”

Having victims who believe this message serves abusers in three ways:

  1. The victim is constantly trying to please the abuser. As a result, the abuser gets catered and deferred to. Depending on the type of abuse, the victim may also be afraid to contradict or stand up to the abuser, giving him/her the benefits of complete power and control over what should be a mutually beneficial relationship.
  2. It takes the blame off of the abuser for the abuse and puts it on the victim, so that the abuser can feel blameless and entitled to continue the abuse.
  3. It keeps victims from leaving because they truly believe that they are unworthy of respectful love, that they deserve the mistreatment, and that they are lucky that the abuser stays with them.

When people tell me now about the deep sense of shame that they feel about the abuse that they’ve suffered, I say, “Yes. That’s the message of abuse. Abuse says that you are somehow to blame for what has happened to you, and that if you were somehow better the abuse would stop. However, think about all that you did to try to be better and how none of it made the abuse stop. The message that you’re to blame is a lie that abuse tells.”

Usually, they nod and say, “Yes. It was just like that.”

Once they understand the message of abuse, I explain how it benefits abusers to get their victims to believe that they are the cause of the abuse. That’s when the healing begins.

There many of myths out there about abuse, and I would like to address some of them here:

  1. Abuse doesn’t happen because the abuser lost control of his/her temper. Abuse is a process. It is pre-meditated and thought through. Abusers behave the way that they do in order to get the benefits of abuse.
  2. Abuse doesn’t happen because of alcohol/drug use. Often, both victims and abusers will minimize abuse saying, “Well, he/she was drunk. He/she wouldn’t do that when sober.” Often in these cases the victim pushes the abuser to get clean thinking that will stop the abuse. If the abuser does get clean, the victim is often shocked that the abuse doesn’t stop. What they had failed to understand was that the abuser wasn’t abusing because of the substance. He/she was using the substance as an excuse to abuse and reap the benefits of abuse listed above.
  3. Victims do not enjoy being abused. They don’t stay because they like it or get some kind of thrill out of it. They stay for any mixture of the following reasons: a) They truly believe that they are bad people and nobody else will want them; b) They have become so isolated by the behavior of the abuser that they believe they have nowhere else to go; c) The abuser has convinced them that they cannot survive on their own; d) They are completely financially dependent on the abuser and cannot see a way to support themselves on their own. e) The abuser has threatened to kill them, take their children, or deport them if they leave, and they are afraid that he/she will follow through on these threats.
  4. Abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of race, socio-economic status, gender, education level or sexual orientation. It’s something that happens to people just like you.

If you’ve recognized yourself here, know that there is help for you. Even if you don’t have any money or any family or friends that you can go live with, there are shelters that will take you. The wonderful thing about going to a shelter is that they can connect you to a transitional living program. These programs are specifically designed to provide shelter, food, funding, and education for survivors of abuse so that they can rebuild their lives, including finding a career and learning how to support themselves. Don’t continue to wait for things to get better. They won’t. Pack a bag, take your children, and go to a shelter. Your life will immediately improve and you will be able to take your power back.

Read the book, Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft. This is the best book about abuse I’ve ever read. Lundy Bancroft was the director of an abuse perpetrator’s program, and he has first-hand knowledge about the way that abusers think. Any time that I’ve been working with an abuse survivor who has read this book, she/he has gathered the courage to leave, and set down at least a portion of the shame she/he had been carrying. Understanding that abusers abuse in order to get the benefits of abuse is an empowering piece of knowledge.

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.

Go to http://www.RAINN.org. RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, and they have resources for survivors.

Survivors of childhood abuse, I recommend getting involved in your local Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) organization. They don’t just help the children of alcoholics. They are a 12 step organization for overcoming the effects of all types of childhood abuse.

Know that you are not alone. There is help and support, and if you access it, things will get better.