If someone tries to erode your self-confidence, deny your experience, or plant seeds of self-doubt, there’s a word for that: Gaslighting.
- “You only think you know.”
- “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
- “I never said that.”
Gaslighting is abuse. It happens in relationships, often without the awareness of the person receiving it. It can cause trauma. And it’s never okay.
We need to know more about what gaslighting is, and why someone would use it. Trauma survivors may be more susceptible to this kind of abuse, so it’s important to understand what gaslighting is and realize when it is happening in a situation, and how to deal with it.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is intentionally verbally manipulating someone so they question their beliefs, judgment, reality, memories or sanity.
It can be done by a partner, friend or family member to gain control. A person wants to get a particular outcome, or wants to increase or hold power by claiming the other person is wrong, mistaken or crazy. Gaslighting can develop or intensify over time.
What does gaslighting feel like?
You begin to question your own beliefs and thoughts. You may wonder: If they are so convinced this is true, maybe I AM making things up? You may feel confused and unable to trust yourself.
As gaslighting is emotional abuse, you may:
- Feel confused
- Get defensive
- Doubt yourself
- Question your reality and memory
- Have trouble making choices
- Feel you have to prove yourself
- Make excuses for the other’s behavior
To support your story or avoid put-downs, to survive, you may even lie to the person who abuses you.
What’s the difference between gaslighting and trying to sway an opinion?
The difference between gaslighting and simply sharing your beliefs is the intent to manipulate.
For example, say a person tells their partner they want to buy a new TV. And their partner isn’t convinced it’s a good idea.
In a healthy relationship, the person might try to persuade by sharing their reasons:
- “I really like this TV and think we should buy it because X, Y, Z.” (judgment-free opinion)
Gaslighting happens when a person tries to disempower someone else to get the desired outcome,
- “You don’t care about our family enough to buy this TV.” (inducing guilt)
- “You obviously don’t realize that TVs are important like everybody else in the world does.” (belittling)
- “I can’t believe you think our current TV is fine.” (criticizing)
Gaslighting is not just having a different opinion or experience.
Gaslighting is the manipulation of power in a relationship for a particular outcome.
What does gaslighting sound like?
Gaslighting is different than someone just trying to convince you of something. It’s behavior that attempts to manipulate you.
Techniques may include trying to deny your reality, control the narrative, blame you, question your memory, trivialize, deny, divert or withhold information.
Here are more phrases a gaslighter may use to try to manipulate you:
- That’s not how the story goes.
- That never happened.
- You don’t remember things right.
- It’s your fault.
- You’re being crazy.
- You’re making this up!
- You’re just paranoid.
- You’re too sensitive.
- You’re overreacting!
- I’m not going to talk to you until you stop this nonsense.
- This is perfectly normal. It’s just how things are.
- I can’t believe you didn’t know that.
- You got that crazy idea from your friends.
- There’s no person in the world who actually believes that!
- I just did it because I love you.
- You made me do this!
Gaslighting is a felt experience
Just like trauma, the most valid claim to gaslighting comes from the person receiving it. Whether it happened depends on perception. Do you feel manipulated? Do you feel like something is not quite right? Do you feel like someone is using tactics in order to keep you in doubt, and keep themselves in control? It’s important to trust that instinct.
Does the gaslighter allow for dialogue? If so, is this gaslighting?
Gaslighters don’t usually allow for dialogue. Or if they do, it is just used to find a way to demean you further or circle back to their story. They allow enough discussion so that the other person second-guesses themselves or thinks they are crazy.
It’s also important to be sure, if you are a trauma survivor, that you are grounded and present in your current relationship, rather than being triggered by the past or your hyperaroused nervous system. Overwhelm from past trauma can activate body memories like the experience is happening again.
This is another good reason for trauma survivors to do their own healing work of addressing their past trauma, so that past trauma doesn’t show up when it is not currently present.
Why does someone use gaslighting?
A person manipulates when they want or need to feel in control. They may have learned this behavior to try to manage their own trauma history or lack of ability to emotionally regulate.
Gaslighting could be an ingrained coping mechanism that someone has used as a survival strategy their whole life, or it might be situational. This “survival strategy” or coping mechanism can originate in childhood as a way to cope with trauma. Or it can originate during a stressful time when they get scared or things get tough.
For example, one partner may cheat in a relationship and discover that gaslighting is a way to stay in control or not be rejected.
A gaslighter functions by maintaining a power structure where they are right, and they are in control and the other person is questioning or confused.
Whether harm is intended or not, gaslighting is abuse.
For trauma survivors, it’s easy to fall into this space
If you come from trauma, gaslighting was probably happening in your childhood. When you’ve experienced complex trauma, you may not trust yourself.
A person who grows up with a foundation of secure attachment may realize the signs of gaslighting pretty quickly and leave. However, a trauma survivor may be more likely to perceive manipulation as familiar and therefore normal. It may be easier for a person with trauma to believe the abuser — “Maybe he’s right, maybe I’m terrible.”
Trauma survivors, you deserve better!
With this trauma-informed view of gaslighting, I hope to increase awareness of its unhealthy role in relationships. If you are the victim of gaslighting, you deserve better. Healthy relationships and healthier boundaries are possible. And they are reparative!
Recognize the abuse.
Honor your inner voice.
You are strong enough to walk away.
You deserve better!
A trauma-informed therapist can help
If you’re a potential new client, please contact/email me for more information about care.
If physical violence is happening…
If gaslighting is combined with physical abuse, and your safety is in danger, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 via:
- phone, at 800-799-7233
- live chat, at thehotline.org
- text, by texting LOVEIS to 22522