10 Things I’ve Learned About Gaslighting As An Abuse Tactic
Let me share my experience. Here are ten things I wish I’d known at the beginning.
1. Gaslighting Doesn’t Have to Be Deliberate
About the fifth time I called a close friend of mine on the phone, gasping for air, asking “Am I a monster?” he finally said, “Emma, he’s gaslighting you.” What is gaslighting? I thought.
Wikipedia told me that it came from an old movie, where the main character makes changes in the environment and then insists to his victim that she is simply imagining these changes.
Whaat? I thought. My partner isn’t doing that. I could not imagine him plotting and manipulating my environment or our interactions to make me feel crazy. He’s a human being who is hurt, who I keep hurting. It’s me, not him.
2. Manipulation and Gaslighting Are Distinct Behaviors
Maybe a better way to put this is that gaslighting is a type of manipulation, but not the only type.
Manipulation usually centers around a direct or indirect threat that is made in order to influence another person’s behavior. Gaslighting uses threats as well, but has the goal of actually changing who someone is, not just their behavior.
Both will degrade your self-esteem, but gaslighting, when effective, will actually damage your trust in yourself and your experience of reality.
3. Gaslighting Doesn’t Always Involve Anger or Intimidation
The book The Gaslight Effect refers to a type of gaslighting called glamor gaslighting. This is where the gaslighter showers you with special attention, but never actually gives you what you need. They put you on a pedestal, but then they’re not there. In fact, they may get angry at you when you need a shoulder to cry on.It becomes difficult, after a while, to identify why it is that you feel so alone and hollow.
In another type of gaslighting, the gaslighter is always transformed into the victim. Whenever you bring up a problem, you find yourself apologizing by the end of the conversation.
Every gaslighter/gaslightee relationship is different, but for me, there was a very specific pattern. I would say something to him. He would have a very strong emotional reaction to it, far above what I would have anticipated. I would backtrack to try figure out what I had said and how to make it better. He would accuse me of inconsistency when I backtracked. I would try to explain that I was adjusting to try to communicate best with him, because clearly I was failing. He would tell me that my inconsistency implied that I was lying. I would say, “No, no, I know I’m not lying. Maybe I just can’t remember it right.” “It seems I can’t trust your memory,” he would say. We would never return to the original issue. I usually ended up crying hysterically.
4. It’s Normal Not to Be Able to Remember What Happened
This, more than anything, is something I wish I had known. It was a secret I kept, that fed my self doubt and guilt for years after I left. I used to black out. I remember conversations where I would start standing in the kitchen and end up in a ball on the floor. Just days after it happened, I wouldn’t be able to remember what happened in the time in between. I wouldn’t even be able to remember what the conversation was about. My abuser accused me of abuse while I was with him – and then publicly for years after.
I found some things in me that needed to change, but I couldn’t find what it was that he saw in me. I could not find the narcissist. I could not find the vicious manipulator. I could not find the home wrecker. But I had black spots in my memory. Completely black. And I wondered , Is that when it happened? Is that when I abused him?
It’s normal to lose your memory when you’re being gaslighted. In fact, it is one of the signs that you should look for. It’s a good sign that it might be time to leave.
5. There Are Distinct Stages (And These Stages Can Progress After the Relationship Is Over)
A gaslighter doesn’t simply need to be right. They also need for you to believe that they are right.
In stage one, you know that they’re being ridiculous, but you argue anyways. You argue for hours, without resolution. You argue over things that shouldn’t be up for debate – your feelings, your opinions, your experience of the world. You argue because you need to be right, you need to be understood, or you need to get their approval. In stage one, you still believe yourself, but you also unwittingly put that belief up for debate.
In stage two, you consider your gaslighter’s point of view first and try desperately to get them to see your point of view as well. You continue to engage because you’re afraid of what their perspective of you says about you. Winning the argument now has one objective : proving that you’re still good, kind, and worthwhile.
In stage three, when you’re hurt, you first ask, “What’s wrong with me?” You consider their point of view as normal. You start to lose your ability to make your own judgements. You become consumed with understanding them and seeing their perspective. You live with and obsess over every criticism, trying to solve it. Looking back, I see that I was deep in stage two when I left the relationship. However, I continued to try to have a friendship with him for months after. I longed for resolution, understanding, and forgiveness.
6. There Are Distinct Traits That Make You More Susceptible to Gaslighting, But They Can Also Be Super Powers
There are three tendencies that will pull you into a gaslighting exchange. These tendencies are the need to be right, the need to be understood, and the need for approval. Additionally, certain traits – such as being empathic, being a caretaker, needing to see your partner in a positive light, and being a “people pleaser” – might make you more susceptible.
7. You Know What Your Truth Is – You Always Have, and You Always Will
Your gaslighter doesn’t see you. You are a shadow standing to the side, trying not to attract attention, while they shower their image of you with love and attention. And no matter how much your mind is in knots, you know this to be true. You know the space you occupy, even if you hate yourself for it. If you look back, if you look inside, you will see that you always knew that something was wrong. It may feel like you lost your core. But it was always there.
8. The End Game Is Not Confrontation, It’s Non-Engagement
When you engage in any way, you tell your gaslighter and yourself that your reality is up for debate. Your reality is not up for debate. It’s ridiculous when someone tries to tell you who you are, what you feel, what you think, what you intended, or what you experienced. When it happens, you should be angry or puzzled. “What would make you think that you could know what’s inside of me? Instead, many of us will find ourselves trying to reach understanding. No, that’s not what happened, that’s not what I felt!
And this is a reasonable response – to a point. But if the goal of the conversation is to exchange power, and not to exchange understanding, you will never, ever, ever win. You can solve a lot of things with communication, so long as the objective of both people is understanding. But the minute someone tries to replace your experience, it’s time to stop communicating, at least on that subject.
9. You Must Confront the Threat
Every gaslighting exchange exists under the shroud of some kind of threat. For my relationship, the threat started out as disapproval, then it was the relationship that was threatened, and eventually the threat escalated to his own life.
I had no ability to confront or resist the gaslighting until one by one, I confronted the fears that these threats produced in me.
10. Gaslighting May Be Amplified in Families, Poly Relationships, and Other Groups
It’s hard to stand firm when one person is trying to replace your experience, but when they have a chorus of supporters, it is nearly impossible. There is a reason why cult abuse can lead to a complete breakdown of someone’s personality. Group manipulation and abuse is devastatingly effective.
I know there is a lot of shame tied up in ending a relationship, and no one wants to be the bad guy. But we all owe it to each other to not participate in relationships where anyone’s self esteem is being degraded.