The Definition of Gaslighting
* Trigger warning: this article contains difficult subject matter.
The advent of social media has (at least) brought about one positive thing – a platform for sharing personal experiences. The sheer volume of disclosures from numerous sources has presented a great way to study, name, describe, and raise awareness of various types of abusive behaviour. Narcissistic personality disorder and one of its traits – gaslighting – have received a good deal of attention, and for a good reason!
According to Psychology Today, gaslighting is ‘an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true.’ While it begins with small, ‘white’ lies, the seriousness and amount of false information grow until the victim is unsure of what is real and what is not.
Abusers ensure they have a victim by a series of tactics, most notably ‘love-bombing’. At the beginning of a relationship, be it personal or professional, the manipulator showers their victim with praise, compliments them excessively, and seems to reveal intimate emotions and secrets. This establishes the foundation of trust for the victim before abuse begins. Despite multiple warning signs and problematic occurrences, the victim tends to cling to those earlier, happier days and cannot disentangle themselves from the abuser.
Gaslighting Examples: Easy to Spot
Gaslighters are usually sly and secretive, and it is rather the victims’ behaviour that alerts a third party about the abuse. Still, knowing what to look out for can make it easier to spot the warning signs of emotional manipulation.
Liar, Liar, Pants … Still Fine?
- Dropping snide comments. Never! Ever! Tolerate anyone who talks down to you. Abusers will shoot derogatory comments about you, your body, or your personality, making you lose self-confidence.
- Small lies – big lies. Gaslighters are pathological liars. Even if you have proof that something they’re saying is not true, they will keep a straight face and persist. Starting out small moulds the victim in a way that they accept these lies over time before the big ones hit.
- Blatant fabrications. There comes a point when the lie becomes so ridiculously huge but also acceptable. While the scale of the falsehood may dumbfound the victim, the abuser will still insist that it’s true and set a precedent. Once the first big lie is told and swallowed, there are no limits anymore.
Dependence and Grooming
If you’re wondering how gaslighters get away with so many lies, especially the ridiculous ones, the reason lies precisely in destabilising the victim’s sense of reality. They groom the person into a willing victim by being condescending and questioning their reality. Here are a few of these gaslighting tactics:
- Making the victim dependent on them. The abuser may present themselves as a saviour, or even worse, charity. They may say things like: ‘Your X, Y, and Z traits are bad, but I still love you.’ This ensures that the victim has no self-worth left and believes they won’t be loved by anyone else, so they choose to stay.
- Shifting the blame. While this is technically lying, it is wrapped up differently. When the abuser is confronted about anything, they will respond that it is the victim’s fault because they are emotional, irrational, flawed, or have done something wrong.
- ‘It was just a joke.’ I absolutely hate this one. It’s a very common tactic. When a gaslighter says something and is confronted about it, they will throw the ‘I was just joking’ to destabilise their victim’s sense of self-respect, values, or ideals.
- Projecting. Abusers tend to project their own failures onto their victims. If they’re a chronic cheater, they accuse the other person of cheating; if they are cowards, they construe the narrative that makes others seem extremely intimidating.
- ‘Let’s start from scratch.’ These people never take any responsibility – they just find ways around it, promising and pretending that things would change if they could only start from square one again. For the millionth time.
Gaslighting at Work
As I said, it’s not just personal relationships in which gaslighting can happen. The workplace, too, is a fertile ground for abusers, especially if they are in a position of power. Manipulators have even more people to play with at their disposal, reducing the chance of their victims expressing themselves freely. For instance, if the boss is the one gaslighting his employees, they probably have few people to turn to. The boss can manipulate HR, and pulling ranks can result in increased emotional abuse, insults, and even job loss.
Even if the gaslighter is a regular employee, they can be proficient at sabotage and back-stabbing. They’d only need to get to other co-workers faster and deliver their warped lies before the victim speaks up. If the victim complains, they might get shut down by other co-workers, making them question what is real and how accurate or valid their emotions are.
Examples of gaslighting at work include:
- Hiding the victim’s stuff. Do things keep disappearing and popping up where they shouldn’t be? It’s not little goblins hiding them, that’s for sure …
- Trash-talking behind people’s backs. Liars remain liars, be it at work, at home, or in public spaces.
- They pretend to explain something but use vague, ambiguous terms. They’re not trying to help; they’re setting their victim up for failure and fully intend to lay all the blame on them.
- Turning other co-workers against the victim. They can do this by spreading lies about the victim, construing conflict, or convincing the victim that others are against them.
- Telling the victim that ‘everyone thinks they’re crazy’. This gives the impression that nobody will believe them even if they do report harassment.
- Answering questions with a simplified, vaguely related answer. Q: ‘Should we organise this via an Excel sheet?’ A: ‘Documentation can be arranged.’ When they say this, gaslighters pretend that the victim has asked a stupid question that had already been discussed.
- ‘We shouldn’t worry about A; it’s B that we should focus on.’ If an employer raises an issue that the gaslighter doesn’t want to be discussed, they will pretend there is a more urgent problem at hand.
Parents tend to gaslight children in the most innocuous ways, often unconsciously. The issue lies in children’s limited capacity to articulate all their needs, which can result in statements like, ‘You’re not hungry, you’ve just eaten’ or, ‘Since when do you want to do X, Y, Z, you hate that stuff.’
Kids put their parents on a moral pedestal at an early age and believe them blindly, using what their parents tell them as a foundation upon which they build their personality. Preferences, personal traits, and self-beliefs can all be affected by words, and, depending on the child’s personality, they can take these much closer to heart. Another famous example includes the unilateral, ‘But XZY has done this well, and you haven’t’, but when XYZ doesn’t do well, they dismiss it with, ‘I don’t care about others, I care about you.’
Other common phrases that parents tend to be guilty of:
- ‘You’re cold; go get dressed.’
- ‘You failed because you’re lazy.’
- ‘You don’t need therapy; it’s all in your head.’
- ‘You’re not tired; you can still do your homework.’
- ‘No, that never happened; you dreamt about it.’
Notice how all these statements have a ‘you are’ structure in them? By saying that, parents are moulding their children’s belief system by misarticulating certain traits. For instance, instead of saying ‘you’re lazy’, they could try to find the core reason behind a failure. Shifting the focus on the action is also a good way to rephrase that statement. ‘Not studying enough for the test was lazy of you’ is much better than the blatant ‘YOU are lazy’, as the latter is presented as a conclusive personality trait rather than an isolated occurrence.
Unfortunately, the world is not an ideal place, and there are those people who are not meant to be parents. There is a reason a subreddit RaisedByNarcissists has so many subscribers, and the abuse people relate to often involves gaslighting. Abusers may resort to physical violence that they will justify with words like, ‘You made me do this’ or, ‘I’m doing this for your own good’.
If you were a victim of abuse, don’t be afraid to seek help to get through it. On the other hand, if you’ve witnessed abuse of that kind, report it to Child Protection Services.
Dealing with Gaslighting Behaviour
Gaslighters are slimy, sly people who are difficult to escape from. They wear their victims down, distort their reality, and cut them off from reliable sources of help. Exposure to gaslighting can lead to severe depression that decreases the victim’s will to escape the abuser, tying them to the bad place for a long time. Still, if you’ve recognised any of the signs of gaslighting, there are things you can do to get the heck out of there:
- Ground yourself and centre yourself in your reality. Start small with meditation to build up confidence. Focus on things you can see, touch, and smell and work from there. When you do this, you set the foundation of verifiable facts from which you can advance by considering your thoughts and emotions about a certain situation. Listen to your own mind speaking and believe it! Your mind is the only thing that knows your reality; it’s time to trust it.
- Collect evidence. If it’s a workplace, keep track of documentation, do regular back-ups, and lock your things away. If you’re in a relationship, note down how you feel and what you’re being told about how you feel. If you think you cannot trust your memory, take pictures or videos.
- Seek help. Seek it, especially if someone tells you that you don’t need it and that it’s all in your head. You can turn to your old friends, parents, or a therapist to support you to do the only thing that will eventually save you.
- Cut contact. No matter how much you think you love this person or how much this job is important – cut them off with the biggest scissors you can find! Door slam them, block them on social media, and get away. If you’re in a relationship with the gaslighter, chances are that it’s not love but emotional dependency that you’re feeling, and you’re way better off without it. Before you leave, make sure you have a safe exit, as abuse can escalate into physical violence upon confrontation. Better to leave quietly than to deal with that possibility.
Key Takeaways about Gaslighting
Gaslighting is emotional and psychological abuse that aims to destabilise, distort, and destroy the victim’s reality to the point where they’re not sure what to trust and how to think, and they are unable to deal with their situations.
Gaslighters tend to share some characteristics, so be on the lookout for these:
- They lie blatantly and with a straight face.
- They tend to be mean, snide, and insult their victims.
- They shift blame around.
- Taking responsibility for their actions is never an option.
- They claim that they’re the only ones who could ever love the victim.
Leaving the abuser is difficult, but the best way to do it is to cut contact as soon as possible and to seek help in dealing with it. If you’ve been a victim of gaslighting, reach out to your family, friends, and a professional to help you cope and plan a safe exit.
Stay aware of your surroundings and believe in your own truth!