A friend called me late one night. Her breath was short, and her voice sounded upset, angry and confused. She had just arrived back to the house she shared with her boyfriend after spending the night with friends.
“Someone's been here, a woman,” she said. “I just know it. All my personal stuff has been moved, even my photos. He never does that. It's as if he's removed every trace of me while I was away.”
She had drawn reasonable conclusions from the changes she had noticed, but she was doubting her own logic. He claimed nothing had been moved, and it was all in her head. This man she loved was trying to deny and distort her reality by questioning her emotional health. He was gaslighting her.
Gaslighting is one of the most toxic and insidious forms of emotional abuse. Gaslighting is usually discussed in the context of romantic relationships, but it also can happen within families, friendships and work relationships. It can also be used by total strangers to deny another groups' experience of oppression and discrimination.
It is particularly dangerous because it's so hard to detect. That's especially the case if you're like me, and you are eternally optimistic about the people in your life.
Here are six signs someone may be gaslighting you, and what you can do about it:
1.“Why don't you take your pills, hun?”
He does or says something totally out of line. You muster up the courage to confront him, but he instantly invalidates your feelings. His defense will rely upon constructing you as hysterical, oversensitive and mentally unstable. He might suggest you should consider seeking professional help or medication.
The truth is, the only help you need to seek involves getting out of his clutches. Remember the gaslighter has no genuine regard for your mental health. How do I know this? If the person did, he wouldn't be gaslighting you. He is only commenting on your mental health as a way of discrediting you and instilling self-doubt.
2. You're sorry you voiced your feelings.
Have you ever tried to have a heart-to-heart with someone to tell how you feel hurt or let down? Have you ever come to the end of that same conversation, and found you're the only one apologizing profusely? You've been gaslighted. The person's response to your hurt was to reposition himself in the conversation as the victim, and express distress over how uncomfortable you being hurts make him feel.
You are selfish for even speaking up; your pain is entirely offensive and inconvenient to him. So, now you feel totally worse than you did before you began the conversation. Not only is your issue unresolved, but now you also have the vague impression that perhaps you are that terrible person he has made you out to be.
3. The gaslighter will continue to deny something, even after getting caught.
This person will flat-out deny the occurrence of things you've witnessed with your own eyes and ears. Gaslighters will act like you are being totally unreasonable if you don't accept their totally made-up version of what went down. Someone I knew found her boyfriend stumbling out of bed naked, closely followed by a half-dressed woman. But to this day, he will look her in the eye and calmly maintain his innocence.
He will claim that your imagination is hopelessly twisted, and you'll totally start to question your own memory. You will start second-guessing pretty much everything you've ever believed.
4. If things don't change for the better, it's over.
When he sees the trajectory of a discussion is not going the way he wants, he'll flip the script and issue an ultimatum. He has run out of ways to justify his behavior, and you aren't falling for any of the ones he has tried so far. It's now time for him to shut the conversation down completely.
You believe that if you don't shut up and deal with your paranoia and delusions, he will walk. Or, he will emotionally withdraw from you and keep you at a distance as a punishment. As a result, you'll have to work much harder to regain the intimacy. Either way, he aims to keep the constant threat of him leaving hanging over you to keep you in check.
5. Whatever you have shared with the abuser is used as a weapon against you.
She won't hesitate to list every flaw or insecurity you have to deflect from the harm she has caused. A friend who betrayed my confidence in a pretty huge way refused to apologize when I told her how it affected me. Instead, she claimed she was the aggrieved party because I said I couldn't continue the friendship unless I knew she was sorry. She explained how terrible she felt because I wouldn't just let it go.
Instead of showing any kind of regret for the trouble she had caused, she brought up things from my past that had nothing to do with the matter at hand. I'd confided those things in her at vulnerable points of my life. She had been a sympathetic listener, but now she was using it against me to deflect the attention of what she had done.
Things you will have shared will be twisted and used against you, including insecurities, hardships, abusive situations and relationship breakdowns. Needless to say, I had to let that friendship go.
6. Your mind will become scrambled.
You'll be sailing in a sea of confusion, and any trust in your own sanity or powers of reasoning has been thrown overboard. Your internal voice is so garbled and distorted that you barely recognize it. At this point, you don't trust your inner voice, so you're not listening to it much, anyway.
You've tried your best to cram the person's lies into something that can resemble the truth, but it doesn't fit. So, your head hurts with the sheer effort of trying. You overestimated the malleability of your own mind. You've begun to crack under the pressure. You are disorientated after performing all kind of mental acrobatics to justify the person's words and actions.
Gaslighting is psychological warfare. The aim is to completely distort your reality and present your experiences as false. The process by which people do this leaves you confused, uncertain and distrusting of your own memory and sanity.
Your abuser usually has a dossier on you. Your abuser knows what makes you tick, what makes you cry, what makes you smile, when you are most vulnerable and how to get inside your head. As eerie as it sounds, your abuser studied you carefully before he or she made any moves.
Everything is meticulously calculated. Nothing is random. You can attempt to debate, rationalize or plead with the offender to stop manipulating you, but it will be utterly useless. Your abuser is not going give up the power without at least one final attempt to mess with your mind further.
Your gaslighter is probably an endearing and likable person who's battling low self-esteem and insecurity. These people know how to treat you well when it suits them, and they're definitely capable of acting in a considerate and caring way toward you. So, even when you realize your abuser is waging war on your mind, it can still be tempting to stay and fix him or her.
Here's the thing: Your abuser may be a narcissist, or even a sociopath. This person is not going to acknowledge fault any time soon, and any emotion you do see other than anger is likely to be contrived. The best thing you can do for your emotional health and well-being is to remove yourself from this person's life as much as you can.
Cut off all contact, if possible. It may be harsh, but if it makes people realize they can — and — lose people around them when they gaslight, perhaps you've done them a favor. They have singled you out for gaslighting because they have honed in on your compassion, kindness and empathy. They see these qualities as a green light to treat you horribly, and they are confident you will let them continue.
Who knows? Maybe one day, long after you've made your escape, this person will wake up and change. Don't hold your breath, though. Just walk away. Walk away, and don't look back.