What is gaslighting and why it happens

Updated: Jun 19, 2021

The definition of gaslighting is to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity”.

I mentioned in my first post that for me, gaslighting was a new term, and it was the beginning of realising that I was being emotionally abused.

The concept is not new though. A 1940 play was called Gas Light, in which a husband is trying to convince his wife that she is going insane. A few years later, the play was turned into a film by George Cukor and starred Ingrid Bergman.

Gaslighting to try and prove someone insane is very common and has been normalised in our society. Portraying women as crazy, or telling them they’re crazy because – god forbid – they showed emotion – is in our films, our TV, our songs, our homes.

In my experience, it’s done mostly by entitled men, men with no empathy, or people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

What it feels like

Stephanie Moulton Sarkis writes in her book Gaslighting: Recognise Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive people – and break free

“The manipulation is insidious and slow, and you may not even realise the extent of the damage until you have an “aha!” moment […] The goal of gaslighters is to keep you off –kilter and questioning your reality. The more you rely on them for the “correct” version of reality, the more control they have over you.”

In the beginning

  • You’re not sure about what happened or not

  • You’re doubting your reality and intuition

  • You’re doubting or suppressing your feelings

  • You start believing that you’re losing it or that you have memory issues

  • You give in to the gaslighter’s guidance

Later on

  • You wish you were recording or filming conversations to prove that something happened

  • You’ve lost trust in the gaslighter

  • It feels as if they can even lie about whether it’s raining or not

  • You feel on your own, against an enemy

For me, gaslighting at its core is saying things like “I’m ill” and the response being, “no you’re not, stop moaning”. It just doesn’t make sense, yet you’re the one being accused.

Remember that gaslighting doesn’t only have to do with facts, it also has to do with someone negating how you feel. My parents would not allow me to have normal emotional reactions. When my mother kicked me out of my apartment, I was angry and did not want to see her ever again or accept anything from her, such as food. My dad’s response was “don’t be like that”, and “don’t act like this” and that I should just forgive her and not be angry.

Your feelings are yours, just like your body is yours. How you deal with them is no one else’s business – unless you’re hurting them. Processing them when it feels right and at your own pace is your business. Working on managing them if they affect your life is your responsibility. You don’t owe anyone being happy at all times. You don’t owe anyone hiding your tears.

Why it happens

Gaslighting is a common tactic abusers use, but especially if they have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is what happened to me.

Nancy Carbone writes in regard to victims of NPD, “once hooked into a relationship they become discarded, devalued and gaslighted when the narcissist tells them that their sense of reality is not real, causing them to doubt themselves, causing them to walk on egg shells to avoid triggering narcissistic rage.”

It’s not a surprise that abusive people gaslight. Their goal is to control and their needs always come first. So, if their partner’s sense of reality interferes with their needs, they have to distort their sense of reality.

But why do we fall for this?

Our partners are the people we spend most of our days with. We fell in love, we shared our secrets, our traumas, our dreams. We trust them. The fact that they would consciously try to harm us doesn’t cross our mind, because no mentally healthy person would want to do that to the person they love.

So, when the lying starts, we don’t notice. It usually starts with small lies. “I work really long hours”, then you realise they might just do 9 hours instead of 8. Then it gets worse, “I private browse and delete all messages because I like keeping things organised” (huh?). And worse, if you confront them “you keep comparing me to your ex and saying she’s better at housekeeping”, they reply, “this never happened”.

They also use rationalisation to prove that your question makes no sense. I used to have arguments with my ex because he would make fun of my country, calling them crazy, disorganised, they make no sense, etc. If I said “you don't like my country”, he'd reply, “why would I move in with you and want to spend my life with you if I didn’t love your country?” In this way their argument is: a person who loves someone wouldn’t do that, so it doesn’t make sense that I would do that.

They call to their defence healthy relationship models to disprove that they’ve done something wrong. Insane? Yes.

Self check-in:

· Does your partner make you feel confused?

· Do you feel like you’re going crazy?

· Do you feel like you’re not allowed to have normal, human reactions?

· Do you wish you had recorded a conversation?

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