What gaslighting is, and how to spot the signs of it in a relationship
According to the experts
Gaslighting, like many other types of emotional abuse, is often hard to identify, which is partially what makes it so dangerous. A form of “persistent manipulation and brain washing”, it’s a tactic intended to make you doubt yourself and ultimately completely lose your sense of identity and self-worth.
It takes its name from the 1944 film “Gaslight”, where a man tries to convince his wife she’s insane by making her question herself and reality. But it can be much more subtle than that. Although it’s associated with romantic relationships it can also happen in the workplace or in politics. Any asymmetric power dynamic in a relationship, with a person who makes unreasonable judgements and micro-aggressions which aren’t based in fact, is emotional manipulation – and probably gaslighting.
Preston Ni, author of “How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters and Stop Psychological Bullying”, identified seven main symptoms of this specific type of emotional abuse. These are the main warning signs:
1. Lying and exaggerating
A gaslighter might set their stage by creating a “negative narrative” about their victim, both to the gaslightee’s face and to others about them. This will inevitably put them on the defensive and give fuel to the idea that they’re “crazy” or “mental”. Ni says this might take the form of a partner saying “my girlfriend is a loser, and she needs to know the truth”, or an employer telling their employee “the work you’re doing is a waste of time and resources. How do you even justify your employment?”
Much of the tactics of gaslighting as like those used in psychological warfare, such as repeating lies constantly until they become fact. Ni says this allows an abuser to constantly stay on the offensive, control the conversations and dominate their relationship.
When called out on their lies an abuser will escalate the argument by “doubling or tripling down on their attacks”. This means they’ll deny any wrongdoing and refute any evidence the gaslightee might have with blame, misdirection (blaming other people), false claims and lies intended to sow doubt and confusion in the mind of the victim. One woman tells Ni: “When I caught my boyfriend sexting someone else he flatly said it didn’t happen – that I imagined the whole thing. He called me a crazy bitch.”
4. Wearing out their victim
While in this situation a victim might initially fight back, eventually the behaviour of their abuser will wear them down. They’ll become discouraged, resigned, pessimistic, afraid and self-doubting. Gaslighting over an extended period of time can make a person doubt their own self-perception, identity and reality.
By assuring that their victim is constantly insecure and anxious, an abuser can ensure that they’re totally emotionally and psychologically reliant on them – basically, a codependent relationship. Ni says: “The gaslighter has the power to grant acceptance, approval, respect, safety, and security. The gaslighter also has the power (and often threatens to) take them away. A codependent relationship is formed based on fear, vulnerability, and marginalization.
6. False hope
Manipulative people aren’t stupid, so they realise that constant negativity doesn’t work. They’ll occasionally treat their victims with superficial kindness or remorse, giving them false hope that “they’re not that bad”, “things will get better” or “let’s give it a chance”. Often, Ni says, this is just a calculated maneuver – in giving their victim a “break” a gaslighter can instill complacency and force them to let their guard down, which can reinforce an unhealthy, codependent relationship.
But beware! The temporary mildness is often a calculated maneuver intended to instill complacency and have the victim’s guard down, before the next act of gaslighting begins. With this tactic, the gaslighter also further reinforces a codependent relationship.
7. Domination and control
Gaslighting is a sliding scale, but at its most extreme the ultimate objective is total control and domination over another individual, team or group. Ni writes: “By maintaining and intensifying an incessant stream of lies and coercions, the gaslighter keeps the gaslightees in a constant state of insecurity, doubt, and fear. The gaslighter can then exploit his or her victims at will, for the augmentation of his power and personal gain.”