by Annie Allen, Certified Divorce and Life Transition Coach
This is something that I talk about often in one way or another with my divorce coaching clients. Rarely do we call it that and even more rarely does the person who is being gaslighted know that is what is happening. It is insidious, it is painful and it is crazy making. Let's open up this pandora’s box and shine a big bright light on it so you can understand it once and for all. What it is, why it happens, how to respond and what it looks like to recover from this toxic relationship dynamic.
So, what IS gaslighting? I am not sure there is a dictionary definition of it, and if there is, it probably would only have you asking more questions because there is no easy way to summarize what gaslighting is. By its very nature and intention, it is confusing. It is senseless and it’s hard to define. The simplest way to explain it is that it is a psychological weapon when someone intentionally does something to confuse or alter another’s perception of reality for their own gain or perverse enjoyment. It’s a form of mental, emotional and psychological abuse that is intentionally inflicted on someone to make them question their sanity, to make others question their sanity, and ultimately to keep them trapped as a victim in the relationship by disabling their ability to trust their own judgment.
In 1938, Patrick Hamilton wrote a screenplay called Gas Light. Think about that! 1938!!!!! That’s going on 100 years ago. Two feature films originated from this screenplay. In the story, the husband turns up the lights int eh upper part of the house where he had murdered a woman in order to try to find the jewels she had been wearing and his turning up of the lights upstairs dimmed them downstairs where his wife was. When she shares her concern about the dimming lights, he “gas lights” her by telling her she is imagining things, that the lights have not changed. Always when the wife notices things she considers odd, she shares them and he mentally manipulates her by denying the truth and telling her that she is going crazy to the point of eventually threatening to put her in an asylum.
Expressions the abusers might be using often:
You need help.
I didn’t do that.
You are making a big deal out of nothing.
You must be confused again.
I haven’t seen it.
You’re so sensitive.
That’s not what happened.
What are you talking about?
I don’t have any idea what you are referring to.
Stop imagining things.
I never said that.
I would never do that to you.
I was just joking. (when you know they were not just joking)
You’re always twisting everything around.
Ok so that is some of the catch phrases of abusers who gaslight their victims. Now, lets talk about a couple predominant techniques they use.
One is Blocking or Diverting. This is where the abuser changes the conversation from the matter at hand to questioning the victim’s thoughts. They control the conversation so entirely that you may not even realize they just hijacked the conversation and you have left problem solving mode and entered entirely into gaslighting mode. You had maybe ended up in this heated debate about something going on in your family that you are trying to communicate with them about to come to an understanding and suddenly they are saying something like “you know you always do this. You don’t respect me. Or you overreact and make something about you that isn't about you at all.” Your immediate gut reaction will be almost a startle response internally because the shift is so unnerving but you will immediately go into defense mode because your character is being attacked and it’s like startling when someone jumps out from behind a tree when you are walking in the woods because it came out of nowhere and feels like an attack, and it is an attack. However, your chances of getting the abuser to return to the subject matter at hand are small to non-existent. He gaslighted you with the blocking and diverting because he refuses to deal with the reality of whatever the issue at hand was. Going back to it will not likely solve anything. You will just end up back here in the weeds again. He is not interested in reality.
Another technique "gaslighters" use is Trivializing. This involves the abuser making you believe that your through or needs are not important. You share a legitimate concern or feeling and she says something like “You’re going to let something like that come between us?” Or “I cant believe you are making this big of a deal out of ______. Do you remember last month when you ____ and I just let it go?”
Some of the other techniques often employed are:
1. Lying – a lie is a lie. You know when you are being lied to. Controlling Manipulative and Narcissistic abusers lie with great ease, often, about everything. Sometimes even about things that it really makes no sense for them to feel the need to lie about.
2. Countering: Questioning the accuracy of your memories
3. Isolating: Challenging victim’ credibility by causing the victim to question what other family and friends think of them or by covertly or overtly preventing victim from spending time with others
4. Denial: Abusers deny the truth and make the victim question their own memory or mind
5. Withholding: Abusers pretends not to understand what the victim is saying to them even though it is obvious and they do understand but just don’t want to deal with it
6. Projecting: Abusers often project the things that are wrong with them or things they are actively doing wrong onto the person they are manipulating. This is because they know a great deal about you. Whether it be addiction or infidelity, they will accuse you of doing the very things they are. This is a perfect distraction technique because it makes you get you off their case and start worrying about yourself instead and they get away with whatever it is they are up to. But the truth is you can know exactly what a "gaslighter" is up to by what they accuse you of… they literally tell on themselves once you know this about them.
7. Niceness – as strange as it may sound, niceness is one of their evil tools of abuse. You may have heard of Stockholm syndrome? It is where a victim freed from her abuse still craves the affection and attention of her abuser. Well before she is freed, when her abuser is nice to her, she often becomes more loyal and more likely to believe every lie she is told. Typically, an abuser starts off nice (called love-bombing) only to slowly or sometimes not so slowly withdraw affection. At some point, and often very slowly over months or years, they will begin to treat the victim more and more badly and often for no reason. This causes confused and sets the victim up to seek to get the nice guy back, believing this was the “real” him and something has changed. The truth is, the real him is the one you are seeing now. The nice guy was the act.
Ok, enough about the abuser. What about you? What’s going on for you while all this crazy making is going down?
Signs that YOU might be experiencing gaslighting:
You constantly question yourself.
You struggle making decisions.
You think you are not good enough.
You feel like everything you do is wrong.
You used to be a confident person but now you have little to no self esteem.
You are unhappy for what you think is no reason.
You feel confused easily or often.
You wonder if you are too sensitive.
You make excuses for the bad behavior of someone you love.
You feel like you deserve to be alone.
You question your own judgment in all your decision-making.
You over-apologize for everything to everyone.
You are hypervigilant, which means you don’t ever relax. You feel like you have to anticipate everything.
Heck, you are probably even thinking YOU are the abuser sometimes because you know that they make you feel crazy and cause you to act out in ways that are not at all who you are.
Coping with Gaslighting
The first step in coping well is the realization that you are not crazy. The things your abuser has been doing to make you feel crazy have really been happening.
Next step is creating space between you and your abuser – physically, emotionally and in many other ways.
It could easily be argued that there is no effective way to “cope” with gaslighting as any exposure at all is detrimental to your mental well-being. That being said, there are techniques to begin the process of detaching from this type of abuser and you will need to employ some or all of these techniques gradually over time to begin the process of effective detachment.
First of all, you have to start seeing things differently. The way you have always seen things has kept you stuck for how long? Isn’t it about time to admit… hasn’t your gut been telling you for a very long time that SOMETHING is wrong. Reach out, read, listen to podcasts, search online videos. You have to gain new perspectives. For a very long time, you have probably believed everything your abuser has said to you. You would not be here listening to this today if you had not begun the process of gaining new perspective on this toxic relationship dynamic. That being said, if you are just a regular listener and you really didn’t or don’t think you are being gaslighted, that’s great. AS LONG AS IT IS TRUE. If it is true, thank you for tuning in. What you learn here will help you in being able to help others who are facing this. If you aren’t sure and you have made it this far into the episode, my guess is that your spirit is being piqued. You are wondering if this is what you have been dealing with unawares. You have heard things I have said thus far that resonate, deeply, and pardon me, but it probably scares the sh*t out of you. That’s okay too. Hang in there. You are here to change all that.
Start questioning everything. Don’t buy the lies. Don’t automatically think everything they say MUST be true. It may not be wise to question them verbally to their face. That is NOT what I am suggesting. That could be dangerous in fact. And even if your physical safety is not at risk, it won’t help anything. It will just make them defensive and MORE argumentative. I am speaking from personal experience here, of doing it the wrong way. If you accuse them of the very things that they are actually guilty of… gaslighting, projecting, etc. They will do their own internet sleuthing and start using those words as weapons on YOU. They will not take them to heart and consider what they may need to change. They will not have a sudden epiphany that they ARE the one in the wrong all along and that you were right. THAT WILL NEVER HAPPEN. The purpose of not buying the lies and questioning everything is so you can begin to see the truth more clearly.
The next coping technique is just that: start seeing the truth. Start focusing on the truth. You will waiver back and forth a million times and each time will feel just as real. Every time another lie is told and you are tempted to believe in absence of proof or even with evidence that it is in fact a lie, you will want to believe it. This is a trick your mind will play on you. You will need a good therapist, a lot of time journaling, praying and talking with healthy friends. And all of these things are slowly, little by little, going to help you to see the truth more clearly and to stay focused on it.
There are many other ways you can focus on the TRUTH. You can find resources to read and view such as books. Here are my preferred top 3 that helped me wake up to the truth!
Healing from Hidden Abuse by Shannon Thomas
Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist by Margalis Feljstad
Splitting (Protecting Yourself while Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissist PD) by Bill Eddy
You can also go online and watch videos from thought leaders in the world of narcissistic abuse. There are many and they are pretty much all good. Just start searching key topics like: What is a narcissist? How do I detach from a narcissist? How do I set boundaries with a narc? And so on.
You can also just search online and read articles on all of this. The more TRUTH you consume, the less likely you will be to get sucked back into believing the lies.
Another important way to cope well while you are still in the relationship or trying to navigate toward a potential ending is to stop defending them.
Boundaries are critical for your health as you try to get strength and courage to end the tyranny in your home and narcissists HATE boundaries. They are used to you letting them walk all over you after all. They are accustomed to you giving them the benefit of every doubt, defending them when they misbehave, you tolerating their shame and blame when you “mess up” and so on.
One thing I often share with my clients is that an important part of our healing from these toxic relationships where we have been gaslit for years and years is coming to the place that we can recognize, admit and own that we contributed to this toxic cycle by allowing them to treat us in ways we would never let a friend or coworker or other family member. In essence, we TEACH others how to treat us and we have taught them they can mistreat us in all these ways by staying and allowing it. Sure, we have had many factors at play that have been good reasons we stayed but the truth is that we could have left. Even if it meant fear of losing our kids, even if it meant having little or no money and not knowing if we can defend ourselves in a divorce battle. Many women in our same shoes have left way before we have. This is not intended to put anyone in a place of shame. In fact, remove shame from the equation entirely. We all do what we do for reasons that are important to us at the time, with the information and abilities we have at that time. There is no shame in that. But the first step of change is to acknowledge our part. We cannot decide to do different things until we see what it is that we are doing right now that is not working.
Many of us put off going there in our minds because we are so tired of feeling responsible for everything because our toxic mate has been blaming us for every single thing that is not our fault for so long, so the last thing we want to do is take responsibility for anything. But that is a a trap.
You are powerless when you refuse to own your power to choose how to respond in life. When you look at your life and you open your eyes to the choices YOU have made to stay stuck, THAT is where ALL your power is. Why?
Because you cannot change what anyone else does but you can change everything you do. You just have to see the big picture to discover your options and then have the support system to start making some different choices. This often starts much before you file for divorce and before anyone moves out.
It starts with boundaries.
Verbal boundaries look like no longer engaging when the abuser wants to argue. You have to recognize that no argument with this person will ever be “won” or will ever produce any kind of change on their part. They just love drama. So stop giving it to them. No amount of logic or persuasive debate will change how they act or who they are. It will only serve to keep you exasperated.
When possible (even if it’s hard at first and seems like it makes them even more mad, unless your physical safety is at risk) don’t engage. They thrive on the drama of conflict, like adrenaline junkies. For that matter, after years of being in a toxic relationship, your own brain may get a rise out of it too. Resist it.
Not engaging can mean different things. It might mean you physically LEAVE the room or the house. It might mean you exit the conversation by making a phone call or texting a safe person and asking them to call you if you send the safe word. It might mean going to a room where the kids are so he or she will stop the escalation. It might mean wording your responses differently. Try this: The next time your toxic person tries to make you doubt your reality, instead of letting it work, say “We remember things differently” and change the subject. Or try “I hear you. That just isn’t my experience. I see it differently.” The idea of these kinds of neutralizing statements is to let the attacker know that you don’t have to be wrong and them right, we can just both have different perspectives. They won’t necessarily love this (remember they thrive on conflict so they want the fight, but this will give you a way to reduce the escalation and perhaps find a stopping point to end it before it becomes worse.
If not, a next step would be to exit the conversation. Say something like one of these:
“If you continue to speak to me this way, I will not continue to have this conversation.”
“I know my truth and I am not debating it with you.”
“I’m open to discussing a solution with you, but I am not open to being shamed, blamed or having my feelings debated.”
OR “I am stepping away from this conversation. We can try again later when emotions have calmed and when we can have it without shame, blame and anger.”
Here’s how I want to sum this up today: The truth is that gaslighting is wrong. It is dangerous to your mental health and there is a huge price to pay for continued exposure to it. But there is another side to the coin, and this is the hard part for those who have been subjected to gaslighting, for years, or for many, a lifetime. There is only ONE way to stop it.
Your abuser will not suddenly decide to treat you better. I know that is hard to hear. It’s even harder to believe. If they cared about your feelings and truly LOVED you, they would have never controlled, mistreated and manipulated you in these ways and if they have … you fill in the blank with whatever excuses you have been trying to hand them for years…. ADHD, PTSD, post concussion syndrome, just have a stressful job, being spiritually attacked by Satan, the list goes on… If some diagnosable condition or life circumstance ALONE was the culprit for their bad behavior, they would have long ago felt guilty enough for what they were doing to the one they are supposed to “love, honor and protect above all others” (Isn’t that what your vows said?) that they would have sought a solution. They would have taken ownership of their behavior and repaired it or at least be trying. They aren’t because they don’t think they are the problem and the only person they care about is the one they see in the mirror.
I know, I know.
That is pretty harsh.
It’s also the straight facts. Around here, we don’t put lipstick on pigs. We also don’t cast our pearls before the swine. We call a spade a spade and we turn that mirror around and take a good look in it.
To blame you for the abuse you have endured… and YES, it is abuse.
But, no, NOT to blame you. It’s not your fault.
There is no fault, there is only RESPONSIBILITY.
They are responsible for them. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOU.
The hard truth is that you are the ONLY one who can end this. You are the only one who WILL end this.
You will have to find your assertiveness. Think back. When you were a kid? A teen? A twenty something? You asserted what you wanted and needed in life. Remember? How far back do you have to go to find that unwounded version of you that knew her own mind?
You are not crazy.
You were abused. You maybe ARE being abused.
What gets me out of bed every morning and lights a fire under me to work hard every day to get messages like this out in coaching, support groups, this podcast and more…. is my absolute disgust with the injustice and pain of the millions of women (and some men too!) who are trapped (or think they are) in the endless cycle of covert narcissistic abuse. I was one once. I know what it is like to be the victim who is seen as the crazy one, the dramatic one. I know what it is like to the be the one who feels like she literally cannot extricate herself from this nightmare because this that or the other obstacle. I know how unstable you feel. I know how imbalanced it all is. I know that you sometimes lash out and act just like your abuser and then wonder if you are the narcissist. I know you live with such emotional overwhelm that there is nowhere for your emotions to go except on your sleeve, for all to see. I know that you may have friends and family that believe your abuser when he or she tells them that YOU are irrational and unstable while the narcissist shows up in public as cool, calm and collected, everyone’s favorite guy.
As cruel and heartless as it may sound, it’s super easy for your abuser to show up and appear stable to the world because they have never been attached to you. You are just a sickening supply of ego for them. This is why they cheat. It’s why the second you leave, they will be dating someone else. It’s why they can drop a divorce in your lap after 30 years together and feel absolutely nothing. It’s not that they don’t love YOU. It’s that they don’t LOVE. They don’t have the capacity for the kind of love that you have for them. Its why they can’t even look you in the eye when you make love, or when you are having an intimate conversation, because they do not have the capacity for true human connection. Don’t pity yourself. Pity them because you my friend will end this nightmare someway, somehow, but they…. They will always have to live with themselves and their inability to treat others well.
So, here is what you have to do with all this heartbreak and heartache…..
Turn it into assertiveness.
Dig down deep.
Get into therapy and if you have a therapist who just takes your money every week and isn’t dramatically moving you closer to emotional freedom and you’ve been seeing them for months or years, you need a new therapist. Talk therapy isn’t a hobby. It’s not a lifelong endeavor. It should be a season. A season where you are given the safety to explore and the tools to find your way. There should be an end in sight and you should know the goal posts along the way.
One of the most important tools you will ever use is assertiveness. So what IS assertiveness?
Let’s start with what its not…. It’s not aggressive. Aggressiveness is different and not good.
Assertiveness is just you being you. You speaking your thoughts and feelings with confidence, or maybe not much confidence at first, but you are speaking them anyway.
Confidence is the RESULT of courage. You don’t get confidence and then learn to assert yourself. You learn confidence BY asserting yourself. It is firm but kind. It is “this is who I am. You be you, you do you, I will be me and do me. It is Trusting yourself. It is listening to yourself. It is saying the kinds of responses we talked about before like “I know my truth and I am not debating it with you.”
And there are SOOOOOOO many benefits to being assertive. To name a few…
· The more you assert yourself, the more you will grow in confidence.
· The more you assert yourself, the less stress you will have.
· The more you assert yourself, the more you are able to recognize &understand your feelings.
· The more you assert yourself, the better you will be at communicating with EVERYONE
· The more you assert yourself, the more honest all of your relationships will become
· The more you assert yourself, the more you will get respect from everyone
· The more you assert yourself, the more positive changes you will begin to see in your life.
· The more you assert yourself, the more you will feel in control of your life and your choices.
As you let all this sink in, I want you to just pause a moment here. Take a deep breath. No, seriously. I will do it with you. Breathe in to the count of 4…………. and breathe out to the count of 4.
I know I get excited when I talk about all this, but I don’t want to overwhelm you anymore than you already are. I want to remember that there is no shame about where you are at this very moment. We are all where we are because of a series of choices that we made for reasons that were important to us at the time and we do better when we know better. It’s as simple as that. You live and learn. And you learn and you live. Take one day at a time, one moment at a time. Apply what you can from our talk here today. And take one more step forward, That’s all any of us can do,
And if you need help taking that next step, come join a support group. They are affordable, educational , so affirming and fun. You will meet people wearing those same uncomfortable worn out shoes that you are. We are learning together one hour a week how to start putting on a new pair of shoes and taking some new steps in a new direction. One step at a time.
Here when you need me,