Is Gaslighting a Thing?

Before we delve into just exactly what gaslighting is, how it impacts people, and how to heal and recover from these relationships, let’s start with a simple affirmation: This is not in my head. They just make it feel that way.

Repeat that to yourself a few times. Take a deep breath. You’re doing great. If you’re struggling in a relationship, where gaslighting has been a persistent dynamic, it’s easy to find yourself doubting every thought, memory, feeling, and action. The first step to moving beyond gaslighting is reclaiming a sense of trust in yourself. We’ll go into more detail on this shortly, but it’s important to begin any discussion of gaslighting from this stance – you can trust your own perceptions and instincts. If you ever need someone to walk alongside you as you heal and move forward from the damage caused by gaslighting in relationships, don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at the Behavioral Health Alliance to discuss the benefits of counseling as part of recovery from gaslighting.

So, What Exactly Is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a term that refers to a movie called Gaslight from the 1940s, which was based on a play from the 1930s, so this term is much older than many people know. The play and movie center on a married couple. The husband is a criminal who tries to prevent his wife from discovering his criminal behaviors by making his wife doubt her perception of reality. The title is taken from a particular scene where the husband causes gaslights to flicker, and when the wife asks about the flickering, he convinces her she’s hallucinating.

Since this play and film were released, people have used the term gaslighting to refer to manipulative behaviors where one person causes another to doubt their own reality, second guess their perceptions, and question their own sanity. The goal of gaslighting is typically to gain some level of control over the other person. The person doing the gaslighting (the gaslighter) may use a range of strategies, including:

  • That’s not what happened – denying the truth of another person’s reality and perception
  • Let’s talk about this later – distracting the gaslighted person
  • I learned this behavior from my father – deflecting blame onto another party
  • You’re always getting hysterical – making healthy responses seem unreasonable by ignoring the context
  • Everyone does it, and at least I’m not as bad as some others we know – normalizing their behaviors by saying everyone does it or by pointing out how much worse it could be
  • I’m sorry you feel that way – invalidating the other person’s thoughts, emotions, or perspectives, including issuing non-apologies
  • You’re always trying to make me feel bad – shaming the other person when they make an attempt to self-advocate

Is There Anything I Can Do About Gaslighting?

In many cases, the best thing you can do is walk away from someone who regularly and repeatedly engages in gaslighting. It can be very dangerous to your own sense of mental health and stability to continually engage with someone who seeks to manipulate your sense of equilibrium and perception of reality. If you make the decision to continue interacting with a gaslighter (or you can’t avoid it for some reason – like they’re your boss or a family member), it’s important to take steps to set boundaries and protect your own sense of self. Some simple ways you can manage these interactions include:

  • Bring back up – having an unbiased third party present during interactions can help reassure you that you have perceived the situation correctly, which will minimize any self-doubt.
  • Use “I” statements to set boundaries – when you recognize gaslighting behavior, use an “I” statement to tell the gaslighter that you recognize what they’re doing, it is adversely impacting you, and you need to set a boundary to feel safe. For instance, in the first bullet point of the previous section, the gaslighter denied the sense of reality by saying, “That’s not what happened.” In this situation, the person being gaslighted might say something like, “I feel like you don’t respect my perception of the situation when you tell me that my experience never happened. I would like it if you didn’t deny my lived experience.” It can be difficult, but continually affirming these boundaries is often the only way to get a gaslighter to recognize their behavior. It also reminds the individual being gaslighted to trust and value their perceptions.
  • Be a broken record – keep repeating the facts of the situation to yourself and to the person doing the gaslighting. Whatever tactic they use to create doubt, just keep repeating the factual truth of the situation.

What Happens After Gaslighting?

For many people who have dealt with gaslighting, the road to recovery is long. It can be very difficult to re-learn how to trust the internal compass once it’s been broken by gaslighting. The good news is, you’re not in this alone. Therapy can be a great resource to increase self-confidence and self-compassion as people begin to heal after being gaslighted. If you are in the process of reclaiming your sense of self after being gaslighted, we hope you’ll consider reaching out to the Behavioral Health Alliance team to schedule counseling sessions.