Gaslighting: what is it and why is it dangerous?
In the spirit of speaking up about domestic abuse, I thought I’d write a post on one of the less obvious ways an abuser might manipulate their victims.
Trigger Warning: may be triggering for some readers.
“Gaslighting” has become more commonly talked about over the last couple of years and I attribute at least some of that to the increasing number of people talking about Mental Health on the internet. Because of the link between trauma and serious mental health conditions (mentalhealth.org), the online mental health community is naturally full of people who have lived through abuse and many of those have been on the receiving end of gaslighting.
So what is it?
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation, intended to cause someone to doubt their own sanity and memory.
Gaslighting can be difficult to spot because it is often a gradual process of undermining someone’s perception of events through persistent lying and denial. One technique an abuser may use is to consistently excuse or rationalise destructive or hurtful behaviour to the extent where the victim might start to feel like they are the unreasonable one.
Where does it come from?
In Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light (and its film adaptations), an abusive husband convinces his wife that she is losing her mind by subtly manipulating her environment. He slowly dims the lights in their home, denies it and insists that she is imagining the change'; giving rise to the term “gaslighting”.
It is now commonly used to describe psychological manipulation of someone’s perception of reality.
Why is it dangerous?
It’s an extremely effective technique that abusers may use to gain control over their victims. A victim who has started to second guess their own thoughts, memories and ability to make decisions, will often become increasingly dependent on their abuser to give them the clarity they need.
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse and, according to Robin Stern Ph.D., it can lead to depression. Perhaps the scariest thing about gaslighting is just how hard it is to spot from inside the relationship.
What are the warning signs?
Thankfully, once you’re clued up, there are lots of signs you can look out for in yourself:
not feeling like yourself
feeling less confident
wondering whether you’re “too sensitive”
feeling like everything you do is wrong
feeling the need to apologise excessively
doubting your memory or perception of events
making excuses for or lying about your abuser’s behaviour
I think that a good test is to try to think of times you may have lied to your friends and family about your abuser’s behaviour. Why did you lie? If you were to tell them the truth, what would they say?
Someone who really cares about you won’t have any problem with you speaking to your loved ones about an argument or incident that has upset you. An abuser will likely have a problem with it. If the people closest to you notice a sudden change in your personality or think that someone in your life is treating you badly, it is often prudent to examine your relationship with that person.
My abuser’s gaslighting escalated over time to a stage where he would outright deny violent behaviour or try to convince me that I was somehow to blame for it (or even that I was the abusive one!). The cliché of an abuse victim thinking that they “deserved” the abuse or that they brought it on themselves exists for good reason.
If you need to speak to someone about domestic abuse or you want to learn about how you can stay safe online, visit womensaid.org or call the Freephone 24 hr National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.