6 Warning Signs that You’re Being Gaslighted
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Gaslighting can happen between romantic partners but also in family relationships, friendships, and even at the office.
What is gaslighting?
In a way, it’s psychological brainwashing. Gaslighting is a type of emotional or mental abuse when someone uses manipulation and distraction tactics to distort the truth, making their victim question their own reality. It can happen in any type of close relationship, including romantic relationships but also between family members, friends, and coworkers.
It may not be as visible as other types of abuse but gaslighting can be just as damaging, says Robin Stern, PhD, a licensed psychoanalyst, co-founder and associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and an associate research scientist at the Child Study Center at Yale, and author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life. “When a loved one undermines your sense of reality, you become trapped in a never-never land, where you feel bad, inadequate, and crazy all the time,” she says. (Learn how to recognize the early signs of an abusive relationship.)
Why gaslighting is harmful
Lying to someone about what’s really happening is hurtful in the short-term. “Wondering why someone you love is trying to deceive you can make you question the relationship and yourself,” Stern says.
But gaslighting can have terrible consequences in the long-term, destroying the victim’s self-esteem and confidence and either trapping them in a dysfunctional relationship or blowing up the relationship.
It can have broader implications, as well. Over time, the person being gaslighted becomes conditioned to trust others’ perceptions more than their own, leading to a feeling of helplessness, brain fog, an inability to make decisions, memory problems, PTSD, depression, and anxiety—and these may not end even if the person leaves the relationship, Stern says.
How gaslighting happens
Abusers generally don’t start off at full force, or else their victim would immediately leave; rather, they start slowly, which adds to the sense of confusion and unreality the victim experiences, says Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free. In fact, gaslighting examples often start as a fairytale romance.
“Gaslighters will ‘love bomb‘ you with affection, attention, and gifts, as a way to gain control and make you trust them,” Sarkis says. “Then once you love them, little by little, the gaslighter will start to pick you apart and criticize you.” This red flag shows up as early as the first date, with the gaslighter asking a lot of personal questions, pressing for intimacy very quickly, and giving lots of gifts or declarations of love, she says. (Here are other signs you’re in a toxic relationship.)
Once in the relationship, there are three main phases that a victim goes through during the gaslighting process, Stern explains.
Disbelief. The first few times someone tries to change your reality, you will likely not believe them and may tell them that they’re wrong or they have misunderstood the situation.
Defense. The more someone gaslights you, the more you begin to question whether the gaslighter has a point, but you will still try to defend yourself. You will try to disprove their statements with logic or try to reason with them, but you will try to “be fair” and see it from their point of view as well.
Depression. After a while, you believe them, particularly if their criticisms stem from a fear you have. The more the gaslighter can keep you feeling insecure and questioning your reality, the more you’ll believe their explanations. Over time, you reach a point where your self-confidence is destroyed, and you no longer trust yourself.
The gaslighter’s ultimate goal is to make you doubt yourself so much that you will become totally dependent on them and only them, allowing them to control you, she says.
Due to its deceptive nature, gaslighting examples can be uniquely difficult to identify, especially when you’re in the middle of it, Sarkis says. “It is a type of brainwashing and coercive control. It can be so subtle that you may not even be aware it’s happening,” Sarkis says. “Part of gaslighting is training the victim not to question it; it depends on you believing that your experiences and your feelings are wrong.”
To help you better understand and spot gaslighting, we’ve asked our experts to share some common gaslighting examples and gaslighting phrases.
Flickering gaslights: The example that started it all
This phenomenon has likely existed forever, but the term “gaslighting” didn’t become recognized until the 1944 movie “Gaslight.” In the movie, a husband convinces his wife she’s going insane in order to cover up a murder and steal some jewels. He subtly manipulates things in her environment, including changing the gas lights, and then denies the reality, eventually making her think that she is mentally ill and shouldn’t go out of her home. The gaslighting example resonated with many viewers, and today the term has taken on a broader meaning, Sarkis says.
“You’re not hungry, you just ate”: Gaslighting as a parenting tactic
“Parents undermine their kids’ reality in the most innocent ways, usually as a way to get the child to obey, but the consequences are very damaging,” Stern says. She cites a time where she saw a father and a young boy playing in a park. The dad told his son not to run away, but the child ran anyhow, eventually tripping and hurting himself. Instead of comforting him, the father yelled, “What have you done to yourself now? Look at this mess you’ve made!” as if the boy did it on purpose.
“The problem wasn’t that the boy disobeyed and was hurt as a consequence, it’s that the father made him feel that his feelings of being hurt were wrong and invalidated his experience,” she says. “Instead of learning a lesson about being careful, he learned that there was something inherently wrong with him.”
“I only did it because I love you”: Gaslighting as a way to show love
Some gaslighters believe that they are manipulating their victim because they love them and “only want what is best,” presuming that they know what is better than the person themselves, Sarkis says.
For instance, a woman applied for a job that she very much wanted and was excited to get very far in the interview process when the company suddenly stopped responding to her. Her husband told her that she wasn’t right for the job, wasn’t good enough for that position, and probably didn’t interview well.
Eventually, after several weeks, she asked the hiring manager why she was dropped so suddenly, only to hear that her husband had called and told them that she was no longer interested and to take her name out of consideration. She confronted her husband, he said it was for her own good, that he knew she would be happier not working and staying at home.
“The victim then has to choose whether they believe that their loved one really does know what they need more than they do,” she says. “Eventually, they may stop trying to make decisions for themselves, which allows their partner to control them.”
“I’m not cheating, you’re just paranoid”: Gaslighting as a way of deflecting blame
One of the most common reasons for gaslighting is that by changing reality, the gaslighter can make the problem the victim instead of their own bad behavior, Stern says. “We see this a lot in infidelity, like when a man will tell his wife that she’s being ‘too sensitive‘ or is ‘just jealous’ when she questions an inappropriate relationship with his coworker,” she says. “Then, if she catches him having an affair, he may tell her that he had to cheat because she is too frigid and doesn’t give him enough sex,” she says.
Then, instead of talking about how he’s emotionally checked out of his marriage or is sleeping with another woman, suddenly the argument is about the wife’s personal failings. “It’s a way to get her to blame herself, instead of him,” she says.
“No one will ever love you but me”: Gaslighting as a way to isolate
Isolating the victim from friends and family is a hallmark of all types of domestic abuse, and gaslighting is one way to accomplish this, Sarkis says. A person’s loved ones are those who could give them a reality check, proving the abuser wrong, so the gaslighter may try to separate them by bending reality.
One gaslighting example she cites is of a boyfriend who forbade his girlfriend from going out to gatherings like a girls’ night out, saying that her friends hated him and that they talked badly about her behind her back. He went so far as to take her phone and delete texts and calls from her friends as “evidence” that they really didn’t care about her and that he was the only one who truly loved her.
“They don’t just want to be the primary relationship in your life, they want to be the only relationship in your life,” she says, adding that it’s often a double standard, and they will maintain many outside relationships. If you’re feeling isolated, these gaslighting memes will help you feel less alone.
“You made me do this”: Gaslighting as punishment
The silent treatment or angry rages (or alternating between the two) are the main ways gaslighters use to punish their victims and regain control over them, Sarkis says.
For example, one woman says she went on a vacation to Mexico with her family, but the first night she and her husband got into an argument about where their baby would sleep. Her husband became so enraged that he left the hotel room all night. When he returned the next morning, he acted normally with the kids but pretended that she didn’t exist, refusing to talk to or even acknowledge her—for the entire week. By the end, she was so desperate to make the silent treatment end that she apologized for anything and everything she could think of, begging for his forgiveness.
“The silent treatment is the ultimate gaslighting because it denies the reality of you, of your humanity,” Sarkis says.
“You’re too sensitive”: Gaslighting as narcissism
Some people gaslight because that’s how they were raised and continue to use this dysfunctional tool to meet their needs in a relationship. But for many gaslighters, manipulating and hurting others is intentional and gives them a “high” and brings them pleasure, Sarkis says. This can manifest in many different ways, but a typical gaslighting example is in close friendships where one person requires a constant stream of love, gifts, adoration, and attention and will gaslight their “best friend” into providing these things.
One man shares that his best friend since childhood often disparaged him, telling him that he wasn’t good at anything he tried, he was ugly and he had poor social skills. “I realized after I went to college that none of those things were true, but he wanted me to believe they were so I would continue being his best friend,” he says. “He was actually jealous of me in many ways and put me down to feel better about himself.”
“Gaslighters are often narcissists and need a constant supply of attention. However, even if you devote 100 percent of yourself to loving and taking care of them, it will never be enough. They will make you feel like you will never be good enough for them,” Sarkis says. (Here’s how to recognize the signs of narcissistic abuse.)
What to do if you think you’re being gaslighted
Gaslighting may be more common than most people think. It’s one sign of emotional abuse, which more than 43 million women and 38 million men will experience by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to data from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.
The first step to ending gaslighting is to be able to recognize it when it’s happening, Stern says. You may come to see it on your own, but many gaslighting victims need help from family, friends, and/or a therapist to detangle all the lies and twisted memories, she says. (Endless self-doubt can also be an early sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder.)
“I tell people to focus on how they feel during a conversation rather than what is ‘right,'” she says. “It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t care who is right or wrong, but the way you are talking to me is aggressive and abusive, and I won’t continue this conversation’.”
Unfortunately, many gaslighters do not respond well to their victims standing up for themselves as it takes away their ability to control them, Sarkis says. “Often, the only way to stop the gaslighting is to walk away from the relationship,” she says. (Here are some other ways to stand up for yourself.)
Once you decide to leave, you need to do it very carefully as it’s not uncommon for gaslighting to escalate to physical violence, Sarkis says. “Talk to your loved ones or a therapist and make a plan to leave safely,” she says. “Once you’ve left, you need to go full no-contact because they will try to ‘hoover’ you back in with promises and gifts.”
- Robin Stern, PhD, a licensed psychoanalyst, Co-founder and Associate Director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and an Associate Research Scientist at the Child Study Center at Yale, and author of The Gaslight Effect: How to spot and survive the hidden manipulation others use to control your life
- Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, a psychotherapist in Tampa, Florida, Court Certified Family and Circuit Civil Mediator, and author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People — and Break Free
- Centers For Disease Control and Prevention: "Preventing Intimate Partner Violence"