What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation can happen at the doctor’s office, at home, at work, or anywhere else. In order to mess with your confidence, manipulaters play on shame, fear and guilt, until you question everything about yourself. If someone cursed at you, it would be very hurtful. But at least the comment would be knocking on the front door, introducing itself as an insult. Gaslighting, on the other hand, sneaks in through the backdoor. It’s pure manipulation. It’s also emotional abuse.
What is gaslighting? Psychologists use the term “gaslighting” to refer to a specific type of manipulation. “Gaslighting is a technique that undermines a person’s perception of reality. When someone is gaslighting you, you may second-guess yourself, your memories, and your perceptions. After communicating with the person gaslighting you, you may be left feeling dazed and wondering if there is something wrong with you.”
Gaslighting Technique 1: Shaming
A primary tactic of gaslighting is to make you feel like your emotions and reactions are always somehow wrong. If you try to defend yourself, you are sensitive and/or dramatic. If you try to set boundaries, you are selfish and mean. If you don’t do what is asked of you quickly enough, you are lazy and incompetent. If you go out with friends you are too much of a people pleaser. If you don’t tough it out, you’re weak.
Similarly, this is the doctor telling you that the medical treatment doesn’t work because you’re too emotional, or calling you a head case. Medical gaslighting — “the repeated denial of someone’s reality in an attempt to invalidate or dismiss them — is a form of emotional abuse. When a medical professional leads a person to question their sanity, this can be just as traumatic and abusive.”
Women are often told their severe pain is just “normal period pain,” a weight problem, or something a Tylenol will fix. “Research cited in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics in 2001, for example, indicated that women… are significantly more likely than men to be “undertreated” for pain by doctors.” Medical gaslighting occurs because pain is often dismissed as “all in your head” (being crazy) and caused solely by psychological problems, despite evidence to the contrary. However, it’s clear that stress and mental health challenges can exacerbate pain, which makes it important to address sources of toxic energy in your life, like manipulative behavior by your doctors or loved ones.
Gaslighting criticisms are usually arbitrary, with one thing being fine one week and a crime the next. You have a constant feeling of walking on eggshells, which makes you more vulnerable, and therefore easier to control. To illustrate with an example, when, as a 16 year old, when I sat crying after my grandmother’s death, the gaslight-er said “Are you being melodramatic in order to get attention or something? It’s not like you were even that close her.” It’s so wrong to tell someone their grief is ‘melodrama’, to respond with dismissal instead of comfort. But it is also an insidious way to make the bereaved doubt their own feelings, and wonder if they are being ‘over the top’ and attention-seeking.
In another situation, I asked the manipulat-er for privacy to have a conversation with a visiting friend, devastated after a break-up. Unbeknownst to me, this was interpreted as a hateful request, and, next thing I knew, I found a typed story on my pillow about how I was the world’s meanest mean girl, conspiring with my heartbroken friend to exclude the manipulat-er!
In this loony-tune land you begin to question your initial reactions (“Hell no! I am not like that!). You get worn down until you wonder whether you really are all if these terrible things. Shame is a deep emotion that can be played on effectively.
Gaslighting Technique 2: Isolation and Rejection
Secondly, you have the ‘isolate’ and ‘reject’ manoeuvres. In a medical context, for example, I have had a doctor undermine all other medical advice I had received up till that point: “You can’t trust what that guy says.” And if you assert that the previous treatments were helpful? “That was just in your head.” You start to doubt yourself, the medical team around you, and even what your body is telling you.
In a personal context, the gaslighter tries to intervene in my other close relationships. When I was in my first serious romantic relationship, they insisted my new long-distance boyfriend- he didn’t really love me. When I planned to visit him, the gaslight-er insisted I shouldn’t go. In fact, they threatened, “if you do go, you will be flushing our relationship down the toilet forever.”
Creating doubts about the love of everyone else in your life keeps you dependent on this one person. Threatening abandonment if you don’t comply keeps you in line. A doctor might threaten to cut you off from essential treatments if you don’t endorse their diagnosis or approach. A specialist once told me “It’s fine if you want to question me, I will still allow your treatment to continue- for now.”
In childhood, a parallel would be to threaten a child that, if they don’t behave, they will be left behind alone in the park, and then turn and walk away from them. Fear is a crucial part of the gaslighting trifecta. After all, evolutionarily, being abandoned by your clan was an existential threat, and that’s still how it feels today. You’ll do almost anything to prevent that outcome.
Gaslighting Technique 3: Guilt Trip
I had an excruciating nerve block procedure done last summer. At one point, I was in so much pain that I cried out and said “This is too much.” The doctor stopped and said, “I’m not even doing anything right now. What do you want from me? I already got you everything you claimed you needed to be comfortable, the head rest, and the extra pillows.” Implication: you are being a difficult patient; your “needs” are over the top, and requests for help are crazy. No compassion, no communication. (TW- threats of suicide in paragraph below).
Having a loved one call you to say “I’m just letting you know that I’m going to kill myself, not that you would care” is an emotional gut punch. When this happened to me, I was initially overwhelmed with panic for the safety of this individual (in fact it triggered my very first panic attack). This is an extreme example, but it highlights very clearly the art of the guilt trip. This person had cast themselves as a victim (driven to suicide), and myself as the perpetrator (by a heartless ice queen), when actually it was the other way around. I realized years later that my love for this individual had been weaponized against me.
A more humdrum example was getting “You didn’t load the dishwasher, so you must hate me’. Your initial reaction is to run towards this person to try and prove your loyalty and affection (“No, of course I love you! I’m so sorry, I’ll load the dishwasher right now!). Over time, you take it into your soul that you are cold-hearted, and unloving, since this is apparently how you make your loved ones feel. And that’s what they want, because now you are hooked by your own guilt and desire to try to secure the relationship.
Healing From Gaslighting
The rational tools of relationship problem solving – compromise, taking cooling off time outs, or agreeing to disagree, just don’t work in this environment. Everything becomes twisted. You start a conversation about how communication needs to change and end up reassuring the other person that you do love them and will try to visit more. Facts are cross-examined: “Get your story straight!” Efforts to clarify are diverted by provocative or hurtful comments to bait you off course. Up is down and left is right. Every encounter will be subject to revisionist history, and there will be no ‘agree to disagree’.
Ultimately, you have to give up on coming to a shared understanding. Often, trying to win the argument and prove your point is futile. You have to believe in yourself first and foremost. So what can do if you think you are being gaslighted?
Be self-compassionate. Give yourself the love and security that you long for. In any situation, ask “what would I tell my best friend if they were in this position?” and then tell that to yourself. Practice loving kindness meditation.
You have the power to say you don’t want to continue a conversation, and get up to leave. You have the power to say no, to whatever is being asked of you. When you start to feel confused, or uncertain, it’s likely the gaslighting is underway. This is a good time to change the subject, say no, or just go.
It’s important to keep track of the patterns in these relationships. Keep a journal, voice notes, or tell a close friend. You may notice that gaslighting increases when you gain a little bit of independence or assert yourself. Since these episodes will be revised out of the official account kept by your gaslight-er, it’s very helpful to have your own record. This helps you stay firmly planted in reality and not get twisted around in future encounters.
Finally, talk to a therapist! It does wonders for your ability to see through manipulation and empower and protect yourself.
How To Respond To Gaslighting
When it comes to what you can say when you sense gaslighting, here are a few recommendations:
“I notice you don’t accept my viewpoint on this as being equally valid to yours. Please don’t dismiss my interpretation like that; I’m not imagining things.”
“You clearly feel strongly about this, as do I. My emotions are my emotions, and I don’t need to justify them.”
“I respect your right to have your own perspective. Please grant me the same. I think we need to agree to disagree on this.”
“We both deserve to be treated respectfully. Since that isn’t happening, I am going to take a break from this conversation.”
“I’m not going to respond to that.”
“Like I told you, I’m not going to discuss this topic again. I need to go.”
And then leave. Protect Your Heart. You deserve it.
A list of international emergency and suicide hotlines:https://www.opencounseling.com/suicide-hotlines