Updated on 3/2/21
Gaslighting is a dangerous form of abuse precisely because it’s so hard to spot. It distorts the very thing we hold most dear: our perception of reality.
A common tactic of emotional and physical abuse, gaslighting received its name from a 1938 British play and subsequent film, Gas Light. A chilling mystery, the play features a man who, in a plot to get his wife committed to an “insane asylum” so he can steal her precious jewels, slowly convinces her that she’s losing touch with reality. Every time the husband turns the light on in the couple’s attic to search for the jewels, the gas lights in the rest of the house dim. But when the wife calls him out on the deception, he convinces her that the lights didn’t dim at all, and that in fact she is losing touch with reality.
“Gaslighting is the basic act of manipulating someone by psychological means into questioning their thoughts, beliefs, or actions”Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, Talkspace therapist
It’s a common tactic in emotionally and physically abusive relationships, and it’s a betrayal of basic trust.
If you’ve been gaslit, the experience has likely been difficult to get over. But know it’s possible to take back your reality. There are common signs of gaslighting that you can use to spot this harmful behavior. As you heal, you can learn ways to guard your own sense of reality and validate yourself, so that no matter what people around you do or say, you’ll always have your own back.
Why is Gaslighting So Harmful?
Gaslighting is a particularly sneaky and damaging form of abuse because it alienates us from our own internal compass. “It is hard to spot because, most of the times, it comes from people we love and trust,” says Catchings.
“People who have experienced trauma, with more dependent personalities, and those in narcissistic relationships tend to be more vulnerable to gaslighting,” says Catchings.
As someone continues to gaslight us, we can enter into a harmful cycle: their abuse causes us to doubt ourselves, and this leaves us more vulnerable to further abuse. This can lead to long-term effects like anxiety, depression, and mistrust of ourselves and others.
How Can I Tell If I’m Being Gaslit?
My memories of the year I spent in an abusive relationship are coated in a thick haze. Some things — the feeling of fear when he threatened me, or release when he was kind — were sharp and clear. But most of the time the world felt foggy and distorted, like I was looking at reality through murky water.
Catchings says this surreality is a common sign of gaslighting, and a product of our need for social validation. “Our brain functions in a way where our thoughts and actions need to be approved, validated, or supported most of the time,” says Catchings. “Not receiving validation creates self-doubt due to learned social behaviors and fears.”
While it can be difficult to identify that you’re being manipulated, there are signs. You may be being gaslit if:
- You feel “foggy,” “fuzzy,” confused all the time, or like you’re “going crazy.”
If you feel a lingering suspicion that something isn’t right in a relationship, it probably isn’t. A healthy relationship will leave you feeling clear-headed (if starry-eyed with love) and happy. Being in love isn’t the same thing as feeling totally out of control.
- You feel disconnected from reality, and find it hard to remember whether events actually happened or not.
If you’ve been through a traumatic period or an abusive relationship and find it difficult to remember the exact sequence of events, it could be a sign of gaslighting.
- Someone is harming you, but telling you it’s because they love you or for your own good — and you start to believe them.
A friend or partner abusing you verbally, physically hurting you, or surveilling you is never for your own good.
- Someone is harming you, but telling you that you are actually the aggressor.
Trust your gut and the evidence on this one. If someone is physically harming you, controlling you, or using abusive language toward you, it is not your fault. A good way to tell who the primary aggressor really is, is to ask yourself: Whose life has become smaller in this dynamic? If you have put aside parts of yourself or your own needs to appease the other person, they are likely the aggressor.
- Someone is harming you, but denying or minimizing their behavior or saying it never happened.
If you know someone just did something to you but they’re denying it, you are likely being gaslit.
How to Learn to Trust Yourself
The first and most important step in healing from gaslighting is learning to believe yourself. Building confidence in your own instincts and judgement is a skill we can all learn through daily practice. Here are some ways to start.
1. Practice mindfulness
Because gaslighting can alienate us from our own thoughts and feelings, the first step is simply listening. We can, says Catchings, “learn to give ourselves time to feel the negative feelings that help us learn and heal.”
Begin by noticing basic needs like hunger, tiredness, and thirst, rather than pushing them aside. Then, start taking a second to step back to notice your emotions. You don’t have to change them or shame yourself for feeling them: simply validate your own experience.
2. Keep a feelings journal
Getting into the habit of recording what you’re thinking and feeling every day can help you become more in-tune with your inner voice. You can notice patterns in your own thoughts and behaviors, and recognize what feelings dominate your life. “It is okay to cry and be sad, but not if you do it all day,” says Catchings. “Create timelines and monitor your emotions.”
Journalling can also be a way of separating out your thoughts and feelings from the beliefs of the person who gaslit you. “Journal and write a list of negative behaviors and patterns the gaslighter had,” says Catchings. “Then, we can write a list of positive things about ourselves and compare them.”
3. Affirm your own feelings and opinions
If you’re someone who seeks a lot of external validation from friends or partners, it can be useful to consciously practice validating and affirming yourself. It’s okay to turn to supportive loved ones, but we can also learn to value ourselves from within.
Next time you have an urge to ask someone to validate a thought, perception, or feeling, take a moment to sit with it and affirm it for yourself instead. It may be difficult at first, but the more you practice, the more you will trust yourself.
4. Find professional support
Going to therapy, whether online or brick and mortar, is one of the best choices you can make to help yourself heal. “The guidance of a therapist can accelerate the recovery process,” Catchings says.
The right therapist can help you seperate your own thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions from those of the person who gaslit you, develop the tools to believe yourself, and support you as you heal from trauma.
You Can Heal Stronger
A year or so out of my own experience of gaslighting, I’m still learning to trust my own opinions and perceptions, and listen to my own intuition. Healing can be challenging, and learning to trust yourself and others feels like taking a big leap into the unknown. But believing yourself is a muscle: the more you practice, the stronger you will get.
“Believe in yourself,” says Catchings. “You are an amazing individual. We all have the power to heal and start living a happy life after a relationship where gaslighting was present.” Your inner voice never abandoned you, it was just clouded out by someone else’s opinions. And now that you are free of that influence, you can make your inner voice even stronger.