by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
Gaslighting is psychological abuse and does not belong in a relationship.
The term “gaslighting” comes from a film (photo to the left is from the second film) in which a husband attempts to convince his wife she is going insane. If you’ve never seen the film (there are two actually), it’s an excellent idea to see it. It not only explains gaslighting well but is a remarkable piece of film making and film making history.
Gaslighting is now recognized as psychological abuse whereby a perpetrator manipulates a victim into doubting his or her own sanity or reality.
It’s not usually LITERALLY believing that you are going insane but rather doubting your version of reality. You do feel confused a lot of the time and have a lot of self-doubt.
Gaslighting can take many forms but it is a twisting of reality that turns a person into a true victim. It’s about second guessing yourself or getting so far from reality that you don’t guess it at all, you just accept someone else’s interpretation of reality. It’s an experience that happens to many who are involved with very dysfunctional or personality disordered people. The perpetrators are most likely sociopaths or narcissists.
My own experience with being gaslighted is not the “are you sure?” “it’s all in your head” type of overt gaslighting. Although all gaslighting is insidious, the kind I experienced was a tactic that I called “rage against reality.” His angry insistence that everything was my fault and when I tried to defend myself I was mocked as being irresponsible and unwilling to accept blame. In reality, I was not to blame and was not unwilling to accept blame because I accepted it all the time.
I was blamed no matter what happened or how tenuous my connection was to what happened.
One of the last incidents is one I remember so well because it was such a leap to blame me for what happened, it opened my eyes.
My husband, his friend and his brother both of whom were staying with us for a while, were all in the house when I left to take the dog for a walk. No one had mentioned that they were going anywhere and I had no reason to think they were.
During the walk I looked up to see my husband barreling down the street toward me. I stood frozen wondering what I had done wrong. His grandmother lived next door and the kids had been with her. Were they supposed to be with me? No. Had I left something cooking on the stove? No. Had I left water running? No. In the seconds it took him to reach me, my mind went through a thousand different things I could possibly be in trouble for.
He screamed at me for my keys. My keys? I didn’t have keys. Why would I have keys? He was angry and screaming at me. While I was out walking the dog, they were going to his grandmother’s. He walked out followed by his brother and his friend pulled the door shut and locked everyone out of the house. My husband, his friend, his brother all had keys and his grandmother was supposed to have an extra set in case something like this ever happened, but she also left them in our house.
Of all the people who had been in the house and who had keys, I was the one held responsible for this turn of events. Not him, not his brother, not his friend who closed the door and not the grandmother who couldn’t quite explain why her emergency set of keys to my house were in my house.
He said he told me to take my keys and I know, without a doubt, that never happened. They hadn’t any plans to leave the house when I did and no reason for anyone to tell me to take my keys. One of the aspects of gaslighting is when it’s as absurd as this incident was, they throw in some altered version of reality whereby they told you to do something you obviously forgot to do, ergo your fault. I knew, without a doubt, he never told me to take my keys. This is very typical of gaslighters: they sew up every hole so that you have no room to move. This hole was, “Why should I have keys?” and the sewing was, “Because I told you to…” even though he absolutely did not.
In the middle of the street, in the middle of the summer, all the neighbors sat on their stoops watching him bellow at me, “What the hell is wrong with you that you didn’t bring your keys with you?” It didn’t matter that no one else had theirs. It didn’t matter that I was not the last one out. It just mattered it was my fault.
A few months later when his grandmother’s apartment was burglarized it was my fault for being in San Diego, 3000 miles away, because had I been home she would not have had to babysit for our kids in our house. It wasn’t her fault for leaving the house unlocked. It wasn’t his fault for working that night. It wasn’t our friend’s fault who owned the building and rented to the woman whose boyfriend broke in and it wasn’t the boyfriend’s fault for breaking in. It was my fault for being in San Diego. Once again, it was not only my fault but the new version of reality was that he told me not to go. He never told me not to go.
If I cleaned the house I was wrong for not taking the kids out to the park. If I took the kids out to the park, I was wrong for not cleaning. If I managed to clean and take the kids to the park, I didn’t have dinner cooked. If I had dinner cooked, it was too simple a meal. It was never good enough.
When I suspected that my husband was cheating on me, he said, “If you keep blaming me for cheating, I will cheat.” That caused a knee jerk reaction on my part to reel in my accusations even though I knew, unequivocally, that I was right. Almost immediately I clamped my mouth whenever I was tempted to blurt out some charge that he was cheating. But he was cheating and I knew it. In addition, “If you accuse me of cheating, I will…” is not a functional or healthy response to a complaint that you are cheating.
There are many versions of gaslighting but basically it is an assault on your version of reality. In your gaslighting partner’s version of reality, everything is wrong and everything is your fault.
Gaslighting causes you to think that up is down and down is up. Gaslighting is sowing very real seeds of doubt in your ability to believe in you and what you are experiencing. Gaslighting takes away your ability to think rationally and critically in almost every situation.
What happens in these gaslight situations is that when you’re in the middle of all these attacks and insinuations, you become so obsessed with the idea of getting credit, of finally doing the right thing that you don’t step back and say, “Wait a minute….”
The keys incident and the stolen television incident happened in the last year of my marriage. They were both wake up calls to me. Because of the CLEAR reality twist inherent in these situations, I was able to snap out of my relentless pursuit of behaving perfectly enough to avoid criticism.
I clearly remember the key incident like it happened yesterday. Even though he did typical gaslighting things like telling me I didn’t remember doing things I know I didn’t do, the constant accusations actually forced me to remember everything with clarity and precision. I knew he never told me to take my keys. That would have been so out of character and out of our normal routine that I would have remembered it.
When I thought back on the key incident, I remember what I was wearing, the pitying looks on my neighbors’ faces. I stood there thinking, “This cannot possibly be happening…” It was such an absurdity—that this lockout was somehow my fault and only my fault—that the gaslit mind of mine wouldn’t go along.
I didn’t have a complete moment of clarity that day and never get gaslighted again. Right after, I did fall back into patterns of trying for approval. It’s a long walk out of the woods sometimes. Even though that was a lightbulb moment for me, I kept falling back on my regular pattern of trying to please. But more moments were to come whereby I was able to stop and think, “Wait a minute…” The key incident was the beginning of the end.
Sometimes the gaslighting gig is up when the relationship is still on-going. Sometimes the abusive partner overplays the hand which is exactly what mine did. Once I realized how crazy it was to blame me for this, I was able to realize that so many other things were not my fault. I also was able to realize I was never going to get credit no matter what I did.
Signs of Being Gaslighted
- You second guess yourself all the time. You wonder if it is your fault for going on a business trip and leaving your family even though the trip is good for your careerand something you needed for your sanity.
- You wonder if you’re too sensitive or jealous. When my husband said, “If you accuse me…” it was time to realize how ridiculous he was and recognize that I had caught him, not try to tamp down my suspicious nature.
- You feel confused a lot of the time. Your ability to think critically or play devil’s advocate is gone. You don’t wonder, “If I was home and she was in the apartment maybe he would have broken in and harmed her.”
- You start lyingor covering up when there is no reason to do so. Many times people who wind up in gaslighting situations are adult children of alcoholics or grew up in a similar dysfunctional situation. In dysfunctional homes, children get used to lying to keep the terror from raining down on their heads. Very often this kind of upbringing makes you very ripe for winding up in a gaslight situation.
- You are constantly on “high alert” or hypervigilant.Hypervigilance is another state that people who grow up in dysfunctional homes tend to be in. This is when you are always scanning the horizon for the first sign of trouble.
In her groundbreaking book, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Janet Woititz said that living in an alcoholic home is akin to living with an air raid a day. You never know when the siren is about to go off. Being in a gaslighting situation is very similar. You almost never know when you’re going to be hit with the latest accusation or version of reality that veers far from what you believe it to be.
- Like being hypervigilant, you try to predict what is going to happen. Being hypervigilant is being on alert that “something” is going to happen. Predicting the future is when you try to be so very careful about every word and action and try to think hard about how it could possibly be interpreted wrongly. Prediction is totally futile because the idea is to keep you off your pins so even when you think you’ve done well or you’ve fool proofed everything to avoid criticism or ridicule, it will happen. The gaslighter will reach far down into the gaslighting bag of tricks to make sure you absolutely cannot predict the outcome. Ever.
- You cover up and hide from family and friends what is really going on. A few months after the key incident I was out with a friend and my husband. He accused me of things I wasn’t doing in front of her. She was perplexed as I had never told her that he behaved like this on a regular basis. When she tried to ask me about it, I downplayed it. In this same timeframe, his brother imitated him one day in a blistering attack on me. At first I was confused, wondering why his brother was coming after me, but then he tried to laughabout it saying, “I just didn’t want you to miss him.” His portrayal of my husband and how he treated me was so damaging and he only saw a glimpse of it. I wondered what everyone else knew.
- You apologize a lot even when it’s not your fault.In Getting Past Your Breakup (GPYB) I relay the story of a client I once had who would bump into furniture and apologize TO THE FURNITURE. You become used to saying “I’m sorry…” all the time.
- You defend yourself against ridiculous accusations.I used to defend myself against what my ex said I was thinking. We had hours, YES HOURS, long arguments where his accusations were almost entirely what he said I was thinking or intentions he assigned to my behaviors that weren’t there. Things like “You want to make me look stupid.” Or “You think that if you don’t do something right I’ll never ask you to do it again.” I was constantly defending things I wasn’t saying or doing or thinking or feeling. It’s ridiculous.
Similarly I would have to prove if I was sick or injured even if I had a note from the doctor. I threw my back out one day and he put me through a series of tests when he got home even though I had been to the hospital and they had diagnosed me with a pulled muscle. According to the doctor, I was injured. According to my husband who had no medical training, I was not. In a normal world, these kinds of things do not go on. So not only was I pronounced not injured but also attacked as lazy and irresponsible. You get used to hearing, “You’re lying…” or “You’re faking…” or “It doesn’t hurt that much…” or “You’re not cold…” or something else…the list goes on and on.
- You sometimes do wonder if you really are going crazy. You don’t quite believe reality or yourself any more. Gaslighting takes a long time but it erodes your confidence and your ability to believe your own interpretation of events.
Recovering from Gaslighting
How to get out of this? If you are in a gaslighting situation know that this is abuse and it doesn’t get better. You’re told up is down and down is up. You are blamed for things you didn’t do and taken to task for many things including slights that have been blown into gigantic sins and things that don’t even exist. It’s a losing battle when it comes to gaslighting. You’re never going to win, you have to get out.
If you’ve left you need to stay no contact. I have been beating the No Contact drum a very long time, most famously in my book Getting Past Your Breakup and the “Rules of Disengagement.” But when you’ve been gaslighted, no contact is so very important. You need to get your feet back under you and you need to learn to trust yourself and your own thoughts and perceptions again. My ex harassed me for months in an effort to continue the gaslighting. It was only when I said I had had enough and stopped allowing the threats and manipulation did it stop. No Contact is SO IMPORTANT.
In my book Getting Back Out There (GBOT), I encourage everyone to take the time make a “Standards and Compatibility List’ which is the code of behavior you expect from yourself and others. Although GBOT is a guide for reentering the world of dating and relationships after a big breakup, the preparation starts right after a breakup so don’t wait to start this. The Standards and Compatibility List is something to start as soon as you have broken up. For those who have been gaslighted this is especially important.
You must decide that is negotiable and non-negotiable, acceptable and unacceptable. In both books I give the readers instructions on how to set good and healthy boundaries and how to let people know where your standards are. For those who have been gaslighted, this is so very important.
You must start now, deciding that no one is ever going to make you feel crazy again. It might seem like a big pronouncement, but if you do the Relationship Inventory (again in both of my books and my workbook) and work through the exercises to identify red flags, you will better be able to understand how insidious gaslighting is. It starts very early in the relationship when your partner throws doubt on your words. As you work your way through the unpacking of the relationship through the exercises in the books, you will be able to see how you have fallen prey to this. If you do the Life Inventory, chances are you will see this pattern in other relationships.
You must commit to yourself that you will take a step back NOW and learn to take care of yourself and build a commitment to yourself to trust your gut. You must use the Standards and Compatibility List to make a commitment to leave at the first sign that someone is a potential gaslighter. You have to begin to trust your gut. Remember gaslighting is insidious it starts out small and doesn’t happen that frequently. It starts with a few pushbacks and eventually mushrooms into the toxic cloud that it is.
As you go through your relationship inventory, think about some of the earliest warning signs you had that this person was a gaslighter and vow that you will not allow it again.
I remember clearly telling men not to tell me what I was thinking, not to tell me I wasn’t cold when I was and not to blame me for things I had nothing to do with. You could tell, from their reaction to my boundary setting, whether they were a gaslighter or not.
As you work your way through the self-empowerment exercises and take the time to review the relationship, you will be able to identify the ways in which you were gaslighted. But none of that is going to help without a firm commitment to RUN the next time someone engages in gaslighting behavior on any level.
Recovering from gaslighting is possible and you should never have to worry about it again. Take good care and you won’t need to be.
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