10 Ways To Tell If You’re Being Gaslighted
Backstory to this post: This is one of the classic GPYB posts and I am reposting for a new FB group member who never heard the term. It’s all about narcissistic abuse. I originally wrote this for Psychology Today. As I bring the GPYB website back on-line, I’m trying to a) republish the original blog posts in order except b) when I mention them on a podcast or c) it’s a classic and important GPYB post, which I consider this to be. The fallout with Psychology Today is explained in MLT Podcast Episode 13 HERE – Personality Disorders and a Disordered Publication.
10 Ways to Tell if You’re Being Gaslighted
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 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.
You can continue to the article here – which contains links to other articles and videos and podcasts if this is all new to you and you need to take it in slowly. Some of my readers are finding it easier to listen to the podcast or watch the video. There is less information there than in this article but it gives you a better overall look at where you are, how you got here and how you get out from under the manipulation.
Gaslighting is 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. The video about this is HERE
I also recount this story in MLT Podcast Episode 10
And without further adieu…ado…the story.
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 lying or 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 laugh about 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 my first book, 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.