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 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.
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 criticise 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.
Defence. 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.