Gaslighting 101: Signs, Symptoms, and Recovery

Darlene Lancer LMFT

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Shadow of a ManLee Wag

Gaslighting is a malicious, hidden form of emotional and mental abuse, designed to plant seeds of self-doubt and alter your perception of reality. The term comes from the play and later film Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.

Gaslighting refers to a deliberate pattern of manipulation calculated to make you trust the perpetrator and doubt your own perceptions or sanity, similar to brainwashing. Like all abuse, it’s based on the need for power, control, or concealment.

Some people occasionally lie or use denial to avoid taking responsibility or win an argument. They may forget or remember conversations and events differently than you, or they may have no recollection due to a blackout if they were drinking. These situations are sometimes called gaslighting but aren’t the same thing. In the movie, Bergman plays a sensitive, trusting wife struggling to preserve her identity in an abusive marriage to Boyer, who tries to convince her that she’s ill in order to keep her from learning the truth.

Gaslighting Behavior

As in the movie, the perpetrator often acts concerned and kind to dispel any suspicions. Someone capable of persistent lying and manipulation is also quite capable of being charming and seductive. Often the relationship begins that way. When gaslighting starts, you might even feel guilty for doubting the person whom you’ve come to trust. To further play with your mind, an abuser might offer evidence to show that you’re wrong or question your memory or senses. More justifications and explanations, including expressions of love and flattery, are concocted to confuse you and reason away any discrepancies in the liar’s story. You get temporary reassurance, and increasingly, you doubt your own senses, ignore your gut and become more confused.

The person gaslighting might act hurt and indignant or play the victim when challenged or questioned. Manipulation can easily turn into overt emotional abuse with accusations that you’re distrustful, ungrateful, unkind, overly sensitive, dishonest, stupid, insecure, crazy, or abusive. Abuse might escalate to anger and intimidation with punishment, threats, or bullying if you don’t accept the false version of reality.

Gaslighting can take place in the workplace or in any relationship. Generally, it concerns control, infidelity, or money. A typical scenario is when an intimate partner lies to conceal a relationship with someone else. In other cases, it may be to conceal gambling debts or stock or investment losses. In cases where the gaslighting is premeditated or used to cover up a crime, the manipulator is often a narcissist, addict, or sociopath.

When the motive is purely control, a spouse might use shame to undermine his or her partner’s confidence, loyalty, or intelligence. A wife might attack her husband’s manhood and manipulate him by calling him weak or spineless. A husband might weaken his wife’s self-esteem by criticizing her looks or competence professionally or as a mother. A typical tactic to isolate the victim and gain greater control is to disparage friends or relatives so that that they cannot be trusted or claim that they agree with the manipulator’s negative statements. A similar strategy is to sabotage the partner’s relationships with friends and relatives by accusing him or her of disloyalty.

Effects of Gaslighting

Gaslighting can be very insidious the longer it occurs. Initially, you won’t realize you’re being affected by it, but gradually you lose trust in your own instincts and perceptions. It can be very damaging, particularly in a relationship built on trust and love. Love and attachment are strong incentives to believe lies and manipulation. We use denial because we rather believe the lie than the truth, which might precipitate a painful breakup.

Gaslighting can injure your self-confidence and self-esteem, trust in yourself and reality, and your openness to love again. If it involves verbal abuse, you may believe the truth of the abuser’s criticisms and continue to blame and judge yourself even after the relationship is over. Many abusers put down and intimidate their partners to make them dependent so they won’t leave. Examples are: “You’ll never find anyone as good as me,” “The grass isn’t greener,” or “No one else would put up with you.”

Recovery from a breakup or divorce can be more difficult when you’ve been in denial about problems in the relationship. Denial often continues even after the truth comes out. It takes time to reinterpret your experience in light of all the facts once they become known. It can be quite confusing, because you may love the charmer, but hate the abuser. This is especially true if all the bad behavior was out of sight, and memories of the relationship were mostly positive. You lose not only the relationship and person you loved and/or shared a life with, but also trust in yourself and future relationships. Even if you don’t leave, the relationship is forever changed. In some cases when both partners are motivated to stay and work together in conjoint therapy, the relationship can be strengthened and the past forgiven.

Recovery from Gaslighting

Learn to identify the perpetrator’s behavior patterns. Realize that they’re due to his or her insecurity and shame, not yours. Get support. It’s critical that you have a strong support system to validate your reality in order to combat gaslighting. Isolation makes the problem worse and relinquishes your power to the abuser. Join Codependents Anonymous and seek counseling.

Once you acknowledge what’s going on, you’re more able to detach and not believe or react to falsehoods, even though you may want to. You’ll also realize that the gaslighting is occurring due to your partner’s serious characterological problems. It does not reflect on you, nor can you change someone else. For an abuser to change, it takes willingness and effort by both partners. Sometimes when one person changes, the other also does in response. However, if he or she is an addict or has a personality disorder, change is difficult. To assess your relationship and effectively confront unwanted behavior, get Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People.

Once victims come out of denial, it’s common for them to mentally want to redo the past. They’re often self-critical for not having trusted themselves or stood up to the abuse. Don’t do this! Instead of perpetuating self-abuse, get the tools to raise your self-esteem, become assertive, and set boundaries to stop abuse with the Narcissist Quit Kit.

©Darlenelancer  2017

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Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert author on relationships, narcissism, and codependency. She’s counseled individuals and couples for over 30 years and coaches internationally. Her books include "Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You," "Dealing with a Narcissist," and "Codependency for Dummies," plus six ebooks, webinars, and other resource materials. Her books are available on Amazon, other online booksellers and her website, www.whatiscodependency.com, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.”

Los Angeles, CA
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