“You’re crazy, that never happened.”
“You’re too sensitive.”
“You’re making things up”
Are these phrases that you constantly hear from your partner that cause you to question yourself? If so, your partner might be using something called “gaslighting” — a form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts and sanity, giving the abusive partner power and control.
History of Gaslighting
The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 stage play called Gaslight, in which a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the lights in their home (which were powered by gas), then denies that the lights change when the wife asks him about them. Once an abusive partner has used gaslighting to break down the victim’s ability to trust his or her own perceptions and beliefs, the victim is more likely to stay in the abusive relationship, because he or she no longer believes it’s possible to survive without the abuser.
A Slow Burn
Gaslighting usually happens gradually in a relationship — so gradually that the abusive partner’s actions seem harmless at first. Over time, a victim can be confused, anxious, isolated and struggling with depression, and even lose sense of what is actually happening. They may also suffer from low self esteem.
Gaslighting Can Occur in Any Relationship, Personal or Otherwise.
Gaslighting can occur in the workplace, as well. When misconduct occurs within a business, an employee may refrain from reporting it, for fear of losing their job. This fear is sometimes instilled in them or worsened by management, who employs gaslighting tactics in order to keep the misconduct under wraps. For example, an employer may claim that the distressed employee is simply overreacting to every day operations, when in fact there is abusive, unlawful or immoral behavior occurring. This is called whistle-blower gaslighting, and is just as harmful and wrong as any other kind of gaslighting. (1)
Personal Signs That You are Being Gaslighted
While the above are the common signs your partner will exhibit if he or she is gaslighting, there are also tell-tale signs you will start to notice within yourself. It’s important to pay attention to these signs and indicators. How you chronically feel can be a red flag that something is off or wrong. And while you may not currently believe it, your feelings absolutely matter. According to author and psychoanalyst Robin Stern, Ph.D., the following are signs of being a victim of gaslighting. Do any of them apply to you?
If you identify with these 10 signs, you’re most likely being gaslighted.
For example, you:
- Are constantly second-guessing yourself.
- Start to question if you are too sensitive.
- Often feel confused and have a hard time making simple decisions.
- Find yourself constantly apologizing.
- Can’t understand why you’re so unhappy.
- Often make excuses for your partner’s behavior.
- Feel like you can’t do anything right.
- Often feel like you aren’t good enough for others.
- Have the sense that you used to be a more confident, relaxed and happy person.
- Withhold information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain things.
The Following Actions are Associated with Gaslighting:
1. Withholding: Your partner pretends not to understand you or flat out refuses to listen to you. He or she might say things like “I don’t want to hear this again.”
Remember, your opinions, feelings and perceptions matter. You have a voice and you have a right to be heard, without ridicule.
2. Countering: Your partner questions your memory, even if you’re sure you know what happened. They say “You’re wrong, you never remember things correctly,” or “You’re imagining things, that never happened.”
Stand your ground, no matter what.
Don’t shrink back and doubt yourself or your ability to correctly remember what has occurred. If it helps, keep a journal of events. Documenting helps, especially if you need to prove your case before a judge.
3. Blocking/Diverting: Your partner changes the subject to silence you or questions how you’re feeling, saying things like “Is that another crazy idea you got from your (friend/family member)?”
This tactic is meant to shut you down, and fast.
Note how you feel when your partner says these things to you. You may feel deflated. Or you may feel confused and end up second-guessing yourself.
4. Trivializing: Your partner makes your needs or feelings seem unimportant, constantly telling you that you’re too sensitive, or that “You’re going to get angry over a little thing like that?”
Your feelings matter! It’s important to note that as adults, we often speak this way to children, too. Rather than belittle their feelings, we should be validating them. While a toddler’s tantrum may seem silly, their emotions, to them, are very real. Instead of using language to belittle, we ought to choose validating phrases such as “I can see you’re upset.” If your partner repeatedly dismisses or trivializes your feelings, they are, in essence, treating you like a child.
5. Forgetting/Denying: Your partner pretends to have forgotten what really happened, or flat out denies promises he or she made to you. He/she will say things like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about” or “You’re just making things up.”
Do NOT second-guess yourself. Recognize that the problem is with them, not with you.
Addressing the Problem
You may not always be able to argue with the gaslighter, as they will continue to stick to their tactics to try to wear you down, but you can seek professional help. Counseling may enable your partner to see their personality disorder and their subsequent destructive behavior, but that doesn’t mean that you should stay in the relationship. A relationship should make you happy. And it isn’t your job to fix someone else or stay with them at the cost of your own happiness.
There is a chance that your partner doesn’t realize the harm their words cause, at least, not on a conscious level. Their parents may have raised them in such a way that lends itself to their behavior, although that in no way makes their behavior permissible.
Your Safety and Well-Being Comes First
Know that it is perfectly acceptable and healthy to terminate the relationship. If you end the relationship but your former partner continues to attempt contact, please contact a lawyer or law enforcement to initiate a retraining order. Your physical and emotional safety is paramount!
Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help. You Deserve It!
Gaslighting is a form of emotional and psychological abuse that can severely affect one’s mental health. In some cases, gaslighting behavior can go so far as to try to have the other party declared mentally ill. (2) Don’t let it go that far. If you feel like you are a victim of gaslighting in a relationship, it’s important to seek help. Speak to a counselor, a pastor, or if needed, a lawyer or the police department.
If you are the victim of gaslighting in the workplace, speak to a union representative, if applicable, or contact the Better Business Bureau. Ultimately, you need to decide what is more important to you: keeping your job, or standing your moral ground. In some cases, your company may threat legal action. While this may be daunting, only you can decide if you are willing to put up with the abusive behavior.