Gaslighting: What is It and How to Know if You’re Experiencing It

By Jenn Rockefeller

As a society, we cling to what we feel and know to be true and real. When that reality or trueness is tampered with, our whole world becomes a nightmarish place. Those who choose to abuse us take our reality and rip it to shreds. That is gaslighting.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a tactic that abusers rely on to cause their victims to feel like they are losing their grip on reality. It is an insidious form of emotional abuse that rips apart victims’ sense of self, sense of reality and perceptions about the world around them. Victims will doubt their own mind and sanity.

Abusers will deny their victims the confirmation of their reality. So, instead of saying, “Yes, that happened” (the confirmation of the victim’s reality), the abuser will say, “No, that didn’t happen” (the denial of the reality). The victims begin to doubt the existence of their surroundings and may wind up thinking the abuser knows better and has superior knowledge and intellect. At this point, the victims will defer to the abuser on all decisions because they can’t trust their own perceptions or decision-making skills.

This would cause the victims to become utterly reliant on the abuser to tell them what was real and what wasn’t. This is exactly how the abusers will create their own version of reality – by picking and choosing what to tell their victims.

Signs of gaslighting

It’s not uncommon to miss some of the signs of gaslighting. Abusers can be rather covert in the way they carry out the “crazy making” tactic.

What does gaslighting look like? Something as simple as forgetting where you put your house keys can turn into a frenzied event of epic proportions.

You overturn couch cushions. You dump the contents of your purse and look not once, but half a dozen times. You empty kitchen and dresser drawers. You toss pillows off your bed and look under the bed covers and under the bed itself. You go back to looking at and around the couch cushions, tossing them aside again. You go back to looking through the dumped contents of your purse. Then, when you’re good and frenzied, the abuser calmly says, “Oh there they are” and points to the keys neatly sitting on top of an overturned couch cushion. You protest and say you’ve looked there several times. The abuser says, “Well you obviously didn’t look hard enough.”

Sadly, that exact example above happened to me. Countless other similar situations can happen to victims, too.

If you’ve ever been told any of the following things, it could be a sign that you are experiencing gaslighting.

  • “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
  • “I never said that.”
  • “I don’t remember that.”
  • “You are confused. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
  • “You’re crazy.”
  • “You’re such a drama queen.”
  • “You’re so forgetful. Are you taking your meds?”
  • “That never happened” or “That didn’t happen that way.”

Other signs of gaslighting include:

  • Second guessing yourself,
  • Knowing something is wrong, but unable to pinpoint exactly what,
  • Questioning if you really are too sensitive,
  • Losing your zest for life,
  • Being unable to make the simplest of decisions.

What is rather ironic is when an abuser says, “I never said that,” yet you have proof of what they said in a text or email. In this situation, they may try to backpedal and say, “Well that’s not what I meant.”

Long-term effects

Gaslighting is a tactic that slowly erases a victim’s reality. As such, your mind can become blank, like a piece of paper. You might even feel like you’re being erased much in the same way that Marty McFly was in Back to the Future before his parents kissed to seal the deal.

The effects of gaslighting can be both immediate (like if you’re still with the abuser) or extend long after the relationship is over. Such effects include:

  • No longer seeking help (like therapy),
  • Withdrawing from friends and family,
  • Constantly asking others if what was seen or heard is correct,
  • Seeking validation,
  • No longer voicing thoughts or opinions,
  • No longer willing to converse on even innocent topics,
  • Questioning the motives of everyone around you,
  • Avoiding purchasing anything for yourself out of fear it would be met with disapproval.

What can you do if you think you are being gaslighted?

Keeping a journal can be helpful for many. For example, dedicate one spot for your keys and jot that down in your journal. That way, if you know you always place your keys in the drawer in your nightstand and they aren’t there, then you will know something is amiss.

You can also dedicate one person in your life to be your reality anchor. It could be a relative or a trusted friend. Talk to this person when things seem fuzzy to you.

Positive self-talk can also be a big help to survivors. In the beginning, many survivors may not know how to talk positively about themselves. Searching the internet for positive affirmations is a good place to start.

Above all, rebuilding trust in yourself and others will take time. But it can be done. Just go as slow in your healing journey as you need to.

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