The psychological term “gaslighting” comes from a 1944 film of the same name. In this Academy Award nominated movie, a man emotionally manipulates his wife for the sake of stealing her wealth. He isolates her from friends and family and begins telling blatant lies about missing objects and dimming gas lamps in the house that make her question her own sanity.
Gaslighting (also referred to as brainwashing) is, unfortunately, a real behavior practiced by addicts, abusers, narcissists, dictators, and cult leaders. The point of gaslighting is to slowly break another person’s confidence in their own perception, and therefore can be hard to notice for someone in the midst of being gaslighted. But there are tell-tale signs of gaslighting you can look for no matter how long you’ve been living in someone else’s carefully constructed Twilight Zone. Here’s how to catch someone trying to gaslight you:
1. They do not discuss their own behavior, only yours
A gaslighter is never the one at fault (according to them). A gaslighter is never the person with severe mental issues (according to them). A gaslighter always paints themselves as the fixer, the nurturer, and the patron saint of patience while you are the intolerable, broken, inconsiderate basket case. Gaslighting is the act of creating a new set of rules for another to live by while simultaneously pressuring them to lose confidence in themselves. This only works if the victim is constantly reminded that they are ignorant, helpless, confused, inches from a breakdown, or somehow in the wrong.
You can tell you’ve found a gaslighter by stating very bluntly that they always criticize you, and that this hurts your feelings. If they immediately keep talking about you and why this is your fault or ‘lovingly’ explain that they do this for your own good, they’re gaslighting. Instead of being empathetic to your feelings, they’re trying to shut you up and maintain the upper hand before you gain a sense of confidence back.
2. Facts are not important to them; they deny obvious truths and tell obvious lies with no shame
The real world—with gravity, physics, and math that makes sense and whatnot—does not exist to a gaslighter. Their singular purpose is to tell you how to think. If that means telling you something did not happen while you both sit there watching it happen, so be it. A person who gaslights other people for the sake of feeling powerful and worthwhile does not care about real life. They are completely serious and don’t bat an eye while exaggerating beyond reason, denying truths, and fabricating entirely new truths. In fact, they may go out of their way to argue the truth with you as often as possible just for the sake of keeping you on the defensive and to feel the thrill of talking over you until you give up.
3. They discourage or even forbid you talking to others about anything important
In the film Gaslighting, the abusive husband’s first step in manipulation is moving both himself and his new wife to London, an entire ocean away from everyone she knows. Isolation is a key element of any abuse; the abuser is making sure nobody can witness the abuse while also preventing the victim from easily reaching out to people who might come to their defense.
An individual who is gaslighting someone does not want their victim to seek advice or emotional comfort from anyone else. The antidote to gaslighting is having your point of view empowered by an outsider, who can see objectively into your relationship and helps you remember what’s true. If the person who constantly criticizes you and demands most of your time also tells you others aren’t trustworthy, spreads rumors about your friends or gets irrationally jealous and upset when you talk to other people, they’re probably gaslighting you.
4. They occasionally give you praise and kindness for the purpose of keeping you hooked
Gaslighters may sound insane when you think about what we’ve discussed so far, but they’re not dumb. If all they did were insult you, eventually you’d wise up and leave. Like most abusive relationships, gaslighting only works if the victim at least occasionally feels needed, loved, praised, or cared for. Occasional kindness after relentless criticism is what keeps the person being gaslighted constantly guessing, and might even aid in deteriorating their confidence in themselves. It’s easy to identify and discredit an abuser if all they do is abuse you, but by mixing in false hope and short-lived kindness, the gaslighter has bargaining power. Moments of kindness sew more doubt into any argument to leave.
A good way to notice the difference between a genuinely loving person and someone who is stringing you along while gaslighting you: pay attention to what they’re praising you for. Are they sincerely happy and excited to see you succeed? Or are they congratulating you for finally not doing that thing they’ve told you a million times to stop doing? Most abusers are only emotionally capable of the latter. A Gaslighter’s praise usually services the imaginary rules established by the gaslighter. Genuine love and affection, on the other hand, is caring for your wellbeing without expecting anything in return.
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