By Rory Scher, LMFT
We hear all the time that physical aggression is abusive; what we don’t often hear or recognize is that emotional abuse can be equally damaging. One such type of emotional abuse is called gaslighting. Gaslighting is a tactic of emotional manipulation designed to create extreme doubt in someone’s memory, sense of competence, and ultimately, one’s sanity. The aggressor accomplishes this tactic by intentionally turning scenarios around to place blame and create a sense of incompetence in the other person.
So, what does the emotional aggressor do to elicit such deeply wounding emotional experiences? Here are some examples of gaslighting behavior:
- Lying and denial: The person lies or denies events blatantly and with a straight face, even when you have proof to the contrary. No wonder someone would feel unable to trust their memory, competence, or worth, as it’s difficult to comprehend that someone would do actually do this.
- Use of personal information against you to elicit guilt and compliance. The person might say, “Isn’t it great that no one knows what you did when you were younger?” or less obviously, makes fun of a person in front of friends, “She’s so forgetful! She forgot half the items on the grocery list yesterday! Good thing we love her!”
- Actions that don’t match words.”Why didn’t you tell me where you were? I was worried sick,” and yet the person doesn’t inform you of their own whereabouts.
- Competence shaming. The aggressor intentionally causes his victim to feel incompetent to control their behavior so they will never leave the aggressor. Who would leave if they felt as if they couldn’t trust their own judgment on anything
- Projection. “It’s not me, it’s you.”
- Criticism in the form of praise and acceptance. “Look what you did! Ugh, it’s okay, honey. It happens. Be more careful next time…See? I love you.”
Here are some gaslighting scenarios that will more vividly depict what gaslighting looks like:
- The kids weren’t picked up from school, and the gaslighter blames you by “recalling” a conversation that never happened: “We talked about that! I can’t believe you didn’t remember and now you’re blaming me?”
- You drink two beers one night, but the gaslighter sets out two more. “You don’t remember? Wow…”
- You’re thinking, I didn’t spend that money, so where it is? But the gaslighter has used your credit card and is blaming you. “I didn’t do that! You’re making that up! I’m so hurt that you would think I’d lie to you. Who do you think I am?” And when you show them the undeniable evidence, the person responds with “Whatever, you’re overreacting, and that is exactly why I didn’t tell you where I was Friday night. Stop being so nagging and overbearing. I can’t even go out for a couple hours without you freaking out. Learn to be an adult and not need so much.”
So, what does gaslighting feel like? It manifests in the victim as:
- Difficulty trusting your instincts and memory.
- Believing you’re the problem: “It must be me! Why can’t I just get it together?”A high degree of self-doubt and incompetence. This type of abuse instills a deep sense of shame, of not being good enough: “What would I do without him, because I’m clearly incompetent?”
- A tendency to feel guilty for no apparent reason: a persistent and overwhelming sense of constantly failing or messing things up.
- Feeling crazy.
- Difficulty making decisions out of an intense fear of making the wrong decision.
Much like leaving the gas on the stove turned on, gaslighting is a subtle and deadly poison that can erode your autonomy and sense of self worth. The good news is that learning to recognize the tactics of gaslighting and how to respond to them can keep you alive and well.