It seems, recently, a lot of people have been asking about gaslighting and wondering, “Am I being gaslighted?” So let’s talk about what it is and how to know if you’re being gaslighted. We’ll also look at some strategies to deal with it as well.
What is the origin of gaslighting?
Gaslighting, the term, has been around in popular culture for a while. For example, there was a movie titled “Gaslight” in 1944. Don’t ask me what it was about, the cover looks terrible. In recent history though, it has become quite a popular phrase in daily conversations. I’ve even seen a “gaslighting isn’t real” t-shirt (an apt example of gaslighting if you ask me). Politicians use gaslighting quite regularly. Ever heard of “alternative facts?” This term became popular in 2017 during a White House press conference. Presenting “alternative facts” to question substantiated and accepted information is a form of gaslighting.
If we want to dive into the old school world of psychology, gaslighting could be akin to a few different primary defense mechanisms like projective identification, idealization or devaluation. You might see these types of defenses used by individuals with narcissistic personality disorders, borderline personality disorders, antisocial personality disorder, and/or those with paranoid characteristics.
Each of these defenses in their extreme forms cause harm by the degree to which they distort reality, which leads us to talking about gaslighting.
What is gaslighting?
Psychology Today defines gaslighting as, “an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves.”
This speaks to the intentional use of false information to maintain control in a relationship. A form of psychological torture utilizes gaslighting techniques to cause the victim to question themselves, their memories, and reality itself.
Individuals use gaslighting to regain control when they themselves feel out of control. Some people use it to distract from their own feelings of shame, anxiety, or inadequacy. There are many reasons why someone might use gaslighting but the effects are the same, emotional harm and sometime physical harm.
What is an example of gaslighting?
Like I mentioned earlier, the t-shirt that says, “Gaslighting is not real,” could be an example of gaslighting if the intention was really to mislead people. I’m guessing though that the creator of the t-shirt meant for it to be a joke and to speak to a popular topic in our culture right now.
Similarly, there’s a group called “Birds Aren’t Real.” They insist that birds, literally, are not real. Birders be damned! From an interview with the group leader, it’s clear that the group started on a whim as a parody conspiracy to what was happening in the USA.
These are a bit humorous examples of imitations of gaslighting. But there is a dark side that is unfortunately the real essence of gaslighting.
Have you ever been in an argument where the other person was accusing you of something that you don’t recall like, “We had the conversation yesterday where you agreed to take the dog to the vet for her appointment at 2pm today. Why did you lie?!”
You have someone giving an account of what they remember to be true and their confidence and clarity of the incident have you really start to question your own memory of the conversation.
Or maybe someone you know says, “You think you remember what happened, but you’re confused. I wasn’t driving the car that night we got into a wreck. You were driving. Why are you trying to pin this on me?”
Or maybe “It’s your fault. You made me punish you. If you would just do as you’re told, I wouldn’t have to hit you. Why do you hurt me like this?”
What do I do if I’m being gaslighted?
Before we dive into some coping strategies, let me first address those of you who may be in an unsafe situation or relationship. Being physically harmed, repeatedly threatened, or persistently name-called is not okay. You are never responsible for poor treatment or abuse from another person. If someone repeatedly blames you for their poor behavior, threatening behavior, or violence, that is not okay. That is never okay.
If you or your children are not safe, then that is the most important priority, safety. I know it can be confusing and financially/socially/religiously complicated to get to a safe place. There are wonderful people who provide support for families in this situation. In Colorado, Rose Andom Center has a wide range of supportive, wrap-around services that I highly recommend. They have trained professionals to help explore whether you are caught in a cycle of power and violence and resources to help you get out.
Now, for those of you who are physically safe, but are starting to wonder about the emotional effects of gaslighting in your relationship, let’s talk about how to handle this.
You may have noticed, in the last few years, we’ve seen more and more news stations dedicating columns and coverage to exploring the validity of claims by politicians or social media posts. Ever heard of “fact checking?” In Denver, 9news has dedicated an entire section called “Verify” which explores whether or not information shared publicly has any truth to it or not.
This is an example of one strategy to deal with gaslighting, review a wide range of information and sources to determine a bigger picture. You’re looking for what information has the most support from a wide range of sources. It’s the same as writing research papers in school. Your teachers and professors wanted you to have multiple sources to prevent building all of your paper on one, unreliable source. This helps us have confidence in the information we accept and take in.
Usually, gaslighting is when someone intentionally uses false information to control or manipulate you. However, it’s sometimes really hard to know someone’s intentions unless they specifically tell us. Regardless of a person’s intentions of what they are saying or what they believe, the impact is the same. Gaslighting creates a sense of distrust of yourself and confusion. You start to question your own reality. You can lose a lot of time and energy trying to weed through what is true and what is false.
Rather than use up all your energy focused on the other person and their side of the story or their intentions, I invite you to check in with yourself. Make some space and time to reflect and notice yourself. What emotions come up for you when you think about what was said or shared? Think about yourself in different situations and times of your life. Is what you’re being accused of a pattern in your life? Who are the trusted people in your life you can get some feedback from? What have those trusted people said about you in the past?
Finally, gaslighting can cause a lot of damage, but healing is possible. Send us a message today to discuss if therapy might be right for you.
Lindsay Cade, LPC (she/her) is a licensed mental health therapist serving the LGBTQ+ community with 8 years experience. She uses affirming, client-centered methods to help folks find freedom from their past and healing in their life. Message her today to get started on your journey toward healing.