DEAR DR. JENN,
Generally speaking, my partner is really caring and we have a lot of fun together, but lately I've been feeling worn down. Whenever I reference things that have happened in our relationship, he tells me I'm imagining things and am wrong. He also accuses me repeatedly of things I know I haven't done. It's making me question my own memories and I often feel like I'm losing my mind. I've heard the term 'gaslighting' thrown around and I feel like it might be happening to me too, but I'm not sure. Am I too blinded by love to see that I'm being manipulated? —In a Fog
DEAR IN A FOG,
The term 'gaslighting' gets thrown around a lot, especially on Instagram. On the recent season finale of the Bachelorette, lead Katie Thurston accused frontrunner and nice-guy Greg of 'gaslighting' her — leading some to debate what the term really means.
Here's a breakdown of what it actually means to be 'gaslit' — plus some ways to know if it's happening to you.
So, what is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that undermines the recipient's reality and is meant to leave them insecure, unsure of themself, and questioning their sanity. Over time, gaslighting will wear you down and erode your self-confidence. When someone is gaslighting you, it creates a fog of uncertainty and self-doubt. (For what it's worth, what you have described that your partner is doing sounds like classic gaslighting.)
Gaslighting can happen on a one-time basis ('situational gaslighting') and some may chalk it up to a heated or emotional conversation gone awry. (See, the debate around The Bachelorette and whether or not Greg was really being emotionally manipulative or gaslighting Katie — or just being emotional.) But it sounds like what you're describing is a continual pattern of behavior — aka ongoing gaslighting. This is considered a form of emotional abuse and shouldn't be taken lightly.
Where does the term 'gaslighting' come from?
The phrase 'gaslighting' comes from the 1944 movie Gas Light in which Gregory, played by Charles Boyer, attempts to drive his wife Paula, played by Ingrid Bergman, insane by making her doubt her reality in order to have her institutionalized and gain access to expensive jewelry he believes is hidden in the house. In a key scene, he makes the gas lights in the house flicker and when Paula asks why the light is flickering, he tells her it is not really happening and that it is all in her mind. This is part of his master plan of lies, deceptions, and misdirects.
When you are in a relationship with someone who was gaslighting you, much like Paula, you can feel like you are starting to lose your mind — and there are some classic techniques that you should know about.
Here are some of the red flags that you are being gaslit by your partner:
1. They deny objective facts ("That never happened.")
2. They tell blatant lies ("I did not give that woman my phone number.")
3. They undermine your emotions as a way to invalidate your reality ("You are being paranoid and jealous, there is nothing going on between me and her.")
4. They accuse you of imagining or making things up when you are telling the truth ("Stop lying, you know that is not true.")
5. They criticize you and use put-downs that are subtle or overt ("Of course you can't find your keys, you're the most disorganized person I've ever met.")
6. They accuse you of being "too sensitive," "hysterical," or "overly emotional" ("You are hysterical. Stop acting so crazy.")
7. They accuse you of being paranoid, imagining things, or being told things did not happen that did ("You always have some crazy theory. I am sure you never put that cash in your wallet.")
8. They attack the people, things, and values that are most dear to you ("Your daughter wouldn't be such a brat if you were a better mother.")
9. Their actions are inconsistent with their words and self-reporting ("I help with the housework all the time, I do more than you do!")
10. They accuse you of the things they are actually doing ("Maybe you are cheating on me. That must be why you are so paranoid.")
11. They try to use other people against you by reporting things people said about you they did not say ("You sister told me she thinks you are really irresponsible.")
12. They insist you were not someplace that you know you were ("You never went to that restaurant with me.")
13. They try to turn people against you or harm your credibility with others ("I am really worried about Jane. She has gotten so emotional and is making such bad decisions. You may want to think twice about involving her in the family business.")
14. They convince you that other people are lying to you ("Your bother is such a liar, how can you even believe him for a minute?")
15. They hide objects from you and then act like they don't know anything about it. ("You lost your keys again? You really have a problem with your memory.")
Why Do People Gaslight?
While the type of person who has a consistent pattern of gaslighting varies, there are some common reasons and personality traits. People who use this technique in their relationship tend to want to keep their partner off balance, questioning their reality. They have a desire to erode their partner's self-esteem in order to gain power and or control. They tend to like chaos and conflict. They use this to their advantage, especially when they have a partner who is more of a people pleaser.
Some of the most common reasons people gaslight are:
They have a desire to be in control.
They use gaslighting to stop conflict.
They use it to deflect their personal responsibility.
They want to keep a people pleaser partner trying to please.
They use it to gain power and control.
They have a personality disorder like narcissist, borderline or antisocial personality disorder.
They want to keep the other person off balance.
They have a strong need to be right, regardless of facts.
How to Deal with Gaslighting
Here are some things you can do to center yourself and get your power back if you think your partner may be gaslighting you:
1. Trust your gut if something feels wrong. We have instincts for a reason. Any time you get that "uh oh" feeling in your gut, you should listen to that.
2. Step away from the situation. When a partner is gaslighting you, you can waste hours going in circles recounting what really happened with no resolution. Take some space to collect yourself and recall the facts. Go for a walk, take a time out, call a friend to get some support. A little space can give you a fresh perspective.
3. Don't listen to anyone who tells you that you are crazy. Someone who loves you and has good intentions would never speak to you that way. If they were genuinely concerned they would encourage you to seek therapy or meet with your doctor.
4. Keep receipts. Take screenshots of conversations and text messages and put them in a file or share with a trusted friend. Take photos of evidence. After having a conversation, write down notes while it is still fresh in your mind.
5. Don't believe anyone who tells you that your family or friends are against you. This is a manipulation and an attempt to make you question yourself. Anyone who attempts to turn your support system against you is trying to isolate you and make you less able to leave them.
6. Get some support from a neutral person, like a therapist. If you feel like you are losing your grip on reality, you should always run things by a professional. They can help you figure out if you are with someone who is manipulating you and performing this type of abuse.
7. Don't waver. Stand your ground and don't let your partner make you question your reality. When discussing your memory of events do it with confidence and don't get drawn into a debate about what happened. End conversations like that by saying things like "it sounds like we remember what happened differently.'
9. Don't get sucked into debates. If you remember things differently, don't get pulled into an argument about who is right. Just says "I am not really interested in arguing or debating how we see this."
10. Make boundaries. Keep a list of responses that you can fall back on like
"I remember what happened."
"You don't get to tell me how to feel."
"I understand that your intention was to make a joke and it was hurtful."
"My feelings are valid."
"This is my experience and this is how I feel about it. My feelings are not up for debate."
"I don't appreciate you telling me I am crazy."
"It's not okay to speak to me that way."
"I will not continue this conversation if you keep minimizing my perspective."
"I am not interested in debating this."
"I am done talking about this."
"I know what I saw."
"I said 'no' and you need to respect my answer."
The bottom line:
Many people see gaslighting as a form of emotional abuse. If you find yourself feeling crazy, questioning your reality, feeling a heightened level of anxiety, and always apologizing, you just may be getting gas lit. This can lead you to question your worth and have trouble making decisions.
Trust your gut if something feels wrong. If you feel like you are losing your grip on reality, you should always run things by a professional. They can help you figure out if you are with someone who is manipulating you and performing this type of abuse — and help you leave the relationship.
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.