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What is gaslighting in relationships? And how can you tell if it's happening to you?

Gaslighting is an age-old problem with a catchy new name. It’s a term you’ve likely heard crop up a lot recently when people talk about toxic relationships between couples, friends or colleagues. But what does gaslighting mean? What are the signs it might be happening to you? And how can you deal with it?

Mamamia asked two relationship psychologists to explain.

What is gaslighting?

“Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, in which one partner will use tactics to distort their partner’s perception of reality to gain power in the relationship,” Sian Khuman, a consultant psychologist and couple and family therapist, explained to Mamamia.

The term is said to come from a 1938 play called Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife she’s going crazy by making the gas-powered lights in their home flicker. When she points it out, he denies it happened.

“It was an effective means of challenging his wife’s confidence in her own self perception and reality, and ultimately made her question her own sanity,” added Elisabeth Shaw, a clinical and counselling psychologist and CEO of not-for-profit support service, Relationships Australia – NSW.

Shaw noted that, as with other emotionally abusive tactics, gaslighting involves “demeaning, denigrating, and affecting a victim’s ability to trust their own judgment and make their own decisions”. A typical effect of this: increased reliance on the perpetrator.

Video by Mamamia

Gaslighting examples: what does it look like?

According to Shaw, gaslighting is most common in intimate relationships, where one partner wants control over the other. For example, a typical tactic of perpetrators is re-writing history, especially in areas where the victim may previously have felt secure/confident.

“For example, [the perpetrator might say] ‘your friends always felt sorry for you’, ‘your previous relationships were not as good as you thought’, ‘your sister has never really liked you’, ‘no one would want you but me’,” Shaw said. “Even embellishing or inventing facts so as to secure the view that the only central person that the victim can rely on is the perpetrator.”

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Khuman noted that gaslighting can also happen in other contexts.

Gaslighting can also occur in the workplace where someone or a group of people want another staff member to be confused about what happened or what was their reality. This may be to cover up [their own mistakes/under-performance], or to gain power or status,” she said.

“Similarly, gaslighting can happen in families, where one member acts in these ways by making others question their perception of reality for their own gain.”

Gaslighting signs to look out for.

There are many signs of gaslighting, Khuman said, but some of the most common include:

  • Attacking a person about themselves over time until they question their own ideas of who and what they are.
  • Discounting and denying a person ever did or said things that the other person knows happened.
  • Emotional put-downs that highlight worthlessness and inabilities.
  • Joking in a negative, abusive way.
  • Changing or countering the other person/people’s views with their own perspective.

“It is a gradual process of these actions that lead to the other person being unsure of what they think, who they are and what they remember,” Khuman said.

“The frog-in-hot-water analogy helps to visualise this process. The frog is in a pot of water and then the water heats up gradually, but the frog doesn’t realise it until the water is boiling and the frog is boiling, too.”

Always feel like you are going crazy at work? You might be being gaslighted. (Post continues below.)

How does gaslighting behaviour affect the victim?

Khuman said that emotional abuse, such as gaslighting, can be just as threatening and diminishing as physical abuse.

“I have had many victims of emotional abuse say to me that it is very hard to show the effect of the damage of the words, but the emotional breakages and bruises it causes are as bad as physical assault,” she said. ‘They have told me that it feels much harder to heal after the level of emotional abuse they have suffered, given it so sharply affects self-esteem, self-confidence, and an ability to make empowered decisions about their own lives.”

This erosion of self-confidence is precisely what can trap the victim in the situation, Shaw added.

“They can be less likely to change jobs or go for promotions, undertake higher education and other aspects of self-development, strike out into new friendships or even leave the house in severe cases. It can affect their role as a parent, becoming subservient to the more dominant parent, meaning they increasingly ‘dumb down’ what they offer and how they participate in their own lives and that of others,” she said.

How to deal with gaslighting in a relationship.

Khuman advises people who suspect that they are being gaslighted to take small steps first.

“For example, keeping a diary of events and activities. Have a self-affirming statement that grounds and reminds you of your worth and self-judgement,” she said. “Speak to friends to ask if they have seen changes in how you are and the relationship. It is useful to get some outside help – this allows an observer to provide a place to reassess reality and encourage self trust and self worth. Often a psychologist or counsellor who has skills in working with relationships can be a good starting point. As well, they can assist in looking at whether there are other aspects of emotional abuse in the relationship.

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“The next step is to assess how to address this in the relationship – how to hold onto your own truth and whether this can be addressed and changed in the relationship or not.”

As Shaw noted, personal safety is crucial: “Some emotionally abusive relationships escalate into physical violence when the victim starts to verbally push back. You need to be safe, and so if you believe things could get worse rather than better, or are afraid to speak, that is a strong sign the relationship may not be viable.”

If you are in an abusive relationship, help is available. Please call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit the website.

For information about Relationships Australia‘s support services, including counselling, violence prevention and dispute resolution, please call 1300 364 277.

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