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Understanding Gaslighting: What It Is and How to Recognise It

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation where a person or a group sows seeds of doubt in a targeted person, making them question their memory, perception, or judgement. The term "gaslighting" originates from the 1938 stage play

"Gas Light," where a husband manipulatively dims the gas-powered lights in their home and, when his wife notices, denies that the light has changed to make her doubt her perceptions. Over time, this tactic has come to symbolise a broader array of manipulative behaviours aimed at making victims question reality.

How Gaslighting Works

Gaslighting unfolds in gradual stages, which may not be immediately apparent. The manipulator initiates with subtle tactics that are easily dismissed or rationalised. As time passes, these manoeuvres grow more frequent and intense, fostering constant self-doubt in the victims, this self-doubt accumulates, often leading to the victim's isolation and increased reliance on the gaslighter for validation and a sense of reality.

Critical Signs of Understanding Gaslighting: What It Is and How to Recognise It

  1. Blatant lying: The gaslighter tells blatant lies. You know it's a lie, yet they tell you it with a straight face. Why are they so blatant? Because they're setting up a precedent. Once they tell you a huge lie, you're unsure if anything they say is true.

  2. Denying they said something, even though you have proof: You know they said they would do something; you know you heard it. But they deny it. It makes you question your reality; maybe they never said that. And the more they do this, the more you question your reality and start accepting theirs.

  3. Their actions do not match their words; When dealing with a person like this, look at what they are doing rather than what they are saying. What they say means nothing: it is just talk. What they do is the issue.

  4. They use positive reinforcement to confuse you: This person or entity putting you down and telling you that you don't have value is now praising you for something you did, which adds a sense of unease. You think, "Well, maybe they aren't so bad." Gaslighters exploit the human desire for stability and normality, aiming to disrupt this and instill a perpetual questioning state. This deliberate confusion is a potent tool, as humans naturally seek stability, often turning to the gaslighter for a semblance of it.

  5. They Project: They are a drug user or a cheater, yet they are constantly accusing you of that, which is so often that you start trying to defend yourself and are distracted from the gaslighter's own behaviour. Gaslighters excel at manipulation, identifying and manipulating those who will unquestioningly support them. They sow seeds of doubt, commenting, "This person knows you're not right, or "This person knows you're useless too." Remember, these people may not have said these things. A gaslighter is a perpetual liar, isolating their victims and leaving them vulnerable.

  6. They tell you or others that you are crazy: This is one of the most effective tools of the gaslighter because it's dismissive. The gaslighter knows if they question your sanity, people will not believe you when you tell them the gaslighter is abusive or out of control.

Examples of Gaslighting

In Relationships: A partner may tell the other that their friends are a bad influence or that their family thinks they are lying, even when it is invalid, which can isolate the victim, making them reliant on the abusive partner for social interaction and validation.

In the Workplace: A supervisor might question an employee's methods after approving them and then deny ever endorsing the initial plan, which can make the employee doubt their capabilities or decision-making skills.

In Politics: Politicians may alter facts about their past decisions or statements, asserting their honesty and accusing opponents or media of spreading fake news to discredit them.

In Social Media: A person may post about their experience with a difficult situation, such as workplace harassment. They describe feeling unsupported and marginalised. Another user responds to the post by saying things like "Are you sure you are not overreacting? I know people who work there, and they all love it. Maybe it's just your attitude thats the problem." The user continues to comment on the post with similiar messages, suggesting that the person who originally posted the comment feelings and experiences are not valid or real. Over time, that person might start to doubt their own perceptions and feelings, leading to confusion and doubt.

This persistent undermining of a person's reality and feelings is a classic example of gaslighting, intended to make a person question their own sanity and reality.

How to Deal with Gaslighting

  1. Keep a record: Document conversation and interactions to help you remember the actual events and discern behavioural patterns

  2. Seek Support: Talk to friends or family members who can provide an outside perspective and validate your feelings and reality.

  3. Set Boundaries: Be firm in your recollections of events. If they continue, consider reducing contact.

  4. Seek professional help: Therapists are trained to recognise signs of emotional abuse and can offer strategies to regain confidence and clarity.

How Counselling Can Help

Counselling can be a crucial support for you if you suspect you are experiencing gaslighting. It offers a safe space to begin to untangle the emotional manipulation you have been subjected to and gradually rebuild your confidence and a sense of reality. Here's how counselling can help you:

Validation of Experiences

Validation is one of the primary benefits of counselling for someone who has been gaslighted. Gaslighting thrives on making you doubt your own experiences and perceptions. A counsellor can affirm the reality of your experiences, helping you to counteract the effects of the manipulation. Validation alone can be immensely healing, reassuring you that your feelings and memories are legitimate and trustworthy.

Restoring Self-Esteem

Gaslighting erodes your self esteem, making you feel incompetent or unworthy. Counsellors work with you to rebuild your self-esteem through positive reinforcement and setting and achieving small, manageable goals. This process will help you regain confidence in your abilities and judgments.

Developing Coping Strategies

Counsellors can teach coping strategies that can help you manage the emotional turmoil associated with gaslighting. These might include techniques for managing anxiety, stress, and emotional distress. Learning and practicing these strategies can empower you to handle interactions with the gaslighter more effectively or prepare you for leaving toxic relationship if necessary.

Re-establishing Trust in Their Perceptions

A key goal in counselling a person who has been gaslighted is helping to trust your perceptions and feelings again. Counsellors might use cognitive-behavioural techniques to challenge distorted thoughts and perceptions and replace them with more accurate, balanced ones. This could involve exercises that help differentiate between the gaslighter's manipulative statements and your own authentic thoughts.

Support in Setting Boundaries

Counsellors can play a significant role in helping you set and maintain healthy boundaries. Poor boundaries in a relationship where gaslighting occurs make it easier for emotional manipulation to continue. Counsellors can guide you on assertively communicating and maintaining these boundaries, potentially transforming the relationship dynamics.

Planning for Safely

In situations where gaslighting is part of a broader pattern of abuse, a counsellor can help plan steps to ensure your safety. This may involve creating a safety plan for leaving the situation, involving other professionals, or connecting you with community resources for additional support.

Long Term Emotional Support

Recovering from the effects of gaslighting is not just about managing immediate crises but also about healing from long-term emotional damage. Counsellors offer ongoing support, allowing you to explore your feelings and gradually heal from the trauma in a supportive and understanding environment.

Empowerment through Education

Finally, counsellors often educate their clients about gaslighting and how it works. Understanding the dynamics of gaslighting can be empowering for victims, as it helps you recognise and label your experience, which is often the first step toward recovery.

Gaslighting is a powerful form of emotional abuse that can undermine the mental health of its victims and distort their perceptions. Counselling provides essential tools and support that help you recover from gaslighting, rebuild your self-esteem, and regain trust in your perceptions and memories. It also offers strategies to deal with the gaslighter effectively and fosters a healing process that might otherwise be difficult to undertake alone.


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